Bizarre Trend: Journalism Professors Using Klout Scores As Part Of Students' Grades

from the bad-metrics dept

We've raised questions in the past about the relevance of "Klout" scores. If you don't know, Klout is one of a few companies that try to measure "influence" online by looking at your social media activity. The whole process seems kind of silly, but for whatever reason, once you put a number on things, people take it seriously, no matter how bogus the number might be. Lots of companies now use Klout scores to determine who they should give special perks to, leading to plenty of people just trying to game their scores. However, should Klout scores count towards your grade as a student? Adam Singer sent over examples of two separate journalism professors who think so.

In both cases, the professors admit that Klout scores may not be particularly accurate, but both have interesting defenses for including the score as part of the grades that students get. Todd Bacile, from Florida State University, argues that even if people think Klout is inaccurate or silly, since others are taking it seriously, students need to take it seriously too. Even if it's a problem-perpetuating situation, he argues that he's being something of a realist and merely preparing his students for the real world, where they'll be judged by their Klout scores whether they like it or not -- and thus one project (but not the entire grade for the course) will be graded based on Klout scores:
Most people seem to either love or hate Klout, so the notion of assigning a portion of a student’s grade to their respective Klout score may cause some to react … what’s a good word to use here … fretfully. Yet, as an educator teaching electronic marketing at the collegiate level I owe it to my students to introduce them to every and any concept that will help them land an internship or fulltime job. Klout matters to employers

And here is an inescapable fact. Many firms are sizing up college student’s Klout scores as a quantitative metric to use for job applicant screening. Therefore, I decided to create a class project in which the final grade earned is solely determined by a student’s Klout score.

For whatever it's worth, he notes that his students have massively increased their Klout scores because of this. He also claims that by having them focus on Klout scores -- something that could constantly be measured -- it actually kept students more engaged:
An experiential project like this proved to be enjoyable for the students and maintained their attention and enthusiasm throughout the semester. Many students would compare scores and discuss different techniques used to engage with powerful opinion leaders within the social world. Which students had higher scores became a friendly competition causing students to work even harder at engaging others. Imagine that: students wanting to work more to develop skills that current marketing employers are searching for!
Bacile has since noted that when he presented this idea at a conference, other professors told him they were going to do the same thing.

The second story Singer sent over is from Ryan Thornburg, who teaches journalism at UNC, and who is also using Klout as part of the grade (in this case, counting as 20% of it). Thornburg also admits, quite directly, that Klout is probably "overly simplistic." So why is he doing this? Because he thinks that it forces students to do actual experiments in which they can all learn how Klout works, and see if they can improve it.
How is that possibly fair to students who are struggling to raise this arbitrary number that's contrived inside a black box? It's fair because it transforms the class from a workshop on button-pushing to an exercise in hypothesis testing, strategy and critical thinking. Students -- who often approach grades with calculating economy of effort -- don't know what they have to do to boost their Klout scores, so they are forced to design simple experiments, isolate variables, and generalize their findings.
In the end, he notes that perhaps his best students will actually be able to build a better Klout.

I'll admit that my initial reaction to these stories was horror. The idea of basing grades on a silly system like Klout certainly feels very, very wrong. However, the explanations and defenses from both professors have me rethinking that stance somewhat. Is it really all that different from "teaching to the test", as some teachers do for standardized testing? An SAT score may not really tell us much of anything, but it is important for many colleges, so is it a surprise that teachers help their students optimize for it? While we can quite reasonably worry that focusing on Klout has students optimizing less useful skills, from an experimental standpoint, perhaps it's not such a crazy idea.

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  1. icon
    Sneeje (profile), 30 Oct 2012 @ 9:52am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Well, I get that, but then I would expect some analysis of how time spent working on the Klout score detrimentally cannibalizes writing time and therefore skill.

    It is my opinion that conclusion does not logically follow even if time is scarce. People are capable of promoting themselves and honing their craft at the same time and I would presume that the more you learn and experiment with promotion the better you get and the less time it may take.

    In fact, I think the fundamental premise behind what Mike tries to teach is that most professions require that individual promotion and outreach to become a core part of becoming successful.

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