Students rave about York’s online degree-tracking tool

By the end of March, more than 14,000 York students should be able to go online and quickly track their academic progress without having to consult an academic adviser in person.  

Through Passport York, students can sign on to the Degree Progress Report, a self-serve, colour-coded online tool that shows at a glance what course requirements they have completed, are currently working on and still need to do to graduate. It’s an unambiguous planning tool that saves time and prevents nasty surprises – like discovering you took courses that don’t count toward your degree just when you expected to don cap and gown and walk into the future, degree in hand. 

Developed by York from scratch, it was launched in 2008 for students in York’s Faculty of Health. In surveys, they raved about the speed and ease of the system. Now other universities are clamouring to know more about the pioneering tool, and York is rolling it out for more undergraduates.

“It really makes keeping on top of your degree easy. It shows you what you’ve done, what you need to do and what you’re missing,” says Praful Handa, a kinesiology & health science student whose job is to demonstrate the new easy-to-use degree-tracking program in the Faculty of Health’s Office of Student & Academic Services. “The red, green and yellow colour coding is as simple as traffic lights.” 

“A lot of students are not familiar with the degree requirements,” says Handa. “This tool is one more way they can check” without having to find and interpret requirements listed in a printed version of the Undergraduate Calendar. 

With this system, there is no chance of misunderstanding program requirements, says Jill Oinonen, assistant registrar, information technology & publications. “We have removed all the grey.”  

Already more than 7,000 undergraduates have access to York’s new – and original – easy-to-use degree-tracking program. Since March 2008, students enrolled in the Faculty of Health have had the first crack at this new tool. By the end of this term, all sociology, administrative studies, criminology and philosophy students in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) will have access. So will all fine arts students. Eventually students in four Faculties for which the Registrar’s Office handles degree audits – Health, LA&PS, Fine Arts and Science & Engineering – will be able to check their degree progress online.

Not only is the tool a boon to students, who can log on anytime anywhere, it frees academic advisers from having to figure out if students are taking the required courses each time they come for advice. They can devote more time to discussing learning skills, careers and services.  

“Advisers now have time to have a conversation,” says Lara Ubaldi, director of student & academic services in the Faculty of Health, whose students were the first to have access to the Degree Progress Report. “This program has made such a difference in advising.” 

York has built this degree-tracking system from scratch without imported software. More dynamic and flexible than any comparable system in Canada, it is already creating a buzz. The Ontario University Registrars’ Association wants to hear all about it and has invited York to make a presentation at its March conference.  

“We’re definitely leading the charge,” says York Registrar Joanne Duklas. “We’re pioneers!”  

Left: The team that tests and fine-tunes the degree-tracking system, from left, Shawn Kirkup, Astra Avens and Mohini Nemdharry

The online tool was originally developed in the early 2000s to expedite degree audits, which used to be done by checking a printout of courses taken by a student against requirements listed in the Undergraduate Calendar. About five years ago, academic advisers began using it. Then the Registrar’s Office (RO) decided to make it accessible to students. 

First, however, the RO decided the original text-heavy, hard-to-read online format had to be more user-friendly. To do this, the RO teamed up with University Information Technology. Student Information System manager Al Regina’s programmers wrote the code and Oinonen’s analysts added the content (the Faculties are responsible for the wording) and tested it. Together they built from scratch an interactive, colour-coded, simple-to-read and easy-to-understand online degree-tracking tool. 

In March of 2008, they launched this “pretty version” for students enrolled in York’s Faculty of Health and asked them what they thought of it in a survey.

Fantastic and amazing, they answered. Students could check their progress round the clock, didn’t have to line up to see an adviser and could plan ahead. “My first time using it this morning and I found it very informative, useful and helpful,” wrote one. “I love the way how all my information is up in front of me within a few seconds and how everything is on one page.” Another wrote: “This report has saved me a number of times from taking courses that were not necessary. It saved me time, money and effort! Every student’s life would be easier if they were given access to this.”

Because of the complexity of York’s academic requirements, there’s still a tremendous amount of work ahead for Oinonen’s team – business & statistical analysts Astra Avens, Shawn Kirkup and Mohini Nemdharry – to make this online degree-tracking service available to the rest of LA&PS students as well as those in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. 

Do other universities have such degree-tracking systems? Some do, though none are nearly as dynamic and flexible as York’s. For instance, students in LA&PS’s Business & Society Program must choose any two of 10 streams; each stream has mandatory courses and requires students to choose other courses from a longer list. "The fact that this system is able to pick requirements out of an infinite combination of courses is what makes it outstanding,” says Oinonen. 

So far, the system cannot show a student who wishes to change majors which of his current courses would count towards a different major. “This is one of the things students asked for in the survey,” says Oinonen. “Someday this may be possible but right now our goal is to release the degree progress report tool to more students.” 

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer