In a recent conversation with a friend who’s teaching an online course for her university,* she commented that she’ll probably get really bad student evaluations again this summer, as she has in the two previous summers in which she’s taught online classes. “I’m not a body to them,” she said, and therefore she thinks that the students feel freer to rip into her in their evaluations. (Of course they may also be venting some frustration with the online course format itself, although they may not know enough about online classes and what they can expect from their instructors.)
It sure makes sense to me that much of the humor in the classroom–quotidian small talk before class starts, questions about a student’s health, expressions of concern for their well-being, banter about university politics or sports teams, asking for student opinion on a local issue, dumb jokes by the professor–well, all of that is pretty much drained out of online courses. I hadn’t really thought about this until my friend made her observation about how much lower she’s rated in her online courses versus her F2F courses, but I think much of this kind of communication between students and instructors, and vice-versa, and among the students themselves–all of this non-content related, non-subject relevant communication is going to have a major impact as to how a student experiences a class emotionally.
Whether or not they feel safe expressing themselves, asking questions of the instructor, and talking over ideas with fellow students is going to be directly related to how they feel about a class. And as I’ve learned (in some cases the hard way), how students feelabout a class is really important when it comes to their ability and willingness to learn, to exert themselves, and to take intellectual risks. What do youse guys/vous/y’all think about this? (The lack of a second person plural in modern English is vexing.) If you’ve taught both online and F2F courses, have you noticed the same phenomenon in your course evaluations? If you’ve taken an online course as a student, what do you think about the “atmosphere” or emotional temperature of your virtual classroom? Fill me in.
*My friend had other telling stories about her online course this summer, which I think reveal a great deal about how students approach online classes. She said that she had one student who was constantly complaining about the workload in the course, explaining that he has a full-time job and so doesn’t have the time that she was expecting him to put into his coursework. This I think reveals that many students believe that online courses should earn them college credit without doing college-level work. She had another student in the class submit his final research paper after just 2 weeks into a six week course. She expressed concern that they hadn’t covered all of the relevant (and required) elements that should be in his final project, but he blithely explained that he was really busy this summer so he had to work ahead, because ideally he’d like to get the class done with as soon as possible. Yes, because clearly a six week course is just too much of a time commitment.
(Clearly, these students should run for CU’s Board of Regents!)
Both of these stories reinforce my sense that online courses are being marketed as getting something for nothing (“why go to class, deal with traffic, pay for parking, just to have to listen to a boring professor when you can earn a college degree in your jammies at home?). Never do we hear any sensible talk about how students get out of college what they put into it, and institutions refuse to initiate these conversations as they are profiting by enrolling the students who are probably doomed to get nothing out of online courses–no credit, no learning, nothing but debt.
29 thoughts on “Student evaluations of online courses: rife with hostility?”
“he has a full-time job and so doesn’t have the time that she was expecting him to put into his coursework”
We get this in F2F courses too.
Do we hear sensible talk any time about getting results based on effort? Certainly in K-12 the emphasis seems to be self esteem without providing challenges to create it and the demand for credit where none is due is carried into the workplace.
I did about half of my MLIS via synchronous online classes. The software we used included a chat sidebar, which we often used before and after class and during breaks, and could be broken up into small groups for in-class work. The system probably gave me as much interaction with my prof and classmates as my face-to-face classes, but I know that a huge part of it was the software and the fact that our instruction happened in real time. There were message board components as well in both kinds of classes, but we’d interacted more casually in the class time. The time slots were designed for this, allowing us at least 30 minutes before and after the instruction period that were theoretically for tech support issues but ended up being for just chatting with classmates and instructors.
That said, any instance of poor design, that might have been something relatively unimportant in a face-to-face environment, is glaring when it’s online, so whether the issues are real or imagined, they stuck in my head more partly because I did school at home and never “left” class at the end. There wasn’t the mental separation, so irritations festered more, even in what I perceived to be a really great online course environment.
I’ve never taken an asynchronous online class, but I can certainly see how it would lead to the problems you describe.
Anna raises excellent points about synchronous online classes and better and/or more involvement. I never taught a fully online class, but it was generally like pulling teeth to get people to participate in the (asynchronous) discussions.
That despite the fact that it really does help some students who wouldn’t normally speak up in class.
