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Consumer Reports

Students evaluating profs, courses online

By Lou Marano | (UPI) -- Two young Texans have started an Internet service that helps students choose professors with teaching styles that best suit them. Chris Chilek, 26, and John Cunningham, 25, got the idea for Pick-a-Prof when they were students at Texas A&M University.

"Every semester it seemed like students were asking us or asking friends which professors they thought were good or bad," Chilek said in a phone interview from Austin.

"With Pick-a-Prof, we just took that circle of friends and made it into the entire campus," Cunningham added.

The two put up pilot Internet test sites at Texas A&M and at the University of Texas at Austin and got "a phenomenal response" at both places. The sites contained information about faculty and provided a forum for students to exchange thoughts online about professors. Since then they have "brought in a lot of experience at the office and have grown the company out from there."

Now they are at more than 50 colleges and universities, coast-to-coast, and adding more each semester.

University of Maryland student government brought Pick-a-Prof to the College Park campus in the spring. "We have a few thousand students using it and loving it," said Karen Bragg, 25, the company's director of university relations. "It's been a great response."

The entrepreneurs were asked why cynics shouldn't conclude that that students are using Pick-a-Prof simply to find easy graders.

Chilek and Cunningham replied that their surveys and focus groups show that students look for other things besides easy graders on the site.

"Students are a lot smarter than people give them credit for," Chilek said. "A lot of students realize that if they just go for the easy 'A' this year, then next year when the material builds on what they were supposed to learn, they won't do as well as they had in preceding semesters."

Rather, students use the site to gather information that enables them to play to their strengths, the partners said. They learn about professors' lecture style, homework load, and exam types.

"Basically, it's matching students with professors they can learn from," Chilek told United Press International.

Chilek said when he was in college, he had to have homework assigned or he would tend not to do the required reading.

Cunningham said Pick-a-Prof surveys have shown consistently that consumers like the reviews -- what students say about professors in their own words -- better than the grading information.

And how does the company make its money?

"That varies according to the university," Bragg replied. "The University of Maryland Student Government Association brought the service to the campus, so they pay for it out of student activities fees."

At Texas A&M, Pick-a-Prof has a deal with the campus bookstores. Students pay $5 a semester and get $5 back when they reserve their books through Pick-a-Prof online. "We get the $5 from the bookstore, and they in turn get the reservations," she said. At the University of Texas, students can go online and purchase a semester for $5.

"We do a lot of quality content control," Chilek said. "Every review is screened for profanity and personal attacks against professors, who will get on the site and read what students have written about them."

Does this work to the disadvantage of professors with high standards?

Cunningham, whose parents are both "pretty tough" professors, didn't think so. (Later, from another source, UPI learned that Cunningham's father, William H. Cunningham, was president of the University of Texas at Austin from 1985 to 1992 and chancellor of the 15-campus University of Texas system from 1992 to 2000.)

"Recently, we've added an entire professor support system to get their feedback on what the students say about their classes," Chilek said. Professors can post individual course descriptions describing what students can expect and also what they expect from students.

About 75 percent of student reviews rank the professor average to excellent, Bragg said. "Once professors understand our services, they find the site to be very beneficial."

The University of Maryland's Student Government Association, in cooperation with Pick-a-Prof, developed a system that helps professors give students course information and to receive anonymous feedback at any point during the semester. Professors may select from a bank of standard questions or make up their own and schedule a date they would like students to send feedback. The system notifies students, collects the responses, compiles them statistically and lets the professor know when the results are available for review.

Cunningham was a student of Texas A&M Marketing Professor Paul Busch, and the professor has had Cunningham come back to talk to his classes several times. Busch said he thinks students find Pick-a-Prof useful, particularly freshmen and sophomores who don't have as many friends to ask about courses as upperclassmen.

"I've been consistently amazed at how impressed the students are that one of their own has developed an honest-to-gosh Internet business," Busch told UPI. "It really resonates with students that he started this thing on his own right out of school."

University of Texas Professor of Management and Sociology John Sibley Butler thinks Pick-a-Prof "is the best thing for students since sliced bread -- and for professors, too." Butler said that formerly "tons and tons of paper" would be posted on the library wall saying things like, "Don't take Prof. Smith's class!" Butler would have to "sneak" over to see if his courses were being evaluated in this way.

"In this information age, two things have changed," Butler said. "All of my Power Points (presentations) are on the Internet now, and my kids can study at home, in the airport -- anywhere in the world."

And if in class he refers to what happened to General Motors in 1925, he can call on students with laptops who have found a report on the subject as he was speaking. "It's great!" he said. "Most of the kids expect these things to happen. It's really driven me to respond to the wishes of the kids."

Pick-a-Prof has had a salutary effect on professors in terms of preparation and doing their best in class, Butler said. "I think it's absolutely wonderful."

Saj Popat, vice president of public relations for the University of Maryland's SGA, said the program has been well received among students. The only negative comments have come from a few junior faculty worried that bad evaluations would lower registration in their courses, which the administration could held against them when being evaluated for tenure.

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