Open Syllabus Explorer: evidencing research-based teaching?

Reviews how the Open Syllabus Project can help academics to understand their impact on teaching and find the best textbook for their course

[Reprinted on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, 10 September 2019]

The Open Syllabus Explorer, officially launched over the Summer of 2019, is an exciting new initiative that can help academics getting insight into whether their or others' research output is used in teaching. You can explore it for yourself here. The Open Syllabus Project (OSP) has a corpus of over six million English-language syllabi from over 80 countries, though admittedly over half of those are from the USA.

The four fields with the largest representation are Business, English Literature, Mathematics and Computer Science. Not suprisingly, the four countries with the biggest representation are the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia. OSP aims to start processing non-English-language syllabi in the future. In terms of publishers, Oxford University Press, Routledge, Cambridge University Press and Wiley all have more than 250,000 appearances covering more than 10,000 titles for each publisher. In terms of Shools, you can easily check how many of your university's syllabi are included: for Middlesex University that's nearly 4,000

Which journals are featured in syllabi in your field?

One interesting usage of the explorer is to find out what academic journals feature most frequently in syllabi in your field and in your country. You can do this in the publisher section by clicking "journals only". Below you can see the top-5 for Business in the UK for the last three years available and here is the complete list. It is interesting to note that the top-50 journals assigned for Business world-wide are virtually all top-ranked academic journals rather than more practitioner-oriented journals as one might expect in Business courses.

I also find the geographical differences fascinating: the top-5 journals differ almost completely between the UK, the USA / Canada [that show a similar pattern] and Australia [see below]. Assignment also follows predominant publication patterns and regional interests: in the UK, 4 out of the 5 top journals are UK-based, in the USA and Canada they are all US-based, Australian universities have the Asia Pacific Journal of HRM in their top-10.

Finally, I found it interesting to see how different sub-disciplines are represented in the different countries. The top journal in my field (Journal of International Business Studies) featured in the top-10 in the UK and Australia, made it to the top-20 in Canada, but only barely made it to the top-40 in the USA. Industrial relations journals made it to the top-10 in both the UK and Australia, but didn't even feature in the top-50 in Canada or the USA. In contrast, the USA featured three Psychology journals in the top-20 for Business and five in the top-50, whereas the other countries only included one or two, usually ranked between 30 and 40. These differences clearly reflect different societal and research traditions that - in turn - are translated into differences in course syllabi.

Which authors appear in syllabi?

The Open Syllabus Explorer also has an authors section. Of course I was vain enough to search for my own name and was pleasantly surprised: my IHRM textbook and 36 of my academic articles were shown to appear in syllabi, with a total of nearly 800 appearances. Clicking through, I was also able to generate a full report for my IHRM textbook which showed in which countries and universities it was used. Adding a discipline filter, I was even able to figure out that my body of work was in the top-450 most used in Business syllabi worldwide and in the top-200 in the UK. Note: a later analysis by Open Syllabus showed the book had risen to the top-250 worldwide.

I could see all of this being really useful if I had to go up for promotion and had to evidence my contribution to research-based teaching. Of course like any metric it has its limitations, but it is a start. I was also intrigued to see that four of my journal publications had made it to the 300,000 most frequently assigned texts overall, appearing more than 20 times in syllabi. But mostly I am reporting this because the "Co-assignment Galaxy" in which you can find this out makes for such a pretty picture. You can zoom in into the Galaxy and figure out which other publications your work is most frequently co-assigned with.

What textbook to use for my course?

You can also use the Open Syllabus Explorer as a tool if you are teaching a new course and are looking for inspiration for which textbooks to use. Here are two searches which show the five most frequently assigned textbooks for two areas I have taught in the past. Of course the most frequently used book is not necessary the best for your purpose, but at least it is a start.

In sum

Open Syllabus Explorer is a really nice tool, which can be used for a variety of purposes. If the OSP can continue to gather syllabi from a larger number of countries and add non-English language syllabi, this could turn into a very versatile tool for curiosity driven little research projects [e.g. which journals are used most often in teaching in different countries for specific disciplines], for academics who need to evidence research-based teaching or are just curious whether their research is used in the classroom at all, as well as for teaching preparation [searching for a new text book and related readings].

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