By Ben Atnipp
Every W&L student has their own WebAdvisor horror story. From hellacious spinning rainbow wheels, to surprise instructor consents, to the inability to express class preferences, WebAdvisor hiccups are all too common for the 6:59:59AM registration experience. Given our system’s track record, reputation, antiquated interface, and frustrating class scheduling, a review of its virtues and vices may provide a clearer picture for what W&L’s registration process was, is, and ideally, could be in the near future.
Unknown to some, W&L does not actually own WebAdvisor. Ellucian, a private vendor that provides integrated software systems for over 2,000 higher educational institutions, has proprietary ownership of a host of software programs known as ‘Colleague’.
Similar to Microsoft Office, Colleague is a ‘suite’ of software programs. Within Ellucian’s Colleague ‘suite,’ WebAdvisor—like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint—serves as one of several portals that allow private institutions to customize their own third-party registration window. This ‘open’ architecture allows W&L’s Information Technology Department and the University Registrar to integrate WebAdvisor’s software onto W&L student and faculty databases.
Interface, functionality, and capabilities are all within Ellucian’s realm. When students complain about WebAdvisor’s antiquated look, ‘Web 1.0’ feel, and lack of mobile potential, blame Ellucian. However, when students complain about spinning rainbow balls, unknown holds, inability to waitlist a class that conflicts with a future course, confusion with degree audit, inability to rank the need of a certain class, or any other unique W&L characteristic, look toward the W&L administration.
With all the strife surrounding Ellucian’s WebAdvisor, no current students can fully appreciate the luxuries of our current registration process. Just five years ago, our WebAdvisor system only allowed students to register for a certain class and professor—not a time. This meant students would register for a full load of classes, then find out what times their class actually met several days later—fear of the ‘8 A.M.’ was an unknown variable five years ago.
In 2010, however, our University Registrar, led by Scott Dittman, changed WebAdvisor to its current form—adding class times to student portals. By allowing students to factor in what time each class would meet, the Registrar profoundly altered the decision-making process during registration. For example, take two different microeconomics sections with two different professors. Say one is at 1:00 P.M. with an “okay” professor and one is at 8:00 A.M. with the “best” professor. It may be presumptive, but most would probably sacrifice the quality of their professors for a class time more suitable for their sleeping habits. When students weigh the importance of class time to their academic schedule, the entire system sacrifices ‘top class choices’ for ‘mediocre class choices’—in economic terms, a misallocation of resources ensues.
So, given our current methodology, what sort of changes or alterations would be appropriate to give students a better chance of getting the classes they want? When reflecting on changes to our current system, keep in mind the trade offs that come with change. While a new idea may solve one problem within this complex issue, it could easily present a whole new set of problems.
Take Davidson College for example. At Davidson, they use a methodology called the ‘Davidson Tree’. Like a flowchart, students fill out a “tree” in which they rank their classes in a preferred order. As the diagram below shows, an “if-then” computer algorithm sorts through all of the students‘ preferences (the ‘trees’) and tries to maximize the number of “top” choices. While this methodology gives students the ability to express how badly they need a class, it is incredibly complicated to execute. With the “tree”, Davidson sacrifices clarity of the registration process for allocative efficiency—again, a tradeoff.
Another possible registration method is the “point system.” Here, students ‘bid’ a certain amount of allotted ‘points’ for each class they want through an auction based software. The “point system”—trying to mimic a free-market approach—liberates students from systemic constraints of other methodologies. It allows students to express exactly how badly they need a class. Again though, there are tradeoffs. Within a free-market approach, the entire system assumes that each student will behave rationally. In other words, this kind of allocation collapses if a lethargic senior (or freshman) decides to take the wrong class needed for their major. Registration libertarians might say this punishes dumb students, but then again, W&L does not want students failing to graduate because of a complex registration. Good information on class ‘prices’, clear rules, and a well-informed student body are the only way this system would work on a campus-wide arrangement.
Looking at the current system, there is no doubt that WebAdvisor has its virtues. It transformed the registration experience from waiting in line on the colonnade to sifting through a menu on a solid Wi-fi connection. But technology changes. Systems improve. If W&L wants to be mindful of the future, it cannot have a registration system that curtails students’ chances of getting the classes they want. Nor can it allow administrative miscommunications and technological mishaps to hurt a student’s chance. With tuition at $44,660, that makes for quite an expensive ‘hiccup’.
Ultimately, further investment in Information Technology and a healthy review of our current registration method must be priorities for years to come. Perhaps school leaders should examine the robustness of our registration process while keeping in mind that other technologies and methods exist. But even more, perhaps students need to remind the school that—at the end of the day—students should be able to study what interest them—not what WebAdvisor deals them.