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September 30, 2022, by Joe Karaganis 

Open Syllabus is pleased to announce the receipt of a $1,750,000, 2-year grant from the Arcadia Fund.

The Arcadia grant will enable Open Syllabus to continue to expand the boundaries of open education by developing new ways to understand and navigate the curriculum in higher education.  The grant will support work on course transfer and learning outcomes, as well as a range of new tools designed to make OS data a more powerful resource for students, faculty, and lifelong learners.

Open Syllabus is a 501(c)3, US-based, non-profit organization that maps the curriculum in higher education and builds tools to support open education.

The Arcadia Fund is a UK charitable organization that supports work on endangered cultural heritage, endangered ecosystems, and open access.

May 23, 2022, by Joe Karaganis 

The 4th place rank of The Communist Manifesto among all assigned titles in the OS collection (in the 2.5 dataset) has been written about and referenced frequently. Is this high ranking weird? Suspicious? What’s the story here?

To save ourselves some time responding on Twitter, we’ve decided to create a resource for authors and tweeters interested in engaging with this datapoint. The list of tips below doesn’t exhaust the topic of Marx’s role in the curriculum, but hopefully it will help you avoid some common misinterpretations of OS data related to Marx and the Manifesto. Let’s go!

  • Why does The Communist Manifesto rank 4th overall? Because it is frequently assigned in multiple fields. It’s 5th in History, 5th in Political Science, 5th in Sociology, 49th in Philosophy, and 153rd in English, 200th in Anthropology. Many titles achieve high rank in one or sometimes two fields. Very few have relevance in three or more. If you study 19th and 20th century history, politics, or social thought, you will at some point be assigned The Communist Manifesto–maybe more than once.

  • Let’s consider this talking point: “Marx is the most assigned economist in U.S. college classes.” Be careful with this one. Whether Marx is properly classified as an economist or not, he is not widely assigned in Economics, where the Manifesto ranks 192nd. Nor is his major work of economics, Capital, a top title. It ranks 378th overall and 182nd in Economics. For those who worry that Marx has displaced Adam Smith, he hasn’t. The Wealth of Nations is the top-ranked non-textbook title in Economics at #13. It also does well in History and Political Science.

  • In teaching, assigning something is not the same as endorsing it. This should go without saying, but the assumption that The Communist Manifesto is assigned primarily for the purposes of indoctrinating students is a frequent theme in these pieces. We don’t know all the contexts in which the Manifesto is assigned, but a look at the most common ‘co-assignments‘–i.e. the titles it is most frequently assigned with–strongly suggests that its primary teaching role is in classes that explore the canonical texts of Western political thought. What are the top co-assigned titles? Locke’s Second Treatise on Government; Hobbes’ Leviathan; Smith’s Wealth of Nations; Mill’s On Liberty; Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Machiavelli’s The Prince; Plato’s Republic. And so on.

  • The Manifesto has two other features that don’t come up much in these pieces but which probably significantly affect its rank. First, it’s a famous exercise in rhetoric rather than a treatise. Spend five minutes with it in comparison to any of the titles above and it’s clear why, even in translation, it has a role in literature and writing classes. Second–and probably more important–it’s short. At around 30 pages, it’s very easy to assign in a single class. Compare to the work of excerpting from the 1200 pages of Wealth of Nations, or the 650 pages of Leviathan, or the 450 of The Protestant Ethic and the classroom advantages are clear.

  • Comparative arguments: We urge caution. For those of you who, like the Marketwatch author linked above, want to compare the ubiquity of the Manifesto to the relative invisibility of the Bible in OS data, be aware that we identify works based on title/author combinations, and so struggle with titles that lack attributable authors. All the major religious texts and most of the foundational political documents are in the same boat. For those of you who want to argue that Author X (say, Friedrich Hayek) is a superior thinker to Marx who should be more widely assigned, be aware of the risks of simply reversing the indoctrination argument. The teaching data surrounding The Communist Manifesto pretty clearly describes an effort to understand its historical influence, not increase it.

February 10, 2022, by Joe Karaganis 

Most of Open Syllabus’s work is built on citation analysis — on the ability to determine what’s taught and what’s taught together.

But syllabi contain a lot of other information about teaching and learning. For the past two decades, the coin of the realm in many areas of higher ed has been the ‘learning outcome,’ conceived as a way to abstract from course contents to an enumerated set of learning goals. Sometimes these are very concrete and specific to a topic:

Sometimes they describe very broad sets of competencies:

Often, individual learning outcomes are parts of larger frameworks that cover the range of required knowledge for a program or degree. In other cases, faculty rely on learning outcome guidance (such as Bloom’s taxonomy) to develop sui generis outcomes for their classes. With a few exceptions, learning outcome frameworks in the US and Canada are defined locally, at the individual program level. This has the advantage of keeping faculty engaged with the frameworks and of keeping outcomes closely tied to student needs. It has the disadvantage, however, of making them useless for comparative or system-level understanding of the curriculum, and for solving problems that require such perspectives. One example of the latter that we’ve been working on is course transfer, in which the lack of common frameworks for understanding class outcomes makes it difficult to establish equivalence between classes.

There are, according to the Lumina Foundation, over 3000 learning outcome frameworks in use in the US. Despite some notable efforts to organize this vast array of material, incentives for programs and schools to pool or coordinate learning outcome development remain weak. Because learning outcomes are generally present in syllabi, however, we may be able to reconstruct the learning outcome landscape from the bottom up. A national map of learning outcomes — in fact, an international map that includes frameworks from Canada, the UK, and the EU — may be possible.

We can now pretty reliably extract the individual learning outcomes in syllabi. Our full dataset (currently 10.5 million syllabi) contains around 20 million unique learning outcomes. These can be compared semantically to generate a galaxy-style ‘map’ of the learning outcome landscape — here based on a sample of 3 million learning outcomes.

This is preliminary work that builds on relatively simple methods. But it has some interesting features. That wide grey band that runs through the humanities and social sciences suggests a lot of commonality to the learning outcomes in those fields, whereas the sharper boundaries in most STEM and practitioner fields imply more learning outcomes built around field-specific knowledge.

Overall, the graph shows enough definition to make us think that we can reverse-engineer a lot of the structure of the underlying frameworks. It won’t be a perfect map, but even a decent one would be leagues better than anything currently available and potentially make possible some of the system-level research and applications that were part of the original promise of learning outcomes.

January 12, 2022, by Joe Karaganis 

We take a shot at that question over at Scatterplot.

The Co-Assignment Galaxy represents titles based on the extent to which they appear together on syllabi.  Each title is a dot whose size is determined by the title’s total assignment count in the collection.  This simple principle structures a very detailed map of fields, subfields, and their boundaries.  It also combines what we could call content-based and institutional ways of thinking about fields.  By content based, I mean that the layout is derived solely from similarities in the assigned contents of millions of classes, with no a priori knowledge about how those classes divide into sociology or history or physics (we added the labels later).  At the same time, we developed tools that do sort syllabi into the classificatory schemas used by universities, which reflect a more administrative and institutional view of fields. This institutional account shows up in the graph through the use of color.  A title receives a color based on its predominant field of assignment. Field boundaries and border zones are represented in the Galaxy by this interaction between spatial layout and color.