Demand clogs QCARD

Students were at computers before 8 a.m. to pre-register for courses. Some students in western time zones woke up earlier.
Students were at computers before 8 a.m. to pre-register for courses. Some students in western time zones woke up earlier.
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Arts and Science students hoping for a summer free from scholastic stress faced frustrations and problems with online course pre-registration this month.

Students were unable to log on or register for their entire course load, and some lectures and seminars were overfilled.

According to University Registrar Jo-Anne Brady, QCARD, the University’s electronic, internet-accessible registration system was mired in programming errors and overwhelmed system capacity.

“QCARD has improved recently, but at its current rate it isn’t meeting the demands of students,” said ASUS President Bradley Hammond. “We often hear how unstable the system is.”

Brady said students race to be the first to register for favoured courses, which is more than the system can handle.

“I expect that it will require a combination of factors in the future to address the frustrations and apparent dissatisfaction with the current system and process,” she said.

Electronic registration was created in 1997, but not available on the web until 2000, Brady said.

“The functionality and attributes of QCARD have been continually increased and enhanced,” she said.

Regardless, the Faculty of Arts and Science acknowledged that problems persist.

“I’ve seen QCARD simply not be available because it’s so busy,” said Kathryn Vilela, arts and science assistant to the associate dean (studies). “Anyone trying to log on gets a busy signal or booted out.” AMS Information Technology Officer John Paterson said QCARD works like a public swimming pool.

“When there are too many people in the pool, the lifeguards will ask some people to wait before getting in,” he said. “With QCARD, if the pool is completely full, the server may disconnect users to keep the system running.”

Brady said QCARD access is divided by year to minimize overload. However, the first-come, first-serve method used by the Faculty of Arts and Science still compromises program performance.

“The faculty’s financial ability to provide capacity in courses has not been able to keep pace with the substantial growth in enrolment and demand over the past five years,” Brady said. “[We have] adopted the method of first come, first serve as the most equitable way to allocate course places to a demand that exceeds the supply of opportunities.”

Vilela said the root of the problem is that students log on as early as possible to secure classes.

“Everyone wants to be on at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, and that’s a constant problem we have to deal with,” she said.

Hammond said timing created other concerns as well.

“While it is a good system for students living in Ontario, for people in other time zones, an 8 a.m. start time is a problem,” he said.

Hammond suggested evening start times to accommodate students from western Canada, with QCARD operating overnight for the international population.

“Our undergraduate population pays a lot to go here, so they should be able to register for their classes in a way that suits their needs,” he said.

Technical difficulties meant psychology students faced a particularly tough time pre-registering for courses, said Jill Atkinson, psychology’s chair of undergraduate studies.

While all 200 fourth-year psychology students are assigned seminars by hand, the department opted to use QCARD for third-year enrolment this year.

“We used to put third-years in courses manually as well. This year we were able to put new restrictions on QCARD,” Atkinson said.

“Unfortunately, we had a glitch in our enrolment limits, and third-year registration went very poorly.” Course overfilling can occur due to programming errors, but it can also be caused by too many students logging on at once, Paterson said.

“The overfilling issue will normally occur because there are so many people registering for the same courses at the same time,” he said. “If there are six people who hit ‘Add Course’ at exactly the same time, and there are only two spots, everyone may get in.” Other faculties said they didn’t receive complaints from registrants.

“Our pre-registration has gone very well,” said Beth MacDonald, first-year program assistant for Applied Science. “Applied Science students only use QCARD to view their timetables and add electives.”

All other faculties automatically pre-register students in core courses.

“All of our courses are pre-set and required, so students are simply slotted in,” said Julie Carty, coordinator of the Commerce program. “The only courses that Commerce students need to pre-register for are their electives.” Arts and Science registration differs because of the wide variety of classes available to all students, Hammond said.

“At Queen’s in Arts and Science, you aren’t confined to your specific degree program. You can mix things up and take classes from a variety of departments,” he said. “As a result, QCARD is a centralized system working for, and taking on the problems of, decentralized departments.”

Atkinson agreed.

“Queen’s allows [Arts and Science] students so much flexibility that it creates conflict within the programs and timetables,” she said. “This flexibility is what hurts us and makes programming difficult.”

She said some departments, like psychology, still prefer manual registration for upper-year students.

“We want all students to have experience in classes like seminars,” Atkinson said. “Fourth-years list courses in order of preference, and we put them in the classes they need to graduate.”

AMS Academic Affairs Commissioner Pat Welsh said he wants the process to improve.

“I don’t know whether this [method] could be applied across the board [but] I want to open up a dialogue with the registrar and address these concerns.” Brady said new options and improvements are being discussed.

“We are working with IT Services at this time to identify potential system changes that can improve the operating performance of QCARD,” she said.

While the University upgraded QCARD’s capacity in August 2004, Paterson said even more server upgrades could be the remedy.

“The root cause of the problem is really just too many people connecting at the same time, and the server not being able to handle the load,” he said.

However, Paterson said the exorbitant cost of new servers might outweigh the overall benefit.

“I would be very reluctant if I was the University to spend a lot of money on new servers to handle a one-week peak load,” he said. “It’s not worth the investment to build a new 50-meter, 10-lane pool because you have three busy swims a year.” Hammond said he also has reservations about the cost of server upgrades.

“Should student dollars be applied to make those four days easier? I don’t know, but the ultimate focus should be to ensure that students get into their classes.”

Rick Hayward, director of student information systems at the University of Toronto, said many North American universities use hourly start times to spread out registration.

“We classify students by year, and assign days and start times for registration as well,” he said. “The students with the greatest number of credits go first, because they need select classes to graduate.” While Brady acknowledged that more specific start times are one option to improve registration, she said that the faculty of Arts and Science might also increase the sizes of popular classes.

“[The faculty] will review projected enrolment levels in courses and programs and determine if there may be opportunities to provide more capacity in high-demand courses in the future,” she said.

“All options will be on the table to review this fall in preparation for next year.” Shirallee Palmer, Arts and Science pre-registration advisor, said prior to QCARD, registration took place at the University during Orientation week.

“Registration was in the arena in September, and it was all first-come, first-serve,” she said. “Students would walk from department to department to select their courses.”

Currently, the only other registration option for students is to call the registrar’s office at 613-533-2218.

“There is a pre-registration hotline, and students can always call that number,” said Vilela. “Of course, they may get a busy signal. We do want to be efficient, but we want to handle unique student situations as well.”

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