From Paper to Code: Course Withdrawal Moves Online

From Paper to Code: Course Withdrawal Moves Online
June 21, 2019

Online course withdrawal is saving hours of time for UAlberta staff and students

The average University of Alberta academic term sees over 6,000 course withdrawals, and over 12,000 processed annually. When those withdrawals are processed physically, that’s a lot of paper, a lot of work hours, and a lot of waiting. This was the reality facing UAlberta undergrad students, who would often wait days just to hear if their course withdrawal was successful. Now, a joint effort between the Registrar’s Office, the faculties, and Information Services and Technology (IST) has cut that wait time down to seconds thanks to online course withdrawal. 

The move towards making withdrawals an online, automated process started several years ago, when the Faculty of Arts approached the Registrar’s Office to inform them they no longer had the staffing levels to process paper withdrawal forms manually. Instead, they were turning that paper form into a Google Form. While this was an effective first step towards automating the process, the Office of the Registrar took it one step further by developing a more robust interim solution that included a validated web form. The solution was successful enough for other faculties to consider implementing. 

“Sometimes it’s good to road test these projects, and this is an example of one of those road tests,” says Tom Hidson, Assistant Registrar of Records, Registration and Fees with the Registrar’s Office. “One of our key partnerships in this project was with the faculties that were actually driving the solution.”

With more undergrad students enrolling at the University of Alberta every year, the need to move from an interim solution to a permanent solution became more pressing, and the online course withdrawal project began. Alongside the Registrar’s Office and five faculties, IST became part of a large working group determined to turn the manual course withdrawal process into an automated one that undergrad students could complete online. 

“It wasn’t as straightforward as just taking the paper form and putting it online, because each faculty had a specific requirement to identify a student who should contact the faculty before withdrawing,” explains Gail Breum, Senior Project Manager with IST. “So there were actually quite a few requirements to be ironed out before we could start making the changes to Campus Solutions and Bear Tracks.”

Once those requirements were defined, IST’s Enterprise Applications team worked alongside Tata Consultancy Services and the Office of the Registrar’s Information Systems and Business Development (ISBD) team to complete the technical work. Much of the functionality and rules already existed in Campus Solutions, so the majority of the work came down to adding a front end for students and creating a solution to reroute “exceptions.” 

“An exception would be a course that has a real impact on students’ academic careers,” says Terry Harris, Senior Program Manager for IST. “For example, two courses that are co-requisites. If you withdraw from one, you won’t be able to enrol in the program you want down the line, so the system would flag that as an exception.”  

After approximately eighteen months of work, which included ISBD building the exception solution, course withdrawals moved fully online. The first online course withdrawal was successfully completed at 6:00 on September 1, 2018, and since then, processing time has been a fraction of what it used to be.

Before moving online, course withdrawals were a tedious process. First, students had to physically go to their faculty office during business hours, a task that was not always feasible. Students would then complete a course withdrawal form and submit it to their faculty. Next, the faculty would send that form to the Registrar’s Office for processing. Barring any issues, a simple course withdrawal could take three full business days to process. But if administrators had to loop back to the student to clarify details, or if they were facing a backlog of paperwork around the withdrawal deadline, then that processing time could take as long as a week or more. 

Now, undergrad students can withdraw from their courses online in Bear Tracks, the same tool they use to build their schedules and add or drop courses. They can withdraw any time of day or night, and barring any exceptions, the withdrawal is completed on the spot. Even exceptions are typically processed the next business day, once the faculty has reviewed the withdrawal request and conducted any necessary student advising. 

Online course withdrawal has had significant impacts on faculty and staff. For instance, the 2018 Fall Term saw 6,469 course withdrawals. Of those, nearly 80% were completed online. The Faculty of Arts received 2,056 withdrawal requests, of which only 31 had to be processed manually. Similarly, out of the Faculty of Science’s 1,531 withdrawals, 1,493 of them were completed online. 

According to Hidson, “This project did two things: it improved access and the overall service, and it improved the staff interaction with the process.”

“Online course withdrawal also helps the positive perception of the university,” adds Breum, “because having a paper process, when all other processes are done through Bear Tracks, just isn’t a good student experience.” 

The data being collected through online course withdrawal is telling its own story, too. At times, this project has highlighted when a course or a class wasn’t set up the way students expected. Other times, online course withdrawal has indicated when a student needs extra support if they claim health reasons as the cause of withdrawal. “What people don’t see is that we still go in and look at the guts and look at what story is being told through the data, so we can’t ignore that,” says Hidson. 

Moving forward, the goal is to observe the trends and reduce the number of exceptions each term. While there will always be improvements to make over time, it’s a big win for the University of Alberta, according to Tom Hidson.  

“In my heart, when I think about the success of this project, I think it’s about groups bringing their expertise to the table and trying to do the very best job that they could with the resources and time that they had. It was worth the effort, and I think anybody who was a part of this project should feel really proud of what they accomplished. I feel privileged that I was able to see them all come together and be able to just share a little bit of this story.”