Using Qualtrics for Online Education

A short link to this document is


It’s possible that web expertise could be pooled to produce an excellent product by cleverly integrating currently available solutions - which are under extensive development and have great user support, but simply aren't set up to talk to each other. The goal is not to build a system from scratch, but to integrate several available online software solutions to develop a platform for online education that is easy to use, designed to maximize learning, and allows for A/B testing and research. For example, Google Sites or an online course management system, Google Groups, Google App Engine, and Qualtrics.

A Software Solution for Online Education & Research

What is the easiest way to develop software for a high quality online education solution?

Especially if “high-quality” means one that allows a wide range of content, sophisticated interaction with learners, requires minimal data hosting, and is research friendly (A/B testing). Also, a solution that is not only a black box product sent to students, but could actually be edited and iterated upon by the vast number of people who can benefit from (online) education, but have minimal ability to program: students, teachers, instructional designers, and social science researchers.

Building such a system from scratch would be a tremendous investment, and it would still be unlikely to meet the above features and many other key criteria (for example, this is true for Coursera & Udacity, despite the incredible skills they have and the remarkable job they have done. Also, these don’t support public editing).

A high-quality and extremely open solution for online education could instead be developed by building the components from online software that is already widely used, is extensively developed and supported, and often free. Instead of using technical expertise to build a system from scratch, it could be cleverly directed to creatively coordinating and integrating multiple systems that don’t currently talk to each other, but could.

Potential sub-components of an online education software suite

One example is to integrate:

  1. A course management website 
    that supports user login to a single "place", that then tracks user credentials in a session, permits intuitive navigation, and stores data (E.g. Something already available & potentially free, similar to Moodle, the free version of Blackboard, or Pearson; an adaptation of Google Sites or Weebly;or a custom-built solution).
  2. Qualtrics is an unprecedentedly powerful survey software for research that can be used to store and deliver all course content, construct homework assignments and tests, and do simple grading of them. It has built in tools for A/B testing, research, and data reporting & analysis. Qualtrics is discussed in depth at the bottom of this page, here.
  3. Forum software like Google Groups/Reddit for free and scalable discussion. An automated script for signup wou be needed for huge classes.
  4. Additional scripts could be hosted on Google App Engine for any additional desired functionality. Qualtrics can interact with these, so it’s a matter of figuring interaction out for (1) and (3).

If solutions are figured out for these to all interact with each other, this software system will be well placed to take advantage of any future programs or online solutions that are developed


Using Qualtrics for delivery of educational content & question

Usually survey software is easy to use but disappointingly restrictive. Instead, Qualtrics has both an excellent and intuitve WYSIWG interface, and close to unlimited customization of CSS, HTML, and Javascript, along with the ability to execute external scripts and further send and receive arbitrary information. Many of these advanced features are hidden from beginners using the GUI, but you can read below or online at their (unusually extensive documentation called Qualtrics University) to assure yourself of its capacity.

Playing with Qualtrics is the easiest way to test these claims for yourself, you can open an account with your Google ID and see its potential.

(1) GUI & Drag-and-Drop Functions

(available to students, teachers, designers, researchers, without any programming at all)
Teachers and students who have never programmed can use “out-of-the-box” drag-and-drop objects to do all of the following
    1. Construct sequences of text, audio, videos (audio & video are hosted on Youtube), as well as questions, which allow essay responses, multiple choice, sliders, file uploads, and even drag-and-drop of items into categories. Text and parameters of these items are set using a GUI.
    2. Control timing of content or questions – restricting or forcing movement forward.
    3. Use a tool that automatically scores question responses that involve discrete choices.
    4. Do A/B testing by randomly assigning people to different conditions, randomly select a subset of items or paths, randomly order items. (Like all functions mentioned, this is using a drag-and-drop object).
    5. Use sophisticated IF, OR, and AND logic so that later questions can be changed based on previously set variables, previous answers and their accuracy.
    6. Use “Table of Contents” objects that structure a survey so that a user can choose when to do different items or even entire sequences, navigating between components. A back button also allows for moving back and forth in the survey, not only forward.
    7. Use a drag-and-drop object that executes any external script during the survey.
    8. The ability to redirect to any URL upon completion – whether *another* survey, a script, or to any website. This allows unlimited composition of surveys, each of which serves as a modular instructional unit or block of questions. It also allows execution of scripts stored externally, which can execute their desired function using information Qualtrics send, and then themselves call another survey and pass information to it.

