Friday, February 21, 2014

Why are the computer programmers making the policy decisions?

Like government, higher education is administered (or mis-administered, depending on who you talk to) by teams of bureaucrats.  This post isn't really about criticizing this aspect of the higher education landscape in general, though a decent argument could be made that the growth of our administrative ranks hasn't really led to an overall improvement in learning.  Rather, I want to comment on a particular segment of that bureaucracy that has become increasingly powerful over the last two decades.  No, I'm not talking about the President, her cabinet, the chancellor's office, or any of the other groups we typically see as "high-powered."  The group with the real power are those slightly socially inept, dress-code flaunting teams tucked away in some basement of your campus--the computer programmers.

At BYU, we are fortunate to not have to deal with many of the enrollment challenges faced by many other institutions.  Because of our unique mission, and the fact that we have a very well-defined target population, we typically don't have any problem hitting enrollment targets for our two major semesters (Sept - Dec. & Jan. - April).  And, because of the generous tuition subsidies provided by our sponsor, tuition has not risen nearly as fast or as much as the state schools in our area.

Nonetheless, BYU's Registrars Office has been quite aggressive as of late in boosting what we refer to as "spring-summer" enrollments (i.e. enrollment in courses during the "off-season" of May - August).  During these warm weather months, most students take time off to participate in internships, travel and study abroad, or just return home to be with family.  So, from May to August, campus is quieter, slower, and emptier.  While I rather enjoy these months and the extra time and space they give me to read, research, and get to the things I've been putting off the rest of the year, from a resource management perspective they are a drain.  We have empty classrooms, under-utilized academic advisement centers, and a lonesome looking library.  So, it only makes sense to take a strategic approach to boosting enrollments during these months to offset the overhead operating expenses associated with staying open all year.

Up until very recently, students who wished to enroll during spring-summer, were limited to 8 week courses that ran during either spring or summer "term."  While some students and faculty enjoyed this model because a course was over and done with in less time (can you say superficial learning?), it was not a great fit for some students or some courses.  So, the Registrar's office has wisely expanded the spring-summer catalog to include more traditional 15 week courses that span both terms.  Not only does this new policy provide more options for students wishing to take courses during spring and summer, it should improve learning in those courses that opt for the 15 week model.  But, as with any new policy, there have been some unintended and unanticipated challenges.  And, this is where the programmers come in.

To ensure that students do not overwhelm themselves with an unrealistic academic load, BYU limits students to an enrollment of 18 credit hours during a traditional 15-week semester.  A student who wants to exceed this limit can do so, but only after approval from his or her academic advisor.  In the past, this policy was also implemented during 8-week terms and limited students to the 8-week equivalent of 9 credit hours for these enrollment periods (because the courses are twice as fast, the credit limit is half as large).

But, this all got pretty messy when the Registrar's office decided to offer both 15-week courses that span both terms, as well as the 8-week courses that are limited to either spring or summer term.  Now that 15-week courses are on the table for the May - August period, the credit limit has been raised to 18 credits to mirror the policy for the rest of the academic year.  But, what the bureaucracy didn't anticipate was that the online registration system (what we call MyMAP) would not be able to distinguish between credit hours belonging to 15-week courses, and those belonging to the shorter 8-week courses.  Essentially, this means that a student can now, in theory, register for up to 18 credit hours to be completed in an original 8 week term.  For those of you keeping score at home (and who are familiar with the Carnegie credit hour system), this would mean 36 hours a week of in-seat class time, plus 72 hours of study time outside of class.  I'm a PE major, so proceed at your own caution when trusting my math, but that's over 15 hours a day, 7 days of week participating in some kind of academic activity.  Even if we take a more conservative schedule of 12 credit hours in an 8-week term, that's 24 hours of class and 48 hours of study each week (better than 10 hours a day, 7 days a week).  

An administrative assistant in our office discovered all of this about two weeks ago when she was reviewing first-year students' schedules.  Since then, we've discovered upwards of 100 first-year students (for whom we have primary responsibility in our department) who are registered for 9+ credit hours during our upcoming summer term.  Because first-year students have no real idea of the accelerated pace and increased workload associated with an 8-week course, we were concerned that these students were setting themselves up for failure.  So, somewhat naively we called the Registrar's Office to inquire about the situation.  It was rather clear that no one had really thought through the implications of the new spring-summer policy and the fact that it would allow situations like this to arise.  After a "we'll get back to you," and about 30 minutes, we got a return phone call notifying us that the registration system would not allow any further restrictions in terms of credit hour limits and that was the end of the conversation.  

The reality is that the "system" can be structured to do just about anything the institution would like it to.  But, only if the programmers agree to make the changes.  So, what ends up happening is that computer programmers become one of the strongest voices in the room when it comes to issues of policy (particularly registration and enrollment policies, because technology is so enmeshed in all of those processes).  Forget about what's best for learning, student well-being, or even common sense.  If a change to the registration system is viewed as too much work or not as important as another project, the policy will reflect the wishes of the technologists.  

While policy has to be feasible and responsive to technological capabilities, the policy that I've described in this post represents negligence on the part of our institution, particularly in the case of first-year students who are unfamiliar with the demands of college-level work.  While institutional policy serves a variety of functions from ensuring economic viability, to managing the allocation of resources, to protecting the quality of the work-life of faculty and administrators, ultimately policy should support and enhance learning.  And, this most recent policy decision doesn't.  

I have no problem with the fact that the Registrar's office didn't anticipate the fact that this change in policy would create this problematic loophole--it's impossible to anticipate everything that will come with these kinds of transitions.  What is frustrating is the way they've responded--no admission that this is a problematic path for us to be heading down and no urgency in terms of modifying the registration system to close the loop.  Our repeated unwillingness to admit mistakes and failure to strategically use policy to support learning is discouraging.  And, half-hearted "recommendations" like the one below, aren't enough to make up for it (from the Registrar's Office FAQ page):

Though it is possible to take more than 9 credits in a Spring or Summer term, it is not recommended since classes taken in a term cover the same amount of content in only about half the time.


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