It’s very difficult (at least for me) to keep conversations going. The lack of physical presence just means a lack of engagement on some level and it requires a lot of compensation. Some people are good at it, but it’s a special talent. Online learning isn’t the blanket solution educrats would like. Not if you’re interested in actual education.
Luckily for the educrats, they aren’t, and the money’s good.
Every time I post about online ed, someone points to the successes of online programs–and it’s *always* the online MLIS or MLS program/s! I have no problems with online rigorous grad programs, which tend to draw 1) highly motivated students who 2) have already proved their academic mettle. (Furthermore, 3) library science is all about navigating the internets these days, so it probably makes some disciplinary sense to put a lot of the courses online and/or to require a great deal of online work.) For all of these reasons, it’s not surprising to me that these programs are so frequently cited as success stories. (And it also may say something about the readership of this blog, too.)
Still, I agree with quixote that Anna makes a good point about combo courses, and that she furnishes some interesting information about what can make or break the online component. (I like the 30 minute “bookends” on either end of the scheduled class, which turned into a kind of informal bull session for the students.) I also thought Anna made an interesting point about not being able to walk away from a poorly designed aspect of an online program, because she did her work at home and couldn’t just walk away from the “classroom” as in a F2F program.
Per Historiann’s (via Anna’s) last point, one of the many shortcomings of online education is it locks instructors into what they started with. Teaching f2f with some electronic inputs, I can repair most of my missteps as they arise, but the ones that take form in bytes are hard to cure. In class there’s feedback–blank looks, knowing looks, episodes of bored withdrawal, humor (initiated by both students and me)–from which I get signals both to do something different and to stick with what I’ve done.
It’s like dancing, not to say fucking. Kathleen Hull wrote a pertinent paper (2002, happily deliverable via search engines) on the role of desire in education. Eros is one way to think of what’s missing in most online courses.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me that THEY teach thoughttful, rigorous online courses. I believe them. But what happens to students who are getting mixed messages?
I suspect that you’ve answered that question here. Hope your friend is tenured.
The only things I can think of about online courses that would *not* tend to drive *up* the negatives about, to use Historiann’s term, “how a student experiences a class emotionally” relate to the fact that the university (and its tech-vendor/partner) are presumably not piping in noise from grass cutters moving back and forth outside the class windows in the spring, snow blowers in the winter, leaf vacuumers in the fall, and noisy maintenance crews generally all year round. Or the Pepsi truck backing along the walkway next to the building with the OSHA beepers going to loudly load the soda machine so the business veep can make hir numbers. Or the Depression-era classroom radiators clanking away and putting out next to no heat in January but lots of it in April. When there’s an app to put that kind of pedagogy-verite into the online course experience we’ll have some interesting comparables for the analytics.
I’ve urged our collective bargaining teams to demand an evaluation process that would have questions about the physical condition of the learning environments, the responsiveness of the interlibrary loan system, whether students have ever heard about much less seen the dean, where they think the hidden fees for learning enhancement add-on tools embedded in their “low, low” tuition bills go once they get doled out to the department level, and the like. The suggestion gets no traction, leaving only the instructors to face the muzak.
p.s. Oh, and my favorite, the administrators who put a “hold” on the student’s financial aid “account,” leaving them unable to buy the books, until some paperwork clears somewhere in the bureaucratic chain. Lets name names, and put some questions about that in the “e-val” process.
Synchronous online courses are like a conference call. They suffer from the drawback of lacking F2F and fail to gain the flexibility of asynchronicity of most online courses.
We have hybrid courses where material is posted online, students work on the material and then the class meets for student presentation and discussion. My experience with such course is positive.
This summer, I teach a pure online course. The 15 students are all MDs and PhDs; i.e., the students are very busy. I try to respond asap to every question and request. On purpose, my introduction, announcements and the syllabus attempt to contain humor, encourage the students to bug me and admit ahead of time that there will be flaws in my game plan and I’ll promptly adjust once they point flaws out. So far so good.
In all my courses, I encourage students to collaborate on everything including assignment, projects and presentations. Two female, of course, MDs notified me on their collaboration. I said “yes (omitting darling).”
Indyanna makes a great point about comparability between live action and online classes. It is likely the case that the evaluation metrics universities use are in most cases inappropriate to online classes. At least the tools we use for F2F classes have been modified over generations and thus in some way reflect the circumstances of the live environment.
