Registrar’s Office To Launch New Course Catalog in 2015

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar’s Office plans to replace the current online course catalog in the fall of 2015 with a more efficient, user-friendly catalog equipped with tools to help students track their degree progress and cross-register for courses, according to FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke.

The move is part of a larger plan to launch a centralized student information system, which will provide one online platform for students across all 12 Harvard schools to make payments and register for courses, among other tasks.

According to Burke, the catalog will include improved key term and categorical searches akin to an internet search bar. Though the creation of the catalog is still in what Burke calls a “speculative phase,” students will eventually be able to narrow their searches to include only courses during a desired day or term. They will also be able to filter searches according to which Harvard school offers the course.

The new system will give us some new opportunities for looking up courses, and browsing online,” Burke said. “It’s going to be a better experience than just looking at chapters and reading from top to bottom.”

Burke said that with this new search system, students will be able to determine whether the courses they have searched will count toward their degree.

“So you can build scenarios and ‘what if’s?’” Burke said. “And conversely if you are not eligible to take a course, [the catalog] will tell you too.

The move to a completely redesigned course catalog marks the first significant change to the catalog since 2009, when the University stopped printing course catalogs, along with student and faculty handbooks and the Q guide, to save tens of thousands of dollars in printing and mailing costs. Before moving online, the catalog could be as lengthy as 800 plus pages, according to Computer Science professor and former dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

Some faculty members expressed concern that enabling students to search by keyword may not emphasize the exploratory aspect of searching for courses.

“You need to know what sort of keywords you are going to look for,” said anthropology Director of Undergraduate Studies Richard H. Meadow. “If you haven’t ever thought about looking for a course about food, you’d never look for food.”

He added that he thinks this keyword search function will change the types of questions that faculty members ask themselves when they present their courses in the catalog.

“How am I going to better present my course material in a way that it’s going to be found by someone using these different sorts of searches?” he said. “What sort of really high-profile words am I going to include in their titles and their descriptions that will catch students’ attention?”

Burke however, noted that students will still have the option to browse courses by scrolling through pages and lists of courses in the catalogas they can do now.

Although Lewis noted that he is “modestly nostalgic” about the end of the current course catalog, he said he thinks the transition to the new version will not significantly affect students’ experience searching for courses.

“I’m not particularly worried about the new catalog having all kinds of searching and indexing and ranking features that people can misuse because it’s technology,” Lewis said. “You can always misuse technology but that’s not the reason not to have technology, it’s just a reason to try to figure out ways to slow people down and think more about the choices they are making and how they are making them.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.