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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

What’s behind course registration frustrations?

Students and professors ran into snags during spring course registration. What’s to blame? It’s complicated…

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A key, and sometimes frustrating, aspect of a Tufts student’s experience is using SIS, the Student Information System. Students must navigate this system to access services like academic transcripts and bills. Most critically, SIS provides the interface for students to sign up for courses every semester. For many, this can be a stressful process — so stressful that SIS becomes the target of student ire and anxiety. But here’s the disappointing news: There’s no single system to blame.

For freshman Bailey Seaton, this spring’s registration was made more exasperating by waitlist mishaps with her Introduction to Ethics course. The course has two sections, one taught by Distinguished Senior Lecturer David Denby and the other taught by Senior Lecturer Monica Link Kim. Seaton was placed on the waitlist for Denby’s section but felt assured by the professor that she would be able to officially enroll in the class.

I was on the waitlist for much longer than the registrar’s office deemed appropriate,” Seaton said. “And they really encouraged me to drop that class in order to take the other ethics class with a different professor at a time that was less convenient for me.”

Seaton was determined, however, and spent time in the registrar’s office advocating for herself.

I think they were helpful, just not necessarily for my situation,” she said.

In the end, it required a professor to override the waitlist in SIS for Seaton to register for the course.

“But [Professor Denby] did a lot of work as far as some students sending their emails to him so that he could manually override the SIS program to put us in the class,” Seaton said.

Students not only faced issues with the waitlist for the Introduction to Ethics course, but with recitations as well. Some enrolled in Kim’s ethics lecture found themselves unable to register for a recitation section — even though it is a required component of the course. This left them stuck in a seemingly impossible place.

Kim understands the frustration. She explained that she received emails from students attempting to register for her course who were unable to since the recitation blocks that correspond with the lecture were all seemingly full.

“It took longer than I had hoped to try to get down to the bottom of it — and I understand that [for] the registrar … that first week of classes is probably the worst week for them because they’re getting a zillion different questions,” Kim said. “But the problem ended up being that somehow on SIS there was some electronic glitch and people who were registered for David Denby’s lecture were able to enroll for one of my recitations. So that’s why my recitations were maxed out.”

A big reason why course registration can get tricky is it’s a process involving four separate parties: academic departments, the office of the registrar, the student and SIS itself. In an email to the Daily, Sarah Harvey, the registrar for the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering, outlined how the academic departments interact with SIS at the start of each term.

“Academic departments participate in a course entry process at the start of each term. Academic department representatives enter and edit course data for the courses their department plans to offer in the subsequent term,” she wrote.

As for potential reasons why a student may experience trouble, Harvey said that many factors could be at play, including capacity limits and scheduling incapabilities for students.

In rare occasions, there could be an issue with how the class was scheduled impeding registration,” she wrote.

Linda Snell, director of student and alumni services within Tufts Technology Services, explained which party is responsible in the case of some registration issues, such as a discrepancy in seats available for a lecture component of a class versus its labs or recitations.

“A lot of that is done by the registrar’s office. That’s really not done by our team. But we work closely with the registrar’s office who works with the departments to clean up those sorts of things,” Snell said.

Despite the central role of SIS in the experience of a Tufts student, little is known about the system or its history. Before the rolling implementation of the system between 2011 and 2014, Tufts used an old digital mainframe that had been in place since the late 1980s, according to Snell.

TTS uses PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, a management systems product, to run SIS. The TTS team believed that the PeopleSoft layout was not visually modern enough, so in 2013, TTS collaborated with IntraSee, an IT management company to redesign the SIS portal. 

“We tried to improve things a little bit, make this more visually appealing [and] a little easier to navigate by using the IntraSee portal,” Snell said. “So everything that’s presented to you when you log into SIS, as a student or as a faculty member, is this IntraSee portal on top of PeopleSoft.”

Snell emphasized that although SIS has been built using PeopleSoft and IntraSee, TTS is the source of ongoing support for SIS.

“Ultimately, the TTS team is who completes all support. IntraSee is not an ongoing partner. It’s just a product that we purchased,” she said.

Over the years, Snell’s team has added a considerable number of features to SIS. The previous PeopleSoft course search mechanism was met with feedback stating that it was unclear.

“So we rebuilt that,” Snell said. “Everything you see when you search for classes is custom-built by my team. “We’ve added things like a lot of workflow processes. … The ability to get transfer of credit … the ability to cross-register into classes on another campus or in another school at Tufts, my team built.”

To work with SIS is to be constantly addressing problems and aiming for improvement. Kim noted a recurring issue that stems from a lack of clarity on SIS. Introduction to Ethics is cross-listed between philosophy and civic studies. For this reason, there exist two separate waitlists for the same course — both for Kim and Denby’s lecture sections.

So the civic studies lecture has a waitlist of five and the [philosophy] has a waitlist of five,” Kim said. When students ask her about their chances of getting off of the waitlist, Kim always has to explain that though a student may see their position on the waitlist listed as two of five, in reality, they may be three or four out of 10.

Kim said it would be more clear “if it could be changed so that there’s one waitlist and everybody is on the same page as to where they are on this one waitlist.”

Kim is not the only one hoping for SIS improvements. Snell wants Tufts to figure out a better way to introduce SIS to incoming students, such as an introductory training session. It seems like a great idea — in fact, Tufts used to offer it. It seems that the introduction is a victim of the many in-person features lost to COVID-19.

Before COVID, we used to do the first-year registrations in person in a computer lab,” Snell said. “What I miss about that was the ability to walk new students through some of the features of SIS that you may not know about right off the bat.

In the meantime, Snell and her team will continue working to tweak and improve SIS — and that is a never-ending task.

You know, we’re always busy,” Snell said. “That’s for sure.”