The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Chiding cheers for Yahoo! ranking

THE UNIVERSITY'S new ranking in Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine is bound to please administrators here. After receiving a dismal 34th-place ranking last year, the University moved up to eighth place among universities and research schools in the magazine's annual survey of the most wired schools in the nation. A top-10 ranking makes a nice number to put on glossy pamphlets with generic pictures of smiling students walking on emerald-green lawns. Top-10 lists, however, should always incite suspicion, and in this case the ranking offers little information about the true quality of technology on the campus.

That's not to say that the survey is inaccurate, though any such feature involves a certain amount of error. Even when a ranking supposedly rests only on numbers, people have to decide how those numbers are interpreted, and must also choose who gets a spot in case of a tie. Ultimately, people have to make choices about the rankings, and that introduces the potential for mistakes. Still, nothing suggests that the report is inaccurate on its own terms.

Those terms, however, are flawed. Admittedly, the Yahoo! survey intends only to rank the nation's "most wired" campuses. Universities were rated based on access and infrastructure, administrative services, general resources and student support only, not on other factors. That introduces a critical flaw into the ratings that reduces their usefulness.

The Yahoo! rankings basically measure how much Internet access educational institutions have on their campuses, and not really what kind. The difference does not seem as simple as that at first glance. After all, the survey also took support and administration into account. Still, even if a survey finds the best-run information systems, it might say very little about their value.

No computer system, however well made, offers any benefit to the community it serves unless it is used effectively. In a community that, like most universities and colleges, combines educational and social aspects, effective use means using technology to support both these parts of student life.

Few people can miss the social uses of information technology. At midday, any computer lab is full of people checking their e-mail and using instant messaging software to chat online. Of course, the value of that kind of interaction can be called into question -- often people complain about the death of personal contact due to the ease of virtual conversation. At any rate, an effective information technology system goes beyond merely allowing people to communicate. The VPSA announcements at the University are an example of what could be done -- Internet technology can be used to promote and improve social events.

The educational benefits are sometimes harder to grasp. Experts often speak of virtual classrooms as the next step in the future of involving information technology in education. This idea has drawn understandable fire from critics because it separates the students from the professors. Internet technology can be used to benefit the classroom, however. Many courses here at the University have their own Web sites, with course materials and syllabi. Technology can do even more, though.

With the use of real-time broadcast over the Internet, professors could bring experts into the classroom without having to worry about basing class around a visitor's schedule. An award-winning poet could read and discuss his work with an English class, or a Nobel-winning physicist could deliver a lecture to physics classes. Through use of e-mail and online chat areas, communication between the professor and students can improve, and discussion can be extended beyond the walls of Cabell Hall.

On an administrative level, technology can improve students' lives by keeping track of how resources are used. While this is done now, the real power in many ways has yet to be tapped. If the administrators keep track of course enrollment, foot traffic, cafeteria use and other aspects of student life, they can make improved decisions about how and where to spend money on professors, walkways and student buildings.

The University generally does a good job at using the technology it has, but more could be done. Unfortunately, the Yahoo! article offers no way to determine how well one institution stacks up against another in this respect.

The most troubling result of that failure is that most people reading the article or seeing the numbers reproduced in glossy pamphlets will think that they represent the total quality of technology on a campus. Sure, infrastructure, support and good administration are necessary to create technological excellence. The true measure of the universities, however, and the way they should be ranked, is how that technology is used to improve the college experience.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)