THE 2008 STUDENTS’ CHOICE AWARDS: THE FIGHT BEHIND THE SURVEY

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By Alex Wright

It’s out with the new and back with the old this fall for Ryerson’s Faculty Course Surveys, after a deadlock in negotiations over the format.

After a troubled attempt to hold the survey online last year, it is now back on paper. The new and improved questions were scrapped and replaced by the ten-year-old former set, last seen two years ago.

The surveys allow students to rate their courses and instructors but the results of last year’s surveys showed the online switch caused student participation rates to drop from 60 per cent to 40 per cent.

The Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) opted to put the survey back on paper this year to be filled out in class, amid concerns that potentially unrepresentative statistics could influence tenure and promotion decisions.

“[In] some sections less than 10 per cent of the students responded and the 10 per cent that responded may or may not have been those who attended class, and yet the faculty member’s career was on the line based on it,” said Dave Mason, head of the RFA.

But Ryerson’s Board of Governors, who are in contract negotiations with the RFA, want the surveys to stay online. The university has decided that if the surveys go back on paper the old questions will also be brought back. Mason called this a bargaining tactic.

“They’re trying to make it as painful for us as possible to try and apply pressure to us to agree to their proposal,” he said.

Michael Dewson, who represents the Board of Governors in the negotiations, would not comment on Mason’s statement. However, he said why last year’s new questions couldn’t be transferred back to paper.

“We couldn’t run the online system offline,” he said, referring to the customizable question list and 250-word commentary space. “The complexity, the time, the paper — it would be a nightmare. It would cost a fortune.”

He also thinks students would be reluctant to write their detailed thoughts about a professor in class, where there is no guarantee of anonymity. He also said the online system included better security and cost less. He described the paper system as “just money that has to get spent, and you’re no better off than if you did it online.”

Mason is still concerned about the low response rates and whether the online results are representative.

“If you have such low response rates, and it’s being used for career decisions, that’s not really sensible,” he said.

At the University of Toronto and York University, the course surveys are online with the results used in tenure and promotion decisions. But at York, professors who are up for tenure conduct their surveys in class to ensure maximum student participation.

Despite his concerns, Mason would still support holding the surveys online, but only if the results weren’t used for tenure and promotion decisions.

All bargaining attempts to reach an agreement on this issue have been unsuccessful.

These disagreements come amid larger negotiations to strike a new collective agreement between the faculty association and the university. The course survey format is one of the unresolved issues causing the talks to continue months after the previous agreement expired in June.

Because of these deadlocked discussions, the survey is no longer administered with a newly revamped questionnaire. Instead, students will be talking back to faculty and administration through the former survey which was described as “stale” by the review committee who replaced it in 2007.

Politics aside, the newly released results of last year’s survey paint a picture of a very satisfied student body.

On a scale from one to five where a 1.0 means complete satisfaction, the average rating was 1.7 for all programs.

The Eyeopener averaged all 14 questions from both the fall 2007 and winter 2008 surveys for all programs.

The top five programs for student satisfaction were, in order: disability studies, history, French/Spanish, midwifery and psychology.

Accounting, architecture, graphic communications management, economics and urban planning ranked the worst. Two programs that only showed up on the fall 2007 results received the worst overall ratings. Business management scored a 2.29 and social sciences (arts) received 2.22. The social science courses don’t belong to one department and are only offered in fall while the business school re-organized the departments.

It’s important to note the narrow margin, with the total range for all programs only spanning from 1.33 to 2.22. Even the programs with the least content students are still on the “satisfied” half of the scale.

The paper survey with the old questions will be administered in class this November.

Negotiations are still ongoing between the Ryerson Faculty Association and Ryerson’s Board of Governors to decide the future format of the surveys.

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