One of my colleagues who teaches online has a problem with students who expect immediate responses to their inquiries (syllabus be damned) and rate her down for failing to meet their unilaterally imposed standards. Many online experiences are immediate and I suppose that cultivates a broader expectation. In real life, the physical structures of classroom and office set different expectations. The door is open or the door is closed. I walk into a physical space (lecture hall or office) and the show begins.
I had the resources last term to provide a TA for an this colleague and it was a big success. The TA managed discussion groups that were distinct from but in support of class material. The groups helped a lot with comprehension and engagement. This allowed the instructor to focus on instructional materials and assignment support for individual students. I suppose what we did was move the class closer to the live experience. That was an expensive experiment though, and I do not expect to be able to afford to do it again.
Hi Historiann, this is a great topic!
I teach online courses (as well as f2f and hybrid)during the semester and in the summer. My class is a 100 level writing intensive gen ed capped at 30 students. I teach more than one section at a time during the semester. The summer version is either 6 or 8 weeks depending on how it gets blocked out in the summer schedule.
A few things I have noticed about evaluations: In my f2f classes the return rate is high as paper evals are handed out in class and students fill in the bubble sheet and pass them in. In my online classes I am lucky if half my students go through the online system to complete an eval. I average 40-50% of my online students filling out evals which the department chair tells me is quite good. Some other faculty have told me they get back less than 10%. This may not be a universal problem, but it is at my university and I suspect others may face this challenge. It is not really possible to make comparisons when the return rate is so low. Also, our university has one standard eval form with vague questions, the majority of which don’t apply to online classes. As a result the quantitative feedback I do get isn’t a useful way for me to improve content/address issues. Very few of my students provide qualitative comments and when they do it is usually to say something like “I didn’t know this was going to be so much work.”
The summer version of my online class is crammed. The lessons don’t flow as smoothly as i only have half the time and still need to cover the material. It takes students a week or so to get into the rhythm of any class (f2f or online) and in a 6 week class you can fall behind VERY quickly if you take a bit longer to acclimate. Summer classes are a necessary evil for many students I suspect.
In terms of building a community and connecting with students: My f2f survey classes have 100-120 students. I try to talk in person to as many students as I can but the only ones I ever seem to talk to at any length are the handful at the bottom who are in danger of dropping out and the over achievers at the top. I don’t know the majority of my students. My online class is usually 26-31 students and I never see them in person but I spend a lot more time communicating with them. There are required discussions, projects etc in the class plus it is a writing intensive so I am sending them back copious amounts of notes on their essays. This isn’t a substitute for physical contact but there is a level of personalization here that I just don’t have is my big f2f surveys.
One practical solution that might work for some (it works great for me). In addition to our weekly discussion board questions I also have what I call and “off topic” question (sometimes more than one). Question changes every week and ranges from “how is everyone enjoying the first big snowstorm?” to “anyone watch TV show X or sporting event Y?” to “anyone here ever work on a farm and did you notice any similarity to author A’s analysis?” The formal discussion questions are separate from these “off topic” conversations but you would be amazed how often students will talk about something they saw on TV that reminded them of that article we read a few weeks ago 🙂
Final note, I sometimes try out new material in my summer courses. The material doesn’t always work. My summer classes are slightly smaller so i figure it is a better venue to test projects/readings than during the semester. this also makes it hard to compare summer to semester long courses.
I definitely don’t connect with my online students as well as my F2F students. I wish I did, because in addition to more negative evals, I get a lot more hostility in email. I’m trying a different approach this summer and will let you know if it helps…
Katherine–wow. 100-200 students in your F2F courses? I’m hoping that’s not a comp course, unless you have a battallion of TAs in each section. 26-31 students in an online writing course seems pretty huge to me, too.
Your idea inviting people to share something about themselves informally is a great idea, and I’m not surprised that some students would take the opportunity to make connections between course material and the rest of their lives.
