Comments: “Yale students made a better version of their course catalogue. Then Yale shut it down.”

URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/01/16/yale-students-made-a-better-version-of-its-course-catalog-then-yale-shut-it-down/


The page students inside Yale saw when attempting to access a student creating online class planning service earlier this week. (CourseTable.com)

A pair of Yale students and brothers, Peter Xu and Harry Yu, built a site that let students plan out their schedules while comparing class evaluations and teacher ratings for the past three semesters. Thousands of Yale students used it, apparently finding it a better resource than similar sites run by the university. But this week, as the “shopping period” where students are able to try out classes and finalize their schedules began, Yale not only blocked the Web site from campus networks, labeling it “malicious,” but forced the brothers to take it down or face disciplinary action.

“We found that it was really hard to find and compare courses when we first arrived at Yale,” said Yu,”and given the amount of freedom that Yale gives students to take courses, we found it really frustrating.” So they created their own personal tool to help them use average class and professor evaluations to make informed decisions about their course selections.

The information they used was already available to students through internal systems. But there was no centralized database that allowed students to perform comparisons at a glance. So they started collecting information from internal resources and programmed an interface that would compile everything in one place. As it evolved, they thought that other students might be interested in their system as well. So they launched it as “Yale Bluebook+” — a riff on an officially sanctioned course planning tool. And they were right: According to their data, 2,094 students have used the site, with 1,871 students creating worksheets last semester. That’s a significant chunk of Yale’s roughly 5,000-person undergraduate student body.

As first reported by the Yale Daily News, representatives of the registrar’s office contacted Yu and Xu last week asking how they had obtained their data, with whose permission, and where it was hosted. Officials also expressed concerns that the site was making course evaluation information available to individuals not authorized to view the information. While the site required Yale credentials to log in, it did not have a way to sort between undergrad students and other members of the academic community. In later correspondence, the administration cited concerns about the prominence of evaluation information and unauthorized use of the words “Yale,” “Bluebook,” and the Yale logo.

At a meeting Friday, the brothers say they were told they needed to shut down the site due to these issues. “They seemed to be panicking a little bit about it,” Xu said in an interview. But the brothers countered with proposals aimed at addressing the university’s concerns and they rushed to implement changes over the weekend — including changing the name to CourseTable and adjusting how they displayed rating data. “We thought we could work out all of these issues,” says Xu, “up until Sunday night.”

Then, without further warning, Yale blocked the page from university networks — effectively cutting off students who intended to use their service to guide their shopping period. Xu and Yu said they scrambled to e-mail out saved worksheets to students and tried to get in contact with the administration to talk through the situation further. In response, they received a written notice that they would be referred to the Executive Committee for disciplinary action if the site was not taken down by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

So they took down the site. “We’re disappointed, but we’re afraid of compromising our degree,” said Yu. Both students expressed their continued affection for the institution, but they also saw its actions as contradicting the values like a “drive to promote innovation” and “academic freedom” that they believe are central to their education at Yale.

The brothers were especially surprised that the university was unwilling to cooperate with them because the administration’s existing course selection software — which Yu and Xu’s product was meant to improve — was itself a student-created product, eventually bought out by the university. In fact, the brothers say, the original Yale Bluebook used some of the same methods to scrape its data, and they worked with a member of the app’s team to help create the process.

But their conversations with the administration and the content of the sites led them to believe the sticking point was the way they displayed course evaluations, which was different from Yale Bluebook because it averaged the ratings and made them easily comparable. “The registrar said that originally when Yale faculty agreed to put that information online, they didn’t want it to be displayed that prominently,” said Yu.

The brothers don’t find that a very compelling reason to limit the way the information could be displayed. “First, we don’t think that helps professors that much,”said Xu, saying that the ratings for most classes were positive. “And second, we think it hurts students by limiting their ability to understand information about the classes they want to take.”

But the administration appears to disagree: A response sent by the Yale IT department to students who filed tickets about the blocking of the site specifically cited the its use of ratings as among the reasons the site was blocked, saying “the design of the site focused on a few ratings never intended to be used for this purpose.” It added, “Yale takes advising and course selection seriously and has given students digital resources to help them design their schedules, such as syllabi, course descriptions, and thoughtful narrative responses written by students.”

Yale declined Washington Post interview requests for this story, but did share a short statement about the situation from Yale College Dean Mary Miller. The statement did not directly address their blocking of the website or the threat of disciplinary action, or the site’s use of course ratings.

“Yale’s policy on free expression and free speech entitles no one to appropriate a Yale resource and use it as their own,” the statement read. It further stated its main priority at this time was supporting its own resources, “not others created independently and without the university’s cooperation or permission,” and that “all the information on the website remains remains available to students on the Yale site.”

Since the blocking of the Web site and the forced takedown, the brothers say they have received “radio silence” in response to attempts to meet in person with the dean’s or the registrar’s office — a situation they find frustrating, but not particularly surprising. “They want this to blow over,” argued Yu. “In another few weeks, students will be enrolled in classes and it won’t be a be a big deal anymore.”

But they still believe “Yale as a whole remains a great place for technology. ” And they say they’ve received a lot of support in conversations with faculty and members of the administration outside of the dean’s and registrar’s office. Plus their online petition asking the university to allow the site has attracted over 500 signatures. ”We think that Yale as a whole does not try to stifle innovation,” they explain. “Rather, the overly cautious dean’s and registrar’s office has just really mishandled this specific case.”

 

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