British teachers don’t get it. Or at least their unions don’t get it. Schools and universities are supposed to be open environments that promote free speech, debate and learning. And yet UK teachers are quick to censor ideas that they find threatening.
Let me explain. Some months ago, the editors of the magazine SecEd approached the publicists for my book, Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom, to ask if I could contribute an article. SecEd is a trade magazine, published in London, for UK teachers and headteachers.
This is how the magazine describes itself: “Published each Thursday during the academic year, SecEd is a colour, glossy tabloid-sized newspaper that contains a mixture of thought-provoking news academic and best practice features, regular columns and an invaluable classified recruitment section. It is written by its own team of writers and education journalists, supported by contributions from leading figures in UK education and, more importantly, practising and experienced headteachers, senior leaders and teachers.”
The magazine’s Editor requested an article from me on the “potentially damaging effects of sites such as RateMyTeachers.com”. My book publicist, who was in direct contact with the magazine, clarified the Editor’s request in an email to me: “The editor was keen to point out that as a trade journal for teachers and headteachers, the magazine takes an editorial stance against such sites. While he would of course expect an expert feature to take a balanced view, and would not presume to dictate that we tie his editorial line, he feels that wouldn’t be able to run a piece which ultimately comes out in favour of such sites.”
As a veteran journalist myself, I immediately grasped that SecEd magazine is, in effect, the house organ for UK teacher unions and their diverse lobbies. I was however intrigued that they’d requested an article from me and my co-author Soumitra Dutta on this subject. And why not, it’s a timely and interesting issue.
We were also obvious candidates. In our book, we examine in some detail the emergence of teacher “rating” sites like RateMyProfessors.com and RateMyTeachers.com. In particular, we look at how these sites have become immensely popular in the United States, where teachers and professors now reply to their ratings on videos posted right on the site (which incidentally has been purchased by MTV).
In France, by contrast, powerful teachers unions took a similar site to court and had it shut down with a ruling that the site could not post teachers’ names. The UK experience is somewhere between the American and French examples. UK teachers unions are resolutely opposed to sites like RateMyTeachers.com, but these sites operate with little fear of being closed down by a court order.
Our point in the book is that Web 2.0 platforms have facilitated a bottom-up culture of rating, ranking and reviewing that is challenging vertical professions and institutions whose authority is based on credentials and “expertise”. Customer book reviewing on Amazon is a good example. So is RateMyProfessors.com. Nobody likes a negative review, but the emerging rating & ranking culture is already pervasive. Teachers and university professors, along with doctors and lawyers, are now being reviewed, rated and ranked by their own customers. In education systems, they are called students.
SecEd magazine was obviously intrigued enough by this phenemonon to ask me to write an article on the subject — though with the proviso that I must examine the “potentially damaging effects” of RateMyTeachers.com. I don’t write articles to comfort the biases of any publication, so I told our publicist that I’d be happy to contribute a balanced article on the condition that it be published holus bolus. No editing or expurgating. I also insisted that I wanted a commitment from SedEc that they would publish it, for I didn’t want to spend time drafting an article that they would later refuse.
Our publicist communicated my conditions to SedEd, and the magazine agreed. My article would be published holus bolus, they said. With that reassurance, I took pains to ensure that the article was scrupulously fair and balanced, comparing different reactions to teacher rating sites in the United States, France and Britain. Nowhere did I express an opinion.
After I submitted the article, many weeks went by without a word from SecEd. Our publicist finally checked with the editors, who reassured us that the article would indeed be published shortly. Then a few weeks later, after we checked again, they told us that sorry, the article would not be published. Someone higher up at the magazine had apparently ruled against publishing it. Presumably, they had come to the view that the article didn’t follow the official UK teacher unions’ party line against RateMyTeachers.com.
It is ironic, to put it diplomatically, that teachers are quick to censor points of view — even when balanced — that challenge established assumptions, not to mention corporatist interests. One would have hoped that teachers, of all professions, would be open to discussion and debate.
