The un(?)intended consequences of courseware

by Eszter Hargittai on December 2, 2003

Five years ago when a few savvy instructors rushed to integrate the Web into their teaching and put their syllabi online the idea exchange so crucial to academia was alive and well in the teaching realm of our work. A few years later, witness how various password-protected courseware adopted by so many campuses is making it increasingly impossible to see others’ teaching materials. Sure, some people may not want to share their syllabi, but I suspect many wouldn’t mind. Regardless, the increasing proliferation of these services makes the teaching side of our work less and less visible to a wider audience. So while blogs may be opening some aspects of teaching, courseware is closing others.

In the summer of 1999 I gave a talk on a panel at the American Sociological Association meetings about the use of the Web in teaching. I was reporting on my experiences having built an extensive Web site for a class on the Sociology of Latin America: Mexico and Cuba. (Don’t laugh, if you take a look. That wasn’t so bad for a 1998 Web site.) One of my advisors had hired me on a special grant to build a Web site that was especially elaborate with lots of resources. I included numerous links to relevant materials including lots of images. We even tried out having a weekly quiz based on online content. Reactions from students were quite positive, on the whole.

One of the people in the audience of the panel at the ASA meetings inquired how people would be able to do create such Web sites if they didn’t have special grants to hire grad students for compiling them. I replied that the nice thing about the Web is that one could share the wealth. Once posted by someone the site would be available for others to use as well.

Flash forward less than five years and this is increasingly rare. Courseware at most schools is password-protected. At my university, I can’t even look at the course Web sites of other faculty in my own school. (This is based on local decisions though as at my previous univ I could log onto any course’s site.)

There are some exceptions. MIT’s OpenCourseWare makes many of their course materials public. But this seems increasingly uncommon. The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies has a long list of online syllabi. But notice that the number of course links seems to be decreasing. There could be numerous reasons for this, of course, but part of it may have to do with syllabi disappearing behind members-only systems.

Although I may adopt our courseware for teaching because it does offer some helpful features (e.g. automatic class list for easily communicating with all enrolled students), I plan to post copies of my syllabi on the open Web as well in case anyone may be curious. Here’s the course I just compiled on the Social Implications of Communication and Information Technologies. Since it’s a course I had never taken myself, I was very interested in finding related syllabi out there.. but unfortunately bumped into a few password-protected sites along the way.



Anarch 12.02.03 at 7:33 am

I’ve noticed this too, and have been quite disappointed. The whole promise of the web in academia, I thought, was that it promoted greater transparency and readier sharing in all things — from the quotidian (LaTeX header files, useful links &c) to the rarified and refined (syllabi, collated references &c).

Oh well. Maybe the pendulum will swing back the other way…


Chris 12.02.03 at 8:01 am

I’ll throw this link out: I’m in the planning stages of moving my own courses off the college’s deployment of Blackboard and onto an OS platform (specifically, Drupal). I’m hoping that I can make course materials (and, ultimately, student writing) freely available while using the pw-protected areas to protect students’ identities effectively.


PZ Myers 12.02.03 at 1:39 pm

Not only is courseware typically password protected, but the authors of this stuff seem to insist on devising their own clunky ways of managing pages. I can’t stand the stuff.

I currently only use courseware for student grades, which is one place where privacy is important.


Chris Bertram 12.02.03 at 2:10 pm

I’ve had pages up since about 1996-7 (maybe even the year before that) and I think all of the units taught in my department are freely available. One colleague once raised IP issues but generally no-one has been worried about that.

I can see it coming in British universities, though, as a by-product of efforts to give a uniform “corporate” look and feel to pages rather than as a thought-through view about IP, sharing etc. Once universities start to enforce common standards for web-presentation of material and to centralize the process by which stuff gets managed, a restrictive IP policy may well get treated — by senior management — as the default that people have to argue against rather than as something that has to be argued for.


DJW 12.02.03 at 2:53 pm

Three cheers for more openly available course materials (especially since I recently had less than a day of warning time before a phone interview in which I had to talk about my ideas for a couple of courses outside my primary area of experise–not that I just copied others ideas, but seeing what was out there was a big help). But student writing? Unless it’s on a very narrow and specific topic, isn’t this just an invitation to plagiarism?


Alan 12.02.03 at 3:50 pm

The UA has a system called POLIS (a tortured acronym for something I have long since forgotten) which is wide open to the public, although it has password-protected areas such as electronic reserves sections. It does have plenty of flaws: As pz myers notes, many courseware packages are home-brewed, and ours is no different. The university also offers access to (I think) WebCT, but I don’t know anybody who has ever actually used it. Our system is ugly, but it’s functional and easy-to-access, at least for now.


John Isbell 12.02.03 at 5:04 pm

I say: go MIT. Open access is absolutely the MIT ethos.


Deb Wunder 12.02.03 at 8:42 pm


Not only that, but online education in general — at leat at my school (University of Phoenix Online) — is becoming less of a convenience than it has been touted as. Yes, I can log on at any point in a 24-hour cycle, but I must log in at least 5 days a week, and make at least two substantive comments each day, not to mention that a whole semester’s worth of work is to be covered in a five-week period.

Additionally, there is no break in price for not having to attend a physical class (undergrad tuition just went up again, to almost $1,400/course). Further, if I am on financial aid, I cannot take two courses at once (which I wanted to do when I got downsized, so as to accomplish more work and get done more quickly).

