Hi-tech flunks report cards
by Eric McHenry
BU systems administrators have now done what English teachers, from time immemorial, have only dreamed of doing: they've eliminated the passive voice. Grades are no longer received at Boston University. Students must go get them.
BU distributed last semester's grades only through its Web site, an automated telephone system, and various kiosks around campus. Students who wanted to receive a traditional report card through the U.S. Postal Service had to request it. The shift reflects a general transformation of the way students interact with the University when addressing administrative matters.
"Both the telephone information system and the student Web Link have been around for a while -- the telephone for many years and the Link for a couple," says Florence Bergeron, University registrar. "But this is the first year that we haven't automatically sent grades to students, and have encouraged them to use those two means to acquire their grades."
Not that students need much encouraging. Bergeron says the moratorium on paper grades was a direct result of her office's observation of student interest in the automated telephone system.
"We looked at the number of calls that students were making to TelGrade, the application on the telephone information system that gives grades," she says, "and found that within its first two and a half weeks we had 43,000 calls.
"What that said to me was that by the time these students received the paper copies of their grades, they already knew them; they'd heard them on the telephone."
The Web site is no less popular, according to Jacalyn Reisz, assistant director for custom systems development.
"You should see the activity on the Link when grades are posted," says Reisz, who credits the new system's success to its efficiency.
"As soon as a grade is entered, it shows. All of our information is real-time. We don't use any data warehousing. We don't use any extracted files. Anyone who uses the Link is seeing the exact same thing the administration operates on," she says.
At Boston University, electronic grade distribution is only one example of new technological developments making paperwork, and legwork, obsolete. Students can now, among other things, change their address in the University's records without having to visit the registrar at 881 Commonwealth Ave. in person and confirm the availability of seats in limited-enrollment classes.
"There's a seat-count you can check online, and it's dynamic," says Reisz. "As people are registering, you can see adding and dropping; you can see seats open up. And that's made the telephone registration much more effective, because you don't have to guess about availability, unless four or five kids are going after the same seat in the same nanosecond."
BU is by no means the only school in the United States to have adopted a paperless grade distribution system, but it does appear to be ahead of the pack regionally. Both Boston College and Northeastern University, for example, retain automatic mailing systems, and neither has made grades available to students over the Web, according to representatives of their registrars' offices. Bergeron estimates that only about 10 percent of colleges and universities nationwide have phased out the automatic mailing.
In implementing its new system, BU received guidance and encouragement from a handful of schools that have consistently been leaders in administrative technological innovation, most notably the University of Delaware.
"Delaware dispensed with the automatic mailing of grades about four years ago," says Bergeron, "and they've been very pleased with their new system's success."
At this point, BU is comparably pleased, she says.
"There are always some bumps in the road. But I think this spring it will be even smoother, and by next fall people will have forgotten that we ever mailed grades automatically."