For those unenthusiastic students asked to carry course evaluations to the academic affairs office in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library at the end of each semester, consider this: As early as fall, handwritten course opinion forms may be replaced with an online course evaluation system.
The proposed system, which will undergo pilot testing in a few courses this spring, would allow students to log into the Bowdoin College Student Opinion of Teaching and Course Web site and fill out evaluations for each course anonymously.
"This kind of move from paper form to online is really the way things are going," said Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stephen Naculich, chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee.
"The obvious question really is whether we can ensure student compliance," Naculich said, "but we're also interested in seeing how online compares to paper if there's a shift, if somehow going online changes the overall level of evaluations."
A pilot test for online evaluations was performed a few years ago using a generic survey Web site, but Naculich said it didn't fit the College's needs. As a result, Senior Software Developer Eric Draut developed an online system to mirror the current student opinion forms. Once submitted, online responses become completely anonymous and can be compiled for review by the faculty more easily than paper responses.
Draut and Naculich agreed that the new system would streamline and expedite the evaluation process for all parties involved. The Dean's Office would not have to photocopy or compute responses, faculty would not need to worry about the forms in class, responses would be available more quickly after grades are submitted, and the responses would be more accessible.
Currently, faculty members receive copies of the evaluation forms with a cover sheet of survey averages after the Dean's Office has photocopied and manually entered data into the computer to generate the statistics.
"The faculty can see all kinds of reports by course number, by semester, by department, and all kinds of averages or comparisons by individual questions," said Draut.
Furthermore, Naculich sees the potential for more comprehensive, thorough responses from an online system. Beyond feeling rushed at the end of class, some students currently limit their responses while worried about a professor recognizing their handwriting.
While the proposed system does offer plenty of improvements, Naculich said the deciding factor regarding implementation will be the level of student compliance. This is not currently an issue since students generally must complete the in-class evaluations. However, Naculich said some students may feel too busy outside of class or would not want to be bothered to fill it out.
"If you don't have a pretty high level of compliance, something close to 100 percent, then it's meaningless," he said. "It would be like 'Rate My Professor,' really positive or negative opinions, tending to get bimodal. The real value of them is that everyone fills them out to get a pretty good across-the-board reading, with some distortions."
To create an incentive for response, Naculich said the committee is considering delaying grade reports for those students who do not complete evaluations. He said this would be not a punitive move but an incentive to show the importance of these evaluations for the institution and faculty.
"This information is used by the Dean not only to evaluate on tenure and promotion for faculty, but also for salary decisions," said Naculich.
Before the online system replaces paper evaluations, a few courses will use the Web option for evaluations this spring. In the Fall 2008 semester, the appropriate committee will evaluate these responses, check for a high rate of compliance, and address any problems before faculty vote on the issue.