Online syllabi count at 187, but hundreds more to go




Though this year's crop of graduating seniors will never have the chance to experience the fruits of the Online Syllabi Initiative, students remaining at Penn now have more information at their fingertips to help them select classes.

The proposal, initially begun in 2005 by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, created a centralized repository system through which faculty members from each of Penn's 12 schools can upload current and past course syllabi during the advance-registration period.

The initiative was temporarily shelved due to budget constraints in light of the financial crisis until former Provost Ron Daniels pushed the project through at the end of last semester with further encouragement from the Undergraduate Assembly.

To date, 187 syllabi have been dropped in the online receptacle for the fall 2009 semester. Students can access those available through a live link under "Course syllabus" for individual courses in the course search feature on Penn InTouch.

"Because of resources, we decided to have a relatively low-key launch in which we're making this available to instructors and hoping that they'll really take advantage of it," said Rob Nelson, director of undergraduate education in the Provost's Office.

Though the database for the syllabi is now in place, getting professors to actually post their syllabi is turning out to be the bigger challenge. Progress so far has been gradual, considering there are more than 1,000 courses in the College alone.

"Obviously there's a long way to go, but it's exciting that they're even starting to post them," SCUE chairwoman and College junior Alex Berger said. Both she and Nelson added that they expect the optional process to pick up speed over time and in the fall once more professors develop the habit.

She pointed out that the toughest challenge is pushing faculty members to take the time to create PDF versions of syllabi - many of which are already posted on department Web sites - and uploading them. Spreading the word to each professor can also be difficult since not all of them respond to e-mail messages.

The focus in upcoming months will be to specifically encourage professors of large lecture classes to upload their syllabi, according to Berger. She said a more hands-on effort likely needs to be made and added that SCUE may reach out directly to department chairmen in the fall.

Initial cost estimates for the project from Information Systems and Computing ranged from $167,250 to $272,500, but ISC Vice President Robin Beck said in an earlier interview that the current proposal is "orders of magnitude less than that initial cost." A more updated estimate was not available.

Feedback from students has been positive, according to Berger, who said she spoke to several people who were pleasantly surprised to see the feature while searching for fall classes.

"It's a tangible thing that I think will make serious change in the lives of individual students," Berger said.

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