Rob Hirtz, a Duke official who helped lead the public posting of syllabi, said the system was “viewed by instructors as less of a chore and more of an opportunity” to “market their courses more effectively” by providing detailed information about what would be taught.
UW’s optional public syllabus initiative hasn’t been as successful as Duke’s. Launched in 1998, the university’s Instructor Course Description System had limited compliance in some fields during 2008, when the Pope Center research was conducted.
Only two out of 37 computer science classes at UW posted syllabi online in spring 2008. Overall compliance stood at 21 percent.
Jay Schalin, a senior editor for the Pope Center and author of the online syllabus research, said university decision makers who advocate open syllabus systems should expect skepticism from professors and instructors.
“Professors will resist everything. They hate change in their own lives,” Schalin said. “Some professors are proprietary about their classes, and they don’t want other professors to know what they’re doing. … I would say that hurts higher education.”
There is a political component to the push to make course materials available for anyone – not just students – to see.
The Pope Center’s report detailed a reading list for a geography course taught at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill in summer 2007.
The course “was not so much about the study of geography as an objective social science, as it appeared to be in the catalog,” according to the report. Instead, the UNC professor, Jason Hill, included lessons and readings with “hostility” toward “free markets, international trade, and the United States.”
“Having reading lists and detailed course descriptions ahead of time would help interested parties expose what is being taught, and stop uninterested or offended students from signing up for these courses based on the false impression they will learn something entirely different,” Schalin wrote in the Pope Center report.
“We believe that there should a diversity of classes taught, but there should also be truth in advertising,” Schalin said.