Spring of my senior year of high school, I received a book in the mail. Literally. It was the size and shape of a trade paperback. It was the course catalog and schedule from the Small Liberal Arts College I would attend in the fall. I curled up on the couch with a snack and a pen, and settled in to read.

It had full course descriptions, each one or two complex paragraphs, written by the professors themselves. I still remember a description that began “Much beautiful mathematics….” I wanted to take this class with the beautiful mathematics long past the moment I discovered I wasn’t actually very good at math after all.

Okay. Big universities today, in my experience of all of two of them. To pick courses, students sit at the computer with the online course schedule, showing course time, credits, requirements fulfilled, etc, and a title with a tight limit of 60 or so characters.

They may also have the online or printed course catalog, which is usually a listing of the standard courses, giving a three sentence description, with a tight limit of 500 or so characters.

Problem! the course catalog is unreliable. The three-sentence description communicates almost nothing of value about the course, because it was approved by a committee years before the actual professor even got to the university. It doesn’t even exist for some courses.

Now, professors do write real course descriptions, that paragraph that summarizes main topics, major assignments, and gives a hint of the professor’s approach. Just about every course has one. But students can’t find them.

Problem! There is no university-wide mandate to link real course descriptions to the online course catalog. Most, but not all departments, put course descriptions on the department webpage. Other professors put course descriptions on their personal pages. Some universities make it possible—but not required, advertised, or necessarily easy—to link such webpage descriptions to the online course catalog.

Problem! Even when descriptions are linked to the online catalog, students have to know that such descriptions exist and be sure to look for them. If not linked, they have to chase them down, checking in three or four different places.

This is a fundamental problem that the age of computers and the web should have solved long ago. That it still exists anywhere, even if not everywhere, I consider to be unethical bordering on criminal.

Triggers and see also: Tenured Radical discussed how even very good colleges shortchange students when it comes to advising, and Bardiac later raised a similar point. I complained earlier about searching online course schedules. New Kid discusses course pre-shopping by email, and Jane Dark notes in the comments that her school is more enlightened than what I describe here. Update: Ad Nauseum extends the issue.

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