from Technology & Learning

How about a site that asks students to rate college programs?

Every fall U.S. News & World Report issues a list of what are purportedly the top American undergraduate colleges and universities. It is now an annual ritual for high school juniors and seniors to peruse the rankings to determine the best balance between prestige, location, and personal fit. It is also an annual ritual for university presidents to decry the rankings as both inaccurate and inappropriate.

Despite the objections of college officials, however, the university ranking trend isn't going away. Indeed, U.S. News complements its fall rankings with a spring issue. Other ranking systems include the Washington Monthly, Education Sector, The Times Higher Education Supplement, and the Center for Measuring University Performance. It is safe to say that both the rankings themselves and writing about the rankings have become small cottage industries.

Despite their popularity, virtually all the ranking systems named above lack a single element: the voice of participants. There's no reason it has to be this way. The Internet and modern data collection technologies are making it increasingly feasible to gather students' opinions about their postsecondary experiences.

Take a look at RateMyTeachers.com or RateMyProfessors.com. These sites allow visitors to quickly find a school or a university anywhere in the country, select or add an instructor, and then rate that instructor in a few predetermined categories. Visitors can also submit open-ended comments. The sites aggregate the rating scores and offer averages for each educator, providing limited but useful information on quality of instruction.

These sites exemplify the blurring lines between consumers and institutions. Like the user-submitted reviews at Amazon.com, TripAdvisor.com, and Digg.com, the input of "users" (i.e., students) of college programs would add a key element of reality to university-evaluation sites.

Desired features of a system allowing students to assess entire programs, rather than just individual professors, might include an overall rating, specific subcategory ratings, and the ability to designate whether ratings come from a current student or a graduate. The site should allow for open-ended comments of unlimited length. Such a system also would put pressure on university programs to enhance their customer service orientation because the ratings and comments would illuminate programs not adequately serving student needs. Similar to StudentsReview.com, the site also might allow users to compare multiple institutions at once. At best, it would allow users to receive updates on specific programs via RSS or e-mail.

If such a site were comprehensive and user-friendly, it could very quickly become a primary destination for students seeking information about potential programs. Although it likely would spawn new criticisms about the relevance of student voices and the possibility of institutions spamming competition, it would avoid current complaints about subjective rankings by unknowledgeable and potentially biased officials at other universities. Who better to judge the value of a program: outsiders or current students and alumni?

Most university programs probably aren't ready for their students to begin telling the world what it is like inside their academic programs. But those that aren't better start thinking differently because this level of transparency is inevitably on its way.

Dr. Scott McLeod (www.scottmcleod.net) is a Techlearning blogger and director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education at Iowa State University.