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Credit: Isabel Liang

Penn students will be able to virtually "shop" for classes during the two-week course selection period with access to courses' Canvas pages. 

From Sept. 1 to Sept. 15, the virtual shopping period will give undergraduate students access to all courses' Canvas pages as an "observer," which will allow them to view but not download or edit any published materials, Executive Director for Education and Academic Planning Gary Purpura said. The type of published material available for students to view, such as recorded lectures, Zoom links, and assignments, will vary and depend on each professor.

Penn is currently updating Penn InTouch to provide links to each course's Canvas page, Purpura said.

“Most of our courses will be online and remote, so we wanted to replicate a similar kind of experience for students, giving them a chance to learn about classes, without being enrolled in them,” he said.

Purpura added the idea for a virtual course shopping period originated from discussions in the Provost’s Office when planning for fall 2020 in June, anticipating the limited access to in-person classes.

Traditionally, the course selection period allows students to visit classes in-person and add and drop courses through Penn InTouch before finalizing their schedules. After the first two weeks of classes, students can no longer add courses but can continue to drop courses until Nov. 9.

Students said despite the shopping period being completely virtual, having access to courses' Canvas pages is a useful way to become familiar with the class and decide whether it will be a good fit for them.

Engineering sophomore Anna Wang and Wharton sophomore Sahiba Baveja said the ease of the virtual shopping period will encourage students to explore classes they might not otherwise would have considered.

“I just think there's a lot of benefits that will encourage students to explore topics they might not have as much experience with or [are] not quite sure if they're going to like the class,” Wang said.

Wang added that access to course rosters will also help facilitate virtual collaboration among classmates.

“Even though with Penn Course Review you can see online reviews, you can't really gauge the vibe of the class, [compared to] being in the class and 'shopping' [around] for a while,” Wang said. 

Many students use Penn Course Review, a service created by student group Penn Labs that provides numerical ratings for undergraduate courses and professors at Penn, to evaluate courses and build their course schedules.

Wharton first year Erin Feng agreed, adding that the virtual shopping period will be particularly helpful for incoming first years who have never taken a class at Penn.

"I think that the add/drop period definitely allows [for] that kind of freedom and gives the mentality of being able to have that freedom to choose more classes."

Some students, however, said they knew little to nothing about the virtual shopping period and wished Penn released more information about the virtual shopping period. 

Provost Wendell Pritchett introduced the virtual shopping period in a "Fall Semester Updates" email to undergraduate students on Aug. 14 with one bullet point stating, "We are finalizing a virtual shopping period so that students can 'visit' courses on Canvas."

“It would have been nice if we had any more information,” Baveja said. “All I knew was that it was an option to see the Canvas page but I don't know if every professor offers the same information.”

College first year Joy Onawola said she was not even aware of the virtual shopping period and is looking forward to learning more about the new tools that can help her explore classes at Penn.

Chemistry professor Thomas Mallouk said the information available on Canvas pages will most likely differ greatly between courses depending on what the professor decides to make available. Rather than simply browsing Canvas pages, students should also attend live class sessions to better familiarize themselves with the classes, he added.

“While the written information on the Canvas page is useful, it's probably a good idea to actually be in on the class, and at least my Canvas page has a Zoom link so you can join [the synchronous sessions].”

Wang and Baveja said Penn should give students access to courses' Canvas pages regardless of whether classes are completely virtual or in-person, and should continue the virtual course selection period for upcoming semesters.

Baveja added the virtual shopping period will be more convenient for students compared to visiting classes in person.

“I think a lot of information, when things are normal, is also on Canvas, so it can definitely save students [time] like having to go to different classrooms or other time commitments," she said.

Purpura said, however, the Provost's Office does not currently have plans for the virtual shopping period to be extended beyond fall 2020, but did not rule out the possibility of its return in future semesters.

"We really have not talked about it beyond fall 2020. Our focus has been getting ready for Fall 2020 and making sure that works well," Purpura said. "If it does seem to work well, we can talk about its future and what that might look like."