Who Should Own Course Materials?

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Every spring university departments match their faculty to the courses that will be taught the next year. Often, professors are assigned to courses they’ve never taught before. This is almost always the case for new assistant professors who haven’t really taught anything before. In the best case scenario, whoever taught the class the last time around has lunch with the new instructor, passes on a few pearls of wisdom, and hands over a subset of their course materials. I’ve personally benefited immensely from this generosity since it’s much easier to prepare a course when starting with a stack of slides, problem sets, and old exams. It’s also quite common to have to start from scratch. But there is a better way.

First of all, a course is a lot more than slides, exams, and problem sets. Instructors say a lot of stuff that’s not on the slides–they do board work, ask students questions, and use their slides as a springboard for what they actually teach. What the instructor says sometimes lives only in the instructor’s brain but often there exists a rough set of hand-written or quickly typed set of notes for each lecture. Some instructors will write up another set of notes about what worked and what didn’t after each class–I call these my post-mortem notes. And then some instructors include various other fancy things in their classes like videos, online surveys and in-class exercises.

When I was in college, all fraternities kept files of class exams. Every time a brother took a test, it went into a folder which could be used as a resource for future brothers. Surely departments can get at least this organized. I propose that they do even better and serve as a clearing house for the materials for at least their core courses and maybe all of their courses. My dream scenario is that when a professor has to teach a new course they get access to a department-managed folder that has all the materials from previous years.

There are several potential issues here, but I believe they are all small relative to the potentially huge improvements in course quality and reductions in required teaching prep.

How can this be fair to the first professor who prepares a course? Yes, the first person does more work. The department should give them more credit–perhaps a course and a half is fair. Frankly, these professors should get extra credit no matter who owns the course materials.

Shouldn’t courses be tailored to individual professors? Yes, this is true too. That’s why the department shouldn’t just keep the previous year’s materials. Ideally, when someone takes over a course, they could peruse several years and find the best starting point for them. And when they customize those materials, they are providing another potential starting point for the next instructor.

Prepping a course is a lot of work–the instructor should own that! I agree here too and all I’m arguing is that the department should share ownership. Instructors should certainly be able to take with them whatever they’ve used to teach the course when/if they leave the university

Professors don’t generally make their materials public even to their departments because they don’t reap much (if any) personal benefit. The sharing I’m talking about costs a small amount but yields big positive external benefits. Since the market isn’t solving this problem by itself, I think it only makes sense that economics departments should solve it by explicitly internalizing the externality. That’s exactly what enforcing departmental ownership would do.

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