Friday, January 17, 2014

Information Control: Yale's Power Grab

No, not Singapore. Course evaluations!

Student course evaluations have an interesting history. Until the 1970s they were the province of … students, and in particular, the student press. At Harvard, the Crimson's "Confi Guide," the "Confidential Guide" to Harvard courses, was an institution. The writing was entertaining, and the methodology was, shall we say, unscientific.

Then colleges themselves started to get into the business. It would be interesting to reconstruct why that happened. Perhaps students' prose started to get less funny and more cruel. Perhaps a new generation of faculty started to find the reputation game more serious than it had been when tenure was more routine. Perhaps the faculty became more humorless or the students became more wicked. Nice senior thesis project for somebody.

I was on the Committee on Undergraduate Education as a junior faculty member when the first Harvard "CUE Guide" was conceived and printed. (Eventually the Guide was removed from the control of the Committee and was re-styled as the "Q.") The guide relied on survey data, and printed numbers as well as prose. Predictable things happened. Student editors, now working for the university rather than the Crimson, still tried to write so people would enjoy reading, and that caused faculty complaints. Except now they had to be listened to. The prose became anodyne and formulaic. Students pay attention only to the numbers, since the prose can be generated almost mechanically from the numbers. No direct quotations from those questionnaires -- though faculty still get those.

Faculty used to opt out of being evaluated, arguably making the guide less useful. (The classic paper by Ambady and Rosenthal. "Half a Minute," casts doubt on whether the guide is has much usefulness as an indicator of educational quality anyway.) So a few years ago the Faculty voted to make evaluation mandatory. Reciprocally, students opted out of filling out the questionnaires. So a few years ago an incentive was added -- you can't see your grades as quickly if you didn't fill out your course evaluations. (I always send students their grades in my courses right away, I guess unintentionally undercutting that incentive.)

I think other universities have gone through a similar struggle with the basic tensions: How do you make something that is interesting enough to be useful but still official enough to be dignified (if dignity is important)? So a second round of student guides started to appear once web scraping and electronic publishing became household skills.

Which brings me, finally, to yesterday's Yale news. Some Yale students created a site using Yale's course evaluation data but presenting it in more useful ways. Yale first objected to the use of Yale's name (the students called it "Yale Bluebook+") and then forced the students to shut down the site completely, apparently on the basis that the data were considered Yale intellectual property. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports,
Yale officials raised concerns that the site was making course-evaluation information available to people who were not authorized to view it. The officials also questioned the use of the Yale name and logo. 
The students said they believed that the administration was concerned about how the site averaged course ratings, making them easier to compare. They said they had changed the site’s name but shut it down after being threatened with disciplinary action. 
The university released a statement to the Post from Mary Miller, dean of Yale College, that said its “policy on free expression and free speech entitles no one to appropriate a Yale resource and use it as their own.” 
The statement added that Yale’s priority was to support its own resources and “not others created independently and without the university’s cooperation or permission.” It said that the information on the students’ site was still available on Yale’s own version. 
Now from a legal standpoint I have no doubt Yale's position is 100% correct. And it is doubtless true even from a mathematical standpoint: Every bit of information in the students' site originated from Yale's, so the same information is available there, if in a less useful form. The question is, what problem was Yale really trying to solve, and was this the right way to solve it?

After all, if students use guides to avoid badly taught courses, or to find easy courses, an alternative to throttling the flow of information and forcing students to do more information-processing work on their own to find those courses would be to improve the bad courses and make the easy courses tougher. (Though as I wrote earlier, easy courses do have their place, after all; any good faculty advisor has looked at a student's study card every now and then and said, "You know, you really shouldn't take those 4 courses simultaneously -- this would be a good term to find something a little softer as your fourth.")

Harvard has its own version of the third-generation course guide. It's called CS50 Courses and it emerged from the CS course by the same name. It avoids one flaw of the Yale students' approach -- because it exists within the framework of a Harvard course, it has an authentication layer blocking non-Harvard visitors from using it. It is extremely popular and yes, makes it easy for students to sort and select on all kinds of criteria that can be abused. I know that has caused occasional grumbling here but so far no gestapo tactics. (To use the term suggested by one reader of this blog.)

And like any good tool, it has unanticipated uses. I learned this morning that Harvard staff who have been delegated the unenviable task of arranging a meeting of a dozen faculty use the tool in the following clever way. They populate a mock course "Schedule" with the times those professors teach -- and then propose meeting times in the remaining white spaces! Brilliant.

1 comment:

  1. Funny how different Stanford's approach was: three students there did the same thing ( ), and it was so successful they started a company to do it for everyone ( ). Shows pretty clearly what little hope Yale has of controlling this info.

    Side note: they wanted to report grade distributions in each class, which they knew the registrar would not provide, so they asked students to report their own grades. It worked great: students reported accurately (they verified this by asking the registrar whether their data was correct). Do you suppose the same would happen at our Ivys?