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Course eval plan wins council OK

After a heated discussion at its last meeting of 2002, the Arts and Sciences Council approved a permanent opt-in system for the Student Accessible Course Evaluation System, at least temporarily ending debate on whether students should have access to the results of teacher-course evaluations.

Faculty at the Dec. 12 meeting questioned the validity of student perceptions and numerical rankings as means to evaluate teaching. Faculty also questioned how carefully the information would be protected and how SACES would handle the data for courses with different instructors each semester.

"On principle, I really don't think we should equalize the student-teacher relationship to that of a customer-service provider," said Ingeborg Walther, interim chair and associate professor of the practice of Germanic languages and literature.

Walther's strident opposition to SACES was accompanied by much head-nodding and approval from other faculty members at the meeting.

In contrast, Professor of History John Richards spoke in favor of SACES. He argued that even imperfect information is better than no information and that teachers should be willing to stand by their records.

"[Opposing course evaluations] looks very dubious to the outside," he said. "If I were a student and I saw a course [without SACES data] I would be dubious."

The newly approved system calls for an opt-in, rather than an opt-out system; council chair Ronald Witt had previously said the latter plan would meet with opposition from faculty. Although Duke Student Government officials and other SACES proponents preferred an opt-out system, hoping that more data would be available, Witt engineered the current compromise so that professors opposed to the online system would not prevent their peers from participating.

Although the same course evaluation forms will be administered in the future, data from those forms--including student ratings on quality of the course, quality of instructor and difficulty of the course--will not be posted online unless professors specifically allow the data to be released. The data is available to registering students when they browse classes online on ACES Web.

Previously, all data was posted online and withheld only upon faculty request.

The meeting began with nearly an hour of administrative presentations, designed to make clear to faculty how exactly the system works and what the benefits of course evaluations could be. Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson said the data from course evaluations will be very helpful in determining if students are learning the skills the new curriculum has targeted. For example, he noted that students reported they gained more writing skills in Writing 20 than in other classes and that students also reported a higher level of intellectual stimulation in FOCUS courses.

Course evaluations--and specifically whether to make the results available online--have had a rollercoaster history with the council. In 1998, the council approved the first online evaluation system--Duke Undergraduates Evaluate Teaching--to replace the Teacher Course Evaluation Book, which many students complained was incomplete. DUET, however, was discontinued in September 1999 after faculty members expressed concerned with negative student comments.

Duke Student Government took up the project again that fall and proposed a system called Views and Online Information through Course Evaluations later that year. In May 2000, however, VOICE met with the council's rejection.

By May 2001, Thompson and DSG developed SACES and replaced the old "green sheets" with machine-readable evaluation forms. The council approved the evaluation system and granted a trial run for posting the results online. It extended the trial last January, on the condition that the council's permanent vote on SACES would come this fall.

The approval may finally signal a shift for the course evaluations from the front burner of undergraduate academics.

"I've been working on this form for two-and-a-half years," Thompson said. "I'd like to work on something else."

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