USRI system down, but not out during repairs

While students will soon be participating in an evaluation process for their winter courses, the system that administers the ratings — capturing the results and allowing students to access them­ — remains broken.

The Universal Student Ratings of Instruction, an evaluation process used for all credit courses at the U of C, will be distributed both on paper and online in the final few weeks of the winter semester, even though the system the tool runs on is down.

“It’s definitely not ideal,” said Students’ Union vice-president academic Meg Martin, who attributes the problem to budget troubles and a resulting lack of money for the construction of a new system or repair of the current one.

The USRI allows students to provide feedback on the quality of instruction within their courses. The results are used by deans and department heads to assess instructors, students to make informed decisions on their course selections, faculty to improve instruction and the university for administrative research purposes.

Not to be confused with faculty surveys that have room for comments, the USRI is a short, standard form that asks students to rate several areas of instruction on an agree/disagree scale.

The U of C makes the results from the USRI available to students online for the purpose of course selection, although the system that makes this possible is currently broken with no scheduled repair date, according to Martin.

However, Allan Starr, director of institutional analysis at the university, said a technical glitch has affected the system for the past four months but good progress is being made and the problem should be fixed by the end of the term.

Robert Woodrow, associate vice-president (academic) and chair of the USRI implementation team, said the U of C was one of the first schools to make USRI results available to students.

While he recognized this part of the system is down at the moment, Woodrow said it is being repaired.

Martin acknowledged that it is hard to convince students to complete the USRI when they cannot see the results, but stressed the importance of the USRI and the tangible impact the results have on staffing at the U of C.

Aside from the need for a repaired or new system, complications also exist in the USRI’s delivery method.

Combinations of online and paper-based evaluations are currently used to address issues of functionality and reliability.

When introduced in 1998, the USRI was completed entirely on paper and distributed during class time.

Following a pilot project, a switch to completely online evaluations was made in Fall 2005, but resulted in low response rates that called in to question the reliability and validity of the results, said Woodrow.

Several people called for a return to in-class surveys, which led to a Fall 2008 pilot project that was expanded in 2009 and looked for software that accommodated both online and paper-based surveys.

Current issues with the paper-based USRI’s include the time commitment and staffing required to prepare, conduct and process the paper-based forms, as well as technical problems resulting from student ID numbers producing invalid results.

Woodrow said if high response rates are possible online, the method is attractive as such paper-based administration issues do not exist.

Martin said the idea of mandatory participation in the USRI or a possible half-mark incentive has been kicked around by the SU, although such regulations would take years to implement.

Both Woodrow and Starr agree that a truly flexible system is the ultimate goal of the USRI, with a combination of in-class paper-based and online surveys being utilized to produce results benefitting not just administration, but also students.

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