In the midst of finishing projects and cramming for exams, thousands of University students became frustrated last Monday night when CTools and the online teaching evaluations shut down.
Though the technological error occurred over a week ago, University officials still do not have answers as to why or how it happened.
At Monday’s meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, John King, vice provost for academic information, said the University is investigating what went wrong.
“There’s a very major effort going on right now to find out exactly what caused this and that will obviously get fixed,” King said.
King said he believes that the CTools website was extremely overloaded at the time of the crash, and that the website couldn’t handle all of the functional tools that were added to CTools over time.
“We have added so much functionality, at the request of the units, to both CTools and these other things, that we got beyond our own confidence in our ability to test the system at run time,” he said.
King added that another factor may have been the faculty’s ability to manage the website.
“Giving faculty members control of the teaching evaluation apparatus — even relatively moderate control — is part of the problem that can cloud the issues,” he said.
King indicated that in the future, the University might have to implement new rules concerning the faculty’s power to monitor the site.
“Probably what we’re going to have to have is an agreed upon set of protocols that people follow and then an agreed upon behavior of the system that stays with those protocols,” he said.
Professors received completed teaching evaluations submitted by students before 9 p.m. last Monday, when the system crashed. University officials decided not to reopen the teaching evaluations after CTools was working again Tuesday morning.
King said some students would have received their grades by then, which could have influenced their responses in the survey.
“From a policy perspective, the issue of not collecting the evaluations after grades have been posted has been discussed, and it’s understood that’s not anything anyone intends to do,” King said.
Despite the screw-up, officials are confident the online evaluation system first implemented last fall is just as efficient as the paper evaluation system.
King said the number of completed online evaluations in fall 2008 was similar to the amount filled out on paper in fall 2007.
“In the fall term, evaluation results were remarkably similar to the fall of last year in terms of the number of data collected and in terms of what the evaluations showed,” he said.
Nonetheless, many students were aggravated that they couldn’t evaluate the teaching styles and performances of their professors and GSIs this semester.
LSA freshman Sara Schafrann didn’t have time to fill out the questionnaires before the system shut down. She said she felt frustrated about the situation because she wanted to give positive feedback to her favorite professors.
“I loved my sociology professor, and I wish I could have given him a good comment,” she said.
LSA sophomore Kristen Krause said she didn’t get the chance to express her disapproval of the way her GSIs taught her classes.
“I was kind of upset we didn’t get to do them because I felt like I couldn’t give my constructive criticism to some of my GSIs,” she said.
Expressing her distrust of technology, Krause said she would have rather filled out paper evaluations like the University has provided in the past.
The technological error not only prevented students from critiquing professors, but it negatively impacted some students’ grades.
LSA freshman Brittany Matson lost four points in Biology 172 that were given for filling out the evaluations. She finished the survey before the system crashed on Monday but never e-mailed her GSI the webpage confirming it.
“It will affect my grade because I’m borderline between a C and B,” Maston said.
Intermittent Astronomy Lecturer Philip Hughes said he was also going to give students four extra points on their final as an incentive to complete the online evaluation.
“People see four free points, and they can’t resist getting them,” Hughes said. “Now I’m going to give four points to everybody — I don’t see any other alternative.”
Professors interested in student feedback devised their own ways to obtain course evaluations. Some handed out surveys after students finished their finals while others posted evaluations on separate websites like those used by the Department of Mathematics.
Communication 111 GSI Julia Lippman created her own online evaluation website and sent the link to her students in an e-mail.
“I got an additional third of my students who responded because of my replacement mechanism,” she said.
Lippman said evaluations are crucial for improving her teaching style and can determine a future employer’s hiring decision.
“When I go on the job market, one of the things I have to show employers is my teaching evaluations,” she said.
Lippman added that she now has fewer evaluations to show employers because of the system failure.
She also said that she has seen a definite decrease since last year in the amount of students who fill out the evaluations.
“Last semester I had approximately just over half of my students respond, whereas in previous semesters the response rate was close to 100 percent,” she said.
Although the online system shutting down has caused problems for students and faculty alike, Hughes said he doubts the University will switch back to paper evaluations.
“I can’t imagine that the University would want to go back to paper now,” he said. “They’ve adopted the online approach, and they would invest any resource to keep that up.”