By Anne Sullivan

All of us are taking a few days to recover from the punishing start of the semester known as Add/Drop. Not only students but also faculty and administrators find the Add/Drop process to be painful. Some of the problems are perennial — the chase of too many students for too few seats in popular courses is inherently problematic — but the web offers some exciting possibilities for making parts of the Add/Drop scramble more efficient, and there are plans underway to develop these web-based tools.

I chair the Web Working Group charged by the University Registrar and composed of university administrators, students (serving through the schools’ academic councils) and a talented team of computer analysts from Information Systems of University Information Services. We are working diligently to convert pre-registration, completion and eventually Add/Drop processing to a web-based methodology to the limits compatible with necessary face-to-face interactions between students, faculty and deans.

This past November almost all students used the web to pre-register.

Some Add/Drop problems will never go away. Students, driven by word-of-mouth information, will continue to seek the “hottest” courses. These courses will be sought during pre-registration, many students will get rejected and they will enter Add/Drop, determined to make a personal appeal to the professor once the term begins. Even students who have made compromised choices will use Add/Drop to “trade up” to a better schedule. And students who thought their schedules were all set will move out of courses which look, upon attending the first couple of classes, too hard/too dry/too bizarre/too repetitive/wrong level/wrong professor/wrong rumor. Comparison shopping is not going to stop, and indeed, it is extremely useful to students.

How long should Add/Drop be? This is a tug of war between deans and faculty, who want the term to begin and settle down, and students, who would like to comparison shop for as long a period as they can before “committing.” Discussion of the length of Add/Drop occurs every few years. This particular January, Add/Drop was as long as current policy allows it to be, extending through a nine class day period. This should have been plenty of time for students and faculty to commit.

Where does the pain come in? The pain comes with rejection. Faculty teaching over-subscribed courses feel harassed by emotional appeals to add their class, and can be crustier and more abrupt than at any other time of the year, preempting any opportunity for those appeals with negative pronouncements in class to “go away.” Students get more than one or two of these rejections, and they feel bruised and angry.

Deans and counselors try to mediate, asking students to re-imagine and widen their choices, or begging for a seat for the student who truly must have a specific class to be on track for the degree. Department chairs and the registrar work hard to plan sufficient space in courses overall to ensure students’ degree progress, though it is never possible to meet every student’s demand for particular courses or professors.

The Web can help by introducing some efficiencies to the search for classes. Within a year, we will make available to all students the screen in the Student Information System that reports on each course, its enrollment capacity and its current enrollment. Students will need to understand that they will be looking at “live” data, and that what they see on the screen is only a partial view of reality — the screen may show that Course X is set up to enroll 35 students and there are only 32 students enrolled. But the professor may have signed three Add/Drop slips that have yet to be presented to the registrar and processed, and the course may be closed. But once the students understand the fluidity of the situation, the screen is a great help in finding under-enrolled courses where there will be a “welcome” from the professor. Another web improvement on the planning boards is to allow completion to take place through the web, rather than students lining up at the registrar’s office at the end of each semester on the eve of the examination period. From their dorm room, or the computer lab, at the assigned time, students will be able to fill in their schedule with second-choice courses if they were unlucky in pre-registration. There is a wait-list capacity in our SIS, and there are plans to activate this wait-list during Completion, again through the web.

As we gain experience with these new tools, the registrar, the deans and faculty will need to resolve the policy discussions necessary to extend these tools into Add/Drop. At the moment, the decision to approve an Add is decentralized. The professor who is meeting her/his class and counting noses and sorting priorities according to whatever method the professor invents (who is a senior major? lottery? who spoke with me first?) makes the decision. And deans are signing their approval for every Add/Drop transaction, monitoring for problems (i.e., a student signing up for an overload who should not, or a student dropping a key course ignorant of the consequences).

If we were to move to a more student-centered service model for this crucial processing (a web-based model in which students can enroll themselves in a course with an open seat based upon eligibility rules built into the course), would we lose quality controls necessary to the “wise” dispersal of seats in courses, our most valuable commodity? This discussion is underway in the Web Working Group.

A year from now, Add/Drop should be less painful. We won’t be able to add seats to popular courses, but we can make it easier to uncover the alternate choices, and maybe even to add into the open course.

Anne D. Sullivan is the associate dean of the College and chair of the Web Working Group.

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