Alison Macomber Staff Writer
The Academic Leadership and Scholarly Affairs committee (ALSA) of Saint Vincent College, a standing committee that works on issues related scholarship and education such as course evaluations, was recently asked by Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean John Smetanka to implement a movement towards online student course evaluations. Paper evaluations, typically done during the last week of classes each semester, have proved to be problematic in recent semesters, and the move to online course evaluations is aimed at eliminating those problems. Dr. Timothy Kelly, the Department Chair and Professor of History at Saint Vincent College, along with Dean Alice Kaylor, Dr. Elaine Bennett, Nancy Ramaley, students Olivia Sharkey, Justin Teets and Bridget Fitzpatrick, are members of a working group of students and faculty within the ALSA Committee who were asked to supervise the transformation from paper student course evaluations to electronic evaluations. ALSA, along with Smetanka, brought in students to this working group to obtain their insights into the process. The feedback collected from student course evaluations is vitally important to the administration in the Academic Affairs Office, providing a foundation for the college to run properly. Course evaluations allow Department Chairpersons, the school Deans and the Vice President to look at how effective faculty members are and how the students are responding to their professors. The feedback collected from student course evaluations is especially important for probationary term faculty members or those who have not secured tenure but are on the path to doing so. Questions such as “Should this teacher teach this course again?” and “Is this teacher being received well by the students?” are easily answered by members of the administration after examining course evaluations. Successfully shifting from paper evaluations to online ones involves not only the participation of the Academic Affairs Office and ALSA but also the Information Services Department. Information Services is responsible for all of the college’s technology-related assets and information systems. While the Academic Affairs Office oversees and administers the process of implementing the new online system, Information Services plans to assist Academic Affairs after they implement the system. Information Services’ Chief Information Officer Peter Mahoney said, “Once the system is properly in place, it will be entirely sufficient enough to operate on its own.” Although the current paper-based evaluation system has been successful in past years, many problems exist with the method for Information Services. Perhaps the only benefit of a paper evaluation is that a student can easily fill out his in class and not have to worry about finding time to do so outside of the classroom. According to Mahoney, the largest issue with the school’s current system of evaluation is that the process is “extremely labor intensive for [the Information Services] department.” Mahoney continued, “This was elucidated when a person in the department that worked with the paper evaluations took an extended medical leave. The process became much more difficult for the other members of the department who were involved in the process.” This experience prompted Mahoney deem the process unnecessary and outdated. The new online course evaluation system, SmartEvals, is a program developed by Gap Technologies. The school’s overall technology system, Ellucian, is compatible with the SmartEvals program, which was pilot tested in a study conducted in one of Dr. Ent’s graduate M.A. Education classes with favorable results. The SmartEvals program currently operates in Salve Regina University, Union University and Whitworth University. According to Mahoney, an electronic evaluation system would increase productivity, efficiency and confidentiality for all of the departments involved. Productivity would increase because the five people responsible for the paper-based method will now be able to focus their efforts elsewhere in the department. Mahoney believes that, because of this, there will be an increased focus on improving Portal operations. Additionally, instead of there being “one particular person spending weeks of their time on the process,” Mahoney said that “that person will be able to spend half of their time on the new electronic evaluations.” Mahoney and Smetanka believe that efficiency will be a favorable byproduct of the new electronic system. Faculty members will be able to receive their evaluations much faster than they did with the old process. The electronic method will give Academic Affairs the ability to have information immediately, meaning faculty members can incorporate necessary changes more quickly. In addition, the old scanning process took months before the results of the evaluations were given to faculty members. Faculty members received their evaluations from the Spring semester in July, so Smetanka anticipates that the electronic course evaluation system would allow teachers to receive their evaluations in a timely manner. “In terms of accuracy,” added Mahoney, “an electronic system would be better because an automated evaluation process reduces the chances for mistakes.” Confidentiality, another benefit of the new electronic system, would be greatly improved because teachers will no longer be reading hand-written responses from students. “Electronic course evaluations work to eliminate the possibility of a teacher recognizing a student’s handwriting,” said Mahoney, “and less people will be seeing these evaluations who are not the student, the professor or administrators.” According to Smetanka, SVC previously attempted to use online course evaluations, but the students’ responses were not nearly as numerous as the department had hoped. Therefore, Smetanka has made it the working group within the ALSA Committee’s responsibility to formulate possible incentives for student involvement. The working group has held several meetings where they discuss possible ideas for student incentives. Kelly said, “Our committee is trying to implement more positive incentives for our students, and there are three main incentives that are currently under discussion in our group.” The first incentive under scrutiny is idea that, as a soon as a student has completed his online evaluations, he would be automatically entered into a lottery where he would be able to draw the fifth-choice housing ticket for the following year. “If we were to enact this incentive,” claims Kelly, “we would most likely make this the fall incentive.” The second possible incentive, perhaps for the spring, is that a student would automatically be entered into a lottery for a park anywhere pass for finals week. The third incentive in discussion is, if a senior complete his course evaluations, he would receive a free drink of his choice from the barista. Although this idea is appealing, the group has not yet discovered where they would obtain the necessary funding. Smetanka, Mahoney and Kelly agree that course evaluations, whether electronic or paper, are critically important for SVC’s advancement. Teachers are promoted and monitored through the tenure track through student evaluations. “Our administration, and especially the Academic Affairs Office, highly values our students’ thoughts and opinions about the classroom instruction they are receiving,” said Smetanka. “It is necessary for us to know if a student is enjoying their course and if their professor is implementing ideal classroom instruction. That being said, every student matters deeply to our administration, and each student is extremely important because our institution values student feedback.” Smetanka continued, “Every student should know that every faculty member at Saint Vincent College takes the evaluation system very seriously, and they take student’s opinions to heart.” Academic Affairs, Information Services, and ALSA plan to have the new electronic course evaluation system SmartEvals ready for student use at the end of the Fall 2012 semester.