2014 is off with a bang: It is not yet February, and two eminent authorities on the ethics and procedures of publishing are under fire for a lack of understanding how digitally networked mass media work.
First, journalist Emma Keller begat a digital avalanche by publishing in The Guardian an uncharacteristically aggressive ethical critique (since removed for possibly violating editorial standards) focusing on the over 150.000 tweets of Stage IV breast cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams. Attempting to support his wife from the ensuing barrage of criticism, Bill Keller – former executive editor of the New York Times and among the most respected living newspaper journalists – attempted to double-down in a column of his own. He praised Adams for a heroism she in fact rejects, while reiterating qualms about the oversharing of information heretofore considered intimate: Information concerning the details of terminal disease, physical and mental suffering, intense grief and an aggravatingly painful journey toward an untimely death.
Thoughtful responses abound, accusing both Kellers of being a bit out of touch with the digital ethics of terminal disease. Suffice to say that I respectfully agree, seeing that Tig Notaro’s landmark comedy set about her own cancer diagnose went instantly viral and Angelina Jolie’s frank op-ed disclosing her double mastectomy are instances of a rapidly shifting discourse. But today a parallel development much closer to my own research interests and topics covered here came to my attention: The Washington Post reports that Yale University has abruptly and aggressively shut down a student-created website popular among its undergraduates, a developing story exhibiting improbably pre-digital attitudes and an equal lack of insight into the social media landscape.
Two Yale seniors, the brothers Peter Xu and Harry Yu, programmed a platform for selecting Yale undergraduate courses after finding the official Yale platform Bluebook to be lacking some relevant but readily available metadata, namely students’ course evaluations and teacher ratings. Their alternative version, Bluebook+, includes weighted averages of both, translating them into a handy color-coding scheme (pictured above) representing student assessment of course and instructor qualities. When Yale administrators claimed infringements on the university’s intellectual property rights in an initial attempt to shut the platform down, they quickly changed their platform’s name to CourseTable and removed the university’s logo.
That couldn’t save them: Opting for panic over dialogue, the university proceeded to unilaterally block access to the CourseTable server from its on-campus network and accused its founders of seriously violating university IT policies. This measure effectively left hundreds of Yale undergraduates with incomplete schedules, threatened the academic prospects of Peter Xu and Harry Yu, and is evolving rapidly into a serious blow to Yale’s reputation. More than 650 Yalie signatories to an online petition seem to value “Lux et Veritas” over administrative anxiety regarding IT procedures concerning what are essentially (intra-mural) public data. Addendum Jan 20th: Yale senior Sean Haufler has now created a hack that allows access to an “unblockable” version of CourseTable.
This matters, because during a two-week “shopping” period at the beginning of the semester, Yale students may drop courses from their roster without penalty in terms of financial cost or grades, keeping everyone quite busy – as is the case in many schools using a similar model. CourseTable took advantage of a simple informational asymmetry to make students’ life easier and course selection more efficient: The platform used aggregated course evaluations and teacher ratings downloaded from the university’s servers (a practice known as “scraping”), averaged them out over three years and published them alongside the course descriptions. The platform allowed students to pick their preferred courses based on their own preferences and output the resulting schedule in a convenient printable format. Students were now able to use what amounts to aggregated peer evaluations to make better-informed decisions about course choices.
Peter Xu and Harry Yu could hardly be called misguided in thinking that data scraped off Yale’s servers without asking permission first were a sound basis for a superior off-campus system. CourseTable provided a valuable and free service, after all, to students paying USD 58.000 in annual tuition for the privilege of an ivy-league education. Moreover, the BlueBook platform itself had been acquired by Yale from then-undergrads Jared Shenson and Charlie Croom as recently as 2011. They, too, had relied – naturally – on data scraped off the university’s servers without official permission to create a platform superior to the infrastructure Yale administration was offering at the time. The precedent makes the ham-fisted response in early 2014 even more mysterious. How could Yale administrators make such a staggeringly short-sighted and massively misguided decision and thereby create such a mess for themselves?
The university’s official position seems to indicate that it is not punishing data-scraping per se, but rather taking a precaution on behalf of both its students and its staff because of the sensitive nature of the kind of data that was scraped, namely course evaluations and teacher rankings authored by students. These were intended for internal use only, and neither instructors nor the university itself is prepared to share this data, aggregate or average it. The potential for abuse or at least misinterpretation of such raw, biased, subjective data points – Yale administrators seem to imply – could lead to poorer decision-making on the part of the students using it as a base for their course-selection. Leaving aside for the moment that the contemporary discourse of Learning Analytics demands exactly this kind of data-mining and that elsewhere within the Ivy League peer-evaluation is poised to complement if not outright replace conventional grading, the administration’s argument here seems to be two-fold.