Something that’s emerged from this discussion is the unsuitability of F2F eval forms to online courses. That seems to me to be a MAJOR oversight–I would have thought that administrators (you know, the kind of people who are supposed to care about collecting and using the data recorded in teaching evals) would have forseen this & would have insisted on a different set of questions, or at least an appendix to the same form that online students would use. (How much trouble would this be? Not much, considering that it’s a web-only evaluation they’d need to write, or commission to have written.) I wonder if some of the negativity my friend is getting in her online course evals is related to the fact that the students recognize that the instrument of evaluation is just poorly suited to offer real feedback, as Katherine suggests?
That, and the problem of sample bias that evaluations always present, but which (again, per Katherine’s numbers) is much more evident in online classes. It’s only the axe-grinders who will take the time to make the effort.
Then there’s always “Coursera” (pronounced like the pirate ship), the hot new start-up out of Silly-Con Valley. The founders just got a great venture capital injection thingie from some knowledge-oriented stock pickers. They say it “scales” really great and has great “content” too. The students will apparently grade each other, so maybe they’ll evaluate each other too. (That would address one kind of “scaleability” issue). The provost at BFU says it’s “a unique opportunity to engage our faculty in working with this platform and experimenting with the technologies it affords.” (Do you have to run something like that past your local IRB?) Plus it has great content.
I only teach FtoF, but I have been a student of distance-learning, taking a series of statistics courses through the Open University (which is all distance/online at undergraduate level).
I missed the opportunities to meet other people. There were tutorials every month or so – but it would have taken me 2-3 hours travel each way for a 2 hour tutorial, since I live at the edge of a ‘teaching district’, and it never seemed like a great use of my time. There were discussion boards, chat forums etc. – but they were fairly clunky (maybe this is an age thing. I think facebook has a clunky and unappealing interface too, but my standard-age students mostly adore it). Some class members seemd to have an hour or so every day to spend on them, which meant conversation etc. moved on at great speed – nice, but when I was carving out 8-16 hours per week to actually study the module, finding an extra 7-8 hours to chat wasn’t a priority.
I liked the opportunity to work at my own rate, to juggle around – some weeks I did an hour or two each evening, others I’d binge on working all day on a weekend and spend the rest of the week on other things. However, that really messed up the idea of a ‘conversation’ in the chat areas – even in a tutor group of 20, when the week’s topic forum is open from Monday to Sunday and it’s a week when I’ve scheduled my studying for Saturday, I won’t get much out of the discussion.
I took a creative writing class on the side, where we were supposed to post work and critique each others in an on-line workshop group, and that only really worked when the class was working in sync – that is, if we all did the assignment on the first or second day it was posted, then spent the rest of the week discussing it, that was fine. However, students get a week to work on each unit, so it needed quite a bit of discipline – the time management was much more like FtoF, but without the social incentives and physical structure (of going to an actual place for an actual event) of FtoF. I struggled with that as a nearly 40 year old academic, how a more typical 18-22 year old is supposed to have the discipline, I don’t know.
I liked being able to avoid the ranters and wierdos and conversation-hogs – are there more of them on-line than FtoF? It felt like that, but I guess in FtoF I’m usually the keener on the second row, and students who fulfil those roles tend to sit towards the side and back of the class (at least, they do in the ones I teach!), so I’m less exposed to them – and being able to have conversations with the tutor via email which felt more private than in-class chatter, and let me work out my points.
There were a lot of great things about online study for me – it meant I could use the time I could scratch out from the week for the class entirely on study, rather than losing a lot of it on travelling etc., and the flexibility to study in the times of day/week when I didn’t have other committments made it possible. I would’ve liked to have a more local tutorial/meet-up group sort of thing, but it wasn’t that important, because my goal was to learn the subject. However, I think distance learning is actually harder than FtoF, for student and teacher, and especially for 18-22 year olds who tend to still be learning time management, self-discipline, delayed gratification, the pleasure of mastering hard things etc. etc., I think it’s not surprising they tend not to like it! However good the tutor, the lack of interaction is always a disadvantage, especially for weaker or less well prepared students or those for whom the written word is not their best source of knowledge.
What I don’t understand is who pays the bills. Are the lecturers given releases from their regular teaching duties or are they doing this as volunteers?
As a reasonably well funded researcher who advises students, is involved with leadership in a professional society, is expected to teach six classes a year, and etc., you’d pretty much have to call some of my teaching volunteerism already. But then I’m not at an Ivy so this Coursera business is probably my competition. Super.