There is even more irony. This comes at a time when others, like Jeff Jarvis, are reflecting and writing about how the Web 2.0 revolution (and in particular Google) might, and should, totally transform teaching and higher learning. And there are videos like this one that point out how out-of-touch teachers are with the generation of Web-savvy “digital native” pupils who are sitting in their classrooms but learning little.
While that necessary discussion continues, I will post below the article, word for word, that SecEd magazine refused to publish. Perhaps you can explain why a magazine for UK teachers found this article too threatening.
One quick footnote: the reference to “Bebo” in the first paragraph is familiar mainly to readers in Britain where SedEd is published. Bebo (now owned by AOL) is a popular social networking site among British youths, similar to MySpace in America.
Here is the article, which I originally titled “Rate My Teachers: Pupil Empowerment or Virtual Cyberbulling?”
You be the judge:
If the Bebo generation can be defined by any single behaviour trait, it’s a cultural obsession with ratings and rankings.
The same kids who, a decade ago, were rating Pokémon players are now teenagers logged onto social networking sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook where they feverishly rate, rank, and review their favourite songs, movies, television shows, photos, comic books, celebrities, you name it.
In Britain, popular talent shows like “The X Factor” reinforce this culture of instantaneous ratings. Videos on YouTube similarly are compulsively rated and ranked by hundreds of millions of teenagers worldwide. Online social interacting is a round-the-clock ritual of mass democracy, constantly self-updating, rendering verdicts on just about everything.
This Web-empowered reflex to rate, rank, and review can be controversial. The emergence of websites like RateMyTeachers, in particular, and RateMyProfessors has focused intense public debate on issues such as “cyberbulling” of teachers by their own pupils. Some teachers associations –in the UK and other countries — have called for these sites to be shut down. Yet the cyber curtain on the virtual Gong Show never comes down.
Our purpose here is not to cast moral judgements or take a position on what governments should, or should not, do about the emergence of websites like RateMyTeachers. Our goal is twofold: first, to provide teachers with a conceptual understanding of the underlying dynamics driving Web 2.0 social networking sites; and second, to provide a comparative perspective of reactions in other countries to sites like RateMyTeachers.
It is important to grasp that the basic social architecture of networking sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook is open, horizontal, and democratic. Online social interaction, especially amongst young people, is transparent, candid, and informal. The finer points of Debrett’s etiquette are not generally top-of-mind among the millions of teenagers logged onto Bebo and MySpace.
Not surprisingly, when these sites penetrate organisations, their horizontal dynamics frequently clash with the logic and values of vertical hierarchies. Most bureaucracies and institutions are characterised by status hierarchies based on rank, protections, tenure, and other entrenched entitlements that are, by definition, hostile to bottom-up evaluations.
Professions especially are resolutely opposed to any form of non-authorised rating of their members. The reason for this is not difficult to discover. Most professions, including teaching, can be defined according to certain formal characteristics: barriers to entry based on credentials, monopoly entitlements, restrictive arrangements, self-disciplinary powers, and regulation by states. Professions are closed, vertical structures. Social networking sites are open and horizontal.
When John Swapceinski, a Silicon Valley software engineer who founded RateMyProfessor.com, stated that his website was inspired by the laws of the marketplace, it was hard to disagree with him from a purely theoretical point of view. “Students are demanding more information because they see themselves as customers who want the most value for their dollar,” he said. Most professions, however, are not subject to the laws of the marketplace. They are regulated by states in return for monopoly entitlements based on professional credentials.
Still, RateMyProfessor.com is massively successful. Launched in 1999, it’s the most heavily trafficked college website boasting some 7 million users who have generated opinions of roughly 1 million professors teaching at roughly 6,000 collegiate institutions in Anglo-American countries (RateMyTeachers is devoted to primary and secondary schools). Professors are rated on a five-point scale according to straightforward criteria: easiness, helpfulness, clarity, and the student’s interest in the class before taking it. Also, “smiley” icons are assigned as general ratings — grinning brightly for high-satisfaction evaluations, frowning glumly for low scores.