In the first instance, the university seems worried that more (meta-)information about the courses available leads to lower-quality course selection, because students interpreting these perhaps improperly aggregated qualitative data points might draw false conclusions about actual course/instructor quality. On a second and equally important level, this stance implies that the university mistrusts the quality of the data itself. Blocking CourseTable suggests that student course evaluations shall be shared only with the respective instructors – who are considered capable of drawing the “right” conclusions (otherwise, what would be the point of gathering student evaluations in the first place?) – but not with other students.
Without knowing all the politico-administrative details surely informing the recent decision at Yale, I would like to suggest that both points fundamentally underestimate how significant a change digital culture brings to the self-perpetuating myths so pervasive in higher education. University administrators are right to be scared, but they are wrong to believe that they are able to shut off and ignore what threat digital networks pose to “academic charisma“.
Yes, students may and will rank courses and having been a lecturer myself for nearly a decade, I am fully aware of the inherent methodological shortcomings of this mechanism for feedback and evaluation. These data are subjective, biased, sometimes even intentionally false – a tendency that might increase if student evaluators knew their missives were intended for publication. So these evaluations need proper contextualisation and critical analysis for meaningful interpretation, they cannot be taken at face value. Nut this is trivial in the sense that caveat lector is the rule for all data.
Yale’s attempt to contain and restrict this information is based at best on the spurious notion of ownership, since it provided the technico-administrative infrastructure for gathering it in the first place. At worst, however, it is an anachronistically authoritative attitude of smarter-than-thou which it can ill afford, least of all when directed at the students who will spend their private and professional lives in a thoroughly digitised culture. As a strategy for information management and knowledge creation, it is bound to fail and it is in this where the parallel to the Kellers’ attempt of imposing ethical rules on what we ought to be allowed to publish about our physical health, our mental suffering and our impending death is most obvious to me.
In the digital age of continuous real-time publishing, arguing for this of control is futile – and not because it invariably reeks of censorship. Not all information should be shared or made public – but public information will be shared independent of its supposed quality. What drives the dissemination of public information in an attention economy is demand first and foremost. Recall that CourseTable was popular by students seeking it out and using it, not by decree – much like the Lisa Bonchek Adams twitter feed was sustained by its massive and growing audience of followers and readers. Independent of the inherent quality of either content – if there were such a thing, as both Yale and the Kellers are appear to assume -, readers will want to draw their own conclusions, make up their own minds, and knowingly bear the risk of sub-par interpretations.
What this means, in effect, that as one taboo after another is demystified by media overexposure, venerable gate-keepers of editorial, evaluative or even moral authority will rapidly see their authority erode insofar as it is based on legacy, aura or fiat. It would appear that some modesty is in order, as the struggle for discursive authority for these and similar institutions is now on-going, and demanding of thoroughness, clarity, justification and fairness. It is vital for institutions that devote themselves as much as newspapers and universities both to the education and information of society, that they not lose sight of the basic premise underlying their efforts: That people will in fact be willing and able to learn, to sort out fact from fiction, to learn which information to rely on for their decision-making in a noisy, complex world.
For the record: I will remain an avid reader of the New York Times (albeit in its International edition), and I retain fond memories and the highest esteem for Yale University (full disclosure: I was a summer R.A. on The Quad for two exchange student Summer Schools). There is no doubt in my mind that both institutions will weather these storms. But they would be well-advised, in my humble opinion, to recognize them as yet another warning sign for further impending changes.
Yale cannot be completely unaware of the parallels to what happened a full decade ago, when Harvard administrators shut down an undergraduate student’s site, which wasn’t even as popular among its student body then as CourseTable is at Yale now. Not only has it made its drop-out founder billions – it has also forced highly respected Harvard dean Drew Gilpin Faust into rhetoric contortions vindicating Harvard for accounts, if not for visionaries.
While the world waits for Yale to backpedal into respectability, one would like to encourage Peter Xu and Harry Yu to embrace the disruptive potential of their innovation and not to worry too much about whether their alma mater will attempt to sanction them for providing a better undergraduate experience to their fellow students. The idea behind CourseTable is sure to prosper, though whether it is in Connecticut is uncertain at the moment.