The idea for the Open Syllabus Project came about when Dennis Tenen was at Harvard.

What if you could sneak a peek at what the smarty pants over at MIT or Harvard are taking and see how it differs from your courses? Well, you can. The Open Syllabus Project (OSP) – brought to you by an assortment of university faculty – has collected more than a million syllabi from institutions around the world, extracted metadata from them and has made it available for all to search.

Although it’s amusing simply to skim through the lists of universities and texts, OPS is here to serve a deeper purpose. As it continues to grow its database of syllabi – and move on to compiling other institutional information – the project hopes to help university educators, administrators and students have transparency into trends in higher education and have more informed discussion as to how the field should move to evolve.

What it does

The initial idea for OSP was born out of the Berkman Center at Harvard. Dennis Tenen, an assistant professor at Columbia, was a Berkman fellow when he conceived of the project. A few years later and the beta version of the metasearch is live.

Dennis Tenen.

According to the OSP site, it’s aiming to accomplish the following goals:

  • The first version of a new publication metric (Teaching Score) based on how often texts are taught.

  • A unique course-building tool that provides information about what’s taught with what.

  • A promising means of exploring the history of fields, curricular change, and differences in teaching across institutions, states, and countries.

OPS has been tenacious about spreading the word and collecting syllabi from individual professors and institutions as a whole. Tenen didn’t even want to launch without having at least a million syllabi in the bank, so it was delayed for 6 months. However, the wait should be worth it, as it’s now developed enough to make an impact.

Jeffrey Schnapp – a Harvard Professor, founder and faculty director of metaLAB at Harvard and co-director of the Berkman Center – is on the advisory board for OSP. He told me, “There has been so much conversation surrounding education and innovation. Different strands of public debate about the state of public education and how it should evolve have emerged.”

He continued, “Syllabi are the basic building blocks of the edifice of education…Using data analysis could tell us bigger stories about the evolution of education, so we can know much more for those debates to be constructive.”

Why it matters

OSP will serve as a tool for everyone with a stake in higher education. Professors can see what their peers across the globe are teaching, which will bring new ideas to classroom and curricula. Within a university, faculty can see what colleagues in other departments are teaching, and students can explore all that is being done at their school and beyond.

But that’s just the starting point. Armed with this information, institutions, faculty and the general public can have more intelligent conversations about where higher education is and where it should be going to maintain scholarly integrity, while preparing students for what future job markets demand of them.

Jeffrey Schnapps.

“There’s a century of data about higher education,” Schnapp said. “Every university has it. It’s now about making it accessible with analytical tools that get us beyond the cliches. We can see what’s going on and what’s not going on in higher education.”

Keeping names out of it

We’re in an age where institutions of higher education are scrutinized and publicly criticized for their choices of texts or subject matters. The project wishes to promote transparency, but not to the extent that professors and universities would be unnecessarily ridiculed. To prevent professors from having their syllabi completely exposed to the world, OPS assures that only certain metadata extracted from syllabi (i.e. citations and institutions) and the aggregated statistics stemming from that information is public.

So professors can enjoy the anonymity, while contributing to the database – and the history of higher education. Past attempts to create an engine of this nature have been made, but this time around OPS is sure it’s timing, technology and team are right.

“With innovation, we’ll be able to explore new forms of institutional history with a rigor that no historian working in a conventional way could ever do,” Schnapp said.

Image “Harvard college – annenberg hall”, CC BY-SA 2.0.