Online Surveys Give School Districts Quick Feedback
Popularity of Web-Based Opinion Gathering Grows, But Internet Approach Has Potential Problems
Schools seeking to tap the opinions of their constituents—parents, students, and community members—may never have had it so easy, thanks to the proliferation of online survey tools that are being served up by companies or set up by school do-it-yourselfers.
Clickable surveys offered through school or district Web pages are easier to prepare and tabulate, and appear to get higher rates of response, than traditional paper surveys that are sent home in backpacks or mailed, say school administrators who have joined the trend.
Online surveys are providing feedback on such topics as the quality of administrative services, codes of student conduct, satisfaction with school programs and facilities, the incidence of bullying, and families’ plans for re-enrollment.
For example, the 62,000-student Greenville, S.C., school district posts customer-satisfaction surveys for every major administrative function on a Web page entitled “How Are We Doing?”
District spokesman Obie Lyles said the surveys address a “customer service objective” in the district’s education plan. “It gives us a way to monitor how we’re doing and what we need to do differently or do better,” he said.
Private schools are also conducting more online surveys, in large part because they “save the school time and allow [leaders] to get immediate feedback once their results are in,” said Lauren Lipsick, an educational services manager who sets up online surveys for members of the Catholic Telemedia Network. The network is a consortium of some 150 Roman Catholic schools in California, predominantly in the San Francisco Bay area.
Ms. Lipsick uses Zoomerang.com, a Web site that hosts surveys for a wide range of companies and other organizations. She pays a reduced educational rate of $300 annually, which allows any school in the network to post surveys at the site.
Zoomerang, owned by MarketTools Inc., based in Mill Valley, Calif., also offers templates for surveys and provides automated tabulation of the results. A school can put a link to its survey on a school Web page or e-mail the link to a target group.
Ms. Lipsick receives the proposed questions from a teacher or administrator and turns the questions into survey items, using templates or previous surveys as a model. The formats include single- or multiple-choice queries, yes-or-no questions, and scales that let participants select a range of intensity, such as from 1 to 5.
After revisions of a draft survey and an online trial run, Ms. Lipsick launches the finished survey on Zoomerang.com, and the school e-mails a Web link to the people the school wishes to survey. Recipients click on the link to go directly to the survey.
A more high-powered—and expensive—survey option is provided by WebSurveyor Corp., based in Herndon, Va. WebSurveyor hosts surveys primarily for corporations and higher education institutions, according to Tom Lueker, the company’s chief marketing officer.
WebSurveyor charges $250 for a single survey or $1,500 for an annual subscription that allows numerous surveys, Mr. Lueker said. The annual cost to use the survey software to operate on a school district’s computer system is $5,000.
That kind of money buys features such as telephone help for new users on designing a questionnaire and analyzing results, the ability to limit participation to people who have user-identification passwords, and advanced capabilities to crunch data and even examine responses by individuals.
The 7,800-student Queen Anne’s County, Md., school district uses WebSurveyor twice a year for feedback from parents, said Robert Lothroum, the district’s supervisor of accountability and technology. “We’re getting about a 30 percent return, compared to 5 or 6 percent on paper surveys sent home,” he said.
Experts point out, however, that online surveys have some important limitations. To begin with, they say, some families still do not have access to the Internet.
In addition, online surveys suffer from poor response rates, just like regular surveys, if they are not promoted effectively. To boost response, some schools hold drawings for a portable digital music player or other prize for respondents who complete the surveys.
Beyond the problem of poor response rates, online surveys can have the unintended effect of drawing in people who are not wanted in the survey pool. Many school Web sites offer surveys intended to gauge the views of parents or students on school policies, but anyone can click in and answer the questions.
To reduce that risk, some schools use password-protected surveys, “or bury [the survey deep in a Web site] so no one’s going to stumble on it” unless they’ve been directed to it by school officials, Ms. Lipsick said.
But attempts to control survey participation can backfire, as in one California district, where community members have complained that they have been wrongly excluded from an online survey of parents and students posted on the district Web page.
The survey on the Web site of the 1,860-student Acton-Agua Dulce school district, a community northwest of Los Angeles, asks parents questions about their satisfaction with their local schools, then gets to the kicker: Do they think that the district needs a replacement for its aging high school?
Bernard Schwab, a self-titled watchdog in the community, complains that citizens other than parents also deserve to register their views in the survey.
“It’s a misuse of the survey,” he said. “What they want to do, if 100 people want a high school, is say, ‘Let’s put another bond [before voters].’ It’s unacceptable, because all the residents have to pay for it.”
Superintendent Linda Wagner, in an interview, said that voters have rejected three bond elections within the past three years to build a new school—defeats that she attributes to the preponderance of residents who do not have children in school.
She conceded that the survey should have been open to all. “We probably should have had it in probably more of a community format,” Ms. Wagner said.
Vol. 24, Issue 20, Page 8