Online course evaluations to replace paper surveys


Published October 4, 2007

Online course evaluations are replacing the pencil-and-paper surveys used in most University classes. But the move could decrease student participation.

This semester, all of the College of Engineering's mid-term evaluations will be conducted online. Officials plan to launch online evaluations at the rest of the University's schools and colleges for the winter semester evaluations.

"It's a more efficient way of collecting data," said James Kulik, director of the University Office of Evaluations and Examinations.

At the moment, the office prints almost 500,000 surveys and distributes them to about 15,000 classrooms. Then it collects, sorts and scans them.

Gary Herrin, professor of industrial and operations engineering, led a task force that studied the switch to online questionnaires. He said by converting to a web-based format, the University will save money and be able to store questionnaire results electronically.

Professors will also be able to customize questionnaires to a greater degree for each course.

While scoring paper evaluations takes one or two months, the online format will allow teachers to put students' comments into practice quickly, Kulik said.

"The greatest benefit for teachers is to get feedback immediately," he said.

But because students won't be filling out the new surveys in class, they might forget to visit the website.

"I don't know if students will be willing," said Sergio Huarcaya, a graduate student instructor of history and anthroplogy.

At first, Herrin said the task force considered refusing to give students their grades until they complete the evaluations. But the panel decided to keep the evaluations voluntary.

Some students say they probably won't use the online evaluations.

"I know I'm not going to take the time to do it," said LSA junior Joshua Cregger. "What's the incentive for me?"

But Cregger said he's not opposed to a new evaluation system.

"I'm definitely open to new things," he said.

Herrin said other schools that have switched to an online system have had a lower participation rate, but said he isn't worried. He said some classes in the College of Engineering already use an optional online system for mid-term evaluations and haven't seen a significant drop in responses.

Kulik said the online surveys will offer students greater anonymity. With in-class questionnaires, some students might worry about professors recognizing their handwriting.

The effects of that anonymity are already appearing. Kulik said the ratings students give professors in the College of Engineering are slightly lower when they fill out evaluations online.