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Friday, 15 March 2013

Can a Course Syllabus Really Be University Property?

Syllabus passion: "you show me yours, and
I'll show you mine ..."
A course syllabus is not the sort of thing that usually arouses passions. This Kat remembers his graduate school days, when he thought he would be the ultimate catalyst for educational change in high school curricula everywhere. "So what do you specialize in?", asked a winsome fellow student sitting across the table, whom this Kat was desperately interesting in meeting. "Actually, my area of expertise is course syllabuses", I answered. She looked at me in bewilderment and sniffed, "really, is that all you do"? Before I could respond, she left the table and sought out the company of the physics student sitting at the next table. I was told that they were later married.

This Kat learned early on from that experience—there is very little that is exciting about course syllabuses, at least until now. This Kat does a bit of teaching and over time he has a developed a course syllabus. He is delighted to share it with his colleagues and friends ("If only she had the shown the same interest in my syllabuses 40 years ago ... "). Not long ago, he was in correspondence with a colleague who teaches a similarly focused course at a top ten worldwide university. "Sorry", she said, "my university treats course syllabuses as its property. I can't show it to you."

I have to admit—I was flabbergasted by her assertion. What kind of "property" did the university have in her syllabus? Faculty members publish books all the time, researched and written at the university using the institution's books and other resources (not to say the salary paid by the institution to the faculty member). To the best of my knowledge, the faculty member enters into a contract with the publisher in his or her own name. Murkier is the status of faculty inventions, but here as well this Kat is not familiar with any developed university system where the institution treats the invention solely as its own property with no possible rights flowing to the faculty member.

Receiving a degree?
No -- giving back
the syllabus ...
If a university can live with faculty rights in books and inventions, what kind of property interest can the university be claiming in a course syllabus? Students paid $50,000 or more yearly in the U.S. to study at this and other similarly placed universities. Surely students are not paying that amount of money for the several page syllabus that is handed out at the beginning of a course. They are paying for the quality of faculty and fellow students and the resources that the university puts at the student's disposal (and yes, for the reputational value of being associated with that university). Faculty members are not just employees of their university; they also belong to a wider, cross-institutional educational fellowship with a presumed collective interest in expanding the public boundaries of learning and knowledge. The syllabus is just a few pieces a paper, the contents of which, if successful, allow student and teacher to marshal resources and competencies for the greater educational good. What kind of property are we talking about?

This Kat is fully aware that universities have been grappling for more than a decade with the issue of online instruction. The issue is how can universities leverage their competencies and resources to reach many more students by on-line means. While online students will not be paying $50,000 a year for these courses, there is still money to be made here. In this context, course syllabuses can serve as the gate keeper for access to such potential students. In such a case, the institution may not wish the syllabuses to be freely available. Maybe yes, maybe no. Indeed you don't need to be in the on-line world to raise the issue of faculty access to his or her syllabuses outside the specific context of the classroom course. Faculty members change affiliation (or they simply may go on a sabbatical). Should they be allowed to make use of their course syllabus in the new institution? Or is it the property of the original university?

All this Kat knows is that he was not able to view his colleague's syllabus to see if he could tweak his own course curriculum. Indeed, he wonders if her university also has a policy that would have prevented her from obtaining a copy of this Kat's syllabus. More generally, this Kat wonders what the position on these issues is at other universities. Readers with any insight are invited to share them (no need to identify the institution involved).

6 comments:

Jackie Hutter, Intellectual Property and Patent Business Strategist and "Recovering Patent Lawyer" said...

That seems absurd. My husband is a professor and they would revolt if the expensive private institution he taught at would ever try such a thing. Ever consider that she might have just been unwilling to share? Like one of those people in law school who wouldn't allow you to borrow their notes?

Gentoo said...

I'm unclear what is the intellectual difference between a University owning a syllabus and a fixture list owned by the Football League? (well, actually...)

Moreover, if you disagree with the argument "...generic domains in private hands is plainly anticompetitive, allowing already dominant, well-capitalized companies to expand and entrench their market power,” as quoted in your later article - what's the problem here?

Andy J said...

It sounds a little like a restaurant claimimg the intellectual property in its menu, and saying a diner can only view it after signing an NDA.

Ruth Soetendorp said...

I don't think I know of any institution that claims copyright in an employee/academic's book.

But a book isn't a syllabus.....

At the risk of being boring - a book doesn't usually include all the elements of a syllabus that contain the blueprint of how to deliver a course (lectures, guest lectures, tutorial questions, assessments etc).

A question might be - what would be the expected response of a university that discovered its employee/academic intended publishing a book that contain his lecture notes, tutorial questions, assesssments etc etc?

Such a publishing venture seems to be counter the general trend of academics. When virtual learning enviromments and online teaching first began, academic were far more vocal, via unions and professional organisations, about hoping to secure their employability by NOT making their syllabus/teaching materials available to their university for the university to share.

Judd Rattner said...

The treatment of syllabi as a institutional asset is becoming more and more prevalent. Polices about syllabus ownership are hitting the faculty handbooks, they are used throughout the assessment process, and more specifically, the content of syllabi (e.g. description, outcomes, etc.) is being centrally managed.

What's important here though is to separate IP from transparency. Most institutions are simply looking for the latter, though the two are often confused. Take the books case, if you buy the book (or even more similarly, it is offered as a free education resource) users can view the content but the IP itself remains with its creator. The same generally holds true for syllabi. In fact there are court cases that have come forth in the last year that reassert this direction: Schools sued for withholding syllabi.

The community colleges and for-profit institutions are taking syllabus IP even further, often asserting that it is in fact a part of a professors duties and therefore a work product that can be owned (though in practice most schools do not assert the exclusivity right). Their notion of a consistent curricula and having a high percentages of faculty members are the primary drivers behind these decisions.

I think the Syllabus Institute says it best when they say "Syllabi, while still intellectual property, will simply need be more transparent and accessible."

-Judd Rattner, The Syllabus Geeks

Judd Rattner said...

The treatment of syllabi as a institutional asset is becoming more and more prevalent. Polices about syllabus ownership are hitting the faculty handbooks, they are used throughout the assessment process, and more specifically, the content of syllabi (e.g. description, outcomes, etc.) is being centrally managed.

What's important here though is to separate IP from transparency. Most institutions are simply looking for the latter, though the two are often confused. Take the books case, if you buy the book (or even more similarly, it is offered as a free education resource) users can view the content but the IP itself remains with its creator. The same generally holds true for syllabi. In fact there are court cases that have come forth in the last year that reassert this direction: Schools sued for withholding syllabi.

The community colleges and for-profit institutions are taking syllabus IP even further, often asserting that it is in fact a part of a professors duties and therefore a work product that can be owned (though in practice most schools do not assert the exclusivity right). Their notion of a consistent curricula and having a high percentages of faculty members are the primary drivers behind these decisions.

I think the Syllabus Institute says it best when they say "Syllabi, while still intellectual property, will simply need be more transparent and accessible."

-Judd Rattner, The Syllabus Geeks

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