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I want to develop a course syllabus. I was reading course syllabi from multiple universities in the US, Europe, and Asia that are available online. I have seen diverse syllabus of the course I am planning to design. Some syllabi are very good and others are okay. I want to synthesize content from multiple syllabi and develop my course to teach this course.

Am I committing academic dishonesty if I copied some of the course content and even slides that are available online? I want to copy some content and slides because they are so perfectly aligned with the course content that I want to develop I don't feel like modifying them helps a lot. I may revise them in several years to shape them as my version but developing brand new content does not seem a good approach when some content available online is already better and meet my needs.

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    I teach a bit in University of Cambridge: Our guidelines are that for anything internal, not shared to the world, we can use ANY resource (as long as its referenced). Helps a lot to teach stuff in imaging :). I'd say check with your university policy, but not dishonesty as long as you refer to sources. Mar 4 at 14:50
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    Note that the restriction on 'internal use only' is important. It implies that the material isn't republished, which would break copyright. You can use stuff in teaching but you can't republish it. This limits some sorts of distribution to students if it would also be "public facing". Take a bit of care. Especially in an online course.
    – Buffy
    Mar 4 at 18:35

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What you propose to do is (probably) legal*, appropriate and common if done properly.

Be sure you acknowledge the sources of all this found material. That will be a good lesson for your students.

If any of the material is explicitly flagged with licensing or copying conditions, be sure to honor those.

It would be polite and professional to tell the authors that you appreciate their generosity in making their teaching materials publicly available.

If you make improvements, share them.

You might want to check all this with your department chair.

*See comments below. Don't quote stackexchange as a guarantee of legality.

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    In many (now most) places there is an explicit, though limited, exception to copyright restrictions for educational purposes. Citation is still required to avoid plagiarism.
    – Buffy
    Mar 4 at 14:09
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    @Buffy If you are talking about Fair Use then at least in the U.S. the analysis is much more complicated than just whether it is for educational purpose or not. Also, it is an affirmative defense in the U.S. which can create practical and procedural issues even where Fair Use does apply. I do not given legal advice on StackExchange other than to say that when it matters it may be worth consulting a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. Mar 5 at 0:00
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Acknowledge your sources, otherwise it might be plagiarism

To be clear, if you fail to acknowledge your sources then yes, this could raise an issue of academic dishonesty (specifically plagiarism). For that reason, I strongly recommend you include clear acknowledgement of which parts of the slides have been taken from other sources. If you later adapt those slides yourself, you should retain the acknowledgement and note that your own work is an adaptation of that previous work. If you eventually "adapt" to the point where all original work is lost then you might remove the acknowledgment at that point, but use sound judgment on this.

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It's very simple: as others have said, you're not committing dishonesty if you acknowledge your sources.

However, you may be committing other things that are not dishonesty:

  1. Copyright infringement. People who create content own the copyright to it, so not all use by others of that material is permitted, even when the author is acknowledged.

  2. Shoddy teaching practices. Other people's teaching materials are usually adapted to the specific context in which they were being taught. Slides will reference earlier parts of the course and the terminology that was used there; slides will have a consistent look (formatting, font choice etc), and are generally written in a coherent voice and style. If you put together a hodge-podge of other people's materials from many different sources, this would likely be very annoying to your students and make learning more difficult for them.

    This is true even if any of the individual sources you were using does a really good job of presenting the topic it is covering. Each time you switch from person A's content to person B's content, there is a small overhead tax your students will be paying in terms of the cognitive load of processing and digesting the content. Content authored by a single source does not incur this tax.

  3. General appearance of being lazy or unserious. Serious professors who are mindful of the problems I mentioned above either use a single very good textbook that is well aligned with the material they are teaching, or create their own teaching materials, referring to other sources only sparingly or not at all. The students of those professors appreciate that their professors are not satisfied with delivering a bunch of loosely related tidbits of knowledge that the students could easily find on YouTube, but take the time and effort to deliver a well-packaged, coherent course. This is good for the students' motivation and learning outcomes. Conversely, if you give the appearance that you're using other people's materials to get away with doing the bare minimum and not having to spend much time on your course, students will not respect you very much, and it's a lot more likely some of them will end up doing the bare minimum (or less than the bare minimum) as well.

    It is of course fine to draw inspiration from other people's materials, and to create your own slides or lecture notes where different sections follow the approaches you have seen in other sources (citing those sources as appropriate).

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    "slides will have a consistent look (formatting, font choice etc)" - but in reality many teachers, even really good ones, simply don't consider this important and may have a complete mess of mismatching fonts and colour schemes. Not necessarily because they copied all the slides from different sources, sometimes simply because they didn't follow a consistent style with the material they accumulate over time. Mar 5 at 13:13
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Definitely cite your sources if you use outside material. I took a course recently with short lecture videos posted online, and not only were his examples lifted from other sources, but some of the homework exercises too. It did some actual damage to my respect for the teacher that he didn't bother to acknowledge this fact. And, because the assignments were not original, they ended up being pretty shallow as well.

For context, I am a working scientist who has taught several courses in the past. I'll admit I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to course materials, because I think the students benefit from having a close connection to the most fundamental parts of the material, and if the instructor is kind of a tourist in someone else's material already, they aren't quite the expert they need to be. However, I've also softened on this stance as I've gotten older, because I realize that making original lecture material is a huge time sink, and I did it at a time where I could afford to do so. I have a lot more sympathy now for those who are asked to teach in situations where they are already running a time deficit. But be honest with your students, regardless.

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Adding to all above. If available look for Creative Commons licensed materials, many search engines can filter on that. Using open access materials allow for use and will make broader distribution possible. But is realise most posted slides may not be explicitly released as such so good open sources may be scarce.

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Cite every content you use. Would you be happy if someone failed to cite your work? Be aware of copyright. Having been plagiarized myself I am very sensitive to this issue. Take no risks. Always cite.

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  • Could you clarify how this answer is substantially different than the top scoring answer?
    – Ian
    Mar 6 at 13:34

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