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University Challenged

Welcome back STL guest blogger Paddy Collins, Head of Strategic Sales at The FT:

Looking back at my education it has always seemed a shame to me that as it progressed a systematic narrowing of scope was applied. Ten subjects at GCSE quickly became just three at A-Level and just two years later these were reduced again to a single degree subject.  Had my interests lay in the fields of neurosurgery or the engineering of advanced rocketry I might be better able to accept the necessity of specialisation but, like so many others I suspect, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and so was open to learning a bit about almost anything in the hope of refining my somewhat vague ambitions.

The US college system comes closer than most to solving this dilemma.  By not prescribing a rigid curriculum their credit system allows students to take some classes that can be completely unrelated to their core degree.  It is an astute system which recognises that inspiration comes from all manner of unlikely sources and on occasion a short course in poetry is as likely to progress the studies of a scientist as the same period of time spent in the laboratory.

As so often with simple ideas however, implementing them quickly becomes complex.  In US colleges there is incredibly stiff competition for places on popular courses and limited availability.  Colleges have responded by applying different types of rules and regulations but in general these have only exacerbated the situation by further reducing the options available to students.

At the University College of Florida one student recently devised a solution to this problem by building an app @UCouldFinish that automatically scraped the online course registration system every sixty seconds and notified students when a place opened up on a course they had added to their shortlist.

Launching it through Facebook, Tim Arnold @timkarnold charged roughly a dollar per download and attracted over 500 users in six days before administrators blocked the service. He has subsequently been sanctioned on the grounds of ‘misuse of computing and telecommunications resources’ and handed a prolonged period of academic probation, an enforced session on ‘good decision making’ and most tellingly, is now required to write an essay on why maintaining such a system is difficult.

My sympathies are divided on this. Ethically, the college is absolutely correct and no student, no matter how effectively they manage to surface the data, should be able to co-opt a school database for personal gain.  Arnold has stated that his intent was to help students and that he had only made $7.78, but the moral point is an absolute.

Did Arnold do something so terribly wrong however? Students have a problem that he, to an extent, has alleviated. Wouldn’t a smarter sanction be to assimilate his app into the existing university system?  Indeed, why make it a sanction at all and demand an essay explaining all of the difficulties of maintaining the system when he could better spend the time working on solving them?

The story continues to evolve and I hope you will join me in watching with great interest but I feel an opportunity may have been missed by the University College of Florida.  Arnold’s all too swift evolution from inventor to entrepreneur could have been arrested, the application could have been refined and distributed free of charge, and a more adoptive resolution would surely have been preferable to the heavy handed ruling of the institution.  In a digital world where Arnold can broadcast his side of the story just as effectively as the college, what damage does it do to their brand?  Innovation, creativity and the willingness to try something are attributes to encourage not constrain.

Surfacing data may not be glamorous, but it is a massive task for organisations in all sectors.  They would do well not to rebuff attempts, regardless of motivation, to meet this challenge.

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