WireWise Making the Most of the Internet Peter Suber & Liffey Thorpe
Issue #4 Why Put Your Syllabi On The Web? May 14, 1998
Why should you consider putting your syllabi and other course materials on the web? There are good reasons and bad. Here are some of the bad reasons.
- Your school has invested heavily in technology in order to win grants, support research, or stay abreast of admissions rivals. Now it wants you to use it for teaching.
- You or your dean hopes that web content will teach itself without the intervention of teachers. Or, your dean hopes that web content will pay for itself in reduced costs (faculty downsizing) rather than increased revenues (enhanced recruitment).
- Someone from a different discipline or with a different teaching style reports, perhaps credibly, that the web helps in her teaching.
- Students think that the web is cool and that your discipline is dull and difficult. You or your dean hopes that web-based course content will add sparkle.
- You have a geeky side which is not otherwise connected to your academic side.
Robert Crooks, Associate Professor of English at Bentley College, gives five of the good reasons at his web page on this subject.
- They're prettier
- They don't get lost
- They can be updated anytime
- They save paper
- Students who miss class get handouts, assignments, and lecture notes
On a related page, Crooks restates the list, adding two new items:
- Give students access to materials 24 hours a day
- Integrate your course materials with anything on the Internet
Does it matter that students have access to materials 24 hours a day? Yes. In the Chronicle of Higher Education for May 15, 1998 (at p. A29), Jeffrey Young reports on the experience of UCLA in requiring a web page for every course taught at the university. After just one semester of the experiment, 60% of students polled said the web pages increased their interaction with their professors. Most of the new involvement seems to arise from two uses of the internet: web-based course content and email access to faculty. Students read the course materials at all hours and send email when their questions occur to them.
What about integrating your course documents with the rest of the internet? In addition to giving your students the schedule of readings and assignments, you can give them links to related web sites. This is like having a virtual reserve shelf in the library devoted to your course, but one that you can create and revise from your home or office at any time of the day or night. You can link to electronic texts, journals, data sets, maps, professional societies, bibliographies, link collections, usenet newsgroups, humor, search engines, and even to searches on simple or boolean search-strings that you have refined for the course topics. (More on the latter in WireWise #3.) You don't have to pretend that following these web links is superior to research in a print library. You just have to stop pretending that nothing of real importance has yet appeared on the web in your field.
What other good reasons are there?
- Web-based syllabi and other course hand-outs can help prospective students pick your school.
- For the same reason, they can help students already enrolled at your school pick your course.
Both of these reasons are two-edged. Only good web-based course materials will help recruitment to your school or course. But "good" here has much more to do with truth in advertising than with marketing. Boosting enrollment isn't the only goal. You also want to warn students away who are unprepared or uninterested. The more your teaching documents give a good sense of the content and texture of your course, the more likely they are to persuade the students you want in the course and dissuade the students you don't want.
Peter's online syllabi have helped junior colleagues plan courses in the same areas. Some of these colleagues teach at Earlham and some teach elsewhere. Some of his more extensive course documents have helped autodidacts who were pleased enough to email their thanks. A surprising number of these autodidacts are from third-world countries without access to good libraries or university courses on the same subjects. These are not reasons to put syllabi online in the absence of other reasons. But they are unexpected additions to the gratifications of teaching.
- Objection: I worry that other teachers will steal my ideas.
- Answer: This is possible. But there are ways to limit or prevent it, and in any case there are gains that offset the losses. You can copyright your web documents with a copyright declaration. If your system supports some fairly common protocols, you can limit access to your course pages to users from your own school. For this reason, the risk of plagiarism is probably lower on the web than it is in print. But the risk of plagiarism is unavoidable to those who don't maintain silence. If it doesn't stop you from publishing in hardcopy, it shouldn't stop you from publishing electronically. We don't want others to take our ideas and put their own names on them, but we do want readers and influence. Most web users are like most print readers: they use what they find responsibly.
- Objection: (1) I worry that my school will turn my teaching documents into commodities. (2) Or I worry that my school will use online teaching materials as an excuse to lay off faculty. (3) Or I worry that my school will use my course materials to promote second-rate, teacherless "distance learning" without my involvement or consent.
- Answer: These three objections are not equivalent but we lump them together because they require the same answer. Schools moving in these directions are making several kinds of mistake. They are taking steps to reduce the quality of teaching, to chill academic freedom, and to stultify the web. Consequently, faculty should resist them. Note that the second two objections need not be based on course materials you put online yourself, but might be triggered by course materials put online by the rest of us. If you can win this battle at your campus, however, then you will have removed the chief disincentives, without removing the rationale, for putting course materials on the web, and should consider doing so.
We take some of these objections from articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education for May 8, 1998 (p. A29) and for May 15, 1998 (also at p. A29). Both articles are available at the Chronicle web site for registered users. The former article is based in part on the views of David Noble, which are summarized in his online article, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. Most of the objections raised in these articles are directed toward compulsory use of the web, top-down pressures on teaching methods, distance learning, and school ownership of web content. None of these objections need apply to voluntary use of the web at enlightened schools.
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