And, let’s not even discuss textbooks. If you don;t buy the new, special UoP editions, you risk not having all the material for a course. If you do, you are paying way ridiculous prices (my Statistics text [listed in the catalogue as one text, but actually a text, a study guide, a workbook, and a CD-ROM] cost $166, plus shipping). Several people who bought used texts did not know that there were actually four pieces, and ended up having to buy the new texts anyway. And in the thirteen courses I have taken, only one of those had the textbook online (only had to pay $40 to access it for the period of the class, which was a bargain, trust me).

Yeah, UoP is fully accredited; and when I started there, they were actually respected in the field I’m working toward; but now, seven courses away from completion, trying to deal with tuition that rises – on average – twice a year is becoming burdensome. And when I lost my job and required help to get more financial aid, I was put off until it became clear that I was running out of funds.

I still think online learning is a Good Thing, but am getting very scared about how it is starting to price itself out of reach of those of us who would be most likely to use, and benefit from, it.


Chris 12.02.03 at 8:46 pm

I would suggest that the primary reason students plagiarize (and get away with it) is poor assignment design. If the assignment is designed properly (IMO), students have neither the incentive nor the means to plagiarize.

All in all, I would like to see (and am working toward) ways in which academic work by both the professoriate and students is “open-sourced” to the greatest extent possible: when you see work that someone else has done and made available, that work can be hacked and reformulated (giving due credit, perhaps under the Creative Commons license or a facsimile thereof).

If the point is to enrich the academic commons, and if contributors were willing, what’s to keep institutions from saying nay?


Steven D. Krause 12.03.03 at 3:54 am

I think all of these comments are quite accurate, but they leave out the two main reasons why people use courseware, IMO. First, most courseware softwares have some kind of nice features difficult to manage by the non-computer geek: testing, quiz scores, mailing lists, chat spaces, etc.

Second, while courseware clunky and annoying in many ways, especially to those of us who have been putting stuff up on the web for a while, it is much easier to manage and use than it is to develop your own web site or even your own blog. This is most certainly the case for folks who don’t know even the basics of html, let alone all of the slightly more advanced stuff.

Personally, I haven’t used much courseware yet for too long because it hasn’t been supported well where I teach. That is supposed to change in next term. So while I will certainly continue to maintain class web sites, I might also start experimenting with courseware, using what I like and posting the rest of it to the web.


eszter 12.03.03 at 8:51 am

Steven, I think it’s great that programs exist to facilitate people’s use of the Web in teaching. My concern is that the way these services have been implemented, they have created gated communities. And that’s very unfortunate.


Ruth 12.03.03 at 5:42 pm

I’m sorry, I know this is a bit off-topic, but I just had to respond. Chris, “the primary reason students plagiarize…is poor assignment design”?! That may or may not be an enabling factor, as you suggest, in getting away with it, but you’ll have to work long and hard to convince me that any student sits down and says, “hmm…this is a poorly designed assignment. That means I should cheat on it.” What’s the logic? That the assignment is so poor that a student *can’t* complete it honestly? That the student is so offended by the instructor’s slipshod assignment design that s/he refuses, on principle, to abide by the terms of academic honesty?

Students plagiarize because they have writer’s block; because they haven’t left themselves enough time to complete an assignment; because they can’t think of anything to say; because they want a better grade; because they don’t want to work; becuase they’re afraid of failing; because they’re not interested enough in the assignment to bother; sometimes, even, because they aren’t actually sure what plagiarism is. Although nowhere near as often as they’d like to make us believe.

I’ve had students try to shift the responsibility of their plagiarizing on me, and I’ve had colleagues do it as well, and I don’t buy either. Designing assignments so that students can’t cheat on them simply isn’t synonymous with giving them good assignments.

For example, I give my students open-ended writing topics because I fervently believe the best chance of their writing something good, and learning from the experience, comes from them writing about something that interests them. This obviously makes it easier for them to go the the Web and copy someone else’s paper, but does it give them a REASON to do so? If so, how?

(For the record, I’m an English professor; I give lots of suggestions to students who aren’t sure what they’re interested in writing about; and I end up having to do a lot more work, due to my open-ended assignments, chasing down plagiarized papers. Oh — and all my syllabi are on-line, at


Chris 12.03.03 at 6:07 pm

Apologies to Ruth. I was sloppy with my diction.

I’m speaking from my own teaching here, and that of colleagues, friends, and, indeed, teachers I’ve had as a student in the past. I also give open-ended writing assignments to my students, and for the same reasons Ruth cites. The unstated premise of my enthymeme is that “traditional, teacher-directed ‘research’ assignments don’t take into account students’ own interests, proficiencies, and purposes for writing, positing instead a Procrustean Bed of what a research assignment looks like as a product.”

Assignments that, on the other hand, are designed to make the student the guiding ethos of the work, help to remove the “I don’t have anything to say on this” plagiarism vector, and the rest “I don’t want to work,” etc., isn’t really my problem (or Ruth’s, or any other writing teacher’s). What I’m clumsily getting at is not that assignments should be designed so students can’t plagiarize, but ought to be designed to remove as many of the incentives to do so as possible.


Ruth 12.04.03 at 7:29 pm

Sounds good to me, Chris!

Now, if I could only figure out some way to plagiarize while grading, to ease my workload. Recycle comments from last year’s papers? Just might work…

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