A Modest Academic Fantasy

January 9, 2012

Image credit: curious zed (flickr)

For today’s post, I offer a hasty sketch of a modest academic fantasy: free syllabi.

As a graduate student, I have often found myself searching for and using syllabi to facilitate various aspects of my work.

Initially, syllabi from faculty in my department and others helped me learn about the discipline I had chosen to enter for my Ph.D. Later, I sought out syllabi to design my qualifying exam reading lists and to better understand the debates that structured the areas of research relevant to my dissertation. More recently, I have turned to syllabi yet again to learn about the curriculum and faculty in departments where I am applying for jobs and where I could potentially teach my own courses. When I design my own syllabi, I anticipate that I will, once again, search for colleagues’ syllabi on related topics in order to guide and advance my thinking.

The syllabi I find are almost always rewarding and useful in some way or another. The problem is that I am only ever able to find a tiny fraction of the syllabi that could be relevant.

This is mainly a problem of norms and partly a problem of infrastructure. On the norms side, there is no standard set of expectations or practices around whether faculty post syllabi in publicly accesible formats or locations.

Many faculty do share copies of recent course syllabi on their personal websites, but others post nothing or only a subset of the courses they currently teach.

I am not aware of any faculty who post all the course syllabi they have ever taught in open, platform independent file formats to well-supported, open archives with support for rich meta-data (this is the infrastructure problem).

Given the advanced state of many open archives and open education resources (OER) projects, I have to believe it is not completely crazy to imagine a world in which a system of free syllabi standards and archives eliminates these problems.

At minimum, a free syllabi project would require faculty to:

  • Distribute syllabi in platform independent, machine-readable formats that adhere to truly open standards.
  • Archive syllabi in public repositories
  • License syllabi for at least non-commercial reuse (to facilitate aggregation and meta-analysis!).

In a more extreme version, you might also include some standards around citation formats and bibliographic information for the sources and readings listed in the syllabi.

In any case, some sort of free syllabi project seems doable; useful; and relatively inexpensive (at least in comparison to some expensive, resource intensive projects that involve streaming full video and audio of classes).

Update: Joseph Reagle, who is – as usual – much better informed on these topics than I am, responded to my post over a Berkman Center email list. Since  Joseph’s message points to some really great ideas/references on this topic, I’m re-publishing it in full below (with his permission):

Aaron S’s posting today about “A Modest Academic Fantasy” [1] (free syllabi) reminded me I wanted to share a post of my own [2] in response to Greg Wilson’s question of “would it be possible to create a ‘GitHub for education’”? [3].

While a super-duper syllabus XML format might be great (as I’ve heard David W discuss) — but would have fork-merge-share problem’s as Wilson notes — I’ve always (since 2006) provided my syllabus online, in HTML, with an accompanying bibtex file for the reading list. I think this is the best way currently to share without waiting for a new standard.

On the course material front, I recently started sharing my class notes and slides. These are written in markdown — which makes them easy to collaborate on — put up at Github, and are used to generate HTML5 slides (e.g., [4]). I’ve also started putting up classroom best practices and exercises (e.g., [5]) on a personal wiki; I’d love to see something like this go collaborative.

For in class collaboration, I understand Sasha C[ostanza-Chock] has successfully used etherpad. The PiratePad variant even permits wiki-style links. I desperately want a light-weight synchronous editor with wiki-style links but none exist. (etherpad-lite is a great improvement on etherpad in terms of memory requirements, but does not have wiki-style links; I’ll probably end up using Google Docs because I don’t have to worry about any back-side maintenance.)

I’d love to hear from other people about what they are doing!?

[1]: https://fringethoughts.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/modest-academic-fantasy/
[2]: http://reagle.org/joseph/blog/career/teaching/fork-merge-share
[3]: http://software-carpentry.org/2011/12/fork-merge-and-share/
[4]: http://reagle.org/joseph/2011/nmc/class-notes.html
[5]: http://reagle.org/joseph/zwiki/teaching/Exercises/Tasks/Mindmap.html

Thanks, Joseph!


2 Responses to “A Modest Academic Fantasy”

  1. Thanks for this, Aaron!

    Please check out World University & School’s main Subjects’ page … with its many, extensible, academic subjects: http://worlduniversity.wikia.com/wiki/Subjects. Each subject has a ‘Select Syllabi’ section, – see, for example, the WUaS Subject Template – http://worlduniversity.wikia.com/wiki/SUBJECT_TEMPLATE – which is also how anyone can begin their own, new subject at WUaS. (Wiki http://Webnographers.org had a number of “Society and Information Technology” syllabi but it was possibly trashed (censorship) and has seemed to move away from the Creative Commons side of things, now wanting monies to start up again). Wiki World University and School is like Wikipedia with MIT Open Course Ware, with free degrees planned, accrediting on MIT OCW.

    If you know of already existing syllabi projects, WUaS is another good place to link their URLs.

    Thanks for initiating this great idea and project!

    Best regards,


  2. mako Says:

    I like Scott’s idea of building on an existing websites or community to distribute these. I might suggest that Acawiki would be another appropriate place since it’s already hosts literature reviews, generals lists, and summaries of academic articles.

    It seems like in this context, a syllabus might not only be easy to adapt from one of these forms, but you could really build it out by providing summaries of the articles included on the syllabus.

    That said, it would also require folks to input their syllabus into MediaWiki format — or at least upload them so that others folks on the website who care about that stuff could do as well.

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