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UPDATED: September 18. 2014, at 2:00 p.m.
Five years ago, College students carried 800-page books listing every single course offered at Harvard. But in 2009, the College did away with printed course catalogs, lightening backpacks and permanently changing the way students pick their classes.
For most students, that meant turning to homespun browsing tools—like courses.cs50.net, a site created by students in Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science”—and away from the College’s own, less sleek browser.
But a revamped course catalog set to roll out in the fall of 2015 may change that focus. The catalog—part of a larger effort to create a student platform to centralize bill payment, course enrollment, and registration at the University—is intended to personalize a student’s browsing experience by noting which courses count toward his or her degree progress, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke.
“This semester we’ll be ramping up with more interactions with faculty and students, to make sure that the way that students experience the catalog is a richer, more robust experience than what we offer now,” Burke said, noting that the catalog will feature keyword searches and more useful filters.
With the rollout of the course catalog next fall, University administrators hope to spur students to reflect on their educational goals when searching for courses online, even as some professors worry that more targeted search tools will limit students’ opportunities to explore.
Though the College still officially offers its own online browsing tool for searching the catalog, many students say they prefer using the CS50 tool, which filters courses by concentration and meeting time, in addition to showing data from the Q guide.
“[The CS50 tool] is without a doubt way easier to use,” Cynthia S. Meng ’15 said. “The user interface is so much more intuitive, and it’s also a good way to aggregate all the data I actually want to see in one place.”
Unlike the CS50 tool, Harvard’s current catalog browser—found at coursecatalog.harvard.edu—features only a simple search bar, making it difficult to search for courses by department or General Education requirement. Students can type the desired course title, description, and instructor into the search bar, or leave it blank, to receive a long list of courses offered by all of Harvard’s schools.
“[The catalog] is an html page, it starts by department and you drill down into it,” Burke said. “It’s just a long page…. It goes down forever.”
Anastasiya Borys ’15 said that prior to this academic year, she had primarily used the CS50 course tool as her way to find suitable classes, but this year switched to using the course catalog’s website so she could search for non-College courses not included on the CS50 site.
“The course catalog is less user-friendly and you have to almost come into it knowing what you're looking for,” Borys said.
In addition, the catalog is so decentralized that students often find themselves searching for courses and registering on multiple platforms, according to Jason Shaffner ’99, a director of student information systems for Harvard University Information and Technology.
“It’s a more fragmented experience,” said Shaffner, who is charged with overseeing the implementation of the new student information system. “Students have to use multiple course catalog interfaces today to be able to plan what they’re going to take and then to complete the study card.”
Shaffner also noted that students often use the CS50 tool in combination with the catalog, department pages, and the Courses of Instruction site. Although Shaffner said that his team has not yet reached out to CS50 course staff, he hopes that new tool will streamline the many platforms currently in use.
“Sometimes you only get part of the answer from each of those tools,” Shaffner said.
A year from now, if the new catalog is launched according to plan, students will be able to register, search for courses, and submit their study cards all on a whole new platform. Like the CS50 website, the new catalog will have filtering and keyword search tools, but according to Shaffner, the catalog will expand upon CS50’s functionalities by personalizing the browser to track degree progress.
“We plan to be able to support the web services capabilities that are used today by the CS50 application, to be able to consume the data from our system,” Shaffner said. “But our hope is that we’ll be able to make the data set better and more accurate, and have more dimensions to it.”
But even as the technical capabilities of the course catalog expand, some professors wonder if more targeted searches and filters will limit students’ academic options and mitigate serendipity in course selection. For his part, Anthropology Director of Undergraduate Studies Richard H. Meadow expressed concern about students missing opportunities to find courses they might not otherwise think to look for.
“The problem with that is that you need to know what sort of keywords you are going to look for,” Meadow said in an interview in April. “ If you haven’t ever thought about looking for [a course about] food, you’d never look for food.”
He also expressed concern that catalog browsing tools encourage students to focus solely on crossing concentration requirements off their lists, as opposed to nurturing new and more general academic interests.
“A lot of times, students think, ‘Okay, these are the courses I need to take for my concentration. And now I’m going to fit everything around it,’” Meadow said. “You get things fixed, and you fill in the slots.”
Computer Science Director of Undergraduate Studies and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said he also worries about students being “too directed” and “assuming an intellectual identity too early and too resolutely.”
But for Lewis, this pedagogical problem does not stem from improved browsing tools but from the changing academic priorities of Harvard undergraduates.
“Blocking the advance of technology is not the right way to address that problem,” Lewis said. “People need to take a step back in terms of thinking what their educational goals are.”
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.
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