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#FoundersFriday with Joe Karaganis

7th July 2017
By Katy Alexander

Joe-karaganisWe run a popular blog series called #FoundersFriday in which we interview charismatic entrepreneurs from science and technology businesses. Founders Friday provides a platform for our interviewees to discuss their entrepreneurial journey and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For this edition, we have interviewed Joe Karaganis, vice president at The American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University and founder of The Open Syllabus Project (OSP). The OSP is an effort to create the first large-scale online database of university course syllabi as a platform for the development of new research, teaching, and administrative tools.

What made you want to launch The Open Syllabus Project?

We weren’t the first to take an interest in analyzing syllabi. There have been small-scale studies of curricula based on syllabus collections since at least the 1980s. Faculty began posting syllabi online in the late 1990s and many universities were doing so by the late 2000s. Dan Cohen, a history professor at George Mason, was the first to take advantage of these changing faculty and school practices to build collections on a large scale from the web-based in the early 2000s.  By the time we got started in 2013, the ability to not just collect but also data mine large collections was within the reach of small research teams like ours. In short, interest in syllabi had been there for some time, but the conditions for doing more than small-scale analysis took a while to emerge.

My own interest grew out of frustration with debates about the identity of the field of media and communications studies, which I had moved into in the mid-2000s. These debates were very focused on what the field should be – more empirical, more theoretical, more policy-focused, and so on, but no one had a good empirical account of what the field was. I saw syllabus analysis as a way to answer that question, based on the simple idea that a field is the knowledge it chooses to reproduce through teaching. At the time, this was a small data research idea, but the initial work proved to be very laborious and I didn’t get very far. Five years later, I was able to come back to it with collaborators who thought we could treat it (and questions about fields and canons more generally) as a big data problem.

Why is it important to create a database of University course syllabi?

Universities basically do two things: teach and research. The research process generates a full public record via books and articles, through which people can understand the nature of the work and its outcomes. Teaching has been much more opaque, even within the university system. Many large schools have only an approximate idea of what’s taught in their own programs – much less what others are teaching.

Syllabi are the main record of this side of the university mission. As we are beginning to discover, understanding them has implications for many of the groups in and around teaching, including students, faculty, administrators, libraries, and publishers.

Can you list current and potential applications The Open Syllabus Project has?

We’re just beginning to explore these. Currently, our online tool, the Syllabus Explorer, has a lot of value for the creation of new courses. It’s easy to see, for example, what texts are taught together. We’ve also created a new publication metric called ‘Teaching Score,’ based on the frequency with which texts are taught. We think it has the potential to become comparable in significance to journal impact metrics, but based on a very different set of judgments about what’s important. Our next round of work will focus on creating demand metrics for Open Educational Resources and on using assignment sequence to build a tool that can generate learning pathways through any topic.

Other than working on The Open Syllabus Project – what takes up the majority of your days?

Most of my work in recent years has been research surrounding copyright and access to knowledge. I’ve recently completed a big collaborative study called, Shadow Libraries, which explores how students get the materials they need for their university educations (spoiler: they photocopy). We had teams working for several years in seven countries to document the student, university, and publisher ecosystem around this question. We’ve also done quite a bit of work on copyright enforcement and intermediary liability – most recently with regard to understanding the impact of software automation on notice and takedown practices

What does the future have in store for The Open Syllabus Project?

We’re about to launch the next version of the Syllabus Explorer, which will be much bigger and better than the current Explorer. This has been the focus of our efforts over the last 18 months and should make the value and potential of the project much clearer. I look forward to exploring all the possibilities that the new Explorer will offer!

Joe tweets @jjkaraganis. You can find out more about The Open Syllabus Project here.

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