Examples of online transparency in the HEI/University sector regarding faculties and resources?
November 30, 2010 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Are there any examples (successful and less so) of University and Higher Education transparency in the internet realm?

Are there any good examples or case studies online of universities who have embraced online transparency?

Institutions which have listed all their courses, age ranges and gender breakdowns, course fees, faculties and areas of research?

Equally - institutions, departments or individual courses which have been given the go-ahead to publish or list this information?

If you're involved in HEI life, are there good reasons why these kinds of initiative are not so visible? Or do you know of any places which *have* taken these steps, and whether they've been successful (in terms of research output, collaboration, utilisation of excess capacity, commercial spinoffs or partnerships, etc?)
posted by davemee to Education (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Institutions which have listed all their courses,

Essentially every significant college or university in the US has their catalog online, which includes all courses. If anything, the problem with catalogs is that they typically list many courses that are offered only rarely, if ever.

age ranges and gender breakdowns,

This information, at a university-wide level, is commonly but not always available from US universities. Stereotypically on a "Statistics about the incoming class" page.

course fees,

Whether or not a course has a course or lab fee is commonly listed in the catalog or course schedule. How much the fee is is not.

faculties and areas of research?

I am unaware of any significant US institution that does not, though I'm sure I could dig up at least one if you really want. But typically this will not be done at the university level but rather at the (US) department.

At any rate, the answer is "Essentially every institution of higher learning in the United States."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:06 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am unaware of any reputable institution of higher learning which has not made this information available somewhere. It's usually stuck in little-used corners of their website rather than displayed prominently, but it's almost always there.

But you aren't likely to find much about the list in your last sentence, particularly "excess capacity." That's usually kept pretty close, for both prudential and legal reasons. Seriously, no one, universities included, talks much about spinoffs or partnerships until they're a done deal, and even then there are lots which are kept discreet either because the relationship is sensitive or because it's really boring.

An example of the former would be when a university has a relationship with two competing firms/governments/agencies/whatever, or with an entity which does not want its relationship with the university to be common knowledge. This happens quite a bit, and confidentiality is actually an important part of academic freedom in many cases.

An example of the latter would be contracts with vendors, etc. I work in my company's legal department, and I can tell you about tons of partnerships my employer doesn't publicize, not because we couldn't, but because, e.g., no one really wants to know the names of the vendors that provide our mail meter and folder-stuffing equipment. Given that there's a finite amount of information the company can put out in any particular time period, those resources are much better allocated in furthering the company's goals than in pointless transparency for its own sake. I'm sure the situation with universities is very similar.
posted by valkyryn at 6:22 AM on November 30, 2010

Institutions which have listed all their


That's definitely standard practice in US universities. I think there's a difference in the way that British and American people typically use the word "course": in Britain, a "course" is an entire program of study, whereas in the US, it's an individual class. But either way, you can find that information very easily on the website of any American university. Here, for instance, is the listing of Spring 2011 classes at the University of Maryland. Here's a list of undergraduate majors (programs of study) that the University of Maryland offers.

age ranges and gender breakdowns,

That, I think, you may have to dig for a bit at US universities, especially if you're talking about individual departments rather than larger units. I don't think the Computer Science department exactly has an incentive to publicize that only 10% of their students are women, and I don't think that Social Work wants to write home about the low number of male students they have. You probably could find that information if you were willing to dig through obscure university reports for it, though.

Continuing with the University of Maryland, which I picked randomly, they link to a page that provides this demographic information.

course fees,

Very easy to find on the website of any American university. Here's what the University of Maryland tells prospective students. If a particular class has an extra materials or lab fee, which sometimes happens, then that's listed on the information about that particular class which, as I said above, is readily accessible.

faculties and areas of research?

Every department at an American university will have a page like this, which lists each faculty member and his or her areas of research.

(I'm not affiliated with the University of Maryland in any way. I picked it randomly, because I was talking to my mom about it over Thanksgiving.)

