New software systems are never simple.
Over the course of last spring and this past summer, a new system for constructing Yale College’s course catalog caused severe headaches for academic administrators. The difficulties caused by the new system, CourseLeaf, were substantial enough that undergraduate registrars and directors of undergraduate studies across several departments are still fuming about the matter.
“I could not imagine a worse rollout of a new system,” said one undergraduate registrar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their job.
In light of the problems, department registrars interviewed criticized University Registrar Gabriel Olszewski for not testing the system on a smaller scale before implementing it across Yale College and for failing to communicate effectively about the problems.
A MORE MODERN SYSTEM
Olszewski said the University’s primary interest in adopting CourseLeaf was to improve the user experience of the online Bluebook. While the old online Bluebook was “pretty primitive,” not mobile-friendly and with poor search capabilities, the CourseLeaf CAT module will substantially improve those things, Olszewski said.
“The online version has to be good enough before we can conceive of even stopping [the] printing of [the] physical Bluebook,” Olszewski said.
Yale is not the first university to use CourseLeaf, which is made by the software firm Leepfrog. The product is essentially a catalogue-building system, through which Yale can build the extensive list of courses offered each year. Currently, Leepfrog lists 108 other institutions on its website that use the system.
Olszewski said the Registrar’s Office previously used three different computer systems to produce the PDF file of the Bluebook that would get sent to the printer — making the process long and cumbersome. The introduction of CourseLeaf, he said, has streamlined and shortened that process.
But Olszewski said that there were problems with the system’s input module, CourseLeaf CIM, with which professors propose courses. Academic administrators involved said the problems began very early in the process.
On Jan. 7 of this year, undergraduate registrars received an invite from Olszewski to attend a session for a “sneak peek” of CourseLeaf the following day. As course planning for the following year begins months in advance, the first undergraduate registrar said, this was already too late.
“In my mind the training for that should have happened four months prior,” the registrar said. “All the registrars should have been fully trained before. We were being trained on the fly while we were doing it for the first time.”
A second department registrar, who also requested anonymity, said they were told in an email that they could sign up for a CourseLeaf training. They signed up, only to have the training session canceled.
The early issues foreshadowed later troubles: when attempting to list courses for the fall semester, undergraduate registrars quickly ran into a slew of difficulties.
Chief among these were two primary problems: difficulty in cross-listing courses across different departments and old course descriptions attaching themselves to new courses. When undergraduate registrars attempted to use a course number from a previous year for a new course — as many departments frequently do — the old description stayed with the number.
“There were all kinds of stumbles,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who said he was not involved with the implementation of CourseLeaf. “I’m hoping that through this very painful first-year process we’ll come out on the other side in better shape.”
When it came to cross-listing, department registrars were forced to jump through a long series of hoops. To cross-list a course, they had to receive individual emails from their department’s DUS, as well as the DUS and department chair of the secondary department, rather than simply moving the course through the CourseLeaf system.
“There is something seriously wrong with the system when I have to send multiple emails just to get a number added to a course, then I have to make several phone calls to the Registrar’s Office and then follow up with several more emails,” the first registrar said. “And three weeks later the number finally gets added to the course.”
As spring term ended, DUSs and department registrars found themselves increasingly frustrated with the new system.
Political science DUS David Simon called the situation “a major headache for the department.”
According to Greg Soare, the director of higher education accounts for Leepfrog, the issues arose out of “differences between how the system assumed that course codes would be used and how they were trying to be used by faculty.”
“The most common issue was that the software did not anticipate that a course code could be reused for a different course the next academic year,” Soare said. “They were not, in general, user-generated items.”
Olszewski said he does not know how much the University paid for CourseLeaf. According to Soare, the “ball park price could range from the low-mid five figures into the low-mid six figures.”
A TEMPORARY FIX?
Olszewski’s office created an email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, for registrars to email with questions about the system.
But as they quickly found out, the account was of little help. The first department registrar said emails were not responded to in a timely manner. Meanwhile, the second department registrar said issues with CourseLeaf resulted in tensions between faculty and the staff working in their departments;when faculty saw their courses not listed properly, the registrar said, they immediately blamed the registrars in individual departments.
Tensions came to a head in late May, when the History Department decided to withhold all of its courses from the 2014–’15 print edition of the Bluebook. History DUS Beverly Gage ’94 informed the Registrar’s Office of the decision in an email to Associate University Registrar Emily Shandley.
“The reason is simple: Given the current difficulties and glitches of CourseLeaf, we cannot see a clear way to ensure an accurate and complete listing of our courses in the print edition,” Gage wrote in an email, obtained by the News. “We would rather withdraw our course listings in full than print an incomplete or inaccurate set of listings.”
Ultimately, the History Department decided to list its courses in the print edition after Olszewski’s office said it would do all of the data entry and data management for their courses, Gage said.
Throughout the summer, Leepfrog provided additional staffing in an attempt to resolve the issues. According to Soare, the firm did this at no additional charge, as per its standard support agreement.
Eventually, the Bluebook appeared online and in print, albeit later than expected. But as Gage and the two registrars interviewed said, the print edition is far from accurate. Gage added that the system limped through the beginning of the term.
“My sense is that the Registrar’s Office, like everyone else on campus, was trying to get through shopping period,” Gage said.
Undergraduate registrars expressed skepticism about the future of the system, saying they fully expect further problems to surface during the next round of course listing.
Soare said CourseLeaf and Yale have been jointly testing the next release of the software for the University.
The months of troubles with the new system have substantially shaken the confidence of undergraduate registrars and DUSs in Olszewski, who they say owes an apology to those who dealt with the new system’s flaws.
Gage said that a lot of the issues with the system could have been predicted, and that there could have been far better communication between Olszewski and departments. To move forward, Gage said, that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Still, those interviewed for this article expressed sympathy for the staff in the Olszewski’s office, who they said did the best they could in a difficult situation.
“How anyone over there is still standing is beyond me,” said the first department registrar.
Olszewski first joined Yale from the University of Chicago — where he was also the university registrar — in 2011.