The Open University really is a model of how to do online distance teaching. It consistently gets high scores in the UK’s national student satisfaction survey, coming first in 2005 and 6, and 2nd in 2007 (it still ranks very highly now). The UK’s quality assurance agency ranked teaching in 17 out of their 24 subject areas as ‘excellent’ – the highest category (and as good as any of the top uni’s). And, it has a very good research profile, so it’s a very respectable degree. It has an older profile that most universities with 60% of students aged between 25 and 44, and 75% of students work while they study. They have also been doing this (initially by post, now online) for 50 years!
My husband did a masters level course with the OU a couple of years ago (while working full time) and thought it was great. He thought it was very directed, so they had explicit guidance on what they were expected to do and read each week, and what the logic behind the course was – and he thought that was superior to anything he’d had at an undergraduate in ftf environment, where he felt you knew what your assignments were and when they were due, but felt like you had less guidance about what your learning outcomes were and what you were meant to be doing ‘to study’ outside of class (this feeling might also be the benefits of experience). He also liked the online discussions because he said you could tell when people had done the reading and it made you want to do yours so you could engage intelligently in the conversation. They were all provided with a sort of home-made (ie class-specific, not generic off the shelf) course reader that effectively acted as the ‘lecture’ component of the course.
I also have a few friends who have taught at the OU – many of their modules are effectively provided by adjunct-style workers, i.e. PhDs without fulltime employment who get paid a lump sum to run the module (although the courses and content are generated by full-time, research active staff). And, they all agreed that it was a lot of work, but they also enjoyed it – which is something that you don’t hear about similar work in ftf universities! I wonder whether the student profile makes a difference to that? Or whether only have to engage with university bureaucracy by email and online is more palatable!
I teach in a way that means that students can effectively choose whether to come along to a face to face component, or not. I’ve surveyed the two groups separately, and there was no significant difference in student response.
What I noticed is that without in-person cues it takes longer for me to get to know each student, but that once I’m clear, my interactions with each are more in-depth and more on-task than in my typical experience of f2f classes. Working online, I also have a much, much clearer sense of the ideas, life experience and social interests of students whose first language isn’t English, and who really do struggle to be heard well in a large class with confident English speakers.
In terms of student evals, I’ve noticed a really strong trend towards respectful, thoughtful responses from students used to working online, if the survey is also delivered online.
I had a colleague who worked as full time faculty at OU. He really liked it. He was active in developing and running courses as well as doing cutting edge research in his field. Talking with him really changed my mind about what was -possible- in on-line and distance education. On-line education along the lines of OU has enormous potential. Unfortunately, this model will not work in the USA because on-line and distance education here is about profit, not education.
It probably makes a difference that the OU was not created to use the Internet, but uses the Internet to do things they would have done in other ways earlier. Distance learning can be rigorous and stimulating. But that’s not cheap to deliver, or easy to do…. I think it’s clear that the problem is not the medium, but how it’s used, and how itis sold.
LadyProf’s comment has given me one of those breathtaking “Aha!” moments.
“It’s like dancing.” That is, education is. Learning is.
That gets to the heart of where distance ed falls short. I’m NOT talking about the subject matter component. The emotional component of distance ed is like diagrams of dance steps on the screen. You practice them by yourself in the living room. If you work at it, you’ll learn the steps, but it’ll never feel like an actual dance.
It also makes clear why distance ed for advanced students works so much better than for beginners. An experienced dancer can do something with a diagram of steps, and doesn’t need the emotional feedback from others to learn to love the subject.
Coming to this very late because I was busy entertaining weekend guests. First, a caveat: I have taught online, and just this year vowed that I would not teach online again in the foreseeable future – or maybe ever, for lots of reasons, but mainly for 2 – 1) because I don’t have the tech support to do what I want to do without it being the equivalent of taking on a second job and 2) because I find that I am less engaged with the students in my courses that are online, and that makes me a less effective teacher.
That said: The evals for my online courses have tended have tended to trend downward from what they are in my F2F courses in terms of positive ratings, BUT a lot of that has to do with a low response rate (i.e., I get negative evaluations, probably about the same number of negative evals as I’d get in any other class, but a lower number of evaluations overall, meaning that students who are meh about the course or even students who are fairly positive about the course don’t bother doing an evaluation.
