From Lecture Halls to Computer Screens



The semester ritual of course evaluations using No. 2 pencils and Scantrons may soon become a thing of the past for UB students.

During last Wednesday's Faculty Senate Executive Committee (FSEC) meeting, Peter Gold, associate dean for general education, and J. Ronald Gentile, distinguished professor of educational psychology, recommended the university review placing the UB Course and Teacher Survey online by fall 2002.

"This program called CourseEval will systemize the way in which written comments are accepted and shared," said Gold. "It will provide a way to benchmark teaching on campus by using the existing forms and adding a little bit more to them."

The idea for posting course evaluations online originated last spring with John Eisner, associate dean for information resources. Eisner presented the senate with a demonstration of a small-scale online course evaluation system implemented by UB's School of Dental Medicine.

Initially, Gentile said he was "skeptical" of the initiative, but by the presentation's conclusion, he and other committee members in attendance were "so excited," they decided to bring the idea to the FSEC floor for consideration.

In a memo Gold wrote titled "Why UB Needs an Improved (On-Line) Student Course Evaluation System," he noted that in fall 2000, 114,600 students were enrolled in 3,350 different courses, not including classes with fewer than 10 students or tutorial sections. The memo asserted paper-and-pencil evaluations have been a very expensive and highly disorganized endeavor.

"We need to rethink the whole problem of course evaluations because it's a problem that doesn't seem to go away," said Gentile. "Hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper keep going around. ... There's very uneven responses and it's very unclear what the norms are as well as a whole host of problems."

The benefits of online course evaluations, as outlined in Gold's memo, include ensuring speed and cost efficiency, providing "consistent and comparable data" when considering promotion and tenure decisions as well as making it "simple and easy to understand appropriate measures that are important for both the improvement of teaching and the maintenance of quality in the classroom."

Gold said the current method of evaluating courses and professors is "worse than medieval; it's also not useful." He identified current evaluation system's major flaw as being "not part of a larger context."

"We're a whole university," he said. "We should do [the evaluations] as a whole university."

If implemented, the Center for Teaching and Learning Resources' staff would handle the system, a cheaper alternative to running the system centrally.

"[The system] should save enough time that we could now pay more attention to improving the rate of response among students, which is pretty poor now," said Gold.

He attributes students' low rate of response to the fact that the paper forms are distributed only once, during class time at the end of the semester.

Although program planning is still in its infancy, Gold explained possible techniques for implementing CourseEval. One idea is to notify students via e-mail or on MyUB that course evaluation forms are available online. Once a student completes and submits his or her evaluation, the form will be placed into a pool of anonymous responses and posted on the Web.

Only the faculty member under review and the respective chair and dean of the department under which the course is listed - not students or other third parties - will have access to the completed evaluations.

"Faculty can access the information online and easily," said Gold. "They can download what they want to download from that. There's a lot of information."

Before the online course evaluation system can be approved, several important issues must be addressed. The Web site must be secure so only the faculty member and upper-level departmental staff could gain access, student confidentiality must be ensured and electronic distribution of the evaluation must be resolved. In addition, UB's student-wide e-mail system does not boast 100 percent accuracy.

"We expect it will work out because we've been aware [of these issues] for a while," said Gold.

Possible obstacles to university-wide use of the system will include the large system capacity necessary to accommodate all enrolled students, as well as the need for students to "respond to the survey and take it seriously," said Gentile.

"We are at a point where [online course evaluations] seems to us to be a very good thing for the campus," said Gentile. "It will not be easy; it will take some practice ... but unless we get started, it will get harder and take longer."