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October 28, 2002

Online surveys can collect more, better data

Donna Price is communications coordinator for the Information Technology Division.

Web surveys are a popular method of collecting survey data in academic environments. They streamline the data-gathering process by funneling responses directly into databases for statistical analysis, eliminating errors that can be created during manual data-entry processes.

“We have moved to a paperless process by combining a ‘cover letter’ e-mail to survey participants with an interactive web survey form, which respondents fill out,” said Daniel Teodorescu, director of Institutional Planning and Research (IPR). “Most responses are received within 72 hours of sending the initial e-mail invitation.”

According to John Mills, executive web producer, current directions for online surveys at Emory are to have them built in-house or to use third-party, off-site application vendors. For the first approach, an HTML form can be encoded to send survey responses to an e-mail address or database.

Third-party software systems, such as SurveyMonkey, Perseus’s Survey Solutions for the Web, Creative Research System’s The Survey System, and Survey Said Survey Software, offer customized features such as management of e-mail invitation distribution, built-in statistical analysis and reporting capabilities, and automatic tracking of nonrespondents.

These prepackaged systems allow forms to be tailored to specific research criteria, while offering easy-to-use interfaces for both writing and taking surveys.

“Both Blackboard and WebCT course-development tools have the option to create surveys,” said Sandra Butler, educational analyst for the Information Technology Division (ITD). “Instructors can view the results; no student names are associated with the answers; and with Blackboard, instructors can choose from seven types of questions ranging from true-false to multiple choice, to short-answer/essay.

“We also offer training,” Butler continued. “Faculty can register for one of our public training classes or can request a private consultation. Blackboard is so easy to use with its wizard interface that most faculty don’t need personal help with this function. We have a great handout they can use.”

ITD developed the recent graduate student, Research at Emory and Academic Exchange surveys for IPR using ColdFusion and a Microsoft Access database rather than using packaged survey software. Teodorescu said the key reasons for in-house development were that prepackaged survey services often require that the data be stored on the vendor’s servers, which raises concerns about the privacy of responses; ColdFusion scripts allow for real-time error-checking and correction, which means response options can be tailored to the information respondents are supplying; and ColdFusion can be used to create web interfaces for querying and maintaining databases. Download options also can be written enabling easy import into a desktop package for statistical data analysis.

The Scholarship in Atlanta and the Academic Integrity surveys (student and faculty versions) were built for IPR using ColdFusion for the web-based forms, Oracle to store responses and e-mail addresses, and Javascript to allow for client-side validation.

“Besides obvious benefits such as speed and lower costs,” Teodorescu said, “I think the use of web surveying brought us better qualitative information. I had conducted several paper survey projects prior to web surveying and noticed that, in web surveys, people are more likely to give ample responses to open-ended questions than in paper surveys.”

ITD has developed a set of reusable ColdFusion code that performs many of the complex web survey administrative functions offered by third-party software packages. A customizable survey administrator’s area, for instance, allows researchers to send personalized e-mail cover invitations; designate testing groups; track which of the sampled individuals have taken the survey; and send subsequent reminder e-mails to nonrespondents. Another useful functionality blocks respondents who have not been sampled from accessing and responding to the survey and prohibits the submission of more than one set of survey responses.

Other survey resources can be found at:

• (very popular in K-12)




• ed/needs/online_survey.html