I find it sort of hard to believe that British universities don't do all that stuff, though. Is that really true, or are you thinking about something different from this?
posted by craichead at 6:49 AM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so far, everyone!

I've been looking at a few attempts at this - XCRI-CAP is one interesting approach.

As many seem to be saying - yes, a lot of this information is out there. However, it's not in a single, digestible, open, or machine-readable format - it's almost deliberately obscure, published only because it has to be published. But if you need to read 100 admission brochures, chances are you'll stop after the 10 most interesting. If you are looking for underused capacity (in terms of institutions who could rent out, for example, recording studios), again - it's a huge amount of work to sift through every piece of collatera.

I'm looking at a froogle-like model where universities and HEIs publish information about their courses, and this is centrally aggregated allowing comparison and discovery. It's incredible how much departments in the UK don't know about other departments equipment - a 3d scanning suite available at a medical faculty that is only used once a week may be of benefit to a videogame faculty at the same institution - but they don't know about each other.

I'm trying to establish arguments as to why institutions should do this, and make their research and facilities public for commercial and intra-institutional collaboration. Other than 'because we don't do it that way so far', there's no real arguments against this initiative, but the only compelling argument for it so far are that other people are doing it already and it's better that the institution control their own definitions, and that there's an inevitability about transparency of information. Good business arguments or existing cases of places who undertake this already are what I'm looking for.
posted by davemee at 7:22 AM on November 30, 2010

However, it's not in a single, digestible, open, or machine-readable format - it's almost deliberately obscure, published only because it has to be published.

I can tell you flatly that this is wrong. Deeply wrong. So far from correct that it's not on the same planet.

The reasons it's not in a single, digestible, machine-readable format are simple.

(1) It would cost a great big pile of money and impose very high compliance costs on departments.
(2) There is little or no apparent demand for it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:55 AM on November 30, 2010

As someone involved in a project at a university to make more data available to more people (though mostly intra-university, not to the general public), I add one more to ROU_Xenophobe's list:

(3) The people with power (Deans/Administration, people who allocate money) don't understand why anyone would want this and so have it at about 950 on their priorities list
posted by brainmouse at 8:36 AM on November 30, 2010

a 3d scanning suite available at a medical faculty that is only used once a week may be of benefit to a videogame faculty at the same institution - but they don't know about each other.
There would be big logistical problems with sharing this technology. What happens when both the videogame people and the medical people want to use the technology at the same time? How do you share maintenance costs? Do you train the videogame people in the privacy and safety procedures that everyone in the medical facility has to be trained in? Can you assume that a bunch of toy-makers will take those procedures as seriously as the medical staff? (I know I can get fired if I violate privacy rules. Does your average videogame-program grad student really think that there will be serious repricussions if he or she talks about something he or she saw or heard at the medical facility?) If not, what procedures are necessary to limit their exposure to sensitive stuff? Whose job is it to figure out all that stuff? Who pays that person's salary?
posted by craichead at 8:39 AM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: I think ROU_Xenophobe's point (2) and brainmouse's point (3) are really the same thing.

And as for logistics, craichead - that's outside the scope of the research. This was actually a specific scenario highlighted to me. Cutbacks, and riots, frame the current UK HEI sector. This stuff could potentially be part of a solution.
posted by davemee at 9:35 AM on November 30, 2010

Educause is the professional IT organization for Higher Ed in the US. The Chronicle of Higher Education is the major periodical. Both are good places to for this research. A good librarian can give you a lot of help with this.
posted by theora55 at 10:05 AM on November 30, 2010

And as for logistics, craichead - that's outside the scope of the research.
I don't think it is, really. You're starting from a bunch of really weird premises: that the reason information isn't available in the format you'd like is that universities are full of big, obfuscating meanies, for instance, or that the reason that medical facilities aren't sharing their high-tech equipment with a bunch of toy-makers is that the toy-makers don't know about the high-tech equipment. (And in my experience, medical facilities are perfectly happy to show off all their gizmos. They don't hide that stuff. They would never in a billion years share it with the videogame people, but they don't hide it.) There are major structural disincentives to the kind of collaboration you seem to want, and I don't think it's primarily a problem of transparency or lack thereof.
posted by craichead at 10:20 AM on November 30, 2010

In terms of statistics about UK students there is lots of material available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, much of which can be downloaded as .xls files directly from the website.

