Robert Kearns knows that students aren’t opening their laptops in a frenetic attempt to fill out online course evaluations, despite how many times professors ask them to. He made sure to build his online survey and evaluation platform, Course Canary, with that idea in mind.
“With [existing] online evaluations, [teachers] struggle to hit 75 percent [participation, because students delete their e-mail or mark it as junk,” says Kearns. “With Course Canary, the whole idea is if you only get 20 percent of students filling [a survey] out, that’s probably a good thing. We take no news as good news.”
Course Canary, the pilot version of which launched this spring, is Kearns’ answer to expediting the online evaluation process. Teachers and professors create online surveys that their students can fill out weekly, and these surveys are embeddable into class websites or course management systems, like Blackboard. Alternatively, or in tandem with the online surveys, exit tickets can be created, which can then be filled out by students on their mobile phones or tablets after each class. In both the online surveys and exit tickets, the teacher chooses from a sampling of question types to gather quantitative and qualitative responses from students.
Already instructors at Johns Hopkins University, Syracuse University, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have been using Course Canary in their spring and summer online courses.
“Across the whole industry everybody’s moving to online evaluations,” says Kearns, 30, a Federal Hill resident. “But faculty are very nervous about evaluations. … One of our messages to them: you’re always going to have your final course evaluations, but along the way do spot checks.”
This is territory Kearns knows rather well. Originally from Texas, Kearns went to Babson College in Boston before working right after graduation for Washington, D.C.-based online learning company Blackboard. He arrived in Baltimore thanks to his wife, whom he met in D.C. and had family here.
“We moved here and I was commuting down to D.C., and that sucked,” he says.
Kearns landed a job at Johns Hopkins University, where he still works, doing the IT work that makes online learning possible—putting classes online and training faculty on how to conduct online courses.
Developing Course Canary was something derived from a combination of his experiences putting classes online at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and the need for a capstone project to complete his master’s degree at Hopkins School of Education. In his day job at the School of Nursing, Kearns found that more students wanted a means by which they could submit criticism about the online classes they were taking. The patchwork solution was soliciting student concerns and grievances via Google Forms and SurveyMonkey.
“It turned out to be a huge hit,” Kearns says. “The students loved it, the course evaluations started to get better, [and] overall course quality went up. But the product sucked.”
Enter Kearns’ capstone project. He taught himself to code and built a “bare bones” version of Course Canary in February, which is the version he has been updating since. Kearns’ product allows professors to track responses over time, gives professors access to “libraries of different questions” and survey templates, and is “built for getting a specific kind of education data”—data that can be stored, analyzed and downloaded into PDF or Microsoft Excel format.
Two versions of the platform are offered now. A free model provides teachers or professors with two online surveys and two exit tickets. Kearns charges per instructor for the version that allows unlimited surveys and exit tickets for as many classes as a person teachers. It’s $49 for kindergarten through high school teachers, and $99 for college professors.
Of course, while online surveys have increased in popularity, there’s no guarantee that students fill them out. That’s no impediment for Kearns.
“These are formative as opposed to summative,” he says. “No one’s going to get hired or fired based on what happens in their Course Canary evaluations. What we stress to students … [the survey] is here online, we make it as easy as possible, but we also say it’s optional.”
Ultimately, Kearns wants professors to see Course Canary as a “relief valve” for students who need a way to offer comments about an online course from week to week.
As of yet, there’s no definitive plan to expand Course Canary to the point where it can be sold directly to schools and universities as opposed to individual instructors. Kearns says he spent roughly $312 bootstrapping its creation.
“Collecting data regularly isn’t an industry standard yet,” he says. “Not everybody’s doing it. Now I’m just trying to rethink what that growth strategy looks like.”
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