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The Movement to Open Up Syllabi


Syllabi are generally most relevant during the early weeks of the semester, when students are making decisions about which courses to take, and familiarizing themselves with course policies and assignments. As the semester goes on, syllabi tend to be forgotten—tossed away or crumpled at the bottom of backpacks, pulled out only when students need to double check due dates or absence policies.  

But Syllabus Explorer—a project developed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL)—is built on the premise that the utility of a syllabus ought to extend beyond shopping week decisions and course policy reminders. A syllabus, for instance, could be useful to a student who misses a certain course while studying abroad, by making it possible to see the reading list for that class; and Kennedy School syllabi might be useful to undergraduate students who are interested in public policy and want to do independent reading and research.  

“A syllabus, in a sense, is like a reading list curated by an expert,” says Dustin Tingley, deputy vice provost for advances in learning, whose team of researchers led the project. He gives the example of a student writing a research paper about Napoleon: a Google search would yield an overwhelming barrage of results, whereas a syllabus from a French history course would provide both specific material and other directions to explore. “It’s kind of like when you go to the library to check out one book, but it’s actually the book next to the book you were looking for that was the important one,” he explains. “A syllabus sets up that opportunity.”

But syllabi at Harvard are not necessarily easy to come by. They are posted on course websites, where access is often restricted to students enrolled in the class; meanwhile, websites for classes from past semesters disappear. Tingley says that people in different positions throughout the University—students, professors, administrators—have come to his office, asking about syllabi that for various reasons they could not find.  

Syllabus Explorer began in the spring of 2017 in response to these requests. The biggest initial hurdle, Tingley says, was persuading instructors to allow their syllabi to be posted on Syllabus Explorer. He and his team solved that problem by making the syllabi accessible only to University affiliates and giving instructors the ability to say they don’t want their syllabi available to the Harvard community. Other than that, Tingley says the process of building software that scans syllabi for keywords was relatively simple. The researchers also developed tools that recommend syllabi, based on what users are viewing, as well as data mapping techniques for keywords across the curriculum. 

Once Syllabus Explorer was implemented, uses beyond those originally envisioned by Tingley’s team began to pop up. This past spring, to explore a proposal to create a test center for students who miss midterms and finals and need to reschedule a time to take them, administrators used Syllabus Explorer to find out how many seated exams were given during the semester. Administrators have also used the platform to find guest speakers who are experts in certain areas, based on keywords in their syllabi. 

So far, Syllabus Explorer has access to  syllabi from the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the schools of design, divinity, education, government, and public health. Tingley says his team is working toward integrating the law, medical, and business schools’ syllabi, as well as connecting the platform to my.harvard, where students sign up for courses. 

Zachary Wang, manager for resources adaption and impact for the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, has been working to spread word of the platform in a variety of ways: coordinating with student advisors, who can alert students to the platform’s existence; placing representatives at advising events; and working with individual departments. But according to a survey of about 150 undergraduates conducted at the end of this past spring semester, the most effective channel has been word of mouth. 

Tingley says that Syllabus Explorer is ultimately about breaking down barriers and helping students find resources at Harvard that they otherwise might not. “How do we reduce the cost that someone has to bear in order to find an amazing opportunity, an amazing person, an amazing syllabus?” he asks. “And how can we reduce that cost in systematic ways that leverage all the affordances of computer science, data science, et cetera?”

Learn more about other efforts to make use of the information in course contents and syllabi here.

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