The Open Syllabus Project (OSP) is building the first large-scale online database of university course syllabi as a platform for new research, teaching, and administrative tools.
We hope the OSP will improve our understanding of teaching, publishing, and intellectual history on a wide range of fronts, such as:
What are the most taught texts? How have fields changed? How do schools or departments within a field differ from one another? What is the demand for Open Access materials?
Because policies and norms around syllabus ownership vary, the OSP won’t publish syllabi without permission. The public side of the OSP will be a collection of tools for analyzing metadata extracted from the documents. We will also, in the course of this work, advocate for stronger open-access policies for syllabi.
We’re still building the community of interest in the project and would welcome help in four broad areas: access to collections of syllabi, tools development, relationships with libraries and archives, and exploration of the research potential of the database.
In a recent story published on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae Blog, Karen McArthur’s experience with plagiarism of her online art history course serves as a reminder of the murky new definition of intellectual property in the digital age:
“McArthur wondered: Was Blau really teaching a course she had created? If so, why didn’t she know about it? McArthur had, in fact, spent two years developing and refining an art-appreciation curriculum, but she had never authorized other professors to use it. Was it possible that her colleagues were pretending to be her in other virtual classrooms?”
More than just possible, this situation is happening to instructors all over the country, especially as the push towards online courses dominates discussions of innovation in higher education. “Shell courses” like the one copied from McArthur without her permission — and adjuncts teaching others’ material more largely — have become commonplace, according to experts in online learning. But beyond depersonalizing the teaching craft, this push towards easily distributable template courses signals more disturbing implications for intellectual property rights, particularly for instructors who spend a great deal of time designing their courses:
“Teaching is a core part of their academic identity—in many cases, it’s the only thing they’re evaluated and compensated for. Indeed, McArthur considered the creation of her courses to be an original, creative act, just like research.
But unlike scholarship, teaching isn’t always protected by a widespread consensus on intellectual-property rights. And when it comes to teaching, some scholars say that
Konrad Lawson recently wrote a post on The Chronicle of Education‘s ProfHacker Blog commiserating with the headaches of syllabi crafting: “Having read so much and so deeply over the years on similar topics, how do profs putting together a new class remember where the good stuff is and, more importantly, just enough of the good stuff that it fit the recipe for the course? Surely designing an excellent course from scratch like this requires a huge amount of work, and years of tweaking.”
Indeed, it does, but there are undoubtedly ways to make it easier. As those of us in the OSP community know, the first step is to change the way we think about sharing our syllabi. Here are some proposals Lawson makes on how to do that:
- “When you write your syllabus, include the year and semester it was taught. This can serve as a version number, and will allow different versions to be acknowledged accordingly.
- Consider uploading your syllabus somewhere relatively stable online, to reduce the chances of link rot or keep versions alive online where search engines can find them. Upload, for example, to archive.org or to github.com, or somewhere your university it unlikely to take it down. Remember LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).
- Consider adding a Creative Commons or other open license to your syllabus somewhere explicitly so that, beyond “fair use” and the un-copyrightable nature of ideas, others can feel comfortable adopting and modifying (with attribution) larger chunks of, say, your
Missed the OSP Workshop & Hackathon in June? You can catch up on the discussion in full recordings of our Workshop Panels here. Here’s the full schedule of panels and their participants:
Session 1: http://youtu.be/cZTjrEsOtFw
Introduction to the Open Syllabus Project Workshop
Description: The Open Syllabus Project
(OSP) is building the first large-scale online database of university course syllabi as a platform for the development of new research, teaching, and administrative tools. The inaugural OSP Workshop is devoted to thinking through the social, legal, institutional, and technical challenges associated with this project, and to outlining and implementing plans for the coming year.
The Power of Lots of Syllabi
Description: The workshop brings together researchers and groups who are interested in what can be done with lots of syllabi. One virtue of the OSP — we hope — is that it can serve as a platform for a wide range of these projects. We want to start the day by putting these goals and agendas on the table for discussion, in the hope of better understanding their implications for the project, the partnering institutions, and the wider scholarly community.
- Ted Byfield, The New School, Institutional Transparency Agendas
- Rachel Buurma, Swarthmore College
- Tessa Joseph Nichols, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
- Dennis Tenen, Columbia U, Computational Methods for Literary Analysis
Session 3: http://youtu.be/5NiKLTgtJdQ
Legal and Social Challenges around Syllabi
Description: There are no settled norms regarding the ownership, status, or collection