Twitter feedback to help Government rate universities

Initiative part of wider plans to bring higher education in line with new media age and reality talent shows. Sarah Cunnane reports

April 1, 2009

The Government has confirmed that it is to launch an official annual university league table, using measures such as students’ personal feedback on their lecturers via the website Twitter.

After years of concern about the growing influence of newspapers on annual university league tables, a senior Whitehall source has told Times Higher Education that plans for an official table will be unveiled in its framework for the future of higher education, due to be published in the summer.

“The framework is designed to set the policy scene before the review of tuition fees, which will begin later in 2009,” said the source. “But whatever happens on fees, it is clear from our reviews of the future of higher education that students need better-quality information before making choices about where to study – and existing students’ views will be the key driver of this annual table.”

The exact criteria for the tables and the weightings are not yet clear, but in a move that is bound to provoke controversy, it has been revealed that, as well as standard data such as average A-level entry points and degree classifications, student feedback will be a core criterion.

From the 2010-11 academic year, it is understood that data will be collected from the website Twitter and used to rank universities according to how students rate their lectures, university facilities, contact hours, employment prospects, bar and leisure services, and even the “sex appeal” of their fellow students.

Feedback will also be compiled from the popular website, Ratemyprofessors.com, but it is thought that this material will be used only to provide qualitative reports on each institution, as there is thought to be an insufficient “critical mass” of UK users on the site at this stage.

Facebook is also expected to be consulted, with the number of positive and negative groups concerning each institution weighted by the number of members in each group.

Averil Pennywise, who spoke to Times Higher Education on behalf of the Facebook group, “I can’t bear my lecturer [name removed] as he doesn’t appear to wash and talks in a very slow, monotonous voice”, welcomed the move, saying: “Get with the programme guys! It is, like, about time that people in higher education totally recognised that, at the end of the day, the students of tomorrow will be basing their university choices partially on what current students, like, blog, vlog and tweet about their institution.”

The source was unable to confirm whether other networking sites such as MySpace, Bebo, Habbo, Plurk, Hot or Not, or MyLOL will be used, but insisted that the table would be compiled using extensive research and that the academic community would be consulted before official work starts on the project.

At present, it is unknown exactly how the Government will accurately collect the data, although it has been suggested that the current move by the Home Office to monitor data held by social networking sites, as part of anti-terrorism measures, may tie in to the initiative.

Although specific plans for the league table are shrouded in mystery at present, the source has revealed that it is being worked on under the code name “Feste”.

“The Government is sure that universities are going to dismiss this new league table as a flippant attempt to keep up to date with the latest developments in technology,” the source said. “However, it believes that the study has more serious academic merit to it than it would first appear, and this is reflected in the name it has chosen to represent the project.”

This scheme is touted as part of wider initiatives to exploit new media’s potential for instant feedback in knowledge transfer. Trials currently under way at Bickerstaff College in the US offer students the chance to participate in what is being described as an “America’s Got Talent-style experiment”.

All students are given a buzzer, which they are free to press at any time if they feel that the lecture has lost their attention. If more than 50 per cent of students press the buzzer, the lecturer is forced to end the lecture. The results are yet to be unveiled, but Nicolai Poliakoff, who pioneered the study, says the early indications are promising.

“This experiment forces lecturers to examine their style and adapt it to ensure that students stay focused,” he said.

Professor Poliakoff also claims that he has been in touch with several UK universities about extending the study across the pond, although he declined to say which ones were on board and how far negotiations had gone.

The Association for Student/Staff Communication via New Media and Social Networking Websites (ASSCVNMSNW) welcomed the Government’s plans to use social networking sites as a launch for further initiatives going forward.

Larry Fine, the chair of ASSCVNMSNW, said: “Social networking is a very important part of the interfacing that occurs between staff and students, and the Government’s recognition of this is an important step in the right direction towards Twitter-facing universities.”

Defending the use of talent shows to shape teaching, he commented: “The X Factor is said to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but it gets phenomenal ratings and always produces a Christmas Number 1, so it must be doing something right. If we can use the kind of thinking behind reality talent shows to get lectures comparable to such classic hits as Pure and Simple and That’s My Goal, I think the higher education sector would be a better place. That’s ‘Our Goal’, as it were.”

But the proposals have not been welcomed by representatives of the elite universities.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, said: “We still regard the Gutenberg Revolution with some suspicion, and stick to the oral transmission of tradition – lectures and tutorials. It was good enough for Homer and Plato. I think we shall approach these so-called ‘new media’ with some caution.”

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com

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