Can students search for courses like they shop online?

June 27, 2016
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Records and Academic Services
  • Technology
  • Technology and Transfer

Courses @ Brown, launched in March 2016, is an innovative tool that allows students to add courses to a cart and register through the Brown University SIS application.

“It’s a course search and registration tool that goes well beyond a catalogue,” said Rob Fitzgerald, Brown’s University Registrar. It can also be used to search for program requirements, faculty and their research interests, and even recommends courses based on course patterns and a student’s profile.

The app (view here) works equally well on desktop or mobile devices, meets accessibility standards, and is fully FERPA compliant, since the student data is not stored on the Leepfrog, the vendor who partnered with Brown, server and is the User Interface engine . So far, students have used it to register for summer and fall early registration.

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“We co-developed the app with our catalog vendor, Leepfrog Technologies,” Fitzgerald said. “Previously we had four disparate apps to search for course information and register for classes and so on. We decided a few years ago we needed to consolidate these into one user interface without losing any functionality in those four individual systems as well as incorporating student suggestions for what they would find most useful.”

The app uses ecommerce strategies, so its interface is familiar to students used to using sites such as Amazon or Netflix. For example, students will see recommended courses based on the registration patterns of similar students, as on ecommerce sites that show you “customers who purchased this item also bought….”

“It’s more of a marketing of our curriculum,” Fitzgerald said.

Losing ‘thumb-through’ discovery?

“One thing that we lost when we stopped printing the catalog was that it’s no longer possible for students to thumb through and find courses they may be interested in,” Fitzgerald said. “Our previous apps were linear—you put in a field of study and that’s all you get and all the students focused on.”

This new application is trying to move beyond that by showing interrelated courses in the curriculum as well as using faculty or office tools to advertise courses students may not otherwise see. “It’s similar to Netflix showing its ‘New Releases,’” said Fitzgerald.

When students go into courses, the first thing they see is a listing of courses to consider, and each time they visit the page, the list of courses change. “That replicates course discovery in terms of finding a course you may not always be looking for, an elective or another interesting course,” Fitzgerald said.

The recommendations are student-aware—the app knows who the student is, his or her year, semester level, major and academic history. The vendor has no access to the student information, and students can opt-out of the student-aware recommendations.

“When the student is logged in and authenticated, the app shows whether they’re qualified for a particular course, so they don’t have to wait for registration to open up to know,” Fitzgerald said. “It helps students narrow down their options based on what they’re qualified for and what they already have in their schedule.”

Protecting student data

Brown’s Registrar’s office and central IT organization worked with Leepfrog to develop the technology. Brown controls their Banner ERP, and Leapfrog designed the user interface delivery.

“Originally, we weren’t even sure if we would be able to do this. We did not want to give FERPA-protected student data to a third party vendor, nor did the vendor want it,” Fitzgerald said. “The biggest part of the development was to ensure that we could blend the two applications together in terms of Courses @ Brown and Banner.”

When students log into Courses @ Brown they’re logging into Banner. All of the power in terms of student data and the student-aware side of the module within Brown’s server. Leepfrog devised the user interface but the student data is never stored on their side. That ensures we’re completely FERPA compliant,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald shared this exciting app at AACRAO’s Annual Meeting in March, and will discuss additional production steps and new features that will be released prior to the fall semester in his session at the upcoming Technology and Transfer meeting.

To join this and many other Technology and Transfer sessions that may change the way you do business, register now for AACRAO’s 2016 Technology and Transfer Conference in Anaheim, California, July 10-12.