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planninggraphic
Credit: Paris Rosen

College is where you find yourself — where you explore, discover, and create. Why else would we be at Penn, if not for the myriad opportunities available here?

When I was accepted, one of my first questions was: what exactly would I study? Entering Penn as a coordinated dual degree student in Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, I was restricted to majors pertinent to energy research, but I was still indecisive and overwhelmed. How could I declare, in the midst of a pandemic, where it would be harder to communicate with my professors and attend events? Would I even be able to handle the workload of my majors?

At every twist and turn, my academic advisor has been there for me. She recommended courses and connected me to insightful professors and advisors. She helped me navigate the confusing academic planning worksheets on Penn InTouch, and made sense of my rainbow-color-coded four year plans in Google Sheets. Thanks to her, I feel confident in my choice of majors and my academic plan, despite COVID-19.

Not every student is as lucky. In the most recent survey of Penn’s outgoing seniors, 43% reported being generally or very dissatisfied with academic advising before declaring a major. Some students have never met their pre-major advisor, and some advisors have been criticized for giving misinformation and curt responses in the past. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Penn’s flawed academic planning system.

Many students and faculty have taken issue with the block scheduling system that Penn’s administration introduced this fall. Over 150 faculty members signed a petition objecting to this system because they had not been properly consulted before the implementation, and because it was unclear if they would be required to teach for ten extra minutes, or if they would be compensated for doing so. Many students are also frustrated by the new block system due to the increased difficulty fulfilling degree requirements, the social distancing concerns on a more crowded Locust Walk, and inefficient break periods.

At the moment, Penn does not appear open to receiving and responding to feedback on block scheduling. Sources from Penn Student Government report that feedback collection has been delayed, with the administration concerned over block schedule critiques becoming conflated with a return to in-person classes. Students were supposed to be polled earlier for feedback, but surveys will now be held at the end of the 2021-22 school year, according to a member of Penn Student Government. Why did conflation suddenly become a concern midway through the term, after numerous student critiques of the block schedule were published? It seems more likely to me that Penn is trying to avoid further criticism.

Additionally, there are massive inconsistencies in academic planning and scheduling across departments. Students who fail to get into a required course during advance registration must try to obtain a permit — if their professor allows it — or sign up for (often long) waitlists. Departmental websites that depict major requirements are frequently outdated, featuring courses that haven’t been offered in years. During registration, whether or not a course will have a syllabus attached to it comes down to luck. All of this makes Penn’s courses difficult to organize into majors, minors, and planning sheets for students, especially if they do not have reliable academic advisors.

One promising area in Penn’s academic labyrinth is Path@Penn, the replacement for Penn InTouch, launching this spring. I spoke with Executive Director for Academic Technology and Planning Rob Nelson, who guided me through the many improvements that Path@Penn features. Path@Penn will be able to recognize a student’s major, eliminating the need for many permits, and it lays the groundwork for a standardized waitlist system for all Penn courses in the future. The registration process will be integrated with the course planner (formerly known as the Academic Planning Worksheet), which will help facilitate meetings between students and their advisors, as advisors and students will be able to see the same set-ups on their screens in real time.

Path@Penn is a significant step up from Penn InTouch, a decades-old platform which is riddled with errors and can only support 5% of Penn’s student population online at a time. But we still have to consider that it took four years to implement this replacement, and that the students that were here when Path@Penn was announced have already graduated. Why are we just now getting a replacement that has been necessary for so long?

Further, upgraded software cannot fix many underlying issues within Penn’s academic planning. Path@Penn will do little if academic advisors don’t attend the information sessions to learn how to use it, or if they were advising their students poorly to begin with. Similarly, students will struggle to understand their coursework and graduation requirements if departments don’t regularly update their websites, or if department contact information is unclear. 

So, Penn, you’re making it easier to communicate. You’ve created a tool that has the potential to foster collaborative conversations with advisors and ease registration and course planning. But will you actually listen when students and faculty express concerns with your systems and make improvements in a timely manner? That remains to be seen.

CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering sophomore studying environmental science and systems engineering from New York City. Her email address is magdolen@sas.upenn.edu.

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