When you’re standing in the ocean and a wave begins to descend upon you, you have two choices. You can churn the water trying to get away or you can ride it back to shore. The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has started a trend — one that spells disaster for some universities. If students can access information, videos and even accreditation without paying for it, they very well may. To compete, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln needs to adapt.
Instead of fighting the riptide of the information age, UNL should expand its horizons and appreciate the broader education these measures can offer. UNL can prove its worth compared to MOOCs by making all course syllabi public information.
As a public university, UNL should have this obligation anyway. Nebraskans pay for this resource; what is being taught should be public knowledge. Current students don’t generally get access to syllabi until the day before school starts. Whether this is professorial procrastination or something more sinister, it leaves students in the dark.
If the whole point of college is to broaden horizons, it seems silly not to start here. Syllabi contain a wealth of information, but not the key part: instructor guidance. For instance, if I want to learn computer science, I’d be able to see what textbook is being used without having access to the professor’s time and insider knowledge. If I need this assistance (and judging by how many times I’ve Googled computer problems, I do), I’d have to pay for it.
But sometimes, classes are just regurgitated textbooks. In this case, students should know that before they pay for them. If they can get all the value of a class from a book, it’s a scam to go to class. UNL needs to show its classes are worth the sticker shock.
One way to do so is to prove the classes will be worth students’ time. Having course syllabi from the previous year available gives students a resource when they are registering for classes. Rather than tossing advisors into a student feeding frenzy during the first week of school, why not actually tell students what they’ll be learning?
Giving people access to what a class is about lets them know early on if they will enjoy the class or want to put effort into it. In the current system, students attend class without knowing what it’ll actually be about. This leads to rapid shuffling of class rosters and a claustrophobic week for advisors as students attempt to drop old classes and find new ones.
If previous syllabi were available, advisors could give students real choices. Instead of telling students to choose between SPAN 315 and 314, give them the syllabi and let them make an educated decision instead of a coin toss.
Students who have specific career goals would value the insight of course syllabi when choosing classes. If a student is considering grad school for the humanities, they’ll want to make sure the classes they select use journals, not textbooks. If they’re hands-on learners, they would pick classes with a focus on projects and activities, not lectures.
We have ACE requirements to encourage learning outside our majors; why shouldn’t this extend beyond 10 classes?
A previous Daily Nebraskan opinion column remarked on the difficulty of learning graphic design as a journalism major because the two subjects are in different colleges. Sometimes, taking extra hours isn’t feasible, financially or time-wise. The university says it’s focusing on increasing four-year graduation rates. With open course syllabi, students would be able to expand their learning without staying an extra two years.
And assuming that keeping sections of classes equivalent is a goal of UNL, this would be a good way to hold professors accountable. Awarding students the same credit for the same class, even when different sections have different standards, creates a problem of credibility for the university. Eliminating this becomes easier when records of what is being taught are kept.
This change isn’t out of the realm of possibility. UNL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy already meets these standards. Harvard and the University of Georgia offer syllabus lists to current students. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater make their syllabi publicly available. While this last approach is the most desirable, any attempt to be transparent would garner a positive result.
The purpose of universities should be to expand and share knowledge, not to guard it like a golden egg. Undergraduate classwork is rarely a grasping for innovation; it’s more like a re-hash of arguments commonly brought up in the field. Therefore, sharing this information benefits professors and teaching methods more than gives other universities an “advantage.”
To some extent, colleges will always compete to be better, more recognized or prestigious. But this same tendency extends to individuals. If UNL wants students who make waves, they need to make these very basic resources available.