Not long ago, journalism professor Lisa Phillips was reading her e-mail when she came across an interesting message, one sent to all faculty members at her university. She learned that Chegg.com (the textbook-rental company) had made an unusual request invoking New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
This New York law (like the federal FOIA, and similar laws in other states) enables individuals to request a wide variety of information from governmental agencies: information that might include details on the use of tax dollars… or information about policies, decisions, and programs which affect members of the public. This type of law is commonly used by journalists, authors, and nonprofits to conduct research.
In this case, Chegg.com had requested detailed information about course grade distribution, with specific information about faculty, course section, and semester — but without information that could identify individual students. This request was perfectly compatible with the New York state law; therefore, Prof. Phillips’s employer (the State University of New York at New Paltz) was obliged to provide the data requested.
CourseRank.com to Publish Grades, Ratings, Reviews
The request by Chegg.com was evidently made to over 500 colleges and universities on behalf of CourseRank.com, a free course scheduling tool purchased by Chegg in 2010. The grade data will be used to create content for CourseRank.
Professor Phillips — who is also a journalist, former public radio reporter, and the author of the book Public Radio: Behind the Voices — wrote about her reaction in The New York Times. As she put it, “The thought of it made me squeamish. I had always considered grades a private matter. I didn’t dwell on the question of whether I was an easy grader or a hard one — I simply tried to be fair.”
Yet she also noted the irony of the situation. From her perspective, “The Freedom of Information Act, long cherished by investigative reporters, had become a tool for a textbook-rental company to draw traffic to one of its Web sites. And there I was, a professor of journalism, being muckraked.”
In the end, it was more than than her personal discomfort that led Phillips to conclude that the practice of putting grade data online, though legal, was ill advised. She provided a number of reasons, including the fact that data without context can be misleading… generating impressive-looking but meaningless statistics.
One question that she did not address was whether she thinks students are likely to actually use the information in selecting classes.
Students entering college today are continually exposed to vast quantities of information: Information ostensibly intended to facilitate decision-making… but information which is often imperfect, inaccurate, biased, or otherwise of limited value.
Whether it is trying to make sense of conflicting 1- vs.5-star ratings on Apple’s iTunes App Store, or contradictory reviews the latest film, students are accustomed to receiving (and weighing) information from a variety of sources before making their own choice.
Many experienced students know first-hand what it’s like to enroll in a class taught by a professor highly-favored on RateMyProfessors.com, and then have a terrible experience… or conversely, take a class from a professor with a terrible reputation, but have a very good learning experience.
Ultimately, aggregate grade-trend info may help make the website more interesting, but in most cases is likely to do little to help students choose specific classes. The traditional method of seeking advice from other students (and faculty members) at their own college or university will gain students more detailed and meaningful data on which to base their class-choice decisions.
Lisa A Phillips. The New York Times. 2011. “A Professor Disagrees With Putting Grades Online”. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/education/edlife/09notebook-t.html.>
New York State Department of State. 2008. Your Right To Know: New York State Open Government Laws.<http://www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/right_to_know.html>