Editorial | A resource worth improving

It’s important to bring attention to problems with Penn Course Review, but the solution cannot be to stop using it altogether

· November 2, 2011, 1:40 am   ·  Updated November 3, 2011, 12:58 am

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Shortly after Penn Course Review launched a redesigned version of its website on Monday, Undergraduate Chairman of the English Department Max Cavitch called for it to be taken down because of data errors. He also advised against the use of PCR in general, stating that “no student or faculty member should under any circumstances be using PCR.”

It’s important to bring attention to problems with the site, but the solution cannot be to stop using it altogether.

PCR, a student-produced compilation of professor and course ratings compiled from University-conducted evaluations, serves an important function for students by making this information easily accessible in an online format. Its data provides valuable insight on course selection that comes from the aggregation of many voices over time, complementing the advice of friends and academic advisers.

It speaks well for the University that the administration provides a platform for students to express opinions, both good and bad, about classes and professors. The alternatives — external review sites such as Rate My Professors or MyEdu — are extremely prone to evaluation biases and have limited sample sizes. Penn’s internal evaluations, by contrast, had a response rate of 85 percent last year. Because the reviews published by PCR are conducted by the University, students can trust that they come from those enrolled in the respective courses.

But there do exist many problems with PCR that must be acknowledged. Because it is student run, there is frequent turnover in its leadership, resulting in many problems — including this most recent one — arising because of lapses in continuity. PCR was originally published by The Daily Pennsylvanian in 1959 as a 33-page pamphlet, with the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education taking over in 1971 and PCR becoming autonomous in 1982. It wasn’t published in 1985 because of a shortage of staff members.

The publication went online in 2002, but the website went down the following year after its leaders graduated and the domain name expired. It was rebuilt by two Engineering students as a computer science senior design project and included bugs not unlike those encountered in the recent redesign by PennApps Labs, with incorrect course listings under the Electrical Engineering department. The server that hosted the site crashed during the add/drop period of fall 2004, and a subsequent server change left it offline for an extended period of time. It crashed again for a month at the start of the fall 2005 semester, this time for reasons not a single person could explain. PCR has clearly had a very unstable past.

Despite its rocky history and previous mismanagement, instead of calling for the suspension of the site, we need to ensure its survival, improve its reliability. With better management, PCR can better inform students during the course-selection process. This improvement can only occur with the support of multiple campus constituencies — students, professors and administrators included. PCR should partner more closely with other groups, especially the Office of the University Registrar, so the course review can itself be reviewed. And not only should PCR simply survive, but it should also expand. One of Undergraduate Assembly President Tyler Ernst’s campaign goals was to integrate PCR with Penn InTouch, the University’s online academic portal — a unification that would be of great help for students and should be undertaken soon.

The concerns raised about the accuracy and continuity of PCR are valid ones; they bring to light important issues surrounding the publication. But the identification of these problems should not serve as deterrence to the existence of PCR — rather, it should serve as encouragement for its improvement.

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