Nicholas A. Yager

A Case for Public Data in Higher Education

23 Jan 2014

It has become commonplace for today's universities to release faculty evaluations to their students as a way to assist students in choosing classes. Recently, however, Yale decided that public access to this freely available information should not be allowed when they blocked university access to Yale Bluebook+, a student-made service to view faculty evaluations along with course registration information.[1][2] At my alma mater, SUNY Geneseo, our faculty evaluation are obscured from view as non-searchable pdf files never to be seen by students again. As shown in Figure 1, this approach has consequences.[3][4]


Figure 1: The decline of average SOFI response by semester. This chart shows a clear and startling decline of almost 40% in the last four years. I hypothesize that the response percentage for SOFIs is decreasing because the data collected has no impact on students in its current form.

When students are unable to see the results of their evaluations, participation drops. When participation drops, the data become less valuable and the cycle continues. On the flip side, if the data were to become useful again -- as a metric for students to choose future professors, perhaps -- we could restore the worth of the SOFI data. My question is, what would happen if this data were to be place directly in the hands of the people who need it the most, exactly when they need it?

I hypothesize that if SOFI scores were released in an easily digestible format, then students may see a benefit to filling out SOFI surveys and the overall accuracy of the data will increase. Much like the negative feed back above, active participation should positvely feedback and restore the value of the data.Normally this question would remain in the hypothetical, but I've followed Yale-student Sean Haufler's lead and created a chrome extension that injects SOFI scores into our course listing website KnightWeb. [5] [6]


Figure 2: Screenshot of the BetterKnightWeb chrome extension. Written in javascript, this chrome extension queries a database of SOFI scores for relevant data on classes and professors, and injects it into the KnightWeb course listings.

I'll be the first to admit that the extension is not of high quality. It uses incomplete data from a slow server, and displays it in a less than beautiful context, but it is better than nothing. This is just the beginning, though. Imagine what would happen if the powers at be provided an API to fetch up to date SOFI data. Student- and college-made services could use this data to provide an enhanced user experience for Geneseo's students. The data could be mined for relationships to better understand faculty performance, and improved trust in the data would breed even better data collection.

That future may be a long way off, but if the state of data in higher education is to improve it must start with openness and easy access for all.

Here's a quick side note about BetterKnightWeb. My database is open to the world to access, and can be queried with a GET request to with the following data fields:

Field name Input
crn CRN for the class (eg. 12345)
course Class's course number. (eg. 222)
subject Four character subject code (eg. BIOL)
instructor Professor's first and last name (eg. "Haynie, John" or "TBA")

The script will return a JSON object returning: { average: 3.7, course: "222", expected: "C", subject: "BIOL" }

Update: 2016-09-13 After over two years of uptime, I'm shutting down this service. Thanks to all of my users, and to all of the people who used this data to discover more about their world.

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