Time For Academic Truth-in-Advertising

Either college courses matter, or this country is spending a ridiculous amount of time, effort and money on the meaningless pursuit of empty credentials. Most rational people, even if they believe college is oversold, accept that the information and training transmitted in a college class generally has, or should have, value.

Why then, are most college students given almost no information with which to choose their classes?

Most students today use course descriptions from their university’s catalog to register for classes. These descriptions are very general, to cover all the bases when professors of individual class sections “personalize” their course. They also tend to be quite short—a practice that began to save space and cost when printing the catalogues.

But the bad old days when information could only be spread through printed catalogues are over. Electronic storage and distribution of information is cheap and easy–course descriptions should now reflect that. The descriptions should be more like the syllabi teachers hand out on the first day of class. That’s what I argue in this new Pope Center report, “Opening Up the Classroom: Greater Transparency through Better, More Accessible Course Information.”

An online course description doesn’t have to be a full syllabus with the entire schedule and every assignment spelled out. But it should include a very detailed description of the course and have a complete list of reading selections. It should be available to the public, and be easily accessed at a single location on the Web.

To give a more concrete example, at the University of Washington there is a course, English 242, called “Reading Fiction.” The course catalogue description reads: “Critical interpretation and meaning in fiction. Different examples of fiction representing a variety of types from the medieval to modern periods.”

Two brief sentences. 27 vague words. Not much to go on.

But the University of Washington has an online system with much more detailed descriptions, similar to syllabi. And three of these expanded descriptions for English 242 in the spring of 2008 reveal exactly why online syllabi should be commonplace.

One teacher subtitled her course “Sex, Freedom, and Constraint” and uses the gay leftist philosopher Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction as the primary text.

Another professor based his course on detective stories, “from Sherlock Holmes, to Batman, to Veronica Mars.” A third focused on 19th century British fiction: William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

What these courses were actually about cannot be deciphered using the catalog description–the three descriptions seem to describe completely different classes. It’s not hard to see how somebody hoping to experience Victorian British culture might be a little squeamish or offended by “Sex, Freedom, and Constraint” or that reading Thomas Hardy might bore detective novel fans to distraction. With more complete descriptions and reading lists, everybody signs up for the class section they want, and everybody’s happy!

Except, perhaps, Mom and Dad when they find out they’ve shelled out serious money for Junior to read Batman comics. Or when they realize that little Missy is taking lots of classes that combine unorthodox sexuality with radical politics.

Which brings us to the next reason why syllabi should be posted online: it forces colleges to be more accountable for their teaching, while still maintaining the concept of academic freedom.

Professors don’t like any constraints on what they teach in the classroom. There is also a general consensus that professors should not use the classroom as their personal soapboxes. The problem is implementing that “should not.” The issue of academic freedom is very complex, and nobody wants to impose rules that will infringe upon their own right to teach freely. The last thing conservatives want to do is end the free exchange of ideas.

But online syllabi provide a solution that infringes upon nobody’s rights to teach freely: truth in advertising. If students can check the syllabus beforehand, nobody has to worry about entering a hostile or offensive classroom. And Mom and Dad can better see what they are writing tuition checks for–let there be a “marketplace of ideas.”

Other reasons for publishing syllabi online are that it can produce a better pedagogy and improve educational research. It can do for the teaching of subjects what public knowledge or open sourcing of scientific and technical advances has done for science and technology.

The concept of online syllabi is not likely to be a popular idea with many faculty, at least not at first. Here are some of their objections:

  • It’s an exercise in pointless makework.
    From the reasons cited above, it should be apparent that online posting of syllabi is hardly pointless. It is also not that much of an increase in work, either. Professors must eventually produce a syllabus; this just makes them have it ready at an earlier date and post it online.
  • It would take lots of resources.
    University information systems already handle more complex tasks. The programming is simple: all it requires is a single form and database of several hundred or thousand text pages. A form for every course could easily be stored on a single PC, with gigabytes to spare.
  • Many professors already have course information posted on their own websites.
    Most of the time, professors put the information up after the course begins, not in time for registration. Access is normally limited to students who have already registered.
  • Professors need the time between registration and the start of classes to design the course and complete the syllabus.
    Most courses are not new. Calculus I or Psychology 101 don’t change much from term to term. In situations where the professor is actually creating a new class, he or she can simply post the most current version, caution students that it is a work in progress, and update it as he or she makes changes.
  • One of the major objections does not get voiced publicly: some professors don’t want what they teach to be made public. And those are the very teachers who should have their courses made public.

    The first reaction many people have is that such a system will be unworkable. Yet, perhaps fifteen years ago, in response to some students who wanted more information for making registration decisions, Duke University implemented a voluntary system called the Course Synopsis Handbook that works very well. According to Rob Hirtz, the coordinating editor of the university’s information publications, the dean of the school’s Trinity College gave the program very strong backing. Even though it is voluntary, compliance has reached 80 percent.

    Hirtz said the Duke handbook is not just popular with students. It “is now viewed by instructors as less of a chore and more of an opportunity,” he said. “This way, instructors can market their courses more effectively, and they no longer have to fend off endless questions from interested students trying to make out their schedules.”

    Making syllabi available online would allow the entire world to observe, analyze, and make recommendations. It would also enable higher education to gain from the same sort of cooperation and give-and-take that have pushed science and technology to unlimited new discoveries. Easier access to information makes for better decisions, deeper understanding and greater ethical standards. The benefits of such a system are many, and the costs few. In time, such a system will prove to be feasible, efficient, and valuable.