I had only been working in my alma mater’s IT department for a few months when I heard the grunting of our system administrator and the squeaking of a cart rumble by my cubicle. “We’re throwing the damned thing off the roof!” he cried shortly before flipping the aged server off a guard rail and into our parking lot.

I have never seen another server destruction before or since, but this was a special occasion, as this box stored our old student registration system — one that was cursed at by so many students over the years that such evil could only be purged by our best approximation of a ritualistic sacrifice. We had thought the dark days were behind us, but we were wrong.

The California State University system (with two feisty exceptions) uses an ancient software called CMS PeopleSoft Student/HR to manage student information. Registering for a class in this system takes no fewer than 15 steps that requires following a user guide. The screen to find an actual course only allows searching by a subject and course number, so students have to consult usually three or four websites to figure out what classes are available, required to graduate, and offered at a time that is convenient. I have seen students miss graduation because they didn’t click a minuscule button, or did not heed the cries of a tiny 12-pixel-wide icon meaning they had a hold.

These problems aren’t limited to the CSU system: many other institutions foist this same accounting-system-cum-registration-nightmare upon their students and faculty, and all the other popular alternatives I have seen do no better. We are at this point because the people who purchase these products usually hold high-level administrative requirements over user experience, and because these things involve so much sunk cost that looking for alternatives is considered taboo.

Registering for a class should be like buying a book on Amazon

Amazon apparently knows a scary level of detail about my reading habits, and I think this one company has spent more time trying to foist yet another depressing Nabokov novel on me than the entire country’s higher education instiutions have spent trying to recommend and select courses.

Most courses have an instructor, a title, a number, a description and day and time. The position of a course is relatively static within a curriculum, and the prerequisites/corequisites are in many cases well-defined. While what happens inside a course — instruction, course delivery, textbooks, and a dash of what my students call “awesomeness” — is fuzzy and difficult to codify, the basic definition of a course as units, titles, meeting times, instructors, and descriptions are simple. Finding a class you need at a given time should not be hard, but colleges and universities seem hell-bent to make these simple units of instruction impossible to find and select.

While the current “education startup” environment is very focused on in-class experiences like MOOCs, flipped classrooms, and fancy course delivery, core student services across the country like advising, registration, and curriculum design are flagging. I don’t see traditional higher eduction going away any time soon, but I do think we need to learn a little from those folks who sell us books.