• September 2, 2014

College 2.0: A Wired Way to Rate Professors—and to Connect Teachers

Who is the most wired teacher at your college?

The folks at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County know the answer on their campus: Gerald Canfield, an associate professor of information systems. He came out on top in the campus's latest rankings of “most active instructors” using the university’s course-management system.

Just about every college has such a system these days, designed to track assignments and manage online class discussions. But the Maryland campus is perhaps the first to publish campuswide usage statistics.

Mr. Canfield amassed 12,927 “hits” on Blackboard, the course-management system used by the university, during the fall semester. That’s 1,000 more than the nearest competitor, and double the average at the university.

Administrators are not suggesting that the professors who lead the rankings are any better at teaching than those lower on the list. But they may be better with technology. The data let those who are not so tech-savvy find more expert colleagues and trade tips, says John Fritz, the administrator who manages Blackboard at the university and who dreamed up the hit-tracker software.

“Faculty learn best from other faculty,” said Mr. Fritz. Although the university runs workshops on how to use Blackboard, many professors are reluctant, or too busy, to sit through training sessions. Most would prefer to ask a colleague down the hall for help, said Mr. Fritz. “Half of my job is referrals—I’m kind of a broker.”

He publishes reports about the hit-tracking software's findings on a university Web site and in a newsletter sent to all faculty members each semester.

Bragging Rights

Many college leaders have been trying for years to get professors to try technological tools to jazz up their teaching. But the independent ethos of the college environment has made it difficult to spread new teaching practices among more-reluctant professors. Colleges have tried various carrots: Some give professors fancy new office computers in exchange for attending training sessions. Others give grants to professors who experiment with technology.

The genius of Mr. Fritz’s “Blackboard Reports” is that it gives professors who top the list (and those who top department-by-department breakdowns) bragging rights—and a quantifiable measure they can put on a résumé.

Katherine Morris, an instructor in social work at the university who is the most active user in her department, says she will “definitely” mention the statistic if she applies for another teaching position, as proof that she is using the latest tools in the classroom.

“I really see that this is where education is going,” she said. When she talked about the rankings with colleagues at a recent lunch meeting, “everyone wanted to know where they were ranked.” The public nature of the rankings has already motivated some professors to do more with online tools than they have in the past, she said.

Mr. Fritz initially worried that professors, especially those at the bottom of the list, would protest the new rankings. So before the project began, he gathered a committee of about a dozen faculty members to advise him (or talk him out of it). “I said, does anyone have any problems with this?” None did. Besides, he only publishes the top 50 in any category—so there is no list of “least-active users.”

Measuring Teaching

The reports at Maryland remind us that as professors put material online, they are leaving far more of a trace than traditional lecturers ever did. In the old days, once a class ended, the chalkboard was quickly erased by the next group, and the scrawlings were gone forever. Now professors are converting their yellowing lecture notes to text on course-management systems, or posting videos of their lecture performances for students to watch later for review.

All of those materials are preserved on college servers. And such data could easily be used to evaluate the quality of the teaching going on behind closed classroom doors, though the University of Maryland-Baltimore County has no plans to do that.

Though the idea of using technology to rank activity is new to teaching, it has long been a staple of academic research.

For decades, scientists have tracked the number of times their articles are cited by others, and such citation indexes have been important for career advancement.

Teaching has had no similar metric—except, of course, for student evaluations. But many people consider those evaluations imperfect measures because students may rate most favorably those professors who are more generous with their grading rather than those who challenge them.

So in an era when colleges are under more pressure than ever to be accountable for their costs and quality, the question arises: Will colleges begin to use technology to help them measure teaching? And should they?

Surprising Connections

Mr. Canfield said he was not surprised that he topped the list of most-active users at Maryland-Baltimore County because he teaches all of his courses online.

But the "Blackboard Reports" have produced some surprises, said Mr. Fritz—including calling his attention to professors in traditional classrooms who use more technology than he might have realized otherwise.

One example is Lili Cui, a lecturer in physics. She posts lecture notes and practice quizzes, and gives extra credit for participation in the course's chat room. She said she spends at least 30 minutes every day reading the discussions and answering questions that crop up there. Students consistently rate her highly on evaluations, praising her responsiveness.

Mr. Fritz’s department now spends more time talking with Ms. Cui. It recently worked with her as she experimented with a classroom response system that let her conduct quizzes in class and have the results instantly displayed on a screen.

The reports have helped him know which professors are interested in doing more, he said, even if they have not come forward asking for help

“What it at least gives me is some sort of barometer for distinguishing between all 1,300 courses,” he said.

The Maryland college plans to share the software it developed to create the reports with other colleges. And perhaps it is just one way colleges will tap into new classroom technologies to rate their professors.

College 2.0 explores how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com