Sunday, August 9, 2015

Online Troll Websites Distort Perception




By Professor Doom

     There is certainly interest in going to college, but it’s no secret that there are many, many bogus schools out there. How can you tell if a school is legit? Obviously, going to the school’s website is a bad idea: they control the information there. You may as well learn about the US government in public school, or about McDonald’s food from a McDonald’s.

     Perhaps an online review site would help? This seems reasonable…but what if the online site is a troll site, not being honest about its reviews? Do such sites exist?

      It’s hard to prove such a thing, but I’d like the gentle reader to consider the following discussion of two review sites, for a particular school, River Parishes Community College. I’ve mentioned this school before. RPCC is considered a very successful school, due to its amazing growth; a more careful look at the graduation statistics tells a different tale, with a 0.6% 2 year graduation rate. Looking at the news reports for the school, we see weird management, with strange budget problems, bizarre scheduling problems, and, as is often the case, the majority of coursework at high school or sub-high school level, with practically no 2nd year coursework at this 2 year school. In short, this is a typical community college.

      One might expect, then, for reviews of this school to be middling at best, with quite a few complaints.

     Consider the reviews at colleges.niche.com. The site sure looks legit, it’s not even peppered with pop-ups. The first 7 reviews already raise flags for me: all 7 reviews occurred on the same day, December 12, 2014. RPCC is a relatively small school, so it’s surprising that on this one day, seven students got together and wrote reviews for this particular website. Even more surprising, the students were all “college seniors,” rather hard to believe since RPCC is a 2 year school…a senior is a 4th year college student, so RPCC should have none of those.

      All 7 of these reviews, which happened on the same day, by 4th year students at this 2 year school, are positive. Not every review is the maximum rating, at least. I note also that none of the reviews have a period in them. They’re all just single sentence reviews, no concluding punctuation. Sure, typo’s happen, but seven different students making the same mistake is just odd.

     The next set of reviews, all 11 of them, also all occur on the same day, December 3rd , 2013. These reviews all do end in a period, and, the reviews are predominately positive. There is one negative review (but still a 2 out of 5 star rating).

     On November 6, 2013, there’s a single, isolated review…and it’s negative. Looking at the dozens of reviews here, this is the trend: on certain days, clusters of good reviews pop up. On a day where there is only one review, it’s generally negative.

     One standout issue on this site? I can’t figure out how to submit a review…it’s not at all clear where these reviews are coming from, but the “good spelling, weird syntax” of many of the reviews lead me to believe that these reviews, some of them, at least, are written by people for whom English is not a first language. There may be some legitimate reviews mixed in with the dozens of others, but…I strongly suspect this is a troll site, and the information here should not be trusted.

      Let’s look at another review site: www.ratemyprofessors.com. Ratemyprofessors is not a well-loved site by professors: pretty much anyone with a grudge can log in and trash a professor, and I even received warnings from admin not to pay attention to it.

     When people I don’t trust warn me away from something, I get suspicious.

     Anyone who feels like it can post a review, quickly. So, absolutely, the reviews here should be taken with a grain of salt. Much like student evaluations, you can totally expect a student that received a failing grade to be pitiless in his review. That said, when you see a host of complaints, especially similar complaints, appear over the course of years, you have to at least consider that, possibly, there’s some truth there, beyond just one angry customer.

      Let’s see what they have to say about River Parishes Community College.   Overall, the reviews aren’t very good…but at least we don’t have clusters of reviews all happening on the same day, and the number of reviews, 17, over the course of years, strikes me as a bit more reasonable for a  small school.

Let’s look at the most recent negative review, from May of this year:

I wish I'd never come here. I thought I'd save money, but nothing transfers here the way admin says it would. Only now am I told most of the classes are fake. The math class would have transferred (and I got an easy A from the young guy teaching the course), but I couldn't pass the placement test at the university.

     Poor kid, I wish there was some way to warn him in advance what’s really going on at a community college. The site rates schools in various categories, and the student here has given RPCC a rating of 1, the lowest possible, in most every category. The exceptions are location (3, mediocre; the school appears to be right off the interstate, away from a population center) and Internet (a rating of 2).

