University News

As Banner streamlines registration, kinks persist

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2012


After lagging behind peers with digitized pre-registration systems for years, the University went live with Banner, its current online registration system, in the winter of 2007.

Almost five years later, improvements to the system have created a versatile tool that has outpaced registration tools at institutions that use the same basic software. Still, students and faculty deal with pre-registration and shopping period woes, and the University continues to seek ways to improve the system, according to University Registrar Robert Fitzgerald.

Kickin’ it old school

Before Banner went live, the University relied on an in-person registration system that predated the adoption of the Open Curriculum in 1969. Students were required to submit paper forms to the Office of the Registrar, which was then located in University Hall. Lines of students could stretch down the corridor and even wind down the stairs, Fitzgerald said.

“When you look at the entire spectrum of higher ed, we were really late,” Fitzgerald said. “We never went through telephone registration or anything – we just went cold turkey in 2007.” 

No course enrollment caps were in place in the old system, and students could register for classes that met at the same time or for multiple sections of the same class.

“In limited enrollment courses, it was a major frustration point for a lot students,” Fitzgerald said. “Even though the course could have been limited to 20 students, you could have 500 students actually signed up for that course.” 

The old system did not enforce enrollment restrictions such as concentrations or pre-requisites, which meant students often did not find out they were ineligible to take a course until the first day of the semester, Fitzgerald said.

“Even though they had theoretically pre-registered on a piece of paper … the chances of them getting into that actual course were kind of a crapshoot,” he said.


A banner year

The number of students who drop limited enrollment courses during shopping period has decreased in the five years since Banner was implemented, Fitzgerald said. Banner’s automatic restrictions on enrollment have given professors more control over the amount of students from different grade levels and concentrations they want in their courses, he added.

At the time of the switch, students feared the practice would interfere with the freedom of the Open Curriculum, but Fitzgerald said professors’ ability to issue override codes kept the curriculum’s spirit in place.

“If you want to get into any class, you can,” said Isaac MacDonald ’15. “Pre-registration is the way you can feel confident and not worry about getting into the class.” 

Pre-registration figures are helpful for deans and advisors to determine a student’s academic standing, or to ensure to third parties that a student plans to enroll in a certain number of classes that qualifies them for financial aid, loans or insurance, Fitzgerald said.

Banner also helps to give the Office of the Registrar a “semi-accurate snapshot of what the demand will be for the course,” Fitzgerald said. That information, along with records of past enrollment levels, helps the office choose appropriately-sized classrooms for each course.

Unlike other schools with general education requirements, Brown can’t as easily predict the number of students who will be enrolled in a given course based on that year’s matriculation.

Though over-crowding is often an issue during the first several class meetings, it usually dissipates after shopping period, Fitzgerald said. Other institutions assign course caps based on the size of the classroom available, a practice Fitzgerald said would in effect eliminate shopping period.



But the pre-registration system has far from erased the unpredictability that professors and students face during the first two weeks of classes.

“In practice, students are pretty much doing the same thing” they did before Banner was implemented, said Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English and co-director of the Nonfiction Writing Program. Students pre-register for the five limited enrollment courses they would like to shop, knowing they will still be able to enroll in unlimited enrollment courses at the start of the following semester, she said.

“We’ve had to kind of give up a chunk of the syllabus just to cope with shopping period,” she said. “That said, everybody adjusts, and you just try to make those (first three) classes teachable moments no matter who’s there.”

Ben Aronow ’13, Dan Meropol ’13 and Inaki Arbeloa ’12 completed a project analyzing the University’s registration system for ECON 1465: Market Design: Theory and Application last fall. The main problem facing the system is that “Students do not have an incentive to state their true preferences until the end of the add/drop period,” they wrote.

Students registered for classes they want to keep as backups for shopping period can be an issue for those who are more enthusiastic about taking a certain course.

Though MacDonald, a likely urban studies and political science concentrator, had not pre-registered for POLS 1420: Money and Power in the International Political Economy last semester, he became interested in taking the course after attending the first several lectures. But due to a large number of students who had registered, MacDonald said he was unsure he would be permitted to enroll until the last day of shopping period.

In response to the high level of demand, Mark Blyth, professor of political science, requested written permission status from the registrar in order to allow more students to enroll, Fitzgerald said. Though the class was originally capped at 100, 193 students are currently enrolled.

For classes on the opposite end of the spectrum, low pre-registration numbers do not cause the registrar to cancel a class, Fitzgerald said. Annie Wiart, senior lecturer of French Studies, was forced to cancel her class FREN 1510: “Advanced Oral and Written French” due to “last-minute changes in staffing,” but students who had already pre-registered were notified early and able to enroll in other classes, she wrote in an email to The Herald.

The practice of students “hoarding” limited enrollment courses has been a problem for the economics department in particu
lar, said Roberto Serrano, chair of the department. In order to combat climbing student-teacher ratios in recent years, the department instituted caps on certain upper-level classes at the beginning of last year. The registrar’s office notifies the department when students attempt to enroll in more than two upper-level capped classes.

