Nurturing curiosity through course selection/registration

Here’s a dilemma that I’m certain is not unique to my institution, but that raises complex questions for me:

VCU ALTLab’s very own Lisa Phipps is teaching a (open, online) course this summer about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). She’s uniquely qualified to teach this course as a pharmacist with about 17 doctoral degrees. She’s taught versions of this course to various types of graduate students, and we thought it’d be a great course for undergraduates, especially if we dressed it in a connected learning motif. Lisa taught the course last summer to much good feedback from the students. So, the question is, how would undergraduates at VCU know that this course is being offered this summer?

Because the course is not yet officially a course in the bulletin, it is being offered as a “special topics course.” Its course code is UNIV291, and it’s “official” title is “Complementary & Alt Medicine.” Banner limits the number of characters for a course title. I forget the exact number, but it’s not much. In fact, IIRC, we may have maxed out with that title. It has a UNIV designation because, for now, it’s being offered through University College which is probably the best “home” for a course that’s interdisciplinary.

So, again, the question is, how undergraduates at VCU would know that this course is being offered. As best I understand it, students pick courses based mostly around what they need, what they’re advised to take, and/or what fits in their schedule. They find out what’s available through Banner. Here’s what Banner looks like from the start:


Inspiring, right? The directions on the screen say, “Use the selection options to search the class schedule. You may choose any combination of fields to narrow your search, but you must select at least one Subject. Select Class Search when your selection is complete.1 The first problem here is that a student must select a subject. Not an idea or a keyword, but a subject. So, if a student is interested in let’s say, “health” or “medicine”, there is no mechanism for the student to see if there are any courses related to health or medicine. Furthermore, in the case of Lisa’s class, if the student doesn’t first select “University College,” she will never find that course. And, why would a student select “University College” (which isn’t a major; it’s an important unit that houses our first-year seminar and a sophomore-level research writing course that all students take)?

Let’s go a little further into this Banner-based course selection process… Imagine a student is going home for the summer, but wants to be able to take classes and online learning makes that possible. Lisa’s class is online this summer. So, how would a student find out which online courses are available? Well, they’d have to know to start by clicking on “Advanced Search.” Once in “Advanced Search,” the student would have to look towards the bottom and know that “Course taught online” is an “attribute type” (see where the cursor is in the image below). So, what if the student selects the “Course taught online” attribute type and then hits “Section search” to see all of the online courses? Nope. Error. The student must also select a subject… Sigh.




We’ve tried to address this problem by developing our own “storefront” where current and prospective students can learn about all of our online offerings. On the online courses page, students can filter by a few variables and can also do a keyword search. But, do students know about our storefront? Unlikely. We’ve posted digital signage “advertising” throughout the Student Commons. But, does anyone actually pay attention to those monitors? Who knows.

Most recently, I sent an email to the head of advising in hopes that she’ll send the email to all of the advisors at the university in the hopes that they’ll get the information to the students… Yeah, that’s not terribly hopeful or efficient. There has to be a better way…

I mean, shouldn’t there be a way that allows for the possibility that a student might serendipitously learn about Lisa’s course? What if shopping for courses were more like shopping on What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:

  • Sophisticated, faceted search capabilities (keyword searching is the low-hanging fruit)
  • A detailed description of the course
  • Amazon-like reviews from other students
  • A course trailer for the course (here’s the course trailer for Lisa’s course)
  • A listing of “If you liked this course, you might also like…” (and/or, “Students who enrolled in this course also enrolled in…”)
  • Work products from students who’ve taken the course, syndicated in

I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities…

I also know that at the University of Virginia, a physics professor has gone rogue and created an unofficial course search system known widely as “Lou’s List.” That system has some nice features, but, well, you look and judge for yourself.

This all gets back to my last ranty blog post. I’m not willing to concede that all students view the course selection process as purely functional/operational. I certainly don’t want them to think of the process as “which checkboxes can I check off next semester.” The idealist educator in me has to believe that we can create a system that engineers serendipity2, that inspires and causes students to wonder. If we had a system that allowed a curious student to more easily scratch an itch about, oh, say, “complementary and alternative medicine,” we might help some students see higher education as a time of inquiry and wonder and not just a time of checking off boxes on the way to a credential.

  1. notice that the directions say “Class Search,” but the button actually says “Course Search.” Sigh. []
  2. as always, I have to give attribution to Tom Woodward for this phraseology []
April 8th, 2016 by