NYT’s look at the future of university

Technology and student evaluations are the driving forces for change in today’s students’ daily lives in university according to the New York Times Magazines’ “The College Issue”.

Technology and student evaluations are the driving forces for change in today’s students’ daily lives in university according to the New York Times Magazines’ “The College Issue”.

The New York Times Magazine published “The College Issue” at the beginning of term, focusing on innovations in – and problems with – teaching in American universities. Many articles revolved around the question of student reviews, and how technology and a more competitive, business-driven university model are putting more power into the hands of a massive, sometimes fickle, student body.

“The Tell-All Campus Tour” by Jonathan Dee profiles Jordan Goldman and his website Unigo.com, a website that provides free, unedited reviews of universities- in the form of videos, audio, photos and essays- which are meant to give prospective students a more ‘real’ picture of a university. The reviews range from terrible to insightful to bland, but the stress is on a review that is completely from a student’s perspective, and shows the everyday existence of a student body, from a review focused entirely on someone’s favourite cheap restaurant close to campus, or a photo of a typical dorm room.

Though Goldman asserts that the reason universities have declined to participate in his website is because “they really don’t know the immensity of it”, and that administrations “should be a bit scared by” a totally uncensored look at their performance, many American universities have been using student reviews as a standard evaluation of the teaching skills of their professors. Mark Oppenheimer’s “Judgment Day” chronicles the trials endured by professors who have failed to elicit praise- or enough praise- from student-written reviews.

Professor Annemarie Bean, writes Oppenheimer, “knows that she belongs at Wesleyan, which is why she’s especially sad that her students fired her” by giving her evaluations that were good, but that did not meet the administration’s benchmark of 85% of the students marking her as either “Good” or “Outstanding”. Student evaluations, the article says, are based not only on how effectively a professor conveys their knowledge of the course materials, but on their looks, personality, marking standards, or more insidiously, their race or gender. One experiment conducted in 1973 by psychiatrist Donald Naftulin, where a hired actor to give a lecture. “The actor was a splendid speaker”, writes Oppenheimer, “his talked filled with witticism and charming asides- but also with ‘irrelevant, conflicting and meaningless content’.” Disappointingly, students’, faculty’s and colleagues’ re views of the lecture were all “highly laudatory”. Another anecdote tells of a professor in danger of losing his tenure at Carnegie Mellon University because of poor student evaluations, who fixed his problem not by improving his teaching skills (in fact he rebuked all offers of help) but by inflating his marks and telling his students that everyone was getting an A right before they filled out the evaluation.

If students are messing with academy more and more in the United States, technology is their accomplice, and not just because of student websites like Unigo.com, or RateMyProfessors.com. “The Camera-Friendly, Perfectly Pixelated, Easily Downloadable Celebrity Academic”, as the title indicates, looks at how, once again, the criteria for a good, tenured professor are changing, this time because of the allure for universities of possessing a mini-celebrity, whose lectures are highest ranked on iTunesu, Mac’s virtual space for podcasts from the world’s best universities. Once the love of students but the bane of the administration, writes Virginia Heffernan, “now a charisma-sensei [a Japanese expression for a charming professor]- lucid, affable, groomed for “The Charlie Rose Show”, – is all but a tenure shoo-in, an asset no blue-chip university can be without.”

However much Heffernan bemoans the decline of the grumpy, old and ugly professor, she reviews her “five charisma-senseis that no online student should miss”, whose subjects cover physics, ‘behavioural economics’, poetry and Biblical exegesis. These five top-ranking lecturers could be in jeopardy, however, thanks to the simultaneous launch of Oxford’s and Cambridge’s podcasts on iTunesu (after the publication of “The College Issue”.) Cambridge and Oxford recently launched their podcasts of lectures and admissions advice, joining Harvard, Columbia and other Ivy League universities that have been broadcasting lectures for years. Their simultaneous launch gave way to speculation by some, including the Guardian, that it was designed to start an iTunes “race” between the two institutions, which have been neck-in-neck in the competition for best British university for 800 years. They will also have to battle with American universities for supremacy in the virtual college, without the advantage of experience, for once, and the influence of this new technology, and the American system of student evaluation, may soon be felt closer to Trinity.