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May 3, 2024, by Joe Karaganis 

We launched a major update to Open Syllabus a few weeks ago that includes a new version of the dataset, new features, and some changes to how you can explore Open Syllabus data.


First, the dataset (v 2.11). Our goal with every update is to increase both the size and quality of the dataset. With the new version, we’ve added about a million new syllabi from the US, 300,000 from the UK and Australia, and 150,000 from Canada. The total number jumps from 18.7 million to 20.9 million. The collection also has a bit more historical depth due to better digging through school archive sites — enough so that we’re comfortable pushing back the starting year for charts to 2008 (from 2009). We want to keep extending the historical window back, but this depends increasingly on faculty and school archival contributions.

Next, data quality. We have significantly expanded both the range of titles we can discover and the quality of our parsing of citations within syllabi. First, the number of unique discovered titles in the collection has jumped from 3.4 million to 3.8 million. This gain comes primarily from building a source catalog from ISBNs found within the collection, which has significantly expanded our view of non-US publishing in particular. We also updated the citation catalog that we build from linked content in the dataset, which means that we have a better view of periodicals, websites, videos, and other non-traditional sources. Here are the top-assigned titles, for example, from The Atlantic Monthly.

Combined with improvements in how we deal with the variety of citation practices used in syllabi, the number of citations discovered in the collection (across 21 million syllabi) has jumped from 56 million to 65 million. In short, we’re providing a more complete view of the same collection at the same time as we add to it.


The biggest change affects how you can explore the data. We have shut down the old ‘free’ service, the Syllabus Explorer, in favor of creating an open tier for the new, better service, Open Syllabus Analytics. Analytics now has open, trial, and subscription access. The open tier is much better than the Syllabus Explorer, not least in the number of syllabi it includes, which jumps from 7.2 million to 11.9 million. It retains a 2019 date cap (up from 2018) and, compared to the trial and subscription versions, more limited functionality. You can sign up for a trial for free to explore these differences. Our goal is to get schools to subscribe.

Accounts have also changed. Now your account is just based on your email -- and if you sign up with a school email, it's immediately approved. Logging in with an email keeps you logged in on that decice and browser.

The Gender Dashboard

We’ve also improved the Gender Data dashboard, which is available to logged in users. Now you can search and filter across a wide range of dimensions, including country, field, and school. Want to know, for example, what gender ratios look like across academic fields in Australia or how those ratios have changed in law in the US? Now you can.

That’s it for 2.11! Check it out — and if you like it, talk to your data services librarian about subscribing.

April 9, 2024, by Joe Karaganis 

With the release of version 2.11 of the OS dataset, we can update our reporting on adoption rates for open educational resources (OERs) -- specifically, open textbooks and 'open access' monographs.

The defining thing about OERs is that they are released under an open license and so can be freely circulated and used. Because they are free, OERs have become an important part of efforts to lower the cost of higher education, which often includes thousands of dollars per student per year for course materials. But free comes with a small catch: because there is no sale or single distribution point, it's difficult to track the use of OERs. And this difficulty makes it hard to know whether adoption efforts are working. And this lack of feedback complicates decisions about whether and where and how to invest in the open ecosystem. The OER ecosystem is weaker, we would argue, because it's bad at closing this information loop between supply and demand.

And this is where Open Syllabus can play a role. We track OER adoption via the appearance of titles on syllabi -- the point of use rather than the point of sale or distribution. With nearly 21 million syllabi in the collection, we can provide accounts of adoption across individual schools, states, and countries, in and outside the US -- with some caveats that we'll get to below.

The new dataset adds two million syllabi and extends the timeline to 2023. Broadly, it expands on the story we've been telling for several years: rapid growth in OER textbook adoption in the US and Canada, but from a very low baseline in the mid 2010s, and rapid OER monograph adoption outside the US and Canada from similarly low baselines. What does this mean concretely?