A lot of material is available "on demand" in the UK, especially as we have a Freedom of Information law that applies to public bodies such as (the vast majority of) universities. As people have discussed above, the amount of obscure stuff that someone could want to know is unimaginably vast, so most of it is provided on an "on demand" basis, otherwise the compliance costs could easily outweigh the day-to-day costs of running the institution by orders of magnitude.

That said, most of what you ask for is out there. It is easy to forget that just putting stuff on the web is an orders-upon-orders-of-magnitude level of increase in machine readability compared with 10-15 years ago, and that most of what people want to know ("who does research in X") can be found readily through generic tools such as Google. There have been some attempts to create structured aggregators for this information (e.g. the academia.edu site, but I think that a lot of academics wouldn't see the added value that this gives over-and-above just the information that they put on their website - and most research-active universities have vast web resources detailing their research and teaching activities. I think that this is the real answer to your question: if you come to me and offer me the "opportunity" to put information on some new site, then I have to worry about the ongoing cognitive load of keeping another source of information up-to-date for minimal marginal benefit over just putting it on the web.

In terms of "excess capacity" there is plenty of material made available on individual university websites, to take a random example our university biosciences department has a page about facilities that are available for external clients. There are some aggregators available: for example, Venuemasters aggregates information about the availability of conference facilities at 85 different UK universities. I think that when it pays for institutions to aggregate the material then it usually happens. Also, most of this "excess capacity" is of fairly local geographical interest: if a member of the public wants to, use sports facilities or rent a performance space at a university then there are unlikely to be more than a handful of sufficiently local universities to explore except in the most dense urban areas. Again, good-old-fashioned web search suffices.

There may be a business or public-benefit opportunity in aggregating the "long tail" of this excess capacity - but I do also wonder if it is easy to overestimate the amount of stuff that is out there that is not constantly in use by students or researchers.
posted by Jabberwocky at 10:28 AM on November 30, 2010

And in my experience, medical facilities are perfectly happy to show off all their gizmos. They don't hide that stuff. They would never in a billion years share it with the videogame people, but they don't hide it.

Really? I agree that medical facilities and other big-ticket facilities are very happy to show off their gizmos, but I would have figured that they'd love Love LOVE to let the videogame people use it... so long as it's on the videogame people's grant.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:36 AM on November 30, 2010

but I do also wonder if it is easy to overestimate the amount of stuff that is out there that is not constantly in use by students or researchers.

This, or as others have pointed out, the "owners" of these facilities will almost certainly already be pimping out their kit to help pay the maintenance costs. A couple of examples: our physics department just bought a 3-D printer and has been very actively soliciting use by other departments, and one of the profs in my department has spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to find other people to use her electron microscopes during the times her research team aren't using them. Both departments also have facilities others could use, if they weren't permanently in use by the home department.

A further complication is that some expensive equipment is bought by a funding council or trust on condition that it is only used for research funded by the same body. I think the problem really isn't that people would like to use a particular piece of kit and don't know where they might find such a thing - it is either that there's no spare capacity, or there are other restrictions which prevent use outside the main project, or that if there is spare capacity there is nobody wanting to use that.

As far as industrial partnerships and spinoffs are concerned, there is plenty of activity around collaborative research, knowledge transfer partnerships, etc. But on the whole, industrial companies aren't desperate to get their hands on university equipment, it's the other way round.

(And to bring it back to the original question, I don't see how any of the information in the first few sentences ties in with the last one - what possible effect could knowledge of gender breakdown on courses have on the likelihood of industrial collaboration or use of spare equipment?)
posted by nja at 10:44 AM on November 30, 2010

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