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Workday transition spurs changes to course registration, other practices

May 3, 2024

Shihab Moral

Starting in the upcoming academic year, students and staff will encounter major software changes as the College transitions to Workday as its Enterprise Resource Planning partner, bringing new course registration systems and academic policies with it.

The transition began in 2021 and will conclude in the 2025–2026 academic year. For students and faculty, the most noticeable change will be Workday Student’s replacement of Polaris.

The Polaris system is built on software called Banner. Chief Information Officer Michael Cato said that Bowdoin Information Technology (IT) customized the system heavily, building applications like ClassFinder and Polaris Student from the ground up. Cato added that these customizations made the system “brittle” and that changes have cascading effects.

“Whenever [IT] needed to make changes to [Banner], we discovered just how complicated any changes would be,” Cato said.

While Bowdoin used Banner for academic recordkeeping, other administrative departments used a variety of software providers. Cato and Registrar Martina Duncan said that communication between these systems was unsustainable.

For procedures like major declaration or new course proposals, Duncan noted that the Registrar’s office manually copies form responses into other softwares. Additionally, Cato said that the current assortment of software adds security challenges and makes the system vulnerable to crashes. In August, the College’s course registration system briefly crashed as first years registered for fall classes.

Duncan said the existing system’s pressures on staff drove the transition to a unified software provider.

“It’s better for staff, faculty and students if we are spending less time and resources holding up these systems and more time fulfilling the mission of the College,” she said.

According to Cato, Bowdoin did not use a competitive bidding process, since the College prioritized a smooth adoption process over cost and few options for enterprise software systems are available to higher education institutions. Since the College was already using Banner for academic recordkeeping and Workday for human resources management, Cato said the choice for a unified provider was between Banner and Workday.

Workday quickly became the administrators’ preferred choice because it is a cloud-based system, whereas onsite IT servers currently host the Banner software. Cato added that cloud-based systems are better equipped to handle high volumes and update smoothly.

Bowdoin’s implementation of Workday Finance went online in January, and the transition has now shifted to Workday Student.

“What we have to do is take all of the academic life of the College and translate [it] into the language of Workday,” Professor of History and Associate Dean for Curriculum Dallas Denery said.

After Workday Student is implemented, students will begin utilizing the Workday website, which all College employees currently use for time tracking and job applications. Grades, academic standing and course registration will be integrated into Workday.

According to Denery, students will be able to exercise more real-time control over their academic decisions in Workday. For example, students who choose to drop a course via Extended Drop can put that decision into the system for approval by their academic advisor without additional input from the Registrar’s office.

Much of Workday Student will function similarly to Polaris. However, course registration and waitlisting procedures will undergo dramatic changes. Registration will be first-come, first-served by class year, beginning with seniors with separated rounds for each following year. Students will register for courses in Workday for the first time in spring 2025 for classes the following fall.

The current algorithmic registration system is not an option with Workday Student’s functions, Cato said. Denery emphasized that future changes to the system are restricted by the options Workday offers.

“We can only really change [decisions] within the options that the system gives us,” Denery said.

Cato said that IT could build a customizable course registration tool in Workday but noted that such a heavily customized system would likely replicate the “brittle” environment of Banner and Polaris.

“Everything is technologically possible as long as you’re willing to accept the tradeoff that you’re making to get there,” Cato said. “We are … trying to move away from [customization] because of the tradeoffs.”

According to Denery, the existing registration system, while straightforward, may be less equitable than it seems because students can exploit aspects of the algorithm. Duncan echoed Denery’s comments, saying that even if the College were to publish the rules of the algorithm, the system would not be equitable.

“[The algorithm] can end up advantaging some students and disadvantaging others,” Duncan said.

Anika Sen ’26, a member of the Workday campus transition committee, said that while the new system will be more transparent, she will miss the algorithm’s randomization and worries that Workday will make it harder for younger students to take more advanced courses.

Associate Professor of English Emma Maggie Solberg expressed concerns about how the first-come, first-served system will elevate stress surrounding course registration.

“I think the idea of [first-come, first-served] registration is causing a lot of anxiety, not just in the students, but also in the faculty,” Solberg said.

