A colleague recently shared an article from the New York Times that featured a collaborative effort out of Columbia University titled The Open Syllabus Project (OSP). Over a million syllabi have been collected and analyzed since the project’s inception and some of the data is now available on its OSP Explorer site. By navigating the OSP Explorer site, instructors can examine which texts are being taught in which courses to get a better sense of what colleagues at other institutions are doing. The site also ranks the texts based on a complex “Teaching Score” which attempts to capture the frequency with which an individual text is used based on syllabi and assignments. While the OSP is an interesting and innovative initiative, the data being shared is at times educational, inspiring and worrisome. For instance, if an instructor wanted to revise their syllabus and wanted to see what colleagues at a particular institution was using to teach a class, the OSP Explorer provides rankings for certain universities. This could be helpful information, especially for someone who was assigned to teach a course for the first time. By the navigating the site, an instructor could see what faculty at a similar institution was using for certain content areas. Definitely an educational opportunity.
The inspiring part is seeing the diversity of journal articles and texts being used. Across the million of syllabi that the project has analyzed, the OSP Explorer identifies over 900,000 different texts across different disciplines. It also connects directly to citation catalogs like JStor and the Harvard Library Open Metadata. The site allows instructors to see which texts were taught together to give a sense of the landscape of a discipline. As I dug deep into my areas of expertise, I found it interesting to see certain text pairings. It’s like a chef seeing a certain ingredient combination and being inspired to try something new. “Maybe those texts would provide students with a novel way of looking at an issue. Hmmmm…”
The worrisome part, however, is how the information was acquired. The OSP mined publicly available sites and downloaded available syllabi for analysis. Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America, started a similar project several years ago. The difference, however, is that Cohen offered the database without any analysis. Cohen also offered instructors the ability to remove their syllabi from the database if they wanted. I didn’t see that option available in the Open Syllabus Project information. As a technologically minded person, I fully understand that information available on the Internet is accessible to anyone for any reason. I try to explain this to my students as they post all sorts of personal information on their social networking sites. The difference, however, is that I know many of my colleagues view their syllabi as intellectual property. And recent court decisions agree with this view. “Crawling and scraping of publicly-accessible university websites,” as OSP describes its acquisition processes, sounds more like a system designed to secretly undermine intellectual property than one created to support it.
Recently, I was contacted by a student at another university asking for copies of syllabi for a certain program. Initially, the student claimed to be interested in the graduate program because of its uniqueness. I won’t get into the specifics but something didn’t seem right. I responded with our standard application materials and offered to assist the student with any registration questions she had. The student was persistent, however. In a follow-up email, she again asked for the syllabi and claimed to want to know the course expectations before she started the program. When I followed up with additional questions, she admitted that she was actually working with a researcher who was analyzing syllabi for certain programs. I haven’t replied to her last email yet and I’m still figuring out the next course of action. I feel deceived and a little violated. But the reality is that OSP may have already collected that information and I wouldn’t even know it. That troubles me.
While I find the overall data that OSP has collected to be very interesting, I have concerns about its collection processes and the larger impacts of the project. Will it cause certain publishers to advertise books differently? Will it cause certain texts to disappear due to underuse? Will it reduce intellectual open-mindedness? Will it cause faculty to be more suspicious of each other? I don’t know. I guess only time will tell whether this initiative is a friend or foe.