Last summer, when I started blogging about educational technology in a big way for the first time, I was itching to do a post about online student course evaluations. Leslie M-B beat me to it in December with a useful and brave post that you should read here if you didn’t see it the first time around.
If your campus has gone this route already, you probably know the story. Student course evaluation system goes from pen and pencil to an outsourced online system. Since students no longer fill the forms out in class, response rates plummet. Such a small sample of students is no longer useful for evaluating anyone’s teaching performance (assuming they were ever useful in the first place). It’s a classic case of technology undercutting the purpose it was supposed to serve because of the law of unintended consequences.
Just yesterday, one of my friends in the business school (I do have a couple) cc’ed me into an e-mail conversation about the decision whether to renew our contract with our current online student course evaluation provider. She’s leading the drive to go back to pencil and paper as a way to revive response rates, but the folks making policy apparently have another idea. They want to switch vendors to a company that integrates its online evaluation product into Blackboard.
My opinion of Blackboard is extremely low. In fact, it might be lower than my opinion of online education in general since Blackboard destroys a functional educational paradigm rather than being based on one that’s cursed from the get-go. So I sent a note explaining that mandating anyone to use Blackboard would lead to a backlash that would make the one over online student course evaluations look tame by comparison. Mandate? Nobody’s going to force anyone to use Blackboard, explained my reply. It’s just that anyone who doesn’t use Blackboard will be stuck with 30% student response rates since they’ll have to use the old system.
Leave aside the fact that that response suggests that we’ll now be paying for two rather than just one online course evaluation system. [I'm still trying to get that confirmed.] For contingent or untenured faculty that might as well be a mandate because otherwise there’ll be no remotely valid data available to evaluate their teaching performance, and contingent faculty in particular live or die through their course evaluations.
More importantly, if they can make you use Blackboard what can’t they make you do? A long time ago, I asked, “Can they make you teach online?” Since my answer then was yes, I’m quite certain that they can make you teach on Blackboard too. But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a transitional stage on the road to our glorious all-online higher ed utopia.
For example, my university has an interest in making sure that we take attendance the first week so that they can catch student loan fraudsters. Does that mean we’ll have to use Blackboard’s gradebook? Students have an interest in seeing their grades during the course of the semester. Will we have to post all their grades there in the interests of “customer service?” Where exactly do our prerogatives as professors stop and their prerogatives as administrators begin?
I can’t answer that last question definitively, but I’m certain that technology is going to force us to answer that question again and again during the next few years. I’m also sure that if universities blindly embrace ever new edtech marvel that comes down the pike, we professors aren’t going to like the answer.