Online evaluations will save money, but may lack incentive

The announcement that UK will experiment with collecting end-of-semester course evaluations online instead of through the traditional paper forms could not have come at a more appropriate time.

While budget cuts are the buzz of the university and every department is being asked to trim spending, the Office of Institutional Research reports that moving the whole evaluation system online would save about $5,000 each semester. It’s certainly not enough to fix UK’s financial woes, but at a time when every dollar counts, any cut is relevant.

Meanwhile, with Earthdays in the Bluegrass in full swing, the benefits of paperless evaluations should not be overlooked.

Moving teacher evaluations might have a snag, though: It might make them irrelevant.

To be effective, the responses to the questionnaire need to represent a cross-section of the students in the class. In each class, instructors must often try and appeal to students with widely varying educational interests and backgrounds. Some students might have taken the course because of a genuine interest in the topic; others will have only registered because the class does not meet on Fridays or before noon.

The key to making evaluations work with a diverse set of student opinion is to make sure all views are recorded. Moving the system online will make this difficult.

Currently, many students most likely fill out course evaluations because it is convenient to do so — they are already in the classroom and have the forms, so the choice is between filling out the questionnaire or sitting idle.

The online evaluations, however, will start with an e-mail, the Kernel reported April 8. Students will then complete the evaluation online — that is, on their own time. It won’t take long to do, but at the end of the semester when stress levels are already high, course evaluations are unlikely to take priority.

The exception is the students who are either extremely pleased or extremely upset with their experience in the class; the students at either extreme will likely want to register their feelings.

Even with the existing paper system, statistics from course evaluations tend to be skewed. The Office of Institutional Research warns readers on its Web site to examine the numbers closely because “student ratings are often inflated.” Without an incentive for filling out the online questionnaire, the results could easily become even less reliable.

This semester’s test — which involves about 90 courses in four colleges — will help gauge whether enough students are willing to make the jump from evaluations as class work to evaluations as homework.

But with many students already overloaded with work that actually affects their grade, the answer is likely to be no. UK can make online course evaluations work and reap the benefits of them, but only if administrators find ways to make the process seem worthwhile.