Note to Self: Find Ways to Share What You Learn from Unintended Consequences

When you bring the students something that's state of the art, you also have to think about (a) what's being left behind, (b) how what you bring them is going to change their expectations and behavior, and (c) what's going to happen when they can't use what you created for them.

Wolverine Access is the name University of Michigan students know for the interface where they go to register for classes, check their schedule, drop and add, and so forth. It's a slick system, and replaces a series of systems that go back (for old-timers) to when students waited - in all sorts of weather - to get inside Waterman Gym, in lines that sometimes stretched across the Diag onto State Street, and down past Angel Hall all the way to the Michigan Union.

Wolverine Access is a better system. But problems with it a week ago, on and before the first day of classes, impacted the student body in ways that seem not to have been anticipated. You can read about them here. I hope that the problems and possible solutions are being shared widely.

The predictable calls by students for change, resulted. Here's one, and it contains useful suggestions. And the folks responsible for Wolverine Access are about to upgrade it, so they were able to explain quickly the improvements that are on the way.

What happened? Well, I haven't had a chance to talk to the folks directly involved yet, but according to a Michigan Daily article from January 7, there was a problem with the connection between the the students' online connection to Wolverine Access and the primary database in which their registration information is stored. Apparently, there is a limit to the number of active connections the site can make with that database, and there was a problem that was causing the database not to recognize when students were finished and had logged out. Therefore, it thought all the connections were being used, or at least nearly all.

As of Monday afternoon, January 6, only 800 students had dropped classes, compared with around 6,000 drops during the first day of the previous semester. The problem was fixed within 24 hours, of course, but lots of students felt frustrated in dropping and adding classes, often changes in their schedule that they had spent a great deal of time thinking about during the winter break.

If that was the end of it, then this would be simply a homily about how when things are so important, they simply have to work and there have to be backups in place. You know, kind of a "now that they use our technology in such important ways, we need to realize our responsibility to make sure it works" thing.

But there is actually more, from an unintended and unexpected consequence.

Many students did not know their schedule, or where their classes were. Three decades ago, those students would have a hand written schedule they'd used when they visited Waterman Gym. In 2004, with ubiquitous connectivity and a Wolverine Connection resource that they had come to expect to always be working, hundreds, probably thousands of students met Monday morning expecting to log in, find out where they were supposed to be, and then go . . . only they couldn't.

We've modified their behavior by providing the kind of state of the art services we provide, and I'm not sure that anyone was noticing - before now - that most of them weren't clutching printed out schedules in their hands, or didn't have copies tucked away in their backpack.

One student said that he had "[A]sked my roommate why he hadn't left for class, and he said he couldn't because he had been trying to access his schedule for the past 6 hours." Another was quoted as saying that she missed the first day of an important class because her backup way of discovering what her schedule was, was to go through her archived e-mails and see what she had received from graduate student instructors and course Web sites. One of my work-study students, Hedy Chang, had a smug smile on her face when she told me that she hadn't had any problems because "actually. I printed mine out early." Her boyfriend, who shall remain nameless here, had left his printout at her place, so before he had time to go over Monday morning and get his copy, he had already missed his first class.

For enterprising students who had not previously printed out their schedule, or who has lost their printouts, there is also, of course, a Web-based online catalog where they could have looked up their class locations, if they remembered 3 weeks later what classes they had registered for. But the fact remains that many didn't and many didn't make it to class.

So what's the answer? Do we need to build in a feature that e-mails every student their class schedule five days before the beginning of a new semester? Maybe. The University of Michigan staff made it very clear that they welcome suggestions from students.

But one thing is for sure, every new tool and feature for a tool that we produce, changes student behaviors and expectations, sometimes in ways we can't predict. We can only hope that the folks at Michigan and other schools which experienced similar first-day-of-class issues, have dedicated staff who will not only fix the problem on their own campus, but who will use their memberships in professional associations to share the problems and the fixes with others. Most of the people who read this don't read the Michigan Daily, but none of us have the time to be reinventing wheels.

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