Denery said that students will be able to mitigate the system’s competitiveness by setting up “course plans” with their advisor and putting them into Workday Student prior to registration.

“And then, at a fixed time … all you have to do is hit ‘register,’” he said.

If a student doesn’t fill their schedule at the time of registration, Denery added that they can register for additional courses with available seats immediately rather than waiting for additional rounds.

Duncan added that the Registrar’s office will work with students who are prevented from registering at the set time due to extenuating circumstances. For students who are studying abroad, Duncan said that the Office of the Registrar can set up a proxy to submit their registration requests.

In a first-come, first-served system, faculty will no longer be able to give preference to certain class years, majors or minors in a course’s academic department. Previously-shut-out priority will also be eliminated.

Instead of preferencing, faculty can reserve seats in a course for certain class years. Additional prerequisites can also be used as a substitute for preferencing, Denery said, adding that faculty will still be able to grant exceptions to prerequisites as they see fit.

“That’s all a preference is—a prerequisite,” Denery said. “It’s a hidden prerequisite.”

Solberg raised concerns that replacing preferencing with restrictions and prerequisites will mean faculty will lose precision in how they fill their courses.

“If I [restrict], I’m losing potential,” Solberg said. “If I [use preferencing], I’m losing nothing.”

She added that this change will affect different disciplines in dramatically different ways because of enrollment pressures.

“We in the humanities are worried about our enrollments…. We are very loath to exclude or to add restrictions when we are worried we’re not getting enough students,” Solberg said. “How do we use Workday’s functionality without endangering our enrollment?”

Solberg also identified that prerequisites are better suited to vertically integrated curriculums, in which students progress from one course to another, rather than horizontal curriculums, where students can pick and choose from a broader set of courses.

Switching to a more vertical, prerequisite-oriented model in the humanities, Solberg added, could dramatically change the classroom environment and worsen enrollment.

Another major change brought by Workday Student will be the standardization of waitlisting. Currently, faculty manage waitlists for their courses individually. Duncan and Professor of Biology Barry Logan said this practice can be a barrier for students who might not have a personal relationship with or do not feel comfortable contacting a professor.

“It’s not at all unusual on this campus for students to ask to be on the waitlist a week before registration opens,” Logan said. “There’s a certain degree of college savvy, and that’s not equitable in some ways.”

In Workday, students will be able to add themselves to waitlists manually. After the initial round of registration closes, faculty will be allowed to reorder their waitlists based on a set of criteria the College will develop, according to Duncan.

Solberg praised the transparency of the new waitlisting policy.

“Our current waitlisting system is not a system,” Solberg said. “Students will have more control, there will be more transparency … that’s good functionality from Workday.”

The College is also taking the transition to Workday as an opportunity to standardize and change a number of academic policies approved in the December faculty meeting, a process Denery said was spearheaded by the Registrar’s office.

Some of the changes are as follows:

All students may double-count one approved course toward two majors or a major and a minor; any exceptions would require approval from both departments.

Students on academic probation must take at least four courses totaling between 3.5 and 4.5 credits to return to good standing. Previously, four full-credit courses were required.

The minimum grade for a distribution, division or first-year writing seminar requirement will change from a D to a C-minus.

Students will be required to complete their distribution requirements by the end of their junior year, but with an exception policy.

Unlike course registration changes, these policy changes could be revised, but Duncan said the College wanted to establish these policies prior to Workday’s implementation.

According to Duncan, many of the College’s peer institutions are also transitioning to Workday. Williams College recently announced that it will also adopt Workday Student.

Cato said that the public rollout of Workday will begin in the next six to ten months and that students should expect more outreach from IT in the fall to prepare for the transition.

Duncan, who said she spends three-quarters of her working hours on the transition, added that she hopes Workday Student will make the work of her office more efficient but will also come with growing pains.

“No system is perfect,” Duncan said.

Solberg added that she balances apprehension for the changes brought by the system with gratitude for the work of IT, the Registrar’s office and administrators.

“[Faculty] are so thankful,” Solberg said. “I can be anxious and thankful at the same time.”


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