4 ways to advance academic course catalogs

Colleges are moving from static documents to robust platforms
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 4, 2019
Most colleges offer an online version of the course catalog—but many aren’t taking advantage of the connectivity and smart technology available.Most colleges offer an online version of the course catalog—but many aren’t taking advantage of the connectivity and smart technology available.

In an age of highly connected campuses and smart devices, an essential campus document has been one of the last remnants of an earlier time. The academic course catalog, used regularly by every student and advisor to select courses and chart academic pathways, hasn’t changed much over the years—even as the courses and the registration process have been completely transformed by technology.

Most colleges and universities offer an online versions of their catalogs, but few are putting to use the connectivity and smart technology available. For instance, Bakersfield College in California had been posting its catalog online for several years “in a static PDF format,” says Bill Moseley, dean of academic technology. “This has the advantage of making the catalog more widely available, but it is roughly the equivalent of a printed document in terms of its functionality.”

This year, for the first time, Bakersfield administrators have produced a “truly web-native” catalog, providing an immersive, interactive experience that helps give students the information they need to succeed, Moseley says.

Other higher ed institutions are increasingly looking to ramp up their online course catalogs, harnessing the capabilities of the web to connect course information with other campus systems and providing improved service for students and faculty. Following are four ways to make it happen.

1. Harness online capabilities.

Traditional paper-based course catalogs and the static online documents that followed usually provide lists of the courses required to finish a program. But web-based catalogs can go further than that. For instance, Bakersfield College’s new catalog includes a “Program Pathways Mapper” that provides students with a road map of how they can complete a program in the most efficient way.

Best practice case study: University of Colorado Boulder

One institution’s plan and process for maximizing the capabilities of its digital course catalog

Departments involved: Registrar’s office, bursar’s office, academic disciplines, admissions, financial aid and student affairs

Planning for digital: Administrators used the digital catalog platform as a vehicle to increase consistency across programs, departments and colleges, reconsidering what should be included, how it should be presented and how to standardize it. The team used structured workflows for review and approval.

“Among other things, increased consistency throughout the catalog means that students can more easily navigate from one section to the next, and understand what they can expect to find there,” says Kristi Wold-McCormick, registrar. “And more consistent governance leads to a higher degree of vetting and accuracy of information.”

Adding links: A robust digital catalog should become interconnected with campus systems and websites. “Encourage departments to link to the course and curriculum information in the catalog from their sites, and integrate with as many systems as possible to present consistent information and experiences for users,” Wold-McCormick says. “Include links to campus webpages so users may be exposed to additional information beyond what is permitted in the catalog.”

Scheduling updates: Developing an annual publication calendar will help keep the calalog up to date. CU Boulder administrators schedule milestones to prompt updates from departments each year. And the registrar’s office works to make it easy for those who contribute to the catalog by providing self-service resources, such as a style guide and training slides on how to use the digital catalog platform.

The office offers drop-in hours and support sessions for any new and returning catalog reviewers who may need help accessing the platform or making their changes. In addition, department staff periodically reach out to catalog reviewers through a catalog newsletter, which announces upcoming milestones, shares resources and provides publication updates.

The catalog also allows users to easily search and move between connected programs. “These are things that couldn’t have been done using the previous format,” Moseley says.

Similarly, at Southern New Hampshire University, a new digital course catalog provides more detailed program information compared with past catalogs—an important piece because SNHU’s College for America offers competency-based degree programs with direct assessment for working adults. “Users can click through to see all the competencies that are assessed in each program,” says Romki Constant, assistant vice president of academic operation and strategy in the Office of the University Registrar.

2. Integrate the catalog with other systems.

The ability to connect and interact with various systems is a hallmark of an online course catalog. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder integrates its catalog with scheduling and curriculum management systems, allowing information from the catalog to flow directly into such systems, says Registrar Kristi Wold-McCormick.

When a user conducts a search in the online schedule of classes, the course description is pulled from the current catalog and displayed. The catalog and schedule of classes also integrate with CU Boulder’s faculty profile system, so a student can view the research interests, published works and backgrounds of instructors associated with the selected programs or classes.

As digital transcripts become more widely embraced, robust course catalogs can also enhance those documents. CU Boulder administrators are also working to pull key academic information from the catalog, including program descriptions and learning outcomes, and add it to digital diplomas and credentials, Wold-McCormick says.

At Southern New Hampshire, the online catalog is also connected with the course management system for automatic updating. “If there is a change to a course or a program of study in an academic year, we make the change in our curriculum management system, and once the change is made, it’s automatically updated in the catalog and in the addendum,” Constant says. “So people can look at the online catalog and know that it always includes the latest information.” In addition, anyone can view the searchable addendum to see all the changes that have been made during an academic year.

“We try to limit the number of changes to a catalog once it is published for a given academic year, but if there is a new policy or correction that must be made, it’s possible to do so in the online catalog,” Wold-McCormick adds. “We had to live with errors in the days of printed publications.”

3. Improve accessibility and accuracy.

Digital catalogs allow institutions to provide better service to students, faculty and other users. For instance, a mobile-friendly course catalog means users can easily access it anytime, anywhere, says Wold-McCormick.

In most cases, web-native catalogs are optimized for accessibility as well. At CU Boulder, the registrar’s office collaborated with its catalog vendor, Leepfrog Technologies, and in-house accessibility experts to ensure compliance with accessibility best practices. “We worked together to reduce barriers to access for users of all abilities, including those accessing the catalog through assistive technology devices,” says Wold-McCormick.

The ease of access and the presentation of catalog data—especially in an age of mobile devices—results in better service for students, faculty and staff, says Moseley, of Bakersfield. “The integration of the Program Pathways Mapper component allows for a level of personalization and support that will allow students to complete their education in less time, and for less money.”


Also read: 3 ideas for more flexible course scheduling


For advisors, a robust digital catalog allows them to quickly find and easily share the information they need to help students because the content is in smaller, more manageable chunks.

“Advisors can share a link to a specific program, rather than a document section containing dozens of programs,” Moseley says. “The web-native catalog is about the flexibility of the form the information takes, paired with searchability and interactive elements.” If an advisor pulls up a component, such as the Program Pathways Mapper, during a meeting with a student, it can be used as a visual aid in explaining the student’s education plan.

4. Consider incorporating emerging technologies.

Few higher ed institutions have incorporated machine learning capabilities, such as artificial intelligence, into their course catalogs, but some are exploring the possibilities. CU Boulder administrators are investigating the use of chatbots and other AI options for a number of uses in the registrar’s and enrollment management offices.


Related: Course catalog management providers on challenges faced by colleges


When course catalogs are fully connected with other campus systems, they conceivably could make course recommendations to individual students based on the courses they’ve already completed. “I can envision a future in which a catalog might deliver a more personalized experience to users, based on major, demographic and other factors, to make the use of the catalog more relevant and less overwhelming to the students,” Moseley says. “The direction we are heading makes that future a possibility.”

As technology continues to evolve, administrators are likely to uncover additional ways to make their course catalogs more robust. “I think it is critical to leverage the medium,” Moseley says. “If we are putting a static document online, it is a disservice to students. An online catalog should be interactive, accurate and mobile-friendly.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.


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