None of these features requires *any* programming ability.

(2) Extensive customizability using CSS, HTML, Javascript, and interaction with external scripts

On the other hand, people with technical expertise can use Qualtrics in many ways:

  1. Each Qualtrics question has a button allowing insertion of custom HTML and custom Javascript (a question API is available online).
  2. Variables can be accessed and set as desired during the survey’s execution.
  3. As mentioned, a drag-and-drop object allows for a call to any external script – during the survey and upon completion. Moreover, surveys can transmit information like variable values externally as well as receive them – on initiation of a survey, during the survey, and on completion (a REST API is available online).
  4. A mailer function allows emails to be sent automatically – email addresses and any desired variables/information can be inserted into the email from each participant in the survey.

With this kind of customizability, using Qualtrics is strictly as as good as or better than using a custom system – it can more or less always be integrated into whatever is built from scratch.

(3) Additional key features for being part of an online course/learning management system

    1. Thousands of users in a domain can create and edit questions (students, teachers, GSIs) and there is a sophisticated system for setting access to data and features. There are also good options for sharing surveys and components of surveys across groups, which can be reused as templates.
      Testing is extremely modular and the interface protects users from creating bugs because of how hand-typed code is run.
    2. Automatically scalable – literally hundreds of thousands of surveys are regularly processed.
    3. There is extensive and unusually good documentation for the GUI and all of their functions, for both beginners and advanced users. This also means there’s a good online community – to support students, teachers, and more advanced programmers.

While it initially seems odd to make an online course by composing many small component surveys, on closer examination it's actually ideal. The modular structure allows for easy modification, iteration, and development of content.

For more information about Qualtrics, you can look at a Google Sites wiki that’s under development (very rough).

(4) Limitations

The development of Qualtrics solely for survey research prevents it from being a complete solution on its own.

  1. Qualtrics does have the ability to permanently represent a person’s information using “panels”, can automatically add new people and information to a panel, and can use Authentication/sign-in to connect a person with their data. However, this isn’t optimized for continual use. Every time a survey ends a person must be reauthenticated. Also, the current method for storing data in a panel is awkward and tedious. A javascript coding solution that uses the REST or another API may be able to solve this.
  2. Qualtrics isn’t free, and trial versions are quite limited. On the other hand, most universities have a license and Qualtrics often gives unlimited site licenses (e.g. unlimited users and unlimited surveys can cost just $3500) which are affordable for school districts or schools or nonprofits that do online education. Also, a license is just needed to edit the survey, delivery of a course can be unlimited for a license owner. I don’t know whether the cost of a personal license is affordable. It may be that Qualtrics would also provide a free license for nonprofit purposes, or that some other kind of arrangement could be worked out.
  3. Qualtrics can load a bit slowly.
  4. Editing of courses with extensive content (with very many surveys composed together) could be unwieldy, as Qualtrics isn’t meant to display individual surveys as part of a larger structure. There could be programming solutions that easily provide such a visual representation.
  5. Qualtrics doesn’t have a built-in navigation bar that will be present across multiple surveys (the table of contents one is just within a survey). But tweaking the header to add a set of hyperlinks that is present in *every* survey in a group could function as one. Also, having a course management “home” website that simply pops out surveys into a separate window could also work fine.

A software solution for online education would ideally have most of these features:

  1. Supports A/B testing or experimental research
  2. Provides users with a site location that they can log into repeatedly and that retains their data.
  3. Is flexible enough to be used for semester-long lecture-style course, week-long workshop-style training, and individual bite-sized videos and homework exercises.
  4. Has agile deployment – can be very easily and seamlessly revised and iterated.
  5. Provides both a WYSIWG interface (for non-technical teachers and students) as well as extensive customizability.
  6. Is massively scalable.
  7. Is free, can be made free, or is extremely cheap.

Note: This document was written in May 2012. While most of it is just as true today, one big change is the proliferation of MOOC platforms that can serve as a Learning Management System container for many Qualtrics surveys. For example, Qualtrics can be embedded within EdX, Coursera, and NovoEd. Also, Simon Wiles has built an LTI "bridge" that allows Qualtrics to be used as an LTI tool.