Professors Build Massive Syllabus Collection

Every college course begins with the syllabus. This document is invaluable to you as a student, because it lists the topics you’ll cover, everything you’re expected to read, and the assignments you’ll need to complete in order to pass your class.

But syllabi are useful to instructors, too. Professors want to know what their colleagues are teaching and how. They have a responsibility to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, including new textbooks. And newer teachers can benefit from borrowing best practices from their more experienced colleagues.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education announced some exciting news. A group of scholars from Columbia University and others schools have started the Open Syllabus Project (OSP), which intends to collect a massive online database of college syllabi.

The leaders of OSP will use their new database to conduct research and answer questions about the way we teach now. For example:

“Which texts are influential? In the history of institutions, when did certain classes stop being offered and others arrive on the scene? Is Robert Frost taught in the same way now that he was a decade ago? Departments claim to be interdisciplinary – how true are those claims? Are there gender differences in what’s being taught? Or geographical ones? What about the plagiarism policies contained in syllabi – do they tell us anything about how ethical standards may vary in different states?”

Their plans could reveal important insights about the state of higher education. But there’s one problem. According to their FAQ page, “The OSP’s corpus is a database that can be queried, not a collection to be browsed.” In other words, there is no way to look up an individual course syllabus.

Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, attempted to do just that back in 2011. Unfortunately, according to the Chronicle, his database only includes “syllabi retrieved through the Syllabus Finder from July 2002 until September 2009, when changes to Google’s search function disabled the program.”

What we really need is a one-stop shop where educators can go for resources they can use to build and develop new courses. Imagine if any newly minted teacher, or even a parent who home-schools her children, could simply access a website and tap into decades of collected experience and wisdom.

It would be a breakthrough to make all syllabi publicly available online. But OSP does not yet accomplish that goal.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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