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Evaluating online

Campus libraries provide access to class evaluations online. (Juliano Franz photo)
Campus libraries provide access to class evaluations online. (Juliano Franz photo)

Toward the end of last semester I found myself standing somewhat awkwardly in the hall outside a lab room full of second-year geology students. My fellow TA and I were waiting as the student ratings of instruction (SRIs) were administered. While waiting, we discussed a new twist on the SRIs: the switch to online evaluations.

Last semester Dalhousie moved to an online system for managing student ratings of instruction. The Board of Governors made that decision, and a final call to switch to the online model was put forward over the summer. As with any substantial adjustment, the change met with mixed opinions from faculty and students. From my perspective as a teaching assistant in the geology department, the transition to online SRIs seemed relatively smooth. The switch is part of a natural evolution towards electronic and online management at Dal, and it will have  important consequences.

In addition to embracing a general trend in academia towards increasing online content, this change in how SRIs are managed benefits the Dal community. For those of us with an environmental bent, the move away from paper-based evaluations reduces waste, saving roughly 60,000 forms each semester. Instructors and TAs now receive a summary of their evaluations as a PDF file, which I personally find much easier to store than the traditional paper summary.

A related consequence, to my mind, is that the electronic evaluations add a certain formality to the process of receiving, reviewing, and filing feedback on one’s teaching. This new system may encourage instructors, particularly graduate students who are interested in pursuing teaching after finishing their degrees, to take greater care in cataloguing their experience.

A few themes have emerged in the criticisms of the system. First, there was concern that participation rates would drop because students might feel less compelled to complete the online forms. Data from last term suggests this was not the case. According to Deborah Kiceniuk at the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT), participation rates last semester were between 52 and 61 per cent, comparable to rates from previous years (typically 59 to 63 per cent). Another concern is the effort required to train both managers and participants in the use of the new system. This cost will be offset by a reduced human resources demand in managing SRIs at the CLT.

Finally, there is some concern that the online system may not be as economically inclusive as the paper option, especially since students are encouraged to complete the forms in class. While students can complete the forms any time during a two-week window and all students at Dal have access to computers on campus, the emphasis on in-class completion might lead to participation rates skewed towards students who regularly carry laptops or smartphones.

The move towards online student ratings of instruction is an important step forward for Dal and promises many benefits. This system has the potential to be especially beneficial to graduate student TAs, myself among them, who will increasingly be expected to provide evidence of their teaching experience if they apply for academic positions.

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