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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August222006

Educator-Ranking Websites:
The Student Becomes the Master

From time immemorial, it was the job of teachers to grade their students. But the growing popularity of educator-ranking websites is reversing that tradition, allowing students to rate and review their teachers. And not all teachers are happy about it.

As discussed recently in the Houston Chronicle, websites that allow students to critique their teachers have become all the rage. The website RateMyTeachers.com attracted more than nine million visitors alone last semester. It’s not unlike the offline surveys that many universities make available for their students, so they can get a sense of what previous students have thought of different professors. In fact, the online version of these surveys got their big start in higher education, thanks to sites like RateMyProfessors.com. Now K-12 schools are receiving similar treatment. This comes to no surprise to some education consultants, as seen in the recent Chronicle article:

“In the last 15 years, the government has decided to put even more accountability on students through the use of high-stakes testing,” Steve Peha, president of the education consulting firm Teaching That Makes Sense, said in an e-mail interview. “It’s only natural that students would eventually want to exert some pressure of their own, and this is the emotional energy that the owners of teacher-rating Web sites seek to capitalize on.”

From the student perspective, these rating sites are just another form of online empowerment, a natural extension of the functionalities available in the rest of the Web 2.0 universe. From eBay and Amazon.com, to Kuro5hin and Digg, Internet users spend an enormous amount of time online ranking the quality of content and services. Digg, in particular, has become one of this year’s dot-com wunderkinds, simply by allowing people to support (or “digg,” as it were) their favorite news stories and blog entries. For example, having your website “dugg” can be an overwhelming experience. On the occasions when one of my blog entries has received a high Digg ranking, my Web server has nearly crashed from the thousands of new visitors. Meanwhile, you also find your work subjected to countless opinions, from insightful to vicious. If you’re not used to public criticism it can be a baptism by fire.

These types of ranking tools are just a matter of course for Internet-savvy young people, but that doesn’t stop educators and administrators from being rattled when they discover for the first time that students are communing online so they can critique them. As is the case with other rating sites, individual reviews can vary wildly. For example, I went and took a look at some of the teachers at my alma mater, Melbourne High School in Florida. I wasn’t surprised to see that some of the teachers that were around when I was at Mel-Hi are still teaching and receiving high praise from current students. One particular history teacher was complimented with thoughtful quotes like “[he] is a tough teacher but he tells great stories and is so awesome; he makes American History something you want to learn.” Yet another critique of the same teacher was less flattering: “Whenever band students had to be away from class, he would say snarky things about it, and then wasn’t very helpful when we asked for explanations for things we missed.” The review ended by dismissing the teacher as a “Jock.”

Digging through the teacher reviews on RateMyTeachers, it’s quite common to find lots of individual educators who are both praised and loathed. Perhaps this is a natural reflection of classroom dynamics, in which some students click with their teachers while others don’t. In some cases, the criticisms of teachers are nothing more than rants or rhetorical vendettas, yet countless others appear to be sincere attempts by their students to offer opinions on what it’s like to be in a particular teacher’s classroom. Again, like other Web 2.0 ranking tools, there are individual examples of users abusing the system, but the collective knowledge of the community often displays thoughtful, nuanced insights.

Educators seem to have mixed responses to tools like RateMyTeachers.com. Some see them as the latest progression of online democracy in action, while others deem them to be downright subversive. Certain schools have gone so far as to filter out ratings websites so students can’t look up teacher rankings during classroom hours. (Though part of me wonders if the filtering is sometimes intended to block the teachers from looking up reviews about themselves!) But this hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of students from going online at home or elsewhere to make their thoughts known about their teachers.

Parents are even getting in on the act. Sites like GreatSchools.net allow parents to look up schools, examine performance metrics and post reviews of their own. The site is geared more towards researching overall school performance rather than keeping individual teachers on their toes, as is the case with RateMyTeachers. Interestingly, RateMyTeachers lets you click on a tab to switch to “parents mode,” ostensibly to allow parents to offer their own ratings. So far, I haven’t found too many parents who’ve gone to the site and taken them up on it; student-generated reviews greatly outnumber reviews done by adults.

For now, it seems that most schools will remain fairly dismissive of these teacher-ranking tools. Educators generally develop a pretty thick skin when it comes to student critiques, but this may be tested as more and more of their students use the Internet to voice their grievances, creating a permanent and public online paper trail. The question, though, is whether these ranking sites will serve as a form of constructive criticism leading to better teaching, or if they’ll antagonize some educators to the point of distrusting their students. I’d be curious to hear from educators who’ve looked up themselves. What did you find, and how did it affect you? -andy

Filed under : Websites

Responses

Every year at the end of a class (I teach high school English), I have my students critique the class. I always say, “Don’t be afraid to criticize if you have something useful to say. I may be offended at first, but after I get over it, I usually learn something valuable.” I get good feedback and these have shaped my teaching practice.

However….I think I would have a hard time seeing those comments public. It’s one thing to deal with the issues in the quiet of one’s room…it’s another to have it permanently displayed for everyone in the world to have access to.

BrainBasedBloggin

This summer when I experimented with blogs I had the students rate me and the class. I have very little to fear. If I am honestly trying to improve my teaching, which includes building relationships with the students, then this information is helpful.

The one difference was that the comments on Ratemyteacher.com are anonymous so I wouldn’t be able to change for a particular student or a particular type of student. It does allow for a little more honesty, but I work at an alternative program and my students really don’t have a problem with being brutally honest.

As a professor who pays close attention to student feedback, I believe the site “ratemyprofessors.com” is detrimental to both good teaching and student-teacher relationships. There is no validity to these ratings that come from 1, 3, or 50 random students who may or may not even know the teacher in question. Most of the feedback is inappropriately personal and needlessly hurts people. A quick trip through my university’s site pulled up such comments as: had PMS for entire semester; very annoying; a monster disguised as an Israeli crackhead; a generally unpleasant person; very mean person; she is horrific to look at; should not be allowed to teach anywhere. brandeis should be ashamed; she is just completely out of her mind; simply ineffective as an intellectual of any sort; a bumbling self-centered boob. I know one language professor who read on the site “She should go back to her own country” and was devastated. This kind of site encourages students to make anonymous, unkind, racist, sexist and irresponsible personal remarks about teachers. Teachers should be held to high standards of interpersonal caring and integrity with students, but the respect must be reciprocal. It is inappropriate to be asking students to formally rate teachers as “hot or not,” too.

Rate My Professors is a racist, derogatory site that is used by students who either want to defame professors for not giving them high marks or to target minority faculty by attacking their character and their personal life. People who are tenured, who have done solid work in and out of class, are routinely targeted by these disgruntled undergraduates who view college as a free-for-all and all teachers as faceless nerds with no personal value.

The comments on the site are lopsided and are pure favoritism. Careers are ruined. Young people are given ample chances and second chances, while the professor faces his/her old age with a diminishing sense of self and inability to pay the bills.

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