On the road to our glorious all-online higher ed utopia.

23 02 2012

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.

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4 responses

23 02 2012
Leslie M-B

I’m very much flouting Blackboard this year. In the past, I used Blackboard primarily to e-mail everyone in a course at once, and I’ve found an alternate way to do that easily, and to calculate grades, and I’ve just installed a gradebook app on my iPad. I host my syllabus and assignments at my own (minimal) expense. Here’s my current course site, for example. In the future I may include a forum or wiki, but for now I’m keeping it simple.

I’m pretty open about flouting any Blackboard mandates, both in my department and to our IT folks. Some folks in my department find my obstinance inspiring and want to know how to follow suit, and my closest connection in IT–the guy who seems to think most clearly about pedagogy–also seems to find my decision to be perfectly reasonable. At least on my campus, pockets of resistance might prevail, at least in face-to-face or hybrid teaching.

The problem we have here is that with online course development, the university wants faculty to sign over their IP rights to the courses. This includes a provision that if a faculty member (including an adjunct) wanted to teach a similar course elsewhere, she would need to get permission from the university to do so. Refriggindiculous!

23 02 2012
Jonathan Dresner

There has been a strong current of “encouragement” to use our LMS from the administrative side, which I sidestep by using Edublogs for most of the same functions – they look at me funny, but have to admit that it’s basically the same thing, but better because I don’t have to reload my materials every semester, students can access it after the class, and it makes my syllabi and materials public.

The pressure to make the LMS mandatory, especially the gradebook, has come from students: we’re in the third year, that I know of, of student government requests to the Faculty Senate regarding obligatory LMS use. So far, the Senate has rebuffed them, and the administration hasn’t taken sides (publicly, that I’m aware of) so nothing has changed.

The factor that may well shift the balance of power is assessment, not attendance. We’re being pushed to document our students’ learning, to integrate online portfolios into our self-reflections, to connect our courses to institutional goals in concrete ways. The next generation LMS (not Blackboard: I expect a massive collapse in their market share over next 2 years) allows much more powerful data collection and collation across the institution, an overworked administrator’s dream. But useless if the adoption rate (aka survey response rate) remains low.

24 02 2012
Mark R. Cheathem

Our students have to complete an online evaluation to see their final semester grades. I’m not sure there is a difference in how seriously they take them, but at least the response rate is theoretically 100%.

1 03 2012
Where is Mario Savio now that we really need him? « More or Less Bunk

[...] student course evaluations. They used to be done in class with pencil and paper. In the ongoing discussion at my campus about this subject, it keeps coming back to the cost of processing the forms. Type [...]

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