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Mapping the Known

Unknowns of Cybersecurity
Many universities are starting to include
cybersecurity as a course of study. While there is a
high degree of variation between the selected
readings of the syllabi of cybersecurity courses across
different universities, there is some thematic overlap.
By reviewing the syllabi of university cybersecurity
courses, the authors seek to systematically
evaluate this nascent field and advance its maturity.

Blog Post by Guest Blogger for Net Politics

February 3, 2020

Stanford University students listen while classmates

make a presentation REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Trey Herr, PhD, is director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative under the
Scowcroft Center.

Arthur PB Laudrain is a Rotary Global Scholar for Peace at the University of Oxford.

Dr. Max Smeets is a senior researcher at ETH Center for Security Studies and affiliate at
Stanford University CISAC.

Cybersecurity is of increasing importance to societies around the world. This is

reflected in national debates, where news stories about breaches, attacks, and policy
challenges find their way into the headlines nearly every day. It is also reflected in
the curricula of colleges and universities; many are starting to include cybersecurity
as an explicit course of study.

As cybersecurity is still a maturing topic for the education community, it is prudent

and timely to evaluate the state of cybersecurity instruction in political science and
discuss how to improve it. To undertake this task, our forthcoming article in the
Journal of Political Science Education examines patterns and variations in the
content of syllabi on cybersecurity courses within political science, looking across
campuses to understand the relative balance of policy topics, technical concepts, and
theoretical debates in how courses are structured and presented.

Our review included thirty-two syllabi whose main focus is on cyber conflict,
cyberwarfare, cybersecurity, or offensive cyber operations and discusses in depth our
review criteria and other syllabi not included in the study. Twenty-seven of the
thirty-two syllabi were from the United States. The five exceptions included several
courses on cybersecurity and international relations at King's College London and
Charles University, governance of cybersecurity at Leiden University, and
cyberwarfare at the University of Nicosia.

Main finding: Few courses overlap in using the same readings—there is

tremendous intellectual and disciplinary diversity in course content.

This diversity defies an easy categorization of the ‘canonical’ or core literature of the
field of cyber conflict scholarship. Rather, the field is scattered across a disparate
range of topics and disciplines. Of the top thirteen readings across the surveyed
syllabi, all but two were published in the last seven years. These results are a
remarkable contrast with other fields, including international relations, which
exhibit a clear and relatively consistent core literature.

Sub-finding 1: While readings vary, there is some overlap in central themes.

Most syllabi include at least one week of coursework on cyberwarfare. Cyber power,
espionage and intelligence, and China were the three most popular topics, each
occurring in nearly 60 percent of our reviewed syllabi. As Figure 1 below shows,
Russian cyber activity received slightly less attention.

Figure 1. Central Themes in Course Syllabi

Sub-finding 2: Syllabi vary significantly in how they rely on non-academic


Even though we do not have comparative data from other fields of study, there
appears to be a relatively heavy reliance on literature from media outlets. Less than
half of the readings assigned are academic publications (47.2 percent). Combined,
news reports (15.9 percent) and government and policy reports (15.9 percent) make
up just below one third of the reading on syllabi. Think tank publications and
specialized blogs account for another 9.8 percent. Notably, just below 3.4 percent of
syllabi rely on reports from cybersecurity firms and other companies. Of these, most
only include two reports: Mandiant’s report on APT1 and Ralph Langer’s report on
Stuxnet. A more detailed overview of type of readings across syllabi can be found in
Figure 2.

Figure 2. Types of Readings in Syllabi

Sub-finding 3: Across all of these syllabi, there is little discussion of


Only 6 percent of the syllabi explicitly discussed methodology questions in relation

to studying cyber conflict. This is not entirely surprising; explicit discussions of
research design in academic cyber articles are scarce. The lack of methodology
discussion may also owe to the academic level of syllabi examined; the bulk are for
undergraduate and masters courses. Some courses start with conceptual
clarification, an initial discussion of what cyberspace is, for instance, but this varies
between technical underpinnings, like the internet’s design and core protocols, and
philosophical or ideological discussions, like John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of
Independence for Cyberspace.”
While cyber conflict as an academic discipline does not yet have the characteristics
of a coherent field of study, its varied topics have only grown in importance and
public attention in the past decade. This growth has had a delayed impact on
academia, but nevertheless each year brings new courses and syllabi. Our review is
an attempt to systematically evaluate this nascent field and advance its maturity—
not just as an area of research but also as an area of education.

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