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November 6, 2008

Online self-registration piloted

Standing in line to register for classes is a thing of the past on Pitt’s regional campuses. The University is piloting a program that allows some students to self-register online for the spring term. By next fall, Pitt students system-wide will be registering on their own, according to University Registrar Samuel Conte.

Conte said the regional campuses, along with graduate students from the Swanson School of Engineering, were chosen to pilot the process because the diversity of programs across the group provided a good test of how the system would work.

Conte said self-registration is among the features available in the PeopleSoft system, the basics of which were put into place between 2003 and 2005. Following a PeopleSoft upgrade in 2007, preparations to pilot the registration feature began. The October registration period was chosen because, unlike fall and summer term registration, which overlap, spring term registration stands alone — presenting a less confusing option, Conte said.

The pilot was implemented in a staggered launch last month to allow staff from the Registrar’s office and Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD) to be on hand to observe and troubleshoot any problems.

Conte said the next step in the move to online self-registration will be for all four regional campuses to register on the same dates, rather than on a staggered schedule, during registration in February and March for the fall term. Next October, students on the Pittsburgh campus are scheduled to join their regional counterparts in self-registering online for the spring 2010 term.

The procedure is similar to online shopping — a task familiar to most of today’s students. Class selections are placed into a virtual cart, and when the schedule is complete, the student “checks out” and is registered. For students who are prepared, the process can be completed in about three minutes, Conte said.

CSSD put step-by-step videos and other tutorials on the student portal, but students caught on very quickly on their own. “They grew up with the web,” Conte said.

Initial responses have been positive. Betty Victor, the engineering school’s director of administration, noted that the graduate students found the process simple, fast and convenient.

Regional campus registrars plan to survey students in advance of a planned “postmortem” of the pilot to reflect on lessons learned, but Conte said, “I don’t think there will be any major changes to our approach” in launching self-registration on the Pittsburgh campus.

As of Nov. 4, according to Conte, 1,242 students at Pitt-Bradford, 1,415 at Pitt-Greensburg, 2,624 at Pitt-Johnstown and 322 at Pitt-Titusville had self-registered online.

UPJ, Pitt’s largest regional campus, led the way with registration Oct. 6 and 7. Although the process ran smoothly, “I didn’t sleep too well Oct. 5,” UPJ registrar Marilyn Alberter admitted.

Previously, about 700 UPJ student schedules could be processed on the first day of registration with five Registrar’s office staffers working furiously from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Alberter said. Using the online self-registration process, the number more than doubled. More than 1,500 students self-enrolled by the end of the first day with 2,500 registered by the end of the second day. Some 83 percent of UPJ students were registered within three days, Conte said.

Alberter said she reserved a computer lab with 12 terminals so students who wanted help could come in and self-register with a staff member on hand to assist. About 200 came through the lab, but more than 1,300 chose to register on their own, she said.

To prevent the system from becoming overloaded by too many students trying to register at once, students were given appointments to register. For instance at UPJ, 55 students were scheduled every 15 minutes between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. — hours during which student services offices were open — Alberter said.

In addition, electronic holds were placed on student accounts to prevent them from registering until students had met with an adviser.

Alberter said that although students were alerted in advance via email and flyers in their campus mailboxes, seeing the holds on their account caused concern for many. “Our phone rang off the hook when advising holds went out,” Alberter said.

At UPG, students were informed about self-enrollment via emails, campus publications and the campus web site’s home page, noted acting registrar Linda Smith.

At UPT, the University’s smallest regional campus, registrar Jean Spence prepared for the changes by holding workshops for advisers and alerting students via email and announcements in the campus newspaper as well as by outlining the process in freshman studies classes.

On UPT’s registration day, Oct. 16, Spence said instructions were posted prominently near computers on campus to offer further help.

Some glitches due to data entry problems caused some students to get error messages, but those were fixed with the help of staff.

For the most part, Spence said, students were pleased and surprised by how easy the process was.

She noted that the shift to self-registration puts more responsibility onto students themselves. For instance, in the past if a student had scheduled what Spence knew were the wrong courses, she simply would have corrected the student’s mistake.

With the new system, Spence has to explain to the student and let him or her fix it online. Spence said she plans to watch closely to be sure students have registered correctly and intends to remind them via email to check their accounts to be sure their schedules are correct.

At UPJ, Alberter said, a check of registrations showed that some students failed to complete the checkout process. “We were able to shoot them an email alerting them to check their accounts because they may not have been registered,” she said.

Smith said it’s too soon to determine the impact on UPG’s two Registrar’s office staffers. “Obviously, we will not have the number of students in our office at the beginning of each enrollment period,” she noted, but added that staff still will be able to register students and that students needing issues to be resolved, such as closed or special-permission classes, still will need their help.

Self-registration means less work for Registrar’s staffers, Alberter agreed, but noted that registration consumes only about 20 days of the year’s schedule, “We’re not going to be able to sit and eat bonbons and drink tea,” she said. “Registration is just a small component of what we do,” she said, adding that her staff also has duties including the catalog, graduation, building class schedules and more.

The downside to the new system is a decrease in student contact. “We’ll miss them,” Alberter said. Regional Registrar’s office staff often are on a first-name basis with students and are familiar with their individual schedules. “That’s a nice aspect of a small school,” she said.

Alberter, who has worked in the UPJ Registrar’s office for 23 years, said it was a shock to round the corner and see an empty hall rather than a crowd of students camped out outside the office when she came to work on the second day of registration.

The registration line still exists, but “you just can’t see the line. It’s a virtual line,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 6

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