Should professors be forced to post syllabi online?

Compliance with online syllabus policies vary throughout higher education.

Requiring professors to make their syllabi publicly available on the web could draw a backlash from educators who see the document as their intellectual property, while universities and Texas legislators demand greater transparency in curriculum, lesson plans, and textbooks.

Many college professors and instructors post their course descriptions and syllabi voluntarily to the campus website. This, experts said, gives students a better idea of what to expect from the course and could cut down on the number of class spots that are added and dropped at the start of every semester.

Read more about syllabus policy in higher education…

Syllabus digitization takes hold on college campuses

A handful of institutions, including Duke University, the University of Washington (UW), and Fayetteville State University in North Carolina have online syllabus systems, with varying levels of compliance.

Texas lawmakers in 2008 unanimously passed a first-of-its-kind law requiring all public colleges and universities to make syllabi available on the internet in fewer than three clicks from the institution’s homepage.

Course information, under the Texas law, must be more extensive than the class overview available to students as they peruse a college’s website and register for the following semester. The law requires publicly-available syllabi to include “the learning objectives for the course,” “a general description of the subject matter of each lecture,” and required readings.

Giving students a more comprehensive look at a semester’s lesson plans and readings, educators said, should be a goal for colleges with state-of-the-art websites. Giving away professorial keys to success, however, could stall efforts to make every syllabus available on the web.

“It’s good for the students who want to pick and choose their course and professor, but a nightmare for the university,” said Jean Coppola, associate professor of IT at Pace University in New York. “I think it’s good that the syllabus is posted for the most part, but there are exceptions. What about professors who have award-winning courses, and their syllabus was unique?”

Coppola said that, in the midst of nearly across-the-board higher education budget cuts, professors have taken on new responsibilities that fill their daily schedules and leave little time for creating and posting every syllabus to the campus website weeks before a semester starts.

“Rules are only as good as they can be enforced,” she said.

Providing open syllabi for college students signing up for next semester’s classes has helped students find courses they would not have otherwise found, said Jennifer Connally, a spokeswoman for Intellidemia, maker of Concourse, a syllabus management system used at 10 colleges and universities.

“Students can make better, more informed decisions about the courses they choose,” Connally said, adding that Concourse allows educators to make some syllabus information public, and some private, such as contact information and office hours. “We know they’ve worked hard to create specific content within a course.”

Connally said extensive online syllabi could hedge the common student practice of signing up for more classes than they plan to take, reviewing the professor’s syllabus on the first day of class, and dropping one or more courses from their schedules.

Some college students do this, she said, because brief course descriptions only give students a vague idea of what will be taught throughout a semester.

Stockpiling spots in myriad classes also fills lecture halls and classrooms and prevents other students from signing up for the class.

Duke University’s optional online syllabus system, known as the Online Course Synopsis Handbook, “approaches an ideal system for posting syllabi on the web,” according to a 2008 report published by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank based in North Carolina.

About 80 percent of Duke professors comply with the handbook.

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.

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