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Jun 26, 2009

Cataloging trouble

The Catalog working group, of which I was a member, just finished its tasks of redesigning the University catalogs. The group was great to work with; it was UNC at its best – willing to change, innovative, informal, and deeply caring about students. I think we made a lot of progress, and 2010/11 catalogs will be much more user-friendly, and easier to navigate. I am still wondering why a simple question – Which courses do I need to take? – requires such a complicated answer. We have the Catalogs, check-sheets in various offices, four-year plans, and a whole host of advisers who interpret the mysterious written word of the catalogs for students. The paradox is, by trying to make college easier, we make it a lot more complicated than it has to be. To off-set this complexity, we spend a whole lot of resources trying to explain the complexity away. Here are some examples:

  • As one of our group members noted, the Catalog reflects the logic of program creators, not of program users. For example, faculty members divide courses in core and supporting, major and Liberal Arts Core, within the main discipline and in other disciplines. But very few of these categories matter to students; they simply need to know which courses they have to take for sure, and with which they have some choices. They also want to know which courses can be more useful for the future, which are easier to get into, which are fun, and which require too much work. It becomes a simple conflict of categorization. It's like going to a pharmacy and finding the medicine arranged by price rather than by the kind of trouble you might be experiencing.
  • If we leave students to their own devices, their rate of error in planning the coursework would be very high. We then require them to see an advisor to get a PIN, so they can register. But getting to see an advisor is another obstacle, another hoop to jump through. Most of the advisors on campus are faculty, who are not here all the time. Every year, many of them are new, and have their own trouble reading and understanding of the catalog. As a result, in an effort to reduce errors, we introduce a whole new layer of complexity which generates new errors and more frustrations.
  • The whole Liberal Arts Core idea is very old and venerable, and designed with the best intentions. Ideally, it should give every student a broad education, and allow easier transfer to another institution. However, people have been messing with the LAC for years. For example, when they simply wanted to expand the major, certain LAC courses became "Specified required LAC courses." This move, of course, defies the purpose of choice and transferability. Instead of calling it what it is – a larger major – these programs just add a level of confusion. Moreover, some of the major courses proper also satisfy the LAC requirements, and therefore can be double-counted. So the two categories overlap significantly, and make figuring them out very difficult. The LAC list itself is a maze of categories, subcategories, and rules.
  • Then, of course, the State of Colorado requires the majors be different than teacher education programs (PTEPS). It comes from an obscure ideological stance requiring teachers to know enough content. Therefore, we list PTEP courses as a different set of courses, further confusing students. And of course, the difference between PTEP and major courses makes no sense, and the two categories overlap also. In some majors, some of methods PTEP courses are also counted as major courses, and in others, they are not.

It is not only that these things are difficult to explain to an 18-year old, who is fresh out of high school. What strikes me as absurd that we need to explain these things at all. They truly don't care, and should not care about these categories. What makes it complicated for students is that they also have no idea how often courses are offered, how hard is it to get in them, and which courses are "stacked," which means some are pre-requisites for others, and cannot be taken just at any time. Here are my conclusions/recommendations:

  1. Advising is supposed to be important, and it connects students to faculty on a more personal level. But if much of it s spent on explaining the same catalog mysteries over and over again, perhaps it is not what we hope it is. We need to make another, more radical step in making the catalog easy to understand by purging the categories relevant to program creation. Maybe we should ask students for help.
  2. Students need to have easy access to the same data faculty have access to: history of course offerings, how full do they tend to be in the past, as well as the schedule as it is being developed. Last year, I copied advanced schedules from the report portal and e-mailed it to two thousand teacher education students. Many were very grateful, because it allowed them to plan better. But why is this information hidden from them in the first place?
  3. We need to learn to build logic models of student scheduling. Following the many complicated rules associated with course choices is better done by a computer than by a human mind. One simple step toward this: we already have a degree check feature in Ursa. However, there is no way for students to run their mock 4-year pan through the degree check, and see if they would graduate with a given set of courses. So if we allowed them to build a 4-year plan, and run through a pretend graduation, it would eliminate a lot of errors, and reduce the burden of advising.
  4. In all out programs, we need to keep only those choices that make sense, and eliminate all of those choices that are only there to support the idea of choice. Many of the choices we announce are unobtainable because courses listed there are never offered, or limited to majors. In other cases, choices serve no discernable reason to exist, or are results of turf wars and turf peace-making. If we eliminate those, it will probably reduce the choices by 2/3. And when we keep the choice, we need to be able clearly explain what are advantages of each option, and what are implications of choosing one option over another.


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