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Dartmouth’s add/drop system is broken.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/17/20 2:00am

Your knuckles are white and your heart is racing. Nervously pacing back and forth, you check the Wi-Fi for the fifth time in the last minute. That’s right — it’s add/drop time. Dartmouth students know this antiquated course change process all too well. At midnight before the first day of classes each term, the Dartmouth registrar opens up the course selection webpage for students to add or drop courses. Term after term, the add/drop process causes students undue stress and confusion. The failure of the most recent add/drop period has made it clearer than ever: the current system must go.  

Dartmouth’s course selection system offers both opportunity and frustration. Each term, there are students who benefit from the option to add a desired course or drop an unwanted one. For the first week of the term, students are not required to seek permission to change their course schedule. This is a plus. But, while the lack of structure means it is easy to make changes, it also causes mayhem. There’s no better add/drop period to illustrate this chaos than the most recent one. 

This past course selection period was certainly an extraordinary one — from initial course selection in February to midnight on March 30, a lot had changed. Not surprisingly, when the clock struck midnight on March 30, an abnormally large number of students navigated to the add/drop webpage. The website immediately crashed. Many students were frustrated, since they were now beginning the term with courses they did not want or — as was the case for many students — an empty timetable.

Unfortunately, the crash of the add/drop interface was not a surprise. Almost every term, there is some technological glitch with the functioning of add/drop — varying from a temporary system shutdown to a full crash that lasts until morning. There was hope this term, however, that without the burden of Dartmouth students on the campus Wi-Fi, add/drop wouldn’t experience another glitch. But as students woke up to find that add/drop had, without notice, come alive at 5:30 a.m., it was clear that students’ optimism was misplaced. Admission into classes became a game of who happened to have been awake at that unannounced hour. In line with the College’s previous responses to add/drop crashes, no explanation or notification was provided to students. 

Dartmouth’s course change system is technologically outdated, and it fails to meet its basic purpose. Dartmouth must either direct resources towards improving add/drop or dispose of the system entirely. 

The shortcomings of the add/drop system are not limited to its technological failure. The entire design of it, including the time at which it opens and its first-come, first-serve nature, lacks consideration of student needs.

Opening add/drop at midnight, with full knowledge that the majority of students will have to stay up to log on at that hour, is short-sighted. Waiting until the morning that the term begins for the second add/drop period is even more illogical. How are students expected to arrive ready to learn on their first day of classes if they are required to stay awake until midnight — and uncertain about classes — the night before the start of term?

A first-come, first-serve add/drop system does not work well. As previously mentioned, it is true that the spontaneous nature of the system makes adding and dropping classes very easy. But when you have waited four terms to get into a class of 16 people, and you lose the last spot to someone who has quicker mouse-clicking reflexes than you, the “easy” appeal quickly fades. The current system is an arbitrary one, and the College’s failure to address its shortfalls is not reassuring.

Thus, we are left with the question: What should the course change framework look like? Surely, there is a better way to do things. Universities with thousands more students than Dartmouth seem to successfully run course selection. There is a plethora of other course selection systems employed by colleges throughout the U.S. We might take a page out of their books — we need not operate with a faulty and outdated system.

The most substantive change to add/drop — aside from fixing the technology behind it — that Dartmouth needs is the elimination of first-come, first-served course selection. Instead, students would put in course requests and the same selection process currently used during initial course selection would be implemented. With the switch from add/drop to randomized assignment, course placement would no longer be based on arbitrary factors like ability to stay up late and how quickly one can click through a computer interface. Instead, the mad rush of add/drop would be replaced by a fairer, easier system.

Dartmouth might also consider running add/drop through an “appointment time” system. Columbia University students, for example, have the ability to add or drop their classes only during their assigned timeslots. Each student is given a window of three days in which they can request a spot in a course. This ensures that not all students are overloading the system at the same time. Cornell University follows a similar appointment format. 

It seems, however, that Dartmouth isn’t alone in all of its add/drop policies. Yale, for example, employs a ten-day “shopping period” akin to Dartmouth’s add/drop period that lasts for the first two weeks of term. This is one of the merits of Dartmouth’s course selection policy that should stay. Ideally, Dartmouth can keep an add/drop period during the first two weeks of term. But with a better thought-out course selection process, that period won’t be one in which students scramble to get into courses. Instead, it will genuinely offer students a chance to explore different course options.

What may seem like a small grievance from the outside causes a surprising amount of frustration and uncertainty for Dartmouth students. It is a reasonable request to have a working add/drop system that considers student schedules, accounts for the inevitable rush of sign-ups for certain classes and does not have technological failures. The system has been broken for too long — it’s time for Dartmouth to fix it.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.