Many of the website’s critics sidestep its original purpose – to rate professors on a graded scale – and focus instead on issues like “cyberbullying” which in some cases are a justifiable concern. In Britain, one teacher claimed to feel dehumanised when a student described her as a “disinfected cat”. There can be little doubt that, in some cases, disgruntled pupils are taking out their anger at teachers via sites like RateMyTeachers and Bebo.
“Cyber-bullying takes an age-old issue to new levels,” said Mary Bousted, head of Britain’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers. “It’s an insidious and growing problem in our schools and colleges that goes beyond the school gate. For all its benefits, information technology is allowing pupils and parents to bully teachers and lecturers from afar by phone, email and the internet, exposing them to public humiliation, damaging their good reputation and taking away their professional pride and confidence.”
Critics argue moreover that sites like RateMyProfessors are trivialised by student obsession with the physical appearance of their instructors. Students assign “chili pepper” icons to professors they find “hot”. The “hotness” ranking indeed appears to be RateMyProfessors’ most popular attraction. The “hotness” factor has become so popular that RateMyProfessors now features a Top 50 for the “hottest” profs.
One study of RateMyProfessors found that students tend to like courses taught by professors that they find “hot”. Other studies of RateMyProfessors — despite obvious questions about margin-of-error implications when only 50 or 60 students assess a teacher – give top marks to the site’s utilitarian function. A study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, for example, concluded that “while issues such as personality and appearance did enter into the postings, these were secondary motivators compared to more salient issues such as competence, knowledge, clarity and helpfulness.”
Now let’s look at the experience with teacher-rating sites in three countries: the United States, France, and Britain.
In the United States, while many teachers initially complained about sites like RateMyProfessors, the attitude towards these sites has become generally relaxed and accepting. This may be a reflexion of deeply-embedded – and constitutionally protected – American values in a favour of free speech. In the United States the educational system has pragmatically integrated sites like RateMyProfessors into a value system that puts individual liberty and free speech before corporatist interests or collective rights.
RateMyProfessors has now made common cause with another well-entrenched aspect of American culture: show business. In early 2007, the pop video site MTV bought RateMyProfessors and merged it with its 24-hour college channel, MtvU, which is broadcast on 750 college campuses throughout the United States. Since the MTV takeover, RateMyProfessors has been enhanced with a Facebook application and jazzy features like “Professors Strike Back”. Professors have been given their own voice on the site. Some professors, meanwhile, have started their own site, RateYourStudents.blogspot.com, which feature opinions about students.
In France, the outcome has been precisely the opposite. When two Parisian entrepreneurs launched a French teacher-rating site called Note2be.com, France’s powerful teacher unions denounced the website as an “incitement to public disorder”. The site’s founders, for their part, pointed out that similar sites in the Anglo-American world are highly successful platforms for information and exchange. But in France, a country where teachers’ unions are willing to paralyse the country’s educational system if their interests are at stake, the government’s dread of a teachers’ strike outweighed its indulgence towards online free expression.
Xavier Ducros, France’s education minister, took a tough stance against the site. “The evaluation of teachers is the exclusive domain of the Ministry of Education and the civil servants who are appointed to carry it out,” asserted Ducros. With implicit direction from the government, French courts effectively shut down the site by prohibiting any teacher’s name to be posted. After the court ruling, Note2be went out of business.
The British experience has been somewhere between the American and French examples. UK teacher unions, like their counterparts in France, have denounced sites like RateMyTeachers. Unlike in France, however, this outcry has not been followed up by firm government action and judicial decisions. In that respect, the British experience is similar to the American situation, where a general culture of tolerance towards free speech outweighs specific professional interests – except, of course, when laws are broken.
In a Web 2.0 world where power is shifting from vertical institutions to horizontal networks, it should not be expected, meanwhile, that these ratings websites will go away. Similar sites are now providing open rating systems of other professions and services: RateMDs.com, LawyerRatingz, MechanicRatingz.com, RealtorRatingz.com, to name only a few.
What is the best way to react to these sites? It is generally advised that over-reacting in a negative manner is not the best course of action. Engaging a dialogue and becoming a part of the conversation, while being vigilant about outright abuses that violate laws, is generally considered to be a more productive approach to ratings sites.