In 2013, OER textbooks were barely on the scene in the US and used in only around 1 in 400 classes. By 2023, it was 1 in 80. Over the past 10 years, the growth rate in OER textbook use has averaged around 17.5% per year in the US.

OER efforts have especially targeted two-year schools, where textbooks represent a larger portion of educational expenses and students are less able to afford them. This focus shows up clearly in the data. The adoption rate at two years is 1 in 40 classes -- with a growth rate of 26% per year over the past 5 years. Is this a tipping point? It's beginning to look like one.

Because US higher ed is very decentralized, OER adoption in the US is shaped by state, system, and school-level policies. California, which has the best-supported state-level program, remains the national leader by a large margin: Over 1 in 40 classes use OER titles and 1 in 25 at two-year schools.

Among the other states for which we have decent data: Texas and Michigan are close to average. Georgia, Florida, Colorado, and Illinois fall below it.

With respect to fields, math continues to be the leader, followed by computer science. 1 in 25 math classes use an OER textbook. Restrict to 2-years and it's 1 in 18.

Other fields have begun to catch up as OER authors begin to fill some of the common entry-level class niches. Almost all of the growth in English and Education, for example, has happened since 2019 -- and in both cases due primarily to the emergence of writing guides and student success manuals. Methods books have gained traction across a number of social scientific and adjacent fields, including business. And recently developed, topic-specific textbooks for core classes in business, psychology, and political science have begun to gain traction.

The open book ecosystem in other countries offers interesting points of comparison. Canadian OER adoption looks very similar to the US, both in terms of the rate of growth and the heavy focus on textbooks.

But adoption elsewhere is more heavily tilted toward monographs. Adoption in the UK is the extreme case, with rapid monograph growth and a very small role for textbooks.

That downslope after 2020 reflects some data access problems related to a change in reading list software platforms in the UK (and Australia), so we are inclined to discount it. The more general pattern shows steady and in many cases very rapid monograph growth elsewhere in Europe where we have no such data problems. For example, Italy:

And Portugal:

And the Czech Republic:

And to an extent in the Netherlands:

And also in Australia -- where overall adoption is lower but roughly evenly split between textbooks and monographs.

The data outside the US and Canada point to differences between OER textbook publishing and 'OA' or open access scholarly monograph publishing, which remains the province of university presses. For OER textbook authors and publishers, the goal is to provide substitutes for commercial titles used in popular classes. An OER textbook can have a steep adoption curve because it has a large potential pool of classes to convert. This conversion process, in turn, has been formalized into policy and advocacy approaches, and has become an official responsibility of the library at many schools.

OA monographs, in contrast, come out of a more-or-less parallel but distinct movement to ensure that published research is free -- beginning with journal articles but extending to books and other research outputs. As research, OA monographs are usually specialized titles and almost by definition not intended to be direct substitutes for existing (commercial) titles.

The incentives and growth potential are accordingly different. Publishers are publishing more OA titles (measured by growth of the Directory of Open Access Books ), but they tend to fill small course niches and show up in classes that already assign a lot of other (commercial) books. The US and Canadian advocacy model doesn't apply as easily in this context, 'free' has less of an impact, and the textbook-based curriculum of two-year schools is largely irrelevant. This is, we think, the context for what we see in the US and Canadian data, which shows modest growth at best in the adoption of OA titles over the past ten years.

But elsewhere, the monograph vs textbook data is different and I don't think we have a complete explanation of it. One important factor is that the market-size dynamic is reversed: it's entry-level textbooks that are fragmented by country and language -- and dominated by translated commercial textbook titles -- while the research culture is international and built around English. English-language research monographs 'travel' better in this context and cost/benefit decisions shift accordingly. There are also differences in the publishing and advocacy cultures that have grown up around Open Access research initiatives, with more active roles for libraries in funding new work. We'll just note this for now without venturing a full explanation.

We've alluded to a few caveats on the data already, and such a discussion could go on for some time. But let's address one that matters to the OER community.

