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. 

Welcome to the Microcampus


A college "campus" is a rather general term these days. I'm working on designing courses for a "virtual campus" which is an extension of the idea of a campus without borders that emerged with online learning. There are small schools that may lack a robust campus library, student union, or residence halls, but what if the campus has no classrooms? Is it a campus?

I recall reading about students studying at a remote institution but they were "hosted" by a local learning center. Stephen Downes wrote about a Triad Model where the triad was composed of the student, the instructor, and the facilitator. The facilitator helped bridge the distance between instructor and student. Ideally, this online learning situation would include a community online but also offline (on site) with peers and instructors. I saw this idea re-emerge with MOOCs where students used a distant course but met at a site for that community support.

Neither of these models of learning really gained widespread use in any fully robust form that I am aware of. There is a newer version using the term "micro-campus"

A micro-campus will offer support and coaching. If offers access to tools, from high quality printers, even a 3D printer or others that students can't afford. It can provide meeting space and project rooms. In a non-academic setting, this sounds like co-working spaces

An article on The Chronicle (subscription required, unfortunately) talks about the University of Phoenix, the University of Washington, and the Georgia Institute of Technology using experimental, storefront-sized “micro-campuses.” I'm sure they looked at places like WeWork for ideas, also some not very academic setting such as Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores. The college micro-campuses might be located at the ground-level space of an apartment building. They are meant to be where students are located and in the community.

The examples of University of Washington’s Othello Commons in Seattle is 2300 square-feet at the base of an eight-story apartment building, A “Foundations of Databases” course meets there one night a week to help local residents develop basic IT skills.

Georgia Tech's distributed-campus "atrium” in midtown Atlanta (near the main campus) was still a work in progress when the article was written but feels very Amazon, including an app to interact with the space.

Are these true "learning spaces" or extension sites, satellite campuses or is the micro-campus really a new kind of space?

What Is on the Horizon in Higher Education

horizonThe annual EDUCAUSE Horizon Report for Higher Education is always interesting to read. The report for 2019 is online now. It is 44 pages, so it would be a full lunchtime read, but as a cheater's guide or preview I offer the two parts that I always look at first.  

One is the section on "Key Trends Accelerating Higher Education Technology Adoption."  If you look back at past reports you will see that some trends come back for several years. That is partly intentional as the report predicts ones that should be considered "Short-Term" meaning in the next one or two years, as well as ones for 3-5 years and long-term trends that are probably 5+ years away.

Of course, there are also trends and tech developments that are almost perennial. We always seem to be rethinking online learning, learning spaces and assessment. And some tech, such as blockchain and rethinking degrees, have been "on the horizon" for a chunk of years and still don't seem to be really making a big difference.

In the short-term, the report lists "Redesigning Learning Spaces" and "Blended Learning Designs."

For Mid-Term Adoption in the next 3-5 years, they list "Advancing Cultures of Innovation" and a "Growing Focus on Measuring Learning." I think the latter should be moved up as a perennial topic.

In the 5+ years category is the rather broad "Rethinking How Institutions Work" and the returning "Modularized and Disaggregated Degrees."

The other section I always jump to is called "Important Developments in Technology for Higher Education." Again, there are predicted "Time-to-Adoption Horizons" given for each. 

The report also considers the challenges in adopting any of these technologies or trends. For example, one that I have been challenged by since I started in higher education tech in 2000 is what they term "The Evolving Roles of Faculty with Ed Tech Strategies."

The report says about that (and I generally agree) that:

"At institutions of any type or size, involving faculty in the selection and implementation of educational technologies can be difficult. Whether an institution is implementing a new courseware platform for the purpose of personalizing learning or building a completely new program by applying a pedagogical approach such as competency-based learning, such efforts face a range of challenges. Identifying learning outcomes and engagement strategies before identifying educational technology solutions creates an advantage by establishing faculty buy-in at the earliest stages of a strategic initiative.

