By Casey S. Elliott
Switching to semesters gives students and faculty more time to explore course material and streamlines administrative tasks, say two individuals associated with Ohio University's planned conversion.
The university's Quarters-to-Semesters Transition Team met for the first time last week to begin mapping out plans for the switch, expected to take place in 2012.
In addition to extensive reports from other universities that have made such a conversion, the group is tapping Andy Jorgensen, a senior fellow at the National Council for Science and Environment currently on sabbatical from his position as associate professor and director of general chemistry at the University of Toledo. Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl selected Jorgensen to assist with the transition based on his experience leading Toledo's conversion in the mid-1990s.
"A couple of years ago when my office was doing research on best practices in semester conversions, (Associate Provost for Academic Affairs) Marty Tuck contacted Andy," Krendl said. "He was impressed with Andy's encyclopedic command of the subject and his willingness to help. He can provide the transition team the invaluable first-hand experience of someone who has led a successful conversion."
About 75 percent of universities nationally are on a semester system. Among them are all but four of Ohio's 13 public universities and Ohio University's 10 aspirational peer institutions.
Jorgensen, a former chair of the University of Toledo's faculty senate, said Toledo had been considering a conversion for a number of years. Although faculty and staff were initially split on the idea, the conversion proceeded because it would help students transfer between institutions in a region where many schools already were on semesters.
Less running, more learning
Professor of Classics and World Religions Tom Carpenter, who is co-chairing the transition team with David Descutner, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of University College, experienced a conversion to semesters while on the faculty at Virginia Tech. That transition, which also took place in the 1990s, was "relatively painless" from a faculty standpoint, he said.
"It was a question of revising courses from 10 weeks to 15 weeks," he said. "It gives you time for your students to think about the material, and you don't have the sense that you are constantly running."
On the flip side, proponents of the quarter system point to the fact that it allows students to take a greater variety of courses and is more in line with Ohio University's identity as an institution. That was one finding of the Academic Calendar and System Committee that studied the issue in 2006-07.
From an administrative standpoint, Jorgensen pointed to the fact that, under semesters, there is a need to transact business only two times during the regular school year rather than three. Working in Ohio University's favor, he added, is a plan to institute a new Student Information System (SIS) as part of the transition. That will help the university start fresh instead of having to retrofit an existing system.
"In your case, it is ideal," he said. "We had to make major computer modifications to our old system (at the time of the conversion), and that was expensive. There was also pain in converting all our reports."
At its Oct. 3 meeting, the Board of Trustees is expected to consider a request to hire an implementation services partner for the new SIS and formally approve the transition to semesters.
Issues to address
Switching the academic calendar raises a host of issues that need to be addressed, Jorgensen said. These range from accurately converting courses so that students receive fair credit for classes taken in the quarter format to ensuring consistency in the approval of curricular changes.
"We took the position that every single course had to be approved and signed off on by the college committee, the dean, the university committee and administrators," he said. "The same committees we had been using to make curriculum changes over the years were the same groups approving every part of the new curriculum. There were no shortcuts. This process made sure there was credibility in the curriculum."
It also is important to ensure that the only changes to students' education and requirements are positive ones. Jorgensen said the University of Toledo guaranteed students that they could appeal if they felt an outcome disadvantaged them in any way.
"We had 20,000 students," he said, "and we received zero appeals."
Similarly, Ohio University plans to ensure that the conversion does not harm students academically. Students who graduate before fall 2012 will not be affected; those graduating afterward will be guided on how to complete their degrees through advising and new technology designed for that purpose.
Jorgensen said students also must be assured that, despite a conversion, they are able to complete courses conducted in sequence. For example, some University of Toledo sequences required three quarter classes to complete. Some students had taken two of the three quarter-long courses, leaving an awkward number of credit hours. To address the issue, Jorgensen said the university conducted transition classes that started in week six of the second semester.
Allowing enough time
Jorgensen said course conversion requires careful coordination, requiring faculty and department heads to determine which material to present and test on, and the timing of classes -- and arranging that around breaks in the academic year. From there, staff must place data in SIS. Students and their faculty advisers also must navigate that new course information and determine how it impacts each student's college experience.
Toledo's total conversion occurred in 27 months, which Jorgensen said gave little opportunity to do more than just convert quarter courses to equivalent semester courses.
"We allowed our departments only about three months to research the new curriculum that they needed to create," he said. "This was not sufficient time for them to research suggestions from their professional societies, check out Web pages of comparable institutions and carry out a significant discussion within their department and with other departments that relied on their classes."
Jorgensen said the schedule Ohio University is considering will provide a unique opportunity for departments to "dream" about their curriculum.
"Dreams cannot be rushed, though they do need deadlines," he said. "It seemed like in most cases, (Toledo) departments converted the quarter-based curriculum, but did not use the occasion to consider broader curricular developments -- though more significant changes did occur in many circumstances."
As a faculty member, Jorgensen said he found the semester system better suited for instruction in his primary area of focus, introductory chemistry.
"The year-long general chemistry sequence is better presently in two halves rather than three thirds," he said. "The term-ending exams are more comprehensive, the major interruptions for breaks between terms drop from two to one and the transition to a new instructor happens only twice per year instead of three times. Also, if students have a problem -- medical, personal, family -- there is more time to recover and get back on track."
A quarters-to-semesters transition is a major undertaking, Jorgensen acknowledged, and is best accomplished when there is cooperation among all constituent groups.
"Coordinating everything was difficult. (The conversion) touches virtually every section of the university," he said. "I couldn't have been happier from the tremendous cooperation among (my) institution."