COVID Conversations: Building the Course Catalog of the Future

May 14, 2020 Nikki Kowbel

COVID created an unprecedented amount of change to curriculum and course catalogs as campuses quickly transitioned to remote learning and faculty adjusted their plans to teach from a distance. Staff also faced an abrupt shift to remote work and were forced to quickly find new ways to collaborate, communicate, and innovate while dealing with an influx of change requests and updates.

Registrars are using their time working remotely not just making updates to a course catalog that’s continually in flux and a curriculum that is being reworked minute-by-minute, but as an opportunity to step back and consider the role of course catalogs as their institution moves forward into an uncertain future.

We asked a panel from diverse institutions and backgrounds to share their experiences navigating the spring term. Our conversation with Lesley Cooper, Director of Institutional Effectiveness & Assessment, Kankakee Community College; Don Moonshine, Curriculum Management Project Manager, University of California - Santa Cruz; Rodney Parks, University Registrar and Assistant Vice President, Elon University; and Jim Vitagliano, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services/Registrar, MGH Institute of Health Professions uncovered an exciting opportunity to reimagine the role of the course catalog in the post-COVID institution.

The ability to quickly change course

Over the past few months, registrars have quickly processed and published an extremely high volume of changes to curriculum and catalog content. This is in stark contrast to the ‘untouchable’ catalogs of semesters past. “If you're like me, normally you think of the catalog as the Bible: ‘We launched it in August and there's no changes.’ That's definitely not the case for the spring term,” Parks said. “We began to adjust policies as we added a lot of experimental courses in the middle of the term that we previously would have never touched in the catalog.” In addition, schools are reevaluating and adjusting requirements for prerequisite courses and lab/clinical placements due to a lack of availability, which has created curriculum shifts.

The rapid transition to remote learning has also affected other elements of the curriculum planning process as teams work to build out future terms. “Scheduling has been tremendously impacted by COVID, along with the committees that approve the program statements and the courses,” Moonshine said. “In addition to their normal approval duties, they have a heavier load in terms of policy changes required by COVID. They are thinking about the impact of those policy changes, and the availability of resources to students who are graduating and starting their careers.”

Student retention: ‘It’s all hands on deck’

Attracting and retaining students is a top priority for schools as they determine how to proceed with in-person vs. online classes this fall, navigate concerns around enrollment rates, and continue to review and solidify their budgets. Catalogs can play a big role in keeping current students engaged and ensuring new students matriculate in the fall.

“Everything we're doing at this point is about retention. It's about keeping students engaged as members of the community,” Vitagliano said. “Fast-forwarding things for the upcoming catalog is so important because we do want to make sure that incoming groups are getting accurate, well planned information.”

Some institutions have been able to work ahead of their typical schedule for curriculum planning and catalog development, paying close attention to the ripple effect a single change can have. Some of the curriculum and scheduling changes that were made this spring will have an impact on students in future semesters as they work to complete their degree. This makes it essential for registrars to map out longer term plans. By promptly publishing changes in the upcoming catalog, students are able to formulate new plans and stay on track toward their degree with minimal disruption.

Recruiting the next class of graduates

Registrars look back nostalgically at the days when printed catalogs were key marketing tools, mailed to all incoming students (and likely dropped in the recycling bin unread). But our panelists agreed that now is the time to return to using the catalog to more deeply engage prospective and first-year students by helping create a deeper connection to the school.

Elon University is considering an early release of their catalog to first-year students as a means to tie students to the university. “As they begin to think about classes, do we communicate the MyCatalog feature and encourage them to think about their majors and pathway so they can begin to build those aspects into the catalog long before they matriculate in the fall?” Parks said. “For us, we're beginning to think about moving up the publication of the catalog, and with it all mapped in the Curriculum Strategy (formerly SmartCatalog) curriculum management system, we can flip the switch at any time.”

Catalog as communication channel

Communication has been critical this spring as institutions work to keep faculty, staff, and students engaged and informed about changes stemming from COVID, and the catalog has emerged as an essential part of the overall communication strategy.

“I think people are really beginning to figure out how to deliver things in a way that is more effective for students,” Vitagliano said. “We're much more thoughtful about how we communicate and think a lot more about how our words can impact the student experience.”

Staff have focused on creating accurate, consistent messaging for students and employees, and recognize the value of involving leadership in sharing essential information. This extends to curriculum changes and keeping students up-to-date on adjustments to tuition and fees and other financial impacts. Many schools are using the catalog to keep students informed of changes to courses, policies, and procedures, and this has been an opportunity for registrars to review and improve their messaging. “From the standpoint of our online catalog, we definitely have seen room for improvement in clarity for students and outside accrediting bodies,” Cooper said. “We're going to be able to tweak some of those things that are already in Curriculum Strategy (formerly SmartCatalog) and make them a little more user-friendly so people can understand the requirements of programs and courses that we have.”

An unclear horizon

More and more, registrars are finding themselves part of the conversation around how to improve and refine their institutions’ remote learning procedures for the fall semester, and the need to be highly adaptable has been uncomfortable for many. “Registrars, historically… we're very set in our ways. We know what ‘spring’ is, we know what calendar dates are, and we follow things to a T. Even for the most innovative registrars, this has been an uncomfortable spring because it's asked us to do a lot of different things than we have traditionally done.” Parks said. But the institution’s need to pivot quickly and understand the ramifications of changes has brought registrars into different kinds of conversations. “Data is something that has been a premium. I think a lot of the administration these days turn to us and ask for data to begin to paint what the fall might look like in various scenarios,” Parks said. “Registrars have been able to think on their feet to provide a lot of that information and been able to adjust.”

Institutions who use a paper-based workflow for their curriculum management and catalog processes are facing additional challenges as their offices shift to remote work. In order to keep up with changes and find opportunities for improvement, a shift to using technology to manage the review process is critical.

“The beauty of the Curriculum Strategy (formerly SmartCatalog) platform is that it allows you to do all of this virtually. It almost feels like we haven't changed anything in regards to how we edit and publish the catalog,” Vitagliano said. “I actually am seeing more attention to detail and better response time on editing the catalog, as you're not getting interrupted as much and you have time to be more focused.”

Download the webinar recording to hear more from our panelists, and consider how technology can support your team’s remote curriculum and catalog production processes.

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