The system encourages students to give more thought to their projected courses of study and has worked effectively overall, Serrano said.

But the policy was unpopular among many students at first. Some mistakenly thought that the pre-registration barriers were a limit on the number of upper-level classes a student could take each semester or that they would be unable to take certain classes they required to graduate on time, he said.

Some entrepreneurial students were even caught attempting to sell their seats to those desperate for a spot.

“Some students perhaps took their economics educations too far,” Serrano said. “Usually in markets, excess demand is eliminated by prices … but that’s not what’s going to happen here at a university where everyone pays their tuition.”


Pre-reg panic

Underclassmen often find that classes they wanted to take are full by the time they are allowed to register.

Oliver Pucker ’15 was shut out of next semester’s POLS0220: “City Politics”. 

“I think that it’s unfortunate,” he said. “But on the other hand, upperclassmen who are never going to have the chance again probably deserve those spots.”

There have been other bumps in the road following the implementation of Banner – the community had to get used to an online system. 

Though it proved fairly intuitive for students, the previous lack of a course scheduling feature made finding classes complicated. Information on a certain course was not centralized on one screen, and “you had to do a lot of pointing and clicking to find what exactly you’re looking for,” Fitzgerald said. 

Mocha – the unofficial scheduling system created by four computer science concentrators during the 2005-2006 academic year – was a popular alternative among students at the time, Fitzgerald said.

Students were also frustrated because the system only notified them when they were ineligible to take a class after pressing the submit button to register. The faculty also faced a learning curve with the new course override system.

But the system has come a long way since it was first implemented, Fitzgerald said.

Banner’s current course scheduling feature was implemented in 2010, and notices about registration restrictions are now listed in each course description. Faculty members now have the option of issuing an override code directly to students as opposed to inputting the override themselves.

Students’ internal academic records were also added to Banner, and the registrar’s office has recently addressed problems with the system crashing during heavy enrollment times, Fitzgerald said. 

“Those … got worked out as recently as last year for freshman registration,” Fitzgerald said. The system crashed in fall 2010 and again in fall 2011 when the incoming freshman classes attempted to pre-register the day before classes began. Fitzgerald said he worked with Computing and Information Services  to ensure the problem did not occur last semester.

The peak time for pre-enrollment occurs between 8:00 and 8:02 a.m., by which time about half of students are registered, he said.

In the days before the course scheduler was implemented, students couldn’t just push a button and go back to sleep, Fitzgerald noted, a feature that still has drawbacks for some students. “You have to get up at 8 a.m., and then it’s kind of to chance whether your class schedule will work out,” MacDonald said. 


Top of the class

Several peer institutions that use Banner covet the course scheduling feature the University currently uses, Fitzgerald said.

“The course scheduler is a definite enhancement over what’s delivered and what anyone else in the Banner world is using,” Fitzgerald said.

“In fact, we’ve had constant inquiries from other institutions to take some of our code,” he said. “In the time frame that we’ve had Banner up and running to now, we are light-years ahead of where those other institutions are in terms of enhancements we’ve made.” 

Students at other institutions like the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgetown University, which do not have course scheduler features, are still using the “hunt and peck” method to choose classes, Fitzgerald said, and Dartmouth and Yale have been to Brown’s campus for site visits to learn more about how the University’s version of Banner operates.

“Yale has three systems, but none of them work like they want them to,” Fitzgerald said, adding that their shopping period is “absolute chaos.” 

Despite the progress already made, there remain areas that require improvement, he said.

The Office of the Registrar hopes to shift the late registration process online for next semester, Fitzgerald said. As of now, students are required to pick up a paper registration form from the Office of the Registrar, obtain a professor’s signature and then return it to the Office, which creates lag time for gaining access to course pages on MyCourses and Canvas. 

Finding a way to effectively use Banner’s optional wait list function, currently used by schools like Bucknell University, is also on the to-do list, along with making it easier for professors to issue override codes.

But many of these changes will have to occur after the system undergoes a software update, which is slated for this summer, Fitzgerald said. At that time, the look and feel of Banner will be updated.

Students have said they would like the course scheduler to have filter options, Fitzgerald said. These would, for example, stop showing courses the students have previously taken and highlight those most viewed by other students or those the student automatically qualifies for, Fitzgerald said.

The current version of the course scheduler was designed with student input in mind, but “the way students told us to design it doesn’t make any sense to students now,” Fitzgerald said. Some of the features they recommended would have unintended consequences, like making it difficult to find independent studies. Many students are also unaware that it is possible to create and save multiple shopping carts using the cart “sharing/switching” tab, he said.

Changes are projected to take effect January 2014, after which the system will have to be tested. It would be at least fall of 2014 before students see any o
f those feature enhancements, Fitzgerald said. 

The upcoming changes, as those that have come before them, are unlikely to change the freedoms the pre-registration system provides to University students. 

“You kind of come to love Brown for its quirky encouragement of independence,” Taylor said.