Last winter term, the night before the end of classes was mayhem for students in the Fishbowl, Undergraduate Library and other computing sites across campus.
After administrators went paperless with course evaluations, and made them only accessible on CTools, the website crashed and students couldn’t access their lecture slides and notes on CTools to study for finals.
But this semester, officials say students can rest easy.
Yesterday, in an interview with the Daily, University officials outlined their plan for ensuring that CTools doesn’t crash during finals time. They cited updates to software and a larger server as improvements that will allow students to fill out course evaluations on CTools without overloading the site.
John Williams, executive director of Digital Media Commons, said that the issues that occurred between April 18-22 this year were not caused because something in the system “broke,” but, rather, because the core services that CTools has provided over the last three years had expanded dramatically.
He added the biggest factor in the crash were very quick, high-volume spikes in the website’s usage, that occurred in a matter of seconds.
“We didn’t anticipate these very short, very high spikes in load because the system is being used in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Williams said.
Williams said that “a post-mortem analysis” began immediately after the teaching evaluations had to be shut down. In addition to software improvements, Information Technology Services has made system performance more efficient and included a contingency plan for the 2009 teaching evaluations period.
“There are some minor features that have been questioned, primarily by students, that produce a lot of load that we could temporarily suspend without a loss of functionality,” Williams said.
These features include services like “users present” — the list on the left-hand side of a page that shows who is on the same page — and e-mail digest, an option that displays a list of e-mails one has received through CTools.
In order to check the CTools system, Williams discussed an important analysis called “load testing” which allows those who run CTools to simulate different loads on the system. But, despite the use of that testing last year, Williams said the system still crashed in April because students were using CTools in these new, different ways.
One of those new ways was the online course evaluations — a system that allows students to give feedback to their professors and graduate student instructors via an online medium rather than the pencil and paper version.
Jim Kulik, director and research scientist of the Office of Evaluations and Examinations, said that there are as many as 8,000-9,000 classes available for online evaluation during the end of the term as opposed to approximately 1,500 given at midterm time.
At this point, Kulik said he feels positive about the influx of students trying to complete their evaluations. After making it through both the summer term and this fall’s midterm season without incident, he said he feels more confident about the process.
“What was unique to the winter situation was a problem developed that the only real alternative was to shut down the whole service so that all the other services CTools provided would be there for students,” he said.
This semester, to avoid a situation like last spring, teaching evaluations will be offered over a longer period of time — from Dec. 4-15 — to cut down on the load and to give students more opportunity to complete the evaluations.
Kulik also discussed an initiative to increase communication with students, including e-mail updates and reminders to complete evaluations as well as CTools reminders and posters across campus.
“We’ve tried a number of new things and communication activities that have increased rather than diminished (communication),” Kulik said. “We’re hoping that students will be aware that the evaluations are here and the importance that teachers put on getting good feedback from students.”
Alan Levy, communications specialist for ITS, said that the most valuable method of communication about evaluations is via professors and GSIs in their classrooms.
“There is both some research and anecdotal evidence that the single greatest factor that predicts students completing evaluations is instructor encouragement,” Levy said.