New College’s students have known the way of paper contracts for years. Meeting with advisers, during office hours or at the last minute, to discuss courses and goals for the semester and then scrambling to the Registrar’s Office with the resulting signed contract has always been a part of the first two weeks of classes, until now. Seven professors and their 93 advisees piloted an automated system for contracts this fall semester, and the registrar plans to use these eContracts for the entire student body by Spring 2019.
“Going into building the eContract system, what we chose to do is mimic as much as we could the actual paper form so that students and faculty would see very little difference between what’s on paper and what’s electronic now,” Registrar Brian Scholten said.
The Registrar’s Office began to work with New College’s Internet Technology (IT) department to set this system up over the summer to make the process of registering for the upcoming semesters clearer and more direct. Scholten opted to have professors volunteer for a test run rather than rolling it out to everyone right away this fall.
“I pushed to make it a pilot, not because I didn’t feel this was going to be effective and easy to use, but because I have been doing this long enough to know that you can’t think of everything, and with technology it is really important to test,” Scholten said.
According to Scholten and four of the seven professors who volunteered to participate in the pilot program, the process ran smoothly.
“The good thing is that this system really puts students in the driver’s seat,” Professor of English and Gender Studies Miriam Wallace said in an email interview, of her experience with eContracts this semester. “Students initiate everything and do the bulk of the work filling out their academic plan. In some ways, that fits with New College’s founding principle that students are fundamentally responsible for their own education in negotiation with faculty who guide them.”
Wallace added that the process worked best when students brought their laptops, tablets or phones to her office to discuss and then finalize the contract together.
The eContract does not require a face-to-face meeting with an academic advisor, in spite of the fact that developing an individualized course of study with an advisor is a staple of New College’s academic program. According to Scholten, the implementation of eContracts will not impact professor availability or the traditionally small student-to-faculty ratio.
Pilot volunteers Aron Edidin, professor of philosophy, Carl Shaw, professor of Greek language and literature, Katherine Walstrom, professor of biochemistry and Wallace each said that they would still require in-person meetings for eContract approval in their email interviews.
Wallace and Shaw also mentioned that eContracts will eradicate last minute dashes to faculty meetings that inevitably occur every semester.
“The nice thing about electronic contracts is that there is actually more time,” Scholten said, explaining that professors could work to approve contracts over the weekend, rather than requiring paper contracts to be turned into the Registrar’s Office by Friday at 5 p.m. “In some ways, there is flexibility that can be built into it,” Scholten added. “We are not constrained by when the office closes.”
The Catalyst did not speak directly with students involved in the pilot. However, each of the professors interviewed reported positive feedback from their advisees.
“For first-year students, there is of course no standard for comparison,” Edidin said. “Students who’ve done paper contracts found the eContracts to be more convenient. I’ve heard no complaints or nostalgia for the paper ones; responses have all been positive.”
According to the responses of the participating professors, the composition of their advisees contained a wide range of contract numbers.
“There was some reluctance at first,” Shaw said when asked about the reactions of his advisees, “but even the grumpy, dubious students like Anna Lynn Winfrey commented positively about eContracts by the end.”