There is reason to think that we undercount OER adoption -- though not dramatically with respect to anglophone countries. One source of undercount is our incomplete catalog of open titles. For the current dataset, we combine The Directory of Open Access books (for monographs), the Open Textbook Library (for textbooks), and parts of Academic Commons. (We also filter out public domain titles, which have begun to creep into OA/OER catalogs in new editions or translations). This the 'high end' of OER production in English -- most of it passing through peer review and/or press development processes. But these sources will miss a lot of non-English material relevant in other countries as well as less-formally-published work, such as material produced and circulated for departmental use or variations and remixes that are never recatalogued, and so on. There are archives for these materials but every new source that we integrate produces trade-offs between signal and noise in the data, so we move forward with caution.

A related source of undercount is the set of citation shortcuts that have grown up around some categories of OER title, including especially the replacement of authors by publishers in citations on syllabi. A typical example might list 'Chemistry by OpenStax' on a syllabus rather than Chemistry by some representation of the actual contributing editors and authors, which is our usual requirement for identifying titles. We can do a sanity check on this 'missing' material to some extent by searching our collection for the term OpenStax. It appears on 1 in 125 US syllabi and 1 in 65 at 2-year schools -- ballpark consistent, we would argue, with our updated approach to these citations. But there are certainly other scenarios and cases that we miss. These issues also affect all OA/OER cataloguing efforts -- and we inherit the problems of the catalogs we use.

Loosening concepts of authorship are a challenge for our work but also, arguably, for a community that treats attribution as a primary reward for OER publishing. This is an inherent tension in the OER community, which also values the right to remix open content. For our part, we think that we get the trend lines generally correct and undershoot a bit on the magnitudes.

The trend lines describe not just instances of adoption but also underlying processes of adoption that have institutional momentum -- and that momentum matters a great deal. Textbook choice, especially, is sticky -- costly to change -- and it can take a long time for new titles to take off. The major OER math titles are over a decade old. The computer science titles a bit older. Social science titles and business titles have begun to emerge in significant numbers only in the last five years. And this isn't long in curricular terms. Major commercial textbooks are often decades-old brands that become synonymous with their teaching subjects.

Last year, we asked whether the growth rate for OER titles will be sustained. This year's data provides a provisional yes. We'll continue to chart that progress and if we’re right, by charting it, accelerate it.

(April 18: updated with more thinking about the monograph data)

March 9, 2024, by Joe Karaganis 

Last year we published a roundtable discussion called "What Films Should We Teach: A Conversation About the Canon" in Public Books. For me, the goal was to spur some expert consideration of the Open Syllabus Movie Lab data, which I had assembled the year before, and which showed that the film curriculum in higher ed is still mostly organized around critical canons and principles developed in the 1960s and 70s. I wasn't equipped to unpack this data, but Jane Gaines, Jon Lewis, and Daisuke Miyao have built teaching and research careers around these questions and were generously willing to dig in.

Jane Gaines (JG): ... In the United States, film and media studies grew out of literary studies and, at many schools, remains either within it or closely tied to it. The Open Syllabus rankings strongly suggest the continued relevance of literary approaches to teaching film history, which tend to bring the criteria of personal authorship to bear on film.

Auteur theory received its major formulations by French New Wave directors and critics in the 1950s and 1960s, who argued that directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock “transcended” Hollywood industrial production and impressed a personal “worldview” on their material. The persistence of Hitchcock and Welles at the top of the Open Syllabus director rankings suggests how strongly this tradition is still with us. Teaching these two directors carries on a tradition of exposing college students to “great authors” because of assumptions about the depth of their personal insight and vision. And much of the critical tradition around these directors is still fundamentally tied to frameworks and vocabularies used to evaluate literary works.

One casualty of this focus is the collective and industrial dimension of filmmaking.

