The recent attempt to overhaul a seemingly sound University of Calgary program has proven difficult, marred with student and faculty complaints. The fall 2005 semester saw the Universal Student Ratings of Instruction move completely online, causing student response rates to plummet from an average of above 60 per cent to less than 35 per cent.
"I'm not sure what happened," admitted Associate Vice-President Academic Dr. Robert Woodrow. Woodrow chaired the USRI review committee that designed the online program.
"[The response rate] has caught us by surprise," he said. "Our pilot program did not indicate this at all."
The USRI is an evaluation used for all credit courses at the U of C. It provides comprehensive student feedback on the overall quality of instruction within a specific course. Results are used not only by students for course selection and by faculty to improve instruction, but also by deans and department heads to assess and evaluate instructors. Since its creation in 1998, the USRI has been administered on paper, during course lecture time.
"There have been lots of concerns about the low response rate," said Students' Union VP Academic Paige Forsyth. "A lot of professors are upset about this. They want and need a fair process. A 20 per cent response rate is not fair--these [ratings] are used for merit-increases and for tenure."
Students and faculty have complained that evaluations were inaccessible after the end of regular classes, online pilots were conducted during spring/summer semesters with fewer students to sample and there was not enough consultation before the online launch.
"The great majority of faculty think that student feedback is important," noted Dr. Allen Ponak, a professor of industrial relations in the Haskayne School of Business. "If [the university] values teaching, we need a system with fair and valid measurement, and if we can't do that we should stick with the old system, regardless of cost. It's important enough."
Ponak, a professor at the university since 1982, shared concerns of many faculty across campus.
"It seems as if there was a basic flaw in research design," Ponak said. "I know of at least three colleagues who regarded the response rate as very low, and felt that their actual instructor ratings were lower as well."
Questions that maybe the online program only encourages a specific segment of students have been brought forward.
"There has been an idea that perhaps only discouraged students or otherwise would complete them, and then skew rating results," said Forsyth. "It's unfortunate it got rushed. Students need to know how important this is. We need a system that works, to encourage teaching."
The SU's Students' Academic Assembly has debated the idea of making USRI's mandatory, including the possibility of making them worth one per cent of a student's overall course mark.
"I didn't [complete the USRI's] last semester because I didn't have to," said third year political science student Evan Resnik. "I think that making them mandatory is a good idea. I do like having access to the information about courses and professors they provide."
Suggestions have been made to the USRI committee from faculty across campus. Options have ranged from not releasing grades until evaluations are completed to giving a $5 rebate on tuition for each finished form.
Currently, the USRI committee is looking at ways to improve the rate for the upcoming winter semester evaluations.
"We're hoping we don't have to move back to the original program," confirmed Woodrow on prospects of a paper USRI. "No, there are no plans whatsoever to move backwards. We are committed to the [online] USRI, and now, to improve participation rates."
"If we have to, we will [switch back]," she asserted. "What's important is that we have a program that is good, and that works well, rather than one that is convenient for the university."