The role of full-time faculty and adjuncts alike includes being key stakeholders in the adoption and scaling of digital solutions; as such, faculty need to be included in the evaluation, planning, and implementation of any teaching and learning initiative. Institutions that address the needs of all faculty through flexible strategic planning and multimodal faculty support are better situated to overcome the barriers to adoption that can impede scale. order for faculty to fully engage in educational technology, training and professional development should be provided to facilitate incorporation of technology... adjunct faculty also need to be considered in professional development...workshops that include both faculty and students could enable learning for both groups of stakeholders."

But I do always bristle when the business of education overrides pedagogy, such as the statement that "frameworks for tech implementation and prioritizing tech that offers high ROI should be a guiding principle for institutional tech adoption for faculty use."

Credit Hours and Personalized Learning

classroomCredit hours are something that still wield a lot of power in education. It plays a role in high schools, but it really rules in higher education.

Credit hours were once known as Carnegie Units. It goes back to 1906, but it was not designed as a way of measuring learning. It was meant as a method to calculate faculty workloads in order to formulate pensions.

Earlier, admission to colleges was by examinations which varied greatly among colleges, but the method was unreliable. Charles W. Eliot at Harvard University devised a contact-hour standard for secondary education, and also the original credit-hour collegiate post-secondary standard. This is where we get our 3 credit course based on 3 contact hours per week. But the widespread adoption of the 120-hour secondary standard did not occur until the Carnegie Foundation began to provide retirement pensions (now known as TIAA-CREF) for university professors. A stipulation of the pensions was that the universities needed to enforce the 120-hour secondary standard in their admissions.

It only took four years for nearly all secondary institutions in the United States to use the "Carnegie Unit" as a measure of secondary course work. 

The Carnegie Foundation also established that both high school preparation and college "work" would include a minimum of four years of study. But the Carnegie Foundation did not intend the Units to "measure, inform or improve the quality of teaching or learning."

Unfortunately, the credit hour became the standard way to measure the student's workload and progress through those four years in secondary and higher education. Should these credit units be revised or abandoned?

The Carnegie Foundation said in 2012 that "technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning," and that "it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities."

Personalized learning is sometimes suggested as a way to replace the Carnegie Unit and credit hours because it could be based on competency rather than time

But what personalized learning means seems to vary by practitioner. Even the term used to describe the practice varies. Personalized learning is sometimes called individualized instruction, differentiated instruction, direct instruction or a personal learning environment. Though they are not all the same things, they are all used to describe education that is adjusted to meet the needs of different students.

Edutopia published an article on several "myths" about personalized learning that are worth considering in any discussion of changing the way we measure workload and progress.

Because many efforts in personalized learning in the 21st century involved computers and software that allowed students to work at their own pace, personalized learning is associated with technology-based instruction.

The "personalized" part of learning is often thought to mean that students work independently. In a class of 25 students it is unlikely that there will need to be 25 distinct learning paths. Students will often work on collaborative competencies along with individual competencies focused on content and skills. Student interests shared with others in the classroom will form affinity groups for group projects and learning experiences.

Personalized learning is about learners moving at their own pace which is why students demonstrating mastery of content fits into a competency-based system.

Truly personalized learning also involves learners in setting goals and being involved in the planning and learning process. This may be the most radically different aspect of personalized learning. It is very "student-centered" so learners can select their resources and explore different ways to learn in flexible learning spaces. They may also connect their learning to their interests and passions, and even have a voice in how their learning will be assessed.

What has not changed in most personalized learning settings today are the competencies that must be met.

Personalized learning allows for self-pacing, but when students move through competencies at different speeds "credit hours" are irrelevant. If one student moves through a course set of competencies in half the "normal" time should they receive all or half the credit. Obviously, they should receive all the credit. What if they move through all the competencies in a program (degree) in two years? Do they graduate?

Personalized learning is an approach to learning — not a set program. And it is still being formulated and experimented with at different grade levels. But our learning experiments should be combined with experimentation in how we measure movement through learning.