The Books We Teach


In 2015, Columbia University’s Open Syllabus Project wanted to learn what books are being taught. Using data from over one million syllabi from university websites worldwide, they came up with a list of books that have been most frequently taught over the past decade. Since the, they have added another 5 million syllabi.

Would you be surprised that the top titles on the list did not change significantly? I am not surprised. Actually, I would not be surprised to discover that our reading lists haven't changed in the past 50 or, in some cases, maybe even 100 years.

This is not a list of just American colleges. "Classics" such as The Republic and the Communist Manifesto. There are not many titles on the list that I couldn't have found on my reading list as an undergrad almost 50 years ago.  

open syllabus

You can see interactive visualizations of the data at

The “traditional Western canon" dominates the top 100. Plato’s Republic is at #2 and The Communist Manifesto is at #3, and #5 is Frankenstein. Then, there comes Aristotle’s Ethics, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sophocles’ Oedipus, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” These titles have remained pretty stables over the years.

Who holds the top position? It is the slender writing guide Elements of Style.  

The top 50 is heavily male-dominated. However, some novelists make the list, including Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Alice Walker.

The most-taught books tend to fall into either philosophy, literature, textbook, or guidebook. The entire list includes 165,000 texts, so there is variety. And nothing every book is "classic" since there are newer titles in areas like gender studies, media studies, digital culture, and environmental studies.

This is different from the list of the most influential academic books compiled a few years ago, although there are some shared titles. The Prince and The Republic are on this list too. It makes sense that books considered to be "influential" would make the syllabus list. But this list was made by academic booksellers, librarians, and publishers. On this list, the top spot went to Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Here are some from that list of 20. 

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
  • The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Should we interpret these results as meaning that faculty are stuck teaching the same things over and over? If so, why? Because they are "classics"? Because the faculty are a bit lazy about preparing new material? Because it is what is expected by their department or academia?  That data doesn't answer these questions. 

One Pathway for Future Engineers and Computer Scientists

Amazon is committing $50 million to computer science education in the United States with new programs supporting high school and early undergraduate students. Part of this includes financial aid to help schools bring AP computer science courses to their students. They have recently expanded this initiative into K-8.

The program has begun offering free online lessons and funding summer camps to help students discover the "fun" of computer science. Amazon critics might say this a just a kind of farm system for training new employees. Their efforts may benefit the company, but those students are probably more likely to work for other companies. And yes, I would agree that $50 million dollars is a lot of money, but not a lot of money when spread across the country's schools.

Students who start computer science early (and this seems to especially be true for females) are more likely to say they like computer science and have confidence in their computer science abilities.

I'm sure many people would write about this as another STEM or STEAM effort, but their materials talk about how positive it is for everyone to understand how computers (and that word means so many things besides the traditional laptop or desktop computer we talked about just 20 years ago) work and how they are programed.

Most students will not end up working as programmers or computer scientists, but that technology will touch the lives in and out of the workplace.

The program promotes how programming will aid not only the understanding of computers, but other technology and also a student's understanding of logic, precision and creativity.

Amazon Future Engineer Pathway is a partnership with organizations such as and Coding with Kids.

The Amazon Future Engineer Pathway program aims to support 100,000 high schoolers in taking Advanced Placement courses in computer science. It also is set to award four-year scholarships and internships to a sizable group of students from under-represented populations who participate in those courses.

Amazon is accepting scholarship applications for the 2019 campus and classes.
Schools and districts may also apply on behalf of families


On Internships

Learning How to Learn Online

learnI have been reading about some of the sessions at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) that occurred this month at Columbia University. 

One keynoter was Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester. She is known for her course "Learning How to Learn," which is sometimes described as being "the world’s most popular MOOC." It has had more than 2 million participants. There may be MOOCs with more participants, but her course has been translated into multiple languages and had some serious media attention. It is a broader kind of course and not really aimed at a college audience alone. It fits into a workplace focused conference and lifelong learning. It is described as a course that “gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines” to learn.

I haven't taken this course, but I plan to this summer. From what I have read, many of the concepts are ones I know from my own teaching and education courses. For example, “how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information.” That is something I learning a long time ago in teaching secondary school, and also used extensively in doing instructional design on other professors' courses as they moved online.

I was more interested in knowing what her "secrets" would be for building and teaching that MOOC. I haven't seen any video from the conference, but here are some bits I have found about her session.  

She uses the "Learning How to Learn" principles of learning that are being taught in the course in the design of the course. She is not adverse to PowerPoint slides but uses simple visuals to chunk key ideas.

Oakley emphasized the impact of integrating lessons from neuroscience. One of those is neuro reuse theory. The theory was a way to explain the underlying neural processes which allow humans to acquire recently invented cognitive capacities. It attempts to explain how the brain responds to new cognitive processes - think of many of our digital encounters - which are cultural inventions too modern to be the products of evolution. Simple application is her use of metaphors (a key element of neural reuse theory) because they allow students to a quick way to encounter new ideas. 

She emphasizes paying attention to production values in creating a course. She did her course production herself at home and says the cost was $5000. I assume that was for software, video hardware etc. Many schools now have production facilities for online course development. 

Bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) attentional mechanisms are a theory from neuroscience that she uses to keep attention on the screen.  Bottom-up mechanisms are thought to operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and
involuntarily shifting attention
to salient visual features of potential importance. Think of the sudden movement that could be a predator. Top-down mechanisms implement our longer-term cognitive strategies, biasing attention toward something like a learned shape or color that signals a predator.

This is a more complex topic than can be covered in a blog post but it is easy to accept that the brain is limited in its capacity to process all sensory stimuli in our sensory-overload physical world. The brain relies on the cognitive process of attention to focus neural resources according to the contingencies of the moment. You can attention into two functions. Bottom-up attention is attention guided by externally driven factors to stimuli. That could be the bright colored popup ad on a screen. Instructional designers can make use of techniques that marketers and game designers have long used. Top-down attention refers to internal guidance of attention based on factors such as prior knowledge and current goals. The overall organizational structure of a course - weekly elements, labels, icons - can take advantage of top-down attention.

She recommended the use of "unexpected humor" to help maintain interest, which can also be a bottom-up technique.

Wherever practicable, theory is instantiated with examples drawn from personal stories.

Overall, this is all about trying harder to engage learners. Oakley pointed out that in a MOOC learners aren’t "caged up like students on campus." MOOC learners are free-range learners - free to come and go, free to stop paying attention or attending class - and if course production values are weak, students are more likely to tune out.

In designing and teaching an online course in the traditional college/tuition/credit/degree situation, we do have students caged more, but that doesn't mean their brains operate differently.

One of Oakley's earlier books is A Mind for Numbers with the subtitle How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and her new book this summer is Learning How to Learn whose subtitle is How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens. Those subtitles remind me that these book and the topics they address are lifelong learning concerns, though certainly of interest to K-20 teachers.

I am planning to take her course this summer before I embark on a new course design project. See I'll follow up on this post when I finish. If I finish. If I don't finish, I guess I'll make some analysis of why - was it me or the course?

Opportunities for Higher Ed Social Media (webinar)

The Social Campus Report: 8 Opportunities for Higher Ed in 2018 is a free webinar offered by Hootsuite on October 3, 2017
11:00AM PT / 2:00PM ET.

Based on surveys of hundreds of social media pros from schools around the world to understand where they are now—and where they’re going, the webinar will share the results for insights into the state of social media in higher ed - and to discover 8 strategic areas of opportunity.

If October 3, 2017 doesn’t work, register now and they will send you a link to the webinar archived recording once it’s ready.