The Low-Hanging Fruit of Technology in Academia

Is technology in academic advising a help or a hindrance?
By Jacob Felson

To what extent can digital technologies enhance the college classroom experience? There has been a lot of debate among academics in the last few years about the use of technology in higher education. It is a profound issue, prompting us to consider the fundamental purpose and social value of colleges and universities. But there is another, more prosaic issue related to digital technologies in higher education, one that has been overlooked by many in academia and Silicon Valley: how can technology be used to facilitate course selection and registration?

For students at many colleges and universities today, the process of selecting and registering for courses is a bit like doing one’s taxes: tedious at best, hopelessly confusing at worst. And unlike other questions related to technology in higher education, this issue should not be controversial. This is the lowhanging fruit of technology in academia.

Flawed System

The most commonly used advising and registration software today is Banner, produced by a company called Ellucian. In a world of sophisticated algorithms and intuitive interfaces, Banner is an anachronism, limited in both design and functionality. Frequently used functions are buried within lists of rarely used alternatives. Students and their advisers must go back and forth between different parts of the system to identify course requirements and course availability.

Worse than these design flaws are all of the missed automation opportunities. Fundamental questions requiring only simple logic and algebra are left for the adviser and student to do by hand. How many courses remain to be taken until graduation? How many electives are left in the major? The time advisers spend figuring out the answers to questions like these is time they could be spending helping students find courses that match their interests and career goals.

To be sure, higher-quality systems are in use at some institutions. For example, some colleges and universities that use Banner also subscribe to an add-on program from Ellucian called DegreeWorks, which provides students with a somewhat more intuitive roadmap to graduation. But while DegreeWorks is an improvement over Banner, it is nowhere near the cutting edge.

The situation is bad enough that students and faculty are taking matters into their own hands. As recently reported in the New York Times, enterprising students at the University of California–Berkeley, Rutgers University, Yale University, and Baruch College have created popular apps that repackage course schedules provided by their universities into more usable formats.

And then there are faculty. As a faculty adviser, I was fed up with a system that had professors repeatedly doing routine calculations of credits and courses. I brought my complaints to a vice president at my university, who assured me that Banner was the industry standard and that improvements were in the works.

I resigned myself to using Banner until I became assistant chair of my department, an administrative post that involved supervising the advising of about seven hundred students majoring in either sociology or criminal justice. Now I had an incentive to do something. After my requests for direct access to university databases were rebuffed, I decided to write a program that would navigate the menus in Banner to generate degree audits, collect the requisite data, and produce simple, customized roadmaps to graduation for all seven hundred majors in my department.

The trouble was, I’m a professor of sociology, not of computer science. My previous programming experience was limited mainly to writing code for canned statistical packages. My last true programming experience had been writing programs in BASIC in high school to draw pictures and bleep Beethoven’s Fifth on an early 1990s PC. Could I do it?

Low-Hanging Fruit

Despite my lack of experience, I was able to hack out a serviceable software program in about a month’s time. Thanks to Google and question-and-answer sites like, I learned enough code to write a program that could create individualized course advising for every major in my department at the click of a button. The program almost completely eliminated the need for advisers to calculate credits or grind through the same logic over and over for each student.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve used my program to produce customized roadmaps for more than one thousand students. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. There is a general sense that these roadmaps are a considerable improvement over the output from the professional software administered by the university.

My program doesn’t replace faculty advisers, however. Advisers in our department still meet with students, but those meetings are now more substantive than they had been in the past. The program frees the advisers from much of the tedium of advising so they can focus on the tasks in which people have comparative advantage over computers—offering personalized judgments, motivating students, and so on.

Can you think of another professional software package used by millions of people that was improved through repackaging by a rank amateur in a month’s time? This is low-hanging fruit.

What’s going on here? Why is course-management software inferior in quality to many of the applications we use for free every day? One reason is that universities do not compete on the quality of their registration software. Students do not consider the quality of course-selection software when deciding which college to attend. For administrators, complaints about course-management software may be like complaints about campus parking—perhaps worth addressing, but not an institutional priority.

Administrators may be underestimating the benefits of a high-quality student information system. Research in behavioral economics has taught us that relatively subtle changes in the way that options are presented to people can have a significant impact on the choices they make. Harnessing the latest technology to present course options to students in the simplest way possible could boost enrollments and graduation rates. At the very least, making the course-selection process more intuitive can increase student satisfaction and relieve advisers of some of their busywork.

An easy-to-use, student-centered application would allow students to register by answering a series of questions presented one at a time, much like tax-preparation software. Ancillary information would be readily available within carefully placed links or as mouse-over text to avoid overwhelming students.

The time is ripe for widespread adoption of a new advising app. The market for such an app seems large enough to warrant venture capital investment. According to its website, Ellucian had revenue of over $650 million in 2012. A startup that built a promising student-centered alternative to Banner and DegreeWorks might be an attractive buyout target. (DegreeWorks itself was introduced by a small competitor that was bought out by Ellucian after achieving significant market share.)

An imaginative entrepreneur has the opportunity to build student-centered course-management software the way Steve Jobs built user-friendly smartphones and tablet computers. In an era of turn-by-turn GPS directions, it’s time college students stopped registering for classes using the equivalent of a giant fold-out map.

Jacob Felson is associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Sociology at William Paterson University. His recent research has focused on evaluating the validity of twin studies and on the history of quantitative methods in sociology. His e-mail address is [email protected].