Australian university to release student course evaluation data

An Australian university has been given the green light to release student course evaluation data, despite fears the information could be used to “reverse engineer” staff rankings.

UNSW Sydney has successfully appealed a ruling by Australia’s industrial relations arbiter, the Fair Work Commission (FWC), barring it from giving students broad access to data compiled from quantitative course assessments.

Information includes student ratings of course quality, resources, rating, and feedback on a six-point scale. UNSW says it does not intend to publish students’ qualitative feedback on the courses or their evaluations of teachers.

The university plans to publish only quantitative data on courses that involve more than one teacher – so that individual staff cannot be directly identified – and where at least 10 responses have been received, so that outliers cannot be assessed. not unduly influence the data.

But the National Union for Higher Education (NTEU) said the information allowed individual staff to be identified by academics from the same discipline or school and – in cases where courses were taught by pairs of tenured staff and occasional – by scholars from across the university.

“This is a public university, not a reality TV show,” the union’s New South Wales branch tweeted on the eve of an FWC hearing in August.

FWC Commissioner Leigh Johns sided with the union. He dismissed the university’s argument that the release of the data did not directly identify staff because “detective work and extra effort” was needed to match courses to faculty.

But an FWC appeals panel overturned that decision, finding the university’s plans complied with a strict reading of the enterprise agreement.

“We accept that in some cases a person can be identified without being named,” the March 7 judgment reads. “A reference to [an] The attribute could identify the person, although the person’s name might not be used. But the proposed form of data to be published simply does not. No staff member is identified.

UNSW believes that releasing the data will convince students that their feedback is “considered and used”, further encouraging them to complete course evaluation surveys and improving response rates and accuracy of questionnaires. “Our students… take such care in providing all of this feedback,” Deputy Vice Chancellor Merlin Crossley said.

“It gives us the opportunity to celebrate and showcase many courses that provide an exceptional student experience, and to work with staff to develop courses that still need work.”

But NTEU Secretary of State Damien Cahill said the “very disappointing” decision potentially sent a signal to officials at other universities who “want to use these surveys as performance measures”.

Dr Cahill said student assessments were useful for teacher and course development when ‘framed and conducted’ correctly. “But there is a lot of scholarly literature on… inherent gender and racial biases [and] limits depending on the context. Whether a class is online, the time of day, the room it took place in, the dynamics of the student cohort – all of these situational factors play a role in determining the outcome of these assessments.

In the latest such study, published in the Journal of Academic Teaching and Learning Practices, a Victoria University analysis of more than 22,000 student teaching ratings found no difference in ratings given to the gender of teachers. But comments from male students about the teaching style of female academics have become increasingly negative during the Covid-related shutdowns.

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