       A mediocre review:

It's a brand new campus. It's tobacco free, as well as all around clean. The library is rather small, the second story is irrelevant unless personally meeting with a professor. The classes are pretty basic. No clubs, cafeteria, or meals here. Just a snack machine in a small eating area. All around is just high school part two with some upgrades.

      “High school, part two” is hardly a glowing recommendation for an institution of higher education, but, as I’ve noted, this 2 year school has basically no 2nd year coursework, and very few of their math classes are even first year university material. I’m not the only one to notice these schools are basically repeats of high school, except the students get checks for signing up.

     Not just students, but anyone can enter a review (February of this year):

I'm a chemistry professor at a nearby university, and my nephew decided to go here before transferring. I promised to help. Last semester, his courses were a joke, nothing he didn't learn in 9th grade, and this semester is no better. RPCC is an academic FRAUD, should be shut down, and never should have been accredited.

     As studies have shown, many community colleges are completely unhinged from what people think goes on there. A legitimate educator that looks at what goes on at these campuses often sees the reality of fraud…heck, even the mediocre review says the place isn’t college.

     While not a review from a student, the review from the university professor highlights an important difference in community college: the top-down hiring structure means that incompetent faculty will be fine on campus, as long as they pass everyone. In a legit university, departments work to keep things legitimate.

     Another negative review from March of 2014:

They are building a new campus, but have poor educators & rude staff. Do NOT waste your money. If you want to transfer to a reputable school they will not take you seriously having come from RPCC. Parents drive the extra distance or pay a tad more for your childs future. The entire LCTCS system is a scam! Beware parents & stay away.

     The ratings from this person are all 1’s, the campus is the worst possible in every way. This is actually something of a red flag that something may be dishonest about this review. Seriously, everything is perfectly bad? The reference to “LCTCS” is another flag…normal people don’t speak to the general public in local acronyms. LCTCS refers to “Louisiana Community and Technical College System.” I would suspect this person is disgruntled in some way…although one can’t rule out whistleblower, since almost every recent review seems to indicate a level of fraud here. I just don’t see a student caring about “LCTCS” although I’m sure this review comes from someone actually familiar with the school  (unlike the many suspicious reviews at niche.com).

     Hey, ready for a positive review? Here goes:

great school

      Yep, that’s the review, and all categories are given a rating of 5. The food on this campus is often mentioned in the reviews, which claim that the only option is a few vending machines…and yet this person rates the food on this campus as a 5. Must be some amazing vending machines! I exchanged a few e-mails with an administrator, then verified with a faculty (because trusting college admin isn’t such a good idea) and, yes, the only food on this campus is a vending machine.

     So, I suspect this isn’t a legitimate review.

      As you go a few years back, the reviews get more positive. Here’s a more balanced good review:

The office staff is very helpful. Most of the teachers are excellent teachers. A few well need to find other careers, but all schools have that problem. I recommend getting your basic classes/associates here to help save on fees before going to the bigger college. It helps get you use to college standards before going to the bigger colleges.


      While the review does read a little bit like an advertisement for community college, the ratings are high but not arbitrarily high (food gets a 2, which I think is as high as possible for a vending machine).

     A reader looking for honest reviews of RPCC has two choices, either Ratemyprofessor or Niche. The latter says RPCC is a good school, with no problems or issues. Of course, Niche is almost certainly a troll site, and I don’t trust those reviews at all. If a prospective student didn’t shop around for reviews, all he would know is what the troll site says.

      On the other hand, Ratemyprofessor may have a few troll reviews, but the site in general at least offers a chance of getting some glimpses of the truth. I don’t trust it completely, but with several reviews, positive and negative, saying there’s something fishy going on there, I’m inclined to think Ratemyprofessor at least has a closer representation of the truth of RPCC, especially in light of their miserable graduation statistics.

     Overall, from reading the reviews one would guess that, at some point in the past, RPCC was a pretty decent school, but things have dropped quite a bit in the last few years, and today it’s probably a place best avoided for higher education (curiously, their job training programs don’t get mentioned at all in the reviews, although RPCC’s website make them sound pretty good). Even tossing out a few reviews as being insincere, you still get this result.

     Bottom line, when researching a school, the gentle reader is advised to be fairly suspicious of online reviews, as it’s very clear there are entire sites that give bogus reviews, to make very questionable schools look good.