WebAdvisor: A Bigger Problem than the Administration Believes?
By William Rhyne and Sam Cochran For most students at Washington and Lee, registration is a very stressful time of the semester; at a small liberal arts school with limited class sections and class times, building a schedule that works to conquer both major and minor requirements as well as FDR’s can be daunting. On top of this, the idea that such a carefully constructed schedule could easily be ripped to shreds during actual registration amplifies these worries. Waking up early on registration day and logging in to WebAdvisor raises blood pressures across campus, as the click of a button and a minute or two of staring at a computer screen can determine the course of the following semester and could potentially be the difference between earning a certain major or minor, or at least staying on track to do so. Needless to say, class registration is a very important part of being a student at Washington and Lee. Regardless of all the extracurricular and social activities that students are a part of, W&L exists first and foremost as a place of higher education; every single one of the 2,264 students enrolled at this institution did so with the intention of learning, and anything that stands in the way of this intention sets back the academic environment that Washington and Lee strives to foster.
Going back to the sleepy, yet stressful routine of morning registration, another source of stress is almost always present as the time draws near to press submit. There is always that one person in the room who for some reason cannot login to WebAdvisor or has “timed out”, filled with an unfortunate and contagious anxiety. Sometimes this only happens to a few, but sometimes it happens across the entire system. Either way, Washington and Lee students constantly groan about WebAdvisor, blaming the software for all registration misfortunes. At face value, it makes sense why students are complaining about it: Why do these login and timeout issues keep happening? Can we not invest in an updated or new system? While most undergraduates at Washington and Lee do not have anything to compare it with, WebAdvisor is certainly seen by some as an unpredictable threshold that must be crossed in order to get into the right classes and move forward in their desired route of undergraduate education. If there are better and more compatible softwares out there that could serve Washington and Lee students more efficiently and consistently, then an argument can be made that keeping WebAdvisor as the registration software is inhibiting the academic community at Washington and Lee from reaching its highest potential. If there are no better options for W&L to consider, then the student body is going to have to endure the wait until a superior software emerges.
To begin, the conversation about WebAdvisor is not new to The Spectator. In the Summer 2014 issue, writer (now alumnus) Ben Atnipp hit home on the “hellacious” experiences that every member of the W&L community has experienced with the software. He also described the “Web 1.0” feel, as well as its painfully disorganized structure (to which he places blame on the administration). Needless to say, through the issues of the last few years, the plight with WebAdvisor has stubbornly persisted in spite of its many reforms.
We decided to look into WebAdvisor, first by diagnosing its problems. The most notorious issue, as mentioned earlier, is the apparent instability of the system. Most W&L students have probably experienced at least one encounter with WebAdvisor in which they attempt to login, but an error message flashes onto the screen, signifying denied access to the registration software. Other students login early in order to avoid any last-minute complications; ironically, if the account is logged in too early before registration begins, the session will “time out” after pressing submit and the student will have to restart the process, with no notification or countdown warnings beforehand. Another problem is that WebAdvisor does not cater to the nature of Washington and Lee’s course catalog. W&L is a small school, with a small number of students and a small course selection. Some courses are only offered one semester per year, and most courses have very few sections. Since students have to to complete FDR’s along with their major(s) while abiding the 14-credit limit, it can be a struggle to assemble a schedule that best fits a student’s individual academic needs. When registration rolls around, students pick the classes they want to be in, click submit, and hope that everything turns out in their favor. Not getting into one specific class could throw off an entire schedule, resulting from the inevitable lack of additional sections. Countless hours are spent each registration period piecing together broken schedules out of remaining courses that few others wanted to take. The fact that there is no system of ranking or prioritization involved in our registration process is a significant oversight. Washington and Lee instead has a system called “Pick One,” where students are divided by class and register for one section first before the other three at a later time. Some may classify this as a way of prioritization, but the entire idea behind a ranking/prioritizing system is that safety nets are in place for students who do not get the classes they want. If a student cannot get into his or her pick one, there is nothing in place to make up for the missed opportunity.
After we looked at WebAdvisor, we reached out to peer institutions to examine their registration processes. Although registration can never perfect for every student, we found a couple of institutions that have systems built on maximizing the fairness of course registration; interestingly, these schools also reported high student satisfaction with registration. Centre College, located in Danville Kentucky, uses a tiered registration system where each class year registers by class year, but in rotating, smaller groups within that class year. That way, members of each class take turns registering at the front of the class and at the back of the class. Though being in the back may be difficult, the students can rest assured they will also be in the front eventually.
Davidson, an institution very similar to Washington and Lee, has a renowned registration process that too leaves many Davidson students satisfied with the registration system. Davidson’s waitlist and add/drop registration procedures are very similar to what W&L has to offer, but their WebTree course preference list is both popular and fair when it comes to getting students in the classes they want. Using a simple “if - then” framework to process students’ choices, the software goes down the student created “tree” (an ordered listing of students’ preferences) until each student has been awarded a full course load. While the program cannot guarantee that every student gets every class they want, it allows students to complexly rank those classes based upon a variety of factors (desire to take/expected demand/sections offered) so they stand the best chance of getting the courses they need.
Luckily, W&L and the Registrar’s Office are taking steps to remedy the longstanding WebAdvisor problem. Many softwares and options are on the table, including Banner (WebAdvisor’s competitor) and human resources programs PeopleSoft and Workday. Today, however, many questions remain. To what extent will W&L try to implement a program (like Davidson’s or Centre’s registrations) that will be fair to all students? What is the cost of revamping the system, and how willing is W&L to bear it? What roles will students in the search process? How transparent will the Registrar’s Office and Information Technology Services be to the community as a whole about these changes? There is no doubt that WebAdvisor presents a pressing issue, but it has yet to be seen if the Administration plans to tackle it with the fervor they have addressed other issues over the past few years.
Thanks to the Registrars of Davidson, Centre, and Williams (as well as our own Scott Dittman) for their help with this article.