Bold move to counter Yale’s blocking of a student course selection web site

A few days ago, I posted about two students at Yale (Harry Yu and Peter Xu) who built a student course selection web site that was far superior to any of the official tools offered by Yale. Yale shut them down.

On Friday, Mary Miller, Dean of Yale College, posted an official response to the controversy.

This past week, students in Yale College lost access to YBB+ because its developers, although acting with good intentions, used university resources without permission and violated the acceptable use policy that applies to all members of the Yale community. The timing for its users could not have been worse: over 1,000 of them had uploaded worksheets during the course selection period and relied on those worksheets to design their course schedules. And the means for shutting down the site immediately — by blocking it — led to charges that the university was suppressing free speech.

Free speech defines Yale’s community; the people who belong to it understand that they are entitled to share their views just as they must tolerate the views of others, no matter how offensive. The right to free speech, however, does not entitle anyone to appropriate university resources. In the case of YBB+, developers were unaware that they were not only violating the appropriate use policy but also breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations. Those evaluations, whose primary purpose is to inform instructors how to improve their teaching, became available to students only in recent years and with the understanding that the information they made available to students would appear only as it currently appears on Yale’s sites — in its entirety.

Members of the YCDO and the University Registrar met this week with the developers, and to good end: the developers learned more about the underlying problems with using data without permission, the importance of communicating in advance with the university on projects that require approval and cooperation, and some of the existing mechanisms for collaborating with the university, among them the Yale College Council. Administrators, for their part, heard more about the demand for better tools and guidelines for the growing number of student developers, the need for a better approach to students who violate the acceptable use policy — in most cases unwittingly — and the value students place on information contained in teaching evaluations. All parties agreed to work toward a positive outcome, and they remain in conversation with each other to that end.

We have not yet seen a public response to this post from Xu and Yu. What has emerged, however, is a surprising response from another Yale student, Sean Haufler. (H/T to Clay Andres)

Sean built a Chrome extension called Banned Bluebook to replace the banned functionality. From Sean’s blog post:

I built a Chrome Extension called Banned Bluebook. It modifies the Chrome browser to add CourseTable’s functionality to Yale’s official course selection website, showing the course’s average rating and workload next to each search result. It also allows students to sort these courses by rating and workload. This is the original site, and this is the site with Banned Bluebook enabled (this demo uses randomly generated rating values).

Banned Bluebook never stores data on any servers. It never talks to any non-Yale servers. Moreover, since my software is smarter at caching data locally than the official Yale course website, I expect that students using this extension will consume less bandwidth over time than students without it. Don’t believe me? You can read the source code. No data ever leaves Yale’s control. Trademarks, copyright infringement, and data security are non-issues. It’s 100% kosher.

It is well worth reading Sean’s post to follow his logic. I hope Dean Miller takes the same reasoned tack with Sean as she did with Harry Yu and Peter Xu. This can still end well for all parties. Seems to me there’s a great combination of lessons learned by all and, most importantly, a better course evaluation and selection process for Yale students.

  • jacksonsquire

    When I went to university in 2001-2005 the university was just starting to allow students to select courses via a website. It was so bad that we could only really select our courses there (provided the site wasn’t overloaded with traffic). They wouldn’t be approved there. We had to print them out and bring them to the student enrollment center. After the first try on there no one bothered with that again. We’d get the book of courses and select from there.

    The student enrollment center was interesting in that everything there was old. The computers were Apple ][s. You would stand in line outside the office and someone would flag you over to an open computer with a student volunteer who would help you work out your schedule for the next quarter (we did quarters, not semesters). They were all networked to a laserwriter in the back of the room where your course schedule would be printed. I asked once why they still used such old technology to do it, and they replied quite correctly that it just worked. New software or computers wouldn’t really make the process any faster. They were waiting for the entire office to be replaced by the enrollment website once they figured out what to do with it. I’d assume by now that’s occurred.

    • Joseph Blake

      The massive modernization of things like that is one reason college tuition is going up (that, and healthcare costs). Technology in college back offices and classrooms (and research labs for that matter) are shockingly out of date even to this day.

  • Joseph Blake

    Something that is missed in this whole debacle is that a lot of the data they are scraping is regulated, so even if Yale would want to open this stuff up, they have to do so in a measured and deliberate fashion.