The email’s subject reads ‘Reminder: Student Ratings of Instruction,’ but the envelope symbol isn’t opened. It’s marked ‘unseen’.
Dal and King’s students received three email reminders for this fall’s online course evaluations, but many didn’t fill them out. Completion rates for the “Student Ratings of Instruction”, or SRI survey, sits at 52 per cent for both schools combined. That’s seven to ten per cent less than with the paper system.
“We’ve traditionally had very good response rates at King’s,” says King’s vice-president Kim Kierans. That changed this semester. Now, “some courses have nothing.”
Campus “dead zones” to blame
Neil Robertson, the director of Early Modern Studies, says King’s lack of universal Wi-Fi is “one whacking big explanation” for the drop.
“If you can’t do it in class your participation rate is going to fall,” says Robertson.
Campus-wide wireless was supposed to be implemented at King’s during the summer of 2012 but was postponed because it didn’t fit in the budget. Right now plans are being made to install Wi-Fi this summer. The Board of Governors voted through installation over the summer in March.
“Some classrooms are dead zones.”
– Kim Kierans, vice-president of King’s, on Wi-Fi shortage
Kierans says Wi-Fi is an essential service. “Not just for the evaluations, but for the student experience and for teaching. Some classrooms are dead zones,” she says.
The Haliburton Room, the Senior Common Room and the third floor of the New Academic Building are commonly known problem areas on campus.
Wireless a problem in residence
In residence, students only have Internet connection via Ethernet cables. Nicholas Hatt, King’s dean of residence, says “wireless is certainly an identified need within the residences.”
Olivia Biermann, a first-year student, assumed she would have wireless when she arrived in the fall.
“I was kind of mad,” says the Halifax native, outside Alumni Hall during lecture break. “I always have to be sitting at my desk to use my computer.”
“I always have to be sitting at my desk to use my computer.”
– Olivia Biermann, first-year student, on Ethernet cables
At first even the cable connection was broken. “I didn’t have Internet for the first week I was here,” she says.
Often, the cables need to be coaxed into cooperation. “You have to wiggle them around,” says Biermann.
It limits her cell phone usage as well. “I only have wireless so I can’t use my phone for Internet unless I’m out of my room, which is really frustrating,” she says, BlackBerry in hand.
Updating Wi-Fi at King’s
All King’s Internet is run through Dalhousie. Pat Power, director of network and systems at Dal, supervises all Internet installation and upkeep.
“Think of us as a provider, much like at your home you use EastLink or Aliant,” he says. “We play that role with King’s.”
Updating Wi-Fi will cost King’s roughly 90 thousand dollars, says Power.
“Students want to collaborate wherever they are,” he says. “It was a priority for us (at Dal) and I guess it’s up to King’s admin how much of a priority it is for King’s.”
“It was a priority for us (at Dal) and I guess it’s up to King’s admin how much of a priority it is for King’s.”
– Pat Power, director of network and systems at Dalhousie, on updating Wi-Fi
Currently, King’s wireless works off hotspots, targeted to student gathering points. That’s how it used to work at Dal. Power’s team finished installing Wi-Fi into all Dal buildings this past September. They finished faster because of the new evaluation system.
“That was part of the rational or reason why we wanted comprehensive coverage,” says Power. Dal’s Center for Learning and Teaching, who run the SRI, wanted Wi-Fi installation finished in time for the online evaluations. They began discussing this with Power’s team last spring.
Lower course evaluation completion rates
“We didn’t know about the online evaluations coming up,” says Kierans, regretfully. She hopes the percentages will increase again with time. “We really do take students comments seriously, to improve our courses.”
Some King’s faculty rushed to get their courses on the system. Some didn’t. Many journalism courses were entered incorrectly into the online system, as were many upper year combined honours courses, so their evaluations didn’t happen. The J-1001 course was only evaluated by Dal students. Some courses got by with the old paper forms, but Dal has decided not to use paper in any upcoming evaluations.
Though its implementation caused a lot of confusion, the program itself is only partially to blame.
“It’s just a delivery system,” says Robertson. “There are always bumps in the road when you make a change.”
The SRI guidebook says the system requires communication between students, faculty and departments. Every department must enter all NET IDs, CRNs, and have courses “Switched-On” before the evaluations go up. This is organized after the last date to drop classes, when class lists are reliable. Dal and King’s faculty have been receiving training on how to properly work the system.
Whether the problems are permanent or simply transitional will only be discovered by time.
“I think largely they’re things that can be remedied,” Robertson says.
The two extra weeks allotted to fill out the evaluation didn’t help completion rates.
“Hopefully having a little more time to do it would result in some more thoughtful detail,” says Nick Stark, former president of the King’s Students’ Union. “But, I think you have to couple that with some kind of incentive.”
Students are tolerant, but up to a point, he says. “A lot of research requires Internet.”
Right now, says Stark, “compared to other universities, we’re behind.”
Kierans expects full wireless installation to be completed on King’s campus by the fall of 2014. A new technology fee costing students $100 a year—pending the board’s approval in June—will cover part of the costs.