Take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience.” Don’t shop that section of ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics.” And don’t forget that 3 p.m. meeting at the Blue Room with your group partners.
This is the kind of information available on student startup websites focused on Brown academics. Critical Review, CalClash and Best of Brown, all created by Brown undergraduates, serve to answer some of the questions that other University resources cannot, like how to schedule the perfect meeting time for your study group or which professor might change your life. Here, The Herald explores the development of these websites and the challenges that lie ahead.
Veteran ‘Critical Review’ evolves to stay relevant
Founded in 1976, the Critical Review launched the online edition that current Brown students are familiar with in 1997. The Critical Review now only prints paper copies for archiving purposes, according to Charis Loke ’13, an editor-in-chief of the organization. But its early years were a formative part of its ability to remain a presence on campus for more than 30 years.
During his time as editor-in-chief, Robert Markey ’86 addressed a number of issues with the venture, including production time, coverage span and the varied quality of reviews that had sometimes been rude to professors.
Markey got involved in the spring of 1984 after complaining at a Sharpe Refectory meal about the poor quality of the Critical Review. Markey was chagrined when he discovered he had been griping to the head of the Critical Review, who then challenged Markey to do better. Markey decided to take on the challenge.
“We fundamentally rewrote the survey and came up with a new way to present the stuff,” Markey said.
Changes included replacing averages with bar graphs illustrating the distribution of scores, a format the Critical Review still uses today.
Markey, who stayed in contact with the organizers for several years after he graduated, attributes the success of the Critical Review to the crucial role it plays in helping students take advantage of the New Curriculum. By building a positive, voluntary relationship with professors, it is something the whole Brown community can be invested in, he said.
“If the Critical Review didn’t exist today, it would be started by someone,” Markey said.
Today, the organization, which is funded by the Undergraduate Finance Board, continues to adapt to student demands.
Loke said the Critical Review is currently looking into potential ways to improve the service, though no concrete decisions have yet been made.
The Critical Review is unique in that it was the first website to allow professors to directly get feedback from students.
Professors have told Loke that they consider reviews from Critical Review when reworking a curriculum, she said.
Loke, who joined Critical Review her first year, mentioned new blood as a way to keep student projects sustainable. Because the Critical Review gets new staff every year, the organization keeps the staff energized and prevents burnout, she said.
There has been growth in student-developed websites over the past three years, Loke said, but many of them disappear after a while.
“Most obviously, you need to have a consistent need for the service,” she added.
‘Best of Brown’ compiles favorite classes
Launched last spring by Jonah Kagan ’13 and Liz Neu ’14, Best of Brown is a website that allows students to submit their favorite three classes and see the top recommended classes and professors of other students. The site addressed some of its initial bugs prior to relaunching this semester.
“Last semester, a lot of people were complaining about having to use Facebook, so I just took that out and used Brown email,” Kagan said, adding that the aesthetics of the site was also changed.
In the relaunch, data from the spring semester was not carried over, and users who were registered through Facebook will have to re-register, he said. The site is also now open to alumni and first-years, who are not required to submit their favorite three classes to register. Current users are split evenly among class years, he said.
According to the Best of Brown website, “754 out of 4573 sophomores, juniors and seniors,” or approximately 16 percent of undergraduates who are not first-years, have submitted to the site.
“Last time around, it was sort of this hacked-together experiment,” Kagan said. “Now, it’s got a lot of the infrastructure in place that it can sort of grow, if it needs to, in the future.”
The new structure will allow Kagan to add features, such as periodic updates of favorite courses.
Kagan says Best of Brown continues to “complement” the Critical Review, filling a demand for less objective reviews that highlight courses that have had formative impacts on students.
“Nobody agreed that favorite courses are best courses,” Kagan said. “At the same time, it wouldn’t work if you forced users to agree to a definition of best because everyone has their own definition of best. What’s important to the site is that everyone loved (the course),” he said.
But one issue the original site faced was a possible bias in the rankings toward large introductory classes, especially in the sciences, as these larger classes received more votes simply because of higher enrollment. Because the registrar will not release overall enrollment by class, Kagan said he is not able to average the data. Still, the site’s value is in its ability to show “trends in the data,” he said.
Kagan said his strategy for the website involves applying a simple yet meaningful concept that encourages the largest number of users and creates the largest possible data set. The site has received little feedback from the administration and faculty, though this kind of feedback is not key to Best of Brown’s concept.
Kagan is also a founding member of The Brown Conversation, a student discussion forum that encourages critical discussion of different approaches to education at the University. Best of Brown is a tool that matches with the idea of students critically examining their time at Brown, Kagan said.
“If you don’t know which class you want to take, Best of Brown might be helpful because on Critical Review you have to search for a specific course or department,” said Frances Steen ’15, who had not heard of the site before.
Kagan cited Mocha as a site that slowed in development after its founders graduated.
To prevent t
he same fate for Best of Brown, he is currently speaking with Computer Information Services about creating a system that allows student developers to share their data and projects with undergraduates who would continue the projects after the original developers graduate.
“My vision for Best of Brown as part of a greater ecosystem is sort of to move student-developed course tools,” he said. “My greatest vision is to have data available to other student developers.”
‘CalClash’ coordinates students’ schedules
Andrew Antar ’12, a former Herald editorial cartoonist, founded CalClash.com, a site that syncs students’ online calendars across platforms to find a meeting time that works for everyone in a group. He aimed to create a site that was more efficient and aesthetically pleasing than When2Meet and Doodle, he said.
He recruited Jordan Berg ’09 GS to code the site for his new idea, but what they thought would be a quick project ended up taking a year to complete. After a period of beta testing, the website launched in its completed form this semester.
The site, which currently has over 100 users and recently enjoyed a traffic boost after being featured in the blog VentureBeat, targets the college demographic. They are looking to expand and integrate it with Enterprise and Microsoft Outlook to attract professionals, Berg said, adding that the goal is “to be totally cross-platform.”
Antar also helped found VentureLabs, the University’s first entrepreneurial fund for undergraduates pursuing business ideas, while at Brown.
Antar described the creativity and proactiveness of Brown students as the “perfect cocktail” for entrepreneurship, though the institution is “lagging behind a bit” in providing resources for student entrepreneurs.
VentureLabs is a step toward progress, Antar said. Though CalClash did not receive money from VentureLabs, it got funds from several grants, and Antar is now working with VentureLabs on a music networking startup called hearo.fm.
CalClash is still in its infancy, and right now Antar and Berg are working to publicize the site to as many people as possible, especially students at Brown.
The key to having a sustainable startup is to have something that is “useful” and that “taps into community identity,” Antar said.
- With additional reporting by Claire Schlessinger