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February 26, 2016

Open Syllabus Project Releases Syllabus Explorer

By Alex Ward   

Last month, a team of students from various universities nationwide collaborating as part of the Open Syllabus Project (OSP), released a beta version of the Syllabus Explorer. The Syllabus Explorer a tool that allows users to browse and search assigned texts from the syllabi of over a million college courses.

The OSP, whose overall goal has been to create a database of texts assigned for college courses, has been collecting information since 2013, but their findings were previously unavailable to the public. The OSP team is primarily made up of professors from Columbia University and Stanford University as well as independent researchers.

The Syllabus Explorer allows the database to be navigated easily and features a map to help users visualize the data represented. The project collects data primarily from publicly accessible university websites, as well as the now-defunct “Syllabus Finder”, a similar project by former George Mason University professor Dan Cohen.

According to a 2013 post on the project’s website, “The OSP’s mission is to build a large-scale online collection of syllabi and to build foundational tools for analyzing it in order to advance scholarly inquiry, promote institutional cooperation, and foster pedagogical diversity.”

To this end, the project’s syllabus explorer ranks texts by the frequency with which they are assigned by professors, overall and by individual university. The project also assigns books a “teaching score” between 1 and 100 based on how often they appear on syllabi, with separate numbers for frequency overall and within the book’s relevant field.

UChicago’s most frequently assigned texts in the Syllabus Explorer heavily reflect the influence of the Core curriculum, with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics taking up both of the top two spots under different titles. Other than Core texts, the top 50 books consist mainly of works on economics, statistics, and computer science.

Compared to other high-ranking colleges, UChicago syllabi show a greater focus on philosophical texts by the likes of Aristotle and Plato over works of literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is the fifth most commonly assigned text among the 933,635 currently listed in the project’s database, ranks at 440 among UChicago courses.

The project is still relatively recent, and plans for the future to involve improving the database’s system for identifying texts in order to minimize such errors. The team also hopes to triple the number of syllabi involved and add various other search options, including gender of authors or university size.

“Open syllabus policies could give students more ability to understand the educational paths they are on, and give faculty and administrators better understanding about how the curriculum serves (or could better serve) student needs,” Columbia University professor and project director Joe Karaganis said in an e-mail.

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