Daisuke Miyao: Cinema is a collective industrial and cultural form, but there is very little work that considers films as the product of collaboration beyond the auteur-director’s authority. Much is lost through this narrow focus. The international impact of Rashomon, to take a major example, is inseparable from the contributions of its cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, who experimented with film stock and lighting in ways that profoundly influenced a generation of artists in other countries, such as cinematographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane. What would film history look like if, as a thought experiment, we privileged cinematographers or editors or writers?

Predictably, one of the major factors that maintains the traditional canon is teaching bandwidth.

Jon Lewis (JL): When I arrived at Oregon State in 1983, there were only two movie classes: Film Comedy and Film Tragedy. Both were taught in the English Department. My colleagues were surprised to hear that I found the titles overbroad. But as a practical matter, they had to be. Only a fraction of schools in the United States have film programs: some sources put the number at over 300, depending on the definition; others say around 150 out of nearly 4,000 schools in the United States. This means that in most places the teaching canon is effectively whatever makes it into the Intro to Film class or its equivalent.

Moreover, teaching time is scarce and presents zero-sum choices. In a semester-long class, adding one title to the syllabus often means removing another. The relevant question for me in teaching is: What do students need to know if—as is often the case at Oregon State—their film education consists of one class from me? My answer is almost always “history.” Are there certain films students need to see in order to better understand contemporary cinema? Are there films that allow me to condense the discussion of a period or set of themes into one or two classes? This process of cropping is, for better and for worse, well suited to the auteur framework.

So even as over the years I have been researching and writing about films that challenged the canon or offered new ways of looking at it, the traditional approach has remained useful.

The whole conversation is worth a read.

July 11, 2023, by Joe Karaganis 

Much of the attention to ‘woke’ politics in higher ed assumes that the curriculum is a major driver of it – that students learn new ways of thinking about race or gender or inequality from their classes. This is a topic where the analysis of millions of syllabi can perhaps shed some light. At the risk of saying something both obvious and controversial, the curriculum of US higher education is very 'small c' conservative, built around long-term, slow-changing approaches to skills and knowledge in different fields. Our data suggests that it is, over the short and medium term at least, pretty insensitive to political and cultural change, and even to major shifts in knowledge and technology. This varies somewhat by field, of course, but not by that much.

We can test this claim in limited ways with the 'Trends' dashboard in OS Analytics, which permits keyword and phrase searches across the descriptive content of 18.7 million syllabi. What jumps out? Well – restricting the search to US syllabi – few classes deal with the main topics of ‘woke’ politics at all. Under 5% of classes reference "gender." 3% reference "race." Zoom in on some of the more contested vocabulary around these topics and mentions become very scarce. "Marxism," "transgender," and "critical race theory" each figure in around .1% of classes -- 1 in 1000 classes.


Limit the range to R1 and R2 (research) universities and the percentages increase to around.... .2%.


May 29, 2023, by Joe Karaganis 

We've made a number of changes in the past weeks to make Open Syllabus a better experience for users and to move toward a model of community support for our work.

First, we've created a new landing page that links the various Open Syllabus sites and services. We also switched our blog to a static page framework (Docusaurus, if you're curious).

Second, we've ended the open beta for Open Syllabus Analytics. If you already have an account, it has been switched to a 30-day personal trial account. Access via these accounts will time out unless you -- or someone at your organization -- creates an organizational account that you can join. For more information about how this works, see Account and Subscriptions. There are a number of subscription types and pricing tiers that hopefully can accommodate most schools and organizations. Moving forward, we will continue to expand both the free and subscription services, with the latter providing more data, tools, and views.

Third, we've updated to a new version of the syllabus dataset (2.10) in Analytics. 2.10 adds around 3 million new syllabi, bringing the total to 18.7 million. It especially expands coverage outside the US, with a focus on Europe.

If you enjoy Open Syllabus, we'd encourage you to create a trial account on Analytics and explore. If you find value in it, please give some thought to how you can get your school or organization involved as a subscriber and -- especially for schools -- as a donor of syllabi to the archive. We are building a global curricular archive for higher education and we need your help.