Let’s note: *ALL* of the evals at my institution are now done online, and have been for the length of time that I’ve taught online. So the issue isn’t evaluation delivery method – in fact, you’d think that online course evals for all would mean that there would be a *higher* participation rate for students in online courses, since they are already online for the course itself. I have gotten positive responses from students who’ve taken courses with me online – responses that indicated that I really did try to engage with students, and that I really did a good job of facilitating active student engagement (which is why I actually can’t afford to teach online when I don’t have the support I need to get that level of engagement without running myself into the ground).
As I see it, the problem with my evaluations in online courses has had most to do with the fact that most students tend not to think that they should bother doing them – since they’re just doing time in that course in the first place (most of my students take the courses that they “care” about F2F – or at least this is what students have reported to me – and they save the online format for courses that they want to “get out of the way.”) What this means for evaluations is that students who are really pissed off about a class will respond (just as I might write a nasty letter to a company that gives me poor service) while those who are satisfied just don’t bother (just as I don’t congratulate those businesses that give me good service). “Good service” is an expectation, and since that’s the expectation it doesn’t warrant a comment, and “bad service” warrants a complaint.
Where I’ve failed with my online courses (and I surely have) it’s that I don’t see my students in them as full people – because I don’t see them. And that makes *me* less committed to *them* – I honestly don’t think that they are, as a rule, any less committed to me or to my courses than my F2F students. The difference is that I am invested in forcing my F2F students to engage even if they aren’t into it in the beginning, where I just can’t be bothered with my online students in the same way. (Again, this is a failing in ME – not in them.) This is why I’m not well-suited to this format for teaching.
So, given all of that, I don’t think that the online format necessarily indicates that there can’t be a human relationship between instructor and student, and I worked really, really hard when I’ve taught online to try to make that happen in an online environment, including options for group work, synchronous chat, asynchronous full-class discussion, as well as me responding to each student individually. I really tried to give my students what my F2F students get, even though it required different pedagogy and different strategies for getting them there. The problem was, ultimately, me, though. I just don’t care enough about connecting in that format to make all of those efforts mean as much as they should have done.
Long story short: I *don’t* actually believe that online course evals will necessarily be lower than those in F2F courses, given the same number of respondents. I *do* believe, however, that a successful F2F instructor will not necessarily be a successful online instructor. And I also believe that most institutions that push online course delivery don’t offer instructors the support that they need to give students what they would easily get in a F2F environment.
I’m idealistic, surely, but I really do believe that most students – whether online or F2F – enroll in good faith, and many (most?) instructors, agree to teach any course – online or F2F – in good faith. It’s not that one format is “good” while another is “bad,” and it’s not that one sort of student (a traditional, full-time student, without exceptional work or family commitments) is “good” while another (non-traditional, working 30 or more hours a week in addition to taking their coursework) is “bad.” What I think is that there is not nearly enough tech and instructional design support for *good* online courses, and that there is not nearly enough institutional emphasis on giving both professors and students the tools that they need (whatever the format) to do the best possible work.
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not quite related to the issues of online course evals, but relevant in a broader sense. I wonder what this group has to say about it. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/06/11/essay-changes-may-most-threaten-traditional-higher-education
Perhaps the students don’t have the vocabulary to male a structural critique the subpar learning experience that they are getting and thus shunt it off onto the prof.
They know that this isn’t working, but can’t express why, or what it is that this does to them as students or as human beings— maybe it’s the neoliberalization of critique– we are conditioned to understand that learning (and being, actually) is simply a matter of individual good and bad choices. If they feel that they are making good choices and still there is something profoundly important missing, they assume it must be the instructor and respond with appropriate, if misdirected, fury.
This blogge suckes! Will this be on the test??
If I could add my two cents, I’ve been teaching online history classes for the last three years. I love it but it was a steep learning curve. I did receive bad evaluations at the beginning (and still do from time to time) but I’ve included weekly video lectures, thanks to Camtasia and Vimeo, a weekly discussion and a Questions and Answer board. I field quite a few emails each day from students. Students have responded favorably to the videos and seem to be more engaged in the class because of them.
I teach online and I would say I do not see harsher comments than I see in the evals from the courses I teach in person. However, I will say this, the ones who complain are the ones who feel they should have received an A and because they were getting an A-, I am the worse teacher in the world.