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DegreeWorks: university to launch new online degree mapping tool in PAWS

By in Technology
[box type=”info’]Update: DegreeWorks has been officially launched. To access it, go to the Academics tab in PAWS and look for the “Map your degree progress” button.[/box]

Understatement of the century: mapping out your degree progress can sometimes be confusing.

Come on. Up until now, making sense of your academic achievements — total credits earned, actual program requirements, and how everything all fits together — has been like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with Jenga blocks.

Frustration levels have been known to shoot off the charts.

When the towering stacks of crumpled papers, spreadsheets and broken dreams threaten to topple along with your sanity, academic advisers are the only ray of sunshine and logic at the end of the registration tunnel.

Believe it or not, the university is aware of this. And they’re finally doing something about it.

Enter: DegreeWorks

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A sample screenshot of a small portion of the DegreeWorks audit. All the juicy bits (particularly grades) have been removed. For the record, we don't recommend you go around sharing your degree audits with too many people.

At the end of January, the U of S will launch an online program called DegreeWorks, available to all undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Science.

Accessible through PAWS, DegreeWorks is a piece of degree auditing and program advising software designed by the same company responsible for the current online student registration system — SunGard. But don’t fret — so far it seems that using DegreeWorks is less clunky than registering for classes.

“It’s long overdue,” said Jamie McCrory, manager and assistant registrar at U of S student information systems (SIS). “The university has been thinking about a tool that does automated student advising sine the late ’90s.”

SIS opted to purchase DegreeWorks in April of 2009, at a cost of roughly $200,000. Since then, they’ve invested more than a million dollars into the project, the vast majority of which consists of staff hours.

The extended three-year development period of DegreeWorks (which included a 12-month hiatus during which SIS shifted their focus to a separate project) can be chalked up to the sheer number of academic permutations that had to be considered.

McCrory admitted that it was a daunting task.

“We thought we had about 600 program variations initially — majors, minors, concentrations, etc. — but we found out quickly that we had more than 1,600.”

It didn’t help that some of the degree regulations, requirements and rules aren’t in the university calendar, which has served as a “bible” throughout the development process. The team at SIS has had to work closely with academic advisers from various colleges in order to make sense of the nit-picky nuances unique to each degree.

“We’ve taken down the majority of the work now,” McCrory was happy to say.

How does it work?

DegreeWorks can be broken down into four main components, or worksheets: degree audit, audit history, “What If” and “Look Ahead.” There is also a planner mode that lets you map out classes in future semesters, which looks ideal for meetings with academic advisers.

The main degree audit page is the bread and butter of DegreeWorks and where you will probably spend most of your time. It shows a complete list of the classes you have taken and are currently enrolled in, along with your grades and the credits you have earned going toward fulfilling your degree requirements. It also shows a list of potential courses to complete your degree, complete with links to in-depth information from the course calendar. The audit history page lets you travel back in time to look at your degree progress from various points in your academic career.

The “What If” and “Look Ahead” tools are a little bit more abstract. “What If” works kind of like a hypothetical degree transplant. You can place yourself in any degree program and see where you would stand under the new requirements. For example, if you’re an English major, you can check to see how far your current credits would get you in a History program, or vice versa. “Look Ahead” is pretty self explanatory. With it, you can add hypothetical classes to your current audit to see what your degree progress would look like if you took that class.

A complex step in the right direction

The wide release of DegreeWorks at the end of January follows a successful four-month trial period involving students from the college of Agriculture and Bioresources. More recently, the testing pool was expanded to include a random sampling of Arts and Science students as well.

One important factor to bear in mind: they have been using an early version of DegreeWorks, meaning that what they experienced does not necessarily match the final product that will be rolled out to the masses. Some programs are not yet fully mapped into the system. These include those with very few students, double honours programs and programs where students are earning their second degree.

Kathy Bergen, a third-year AgBio student who has had access to DegreeWorks since the fall, feels that while it can be finicky and confusing to begin with, it’s a step in the right direction.

“It’s useful for planning classes, instead of using the manual course calendar,” said Bergen. “But it looks like a huge wall of numbers. At first, I had no idea how to use it.”

This sentiment was echoed by other students who hit the learning curve — hard.

Another noteworthy complaint from several students is that DegreeWorks will, occasionally, display incorrect information about your degree progress.

For example, certain credits won’t be applied in the correct categories. Quite a jarring error, but likely not reflective of the final product. Only time will tell.

At this stage, considering the money and effort going into developing the program, it’s probably safe to assume that grievous errors in degree audits won’t linger for too terribly long. Until all the kinks are worked out, though, academic advisers can expect a few frantic phone calls and emails from students getting wonky degree information.

Adding it all up

Like most fancy new tools, DegreeWorks will take some getting used to, especially when there are still a handful of potentially confusing bugs that have yet to be quashed, lurking under a somewhat intimidating outer surface.

Bugs aside, there’s no doubting the fact that this kind of online, automated degree auditing software has been a long time coming. It has always felt odd that there was no way to view your credits and degree progress mapped out online. It seems like an essential part of a modern university’s student services offerings.

After years of development, the university has finally come through. All things considered (did someone mention Blackboard?), the university has done a remarkably solid job.

Once you take the time to familiarize yourself with how the system works, untangling various layers of functionality, you’ll wonder what you did before DegreeWorks came online.

Or you might catch a glimpse of a giant stack of cryptic papers and spreadsheets that only academic advisers can decipher. Nightmare fuel.

Image: Supplied

  • Engineer

    The U of S ought to get this together for the other colleges. It looks like a really useful tool, I wish I had access to it!

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