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August 16, 2010

Help create shareable syllabi

Every course has a syllabus. In it are an expert’s ideas about the topics essential to the course of study and the works that explain those topics. And that’s at a bare minimum. Syllabi rock.

Yet, all that wisdom and goodness is locked in the syllabi, of use to the handful of students taking or considering taking the course. What a shame! Think of all we could do if the information in syllabi were made available for open access by humans and machines:

  • Teachers could discover new ideas for how to teach a course.

  • Students could browse among courses to see how other teachers teach them.

  • Researchers could be guided by this canon-in-practice — both to the expected works and away from works that are too expected.

  • Researchers studying disciplines would have a rich source of data to analyze.

To unlock these riches, several things have to happen.

First, the syllabi have to be collected and put into an open access repository. I’d love to see universities adopt open syllabi policies that require (ask? suggest?) that faculty submit a copy of their syllabi for each course they teach.

Then the syllabi have to be scraped so that the data within them is searchable by humans and parsable by computers.

Then the data should be put into some standard data format so that it can be more easily found, reused, and mined.

It’s this last step that I’m looking for help with. I’ve started a little project with Joseph Cohen to develop an XML schema for syllabi. (Joseph has a commecial project underway that could help with some of the other elements required to turn dead syllabi into a living beast at our command.)

If you’d like to jump in, go to the SylliXml wiki. (You have to register to edit.) We’re just at the kicking it around stage, and your contributions will be very helpful.

There are lots of questions to resolve. At the moment, we’re aiming at producing the most minimal schema we can, because syllabi are unstructured documents and trying to accommodate everything that might ever be put into one is a mug’s game. So, what is the minimum set of data and metadata that would make the information in syllabi amazingly useful?

Come play!

There is tremendous value hidden in the syllabi diaspora. Let’s unite and conquer!