The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or foe?

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.


4 thoughts on “The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or foe?

  1. Reblogged this on The Academe Blog and commented:
    A few days ago Aaron Barlow posted a piece on the Open Syllabus project (, which focused mainly on the content of the syllabi collected through this effort. Coverage of the project led me, however, to wonder about the potential violations of the faculty’s right to intellectual property in syllabi, a topic about which I’ve previously posted ( This piece from “the 8 blog” addresses both aspects of this interesting project, leaving it for time to tell whether it is a friend or a foe.

  2. I read the article and had much of the same reaction and then asked whether this was a case of a couple of academics with too much time and no ability to look at a world that has so many opportunities where a substantive contribution could be made for the time and resources invested.

    1) we know that time is spent in creating courses for approval but once taught, there are revisions, some substantive and yet the revisions are seldom sent back for approval. Thus the syllabus is obsolete almost from the beginning and often only peripherally followed

    2) Fraternities and others compile these and other materials for their members to aid in navigating courses and obtaining grades. This is in addition to the other issues of copying or ghost writing.

    3) As mentioned here, text books and other materials have a half-life while others are classics. In many ways, its also a problem with academic publications that cite key articles to increase the potential “impact” factor based on downloads and further citations. A problem within the professorate itself

    4) Even with a syllabus in hand at an institution, no two instructors will or even can deliver the same course even in some of the more standard courses as is often offered in e-learning programs where the course is almost in the form of “programmed” learning

    5) One can take the identical syllabus and offer it in a medallion institution with selective admissions and in a small public university, both in the US and the offering and measured results of student performance may show that the two offerings and outcomes will be different given the faculty and students. It definitely will be different if offered in another country.

    6) What would be “interesting” would be to track these syllabi over time and determine their half-life in both form and practice.

    But in the end, the cost to maintain this list will assure one that the half-life of this list will be short.

    A colleague who had the fraternity notes for a med school course said at precisely xxxx time the prof will look at his watch and then tell a specific joke. And, my colleague said that at precisely that time, the joke was told in class. One wonders if that was in the syllabus

    Even digital sylliabi will go the way of the proverbial yellowed notes of mentally calcified academics.

  3. Ollie,
    I was equally concerned about issues of intellectual property when I read the initial article. I’ve been thinking about intellectual property more generally lately, and asking myself the question: Why do I care if someone uses things that I made? Here are some scenarios that have caused me to ask the question.

    Scene 1: I share my materials (all of them) for a course with an adjunct who was hired last minute to teach a section of a course I taught for 4 years. She uses them without a credit line at the bottom for her course. She gets observed by a colleague for her TPTF review and gets a favorable recommendation. Colleague comments to me about how great the adjunct is doing.

    Scene 2: A friend in another department got observed by a colleague for her pre-tenure review. The colleague uses a “game” the friend had developed in her course the next semester without any mention to my friend. When those students proceed through the sequence of courses to my friend’s course, she finds out what her colleague had done in the class session in which they play the game when students respond, “we already did this in Professor X’s class.”

    Scene 3: A very close friend who teaches at another university and I both use a series of three article in our introduction to art education courses. We decided to share materials with each other and often provide feedback to each other as we are developing ideas. We use each other’s materials with credit lines.

    Scene 4: I went to a conference presentation specifically about teaching graduate level research methods last year. One idea the presenters shared stuck with me. I emailed the presenter a month ago asking if she would be willing to refresh my memory about the activity; I hadn’t taken great notes and was interested in using the activity and crediting her in my course this semester. She didn’t answer the email.

    Scene 5: A leading scholar in my field and I were talking about her choice to upload all of her materials (publications, presentation files, PDFs, lesson examples, etc.) to her online digital portfolio that is open access. Her response, when I asked her whether she was worried about people using them (generally): Why should I care? I believe in them. Students might get a better education if someone else uses my work than theirs. And we are educators – shouldn’t we be willing to share materials if we believe it will benefit students to do so? If it’s about the students, it’s not about me. I’m happy to contribute what I can.

    There’s an article in this somewhere.

  4. Pingback: Best of 2016 – Part 2 | The 8 Blog

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