Demystifying the Course Selection and Approval Process

A Conversation between Course Approval’s CCO and CEO on Removing Barriers to Study Abroad

The study abroad experience requires that courses transfer back to the student’s home institution. How, then, should this process be managed in a way that is not only helpful to students but also sustainable for faculty and staff?


By moving away from a PDF or paper-based workflow and allowing students to have autonomy in searching for and selecting course equivalencies, the process of helping students obtain the proper credit is made easier. Also making the process more transparent and easier to understand for students will allow them to feel more empowered to study abroad rather than feel like there are too many obstacles in the way.


So, how best should study abroad offices be managing course selection and approval processes when it comes to getting students their equivalencies quickly and accurately? I spoke with Dr. David Wright, the founder and CEO of Course Approval to find out.

Dr. David Wright explained that in speaking with and analyzing workflow management in study abroad offices around the country, there are some common tendencies he sees when it comes to selecting and approving course equivalencies. Our conversation focused on several challenges.

Ellen Kay (CCO at Course Approval): Are course equivalency databases helpful to students studying abroad? What should universities consider?

David Wright (CEO at Course Approval): Most universities offer a repository of past course transfers, but I have learned that these databases don’t typically take advantage of new intelligent workflow management systems. In speaking with study-abroad directors from around the country, I often hear that developing the course repository did not actually lead to substantive changes in the course selection and approval process.


When it comes to the process of selecting and approving courses, the initial hold up tends to come from the way that records are kept and available to students. While most universities have transferred previously approved courses to be accessible online in some way, these systems may not actually improve the required workflow that students need to complete prior to studying abroad.


It might seem like those who use a database to organize and store equivalencies are leaps and bounds ahead of offices that still use a PDF or paper-based workflow, this is not necessarily the case. While it is significantly more manageable for students to go through online files, the process of searching through records can still become quickly draining if the courses students select are not part of a more efficient workflow management and advising system.


To be sure, a repository of past transfers may not actually help limit the number of hoops that a student may need to jump through.

Ellen Kay: What do these “hoops” look like, then?

David Wright: Often, the process of selecting and approving courses is one that requires a student to be passed around from department to department as faculty, chairs, and deans need each other to sign off on approvals and confirm different aspects of a student’s plan.

This process can become tricky for the student to navigate and complete in time, causing stress and unnecessary burden. Say, for example, that students must submit their course selections for a study abroad program by a certain deadline but cannot get a certain department to give an answer about a course approval.


A student may have done everything right, including asking faculty members for their decisions in time, but might still end up missing a deadline or at least cutting it close. This leads to extra stress on the student and, likely, lots of extra communication and questions directed toward faculty members who may or may not have even been involved in this course approval process.


Requiring a student to physically go to multiple different offices (or even manage the process via PDFs and email), between the study abroad staff, registrar, department heads, academic advisors, deans, and maybe even the financial office depending on the student’s need for financial aid, adds barriers for the student to think about in between classes and other responsibilities.


Additionally, this is not only difficult for the student. When there is a disconnect between departments on a campus because a role does not clearly fall onto any single individual or office, faculty and staff can quickly become frustrated and overwhelmed, as well.


Ellen Kay: How do these challenges impact faculty and staff?


David Wright: If the course selection and approval process is confusing, students tend to seek out advice from both faculty and the study abroad office.


What happens, though, when a faculty member is equally unsure of how to go about a process of selecting and approving the right courses? This challenge goes back to the last question and the way that students are shuffled between faculty members who each only understand a piece of the puzzle that is the course approval process.


Often, students will come back from a semester away and realize that their course did not transfer back as they needed it to, or they may speak to other students while they are away and realize that other universities have much different processes in place. Either of these results cause tension upon a student’s return and can leave both students and faculty questioning whether there is an easier way.


Example: Say that an academic advisor tells a student that their study abroad advisor has to help them search for equivalent courses but the study abroad advisor had already informed that student that their department’s academic advisor should be part of this process. The student will likely leave one if not both of those appointments feeling confused or frustrated, and the advisors may also be confused about how to best help the student without stepping on each other’s toes.


When a process gets confusing and there are too many people involved from too many sides, mistakes can be made much more quickly. While eventually the student will decide to do his or her own research and bring those findings back to either or both departments, the process could likely be much easier on everyone involved.


Ellen Kay: What, then, happens when a student is not able to do the required research on their own and are getting nowhere quick as departments pass their requests back and forth?


David Wright: This is where real issues become apparent and barriers to study abroad begin.

If a university does not connect its online repository of past transfers to a streamlined selection and approval workflow, a big part of the course selection and approval process will still rely on a traditional PDF or paper-based workflow.


Students will be unable to actively participate in the process that affects their degree plan, while forcing faculty members to do unnecessary extra work to support each student. While the student should not have to go through this process alone, the balance of the work that is shared with the academic advisor or other faculty members can become quite skewed.

Often, students want to play an active role in these processes and removing that possibility can be quite frustrating for everyone involved in the course approval process.


Using systems or methods that are outdated force students to become reliant on faculty and staff who may not have all the information that a student needs. This can become particularly tricky when a staff or faculty member is unsure or does not feel confident with a specific course equivalency, because students will expect an answer that may not always be direct or clear when it first comes up.


Ellen Kay: What would you like study-abroad directors to know?


David Wright: What I hear most frequently from staff in the study-abroad and registrar offices is that they want to help students and to do this they need to limit how they reinvent the wheel for each student and course. With the wheels in this scenario being course equivalencies, this analogy is spot-on.


The biggest question we should be asking right now is this: Why go through the pain, effort, and time commitment of selecting and approving courses that have already been approved for students in the past?


Whether a student recently participated in the same study abroad program but needed to fill a different requirement or they got the exact credit that a current student is requesting be approved, those records should be easily accessible.


From the lens of both students and those working in study abroad and the office of the registrar, streamlining the course selection and approval process truly is an important way to make international education more accessible, less overwhelming, and less difficult for everyone.


Ellen Kay: How does Course Approval help universities move to a more streamlined process?


David Wright: This question is one that university staff, often new staff or those who work more primarily in academics, will come to the staff of a study abroad office with.

Anyone who works in academia knows that there are many moving pieces when it comes to successfully getting a student through their degree plan. Study Abroad can act as a bit of a bump in the road for students, especially when they aren’t able to get the right information in the early stages of planning.


When it comes down to it, course approvals are mostly about making sure that students are going to get the same level and rigor of education that they would engage faculty and students in a course at their home university.


For example, if a student is looking at taking a 200-level biology as a sophomore at their home university and taking a course that is marked as 3000-level at an Australian university, that course would likely be approved. Though the level at the host university may appear to be higher, it is important for faculty to remember that levels and numbers differ greatly between universities (even in the United States), so courses abroad are subject to discrepancies in what level means what.


In the case of finding equivalent courses for approval, syllabi are the most-used resource, though not always the only resource utilized. Course descriptions and syllabi, combined with course level numbers and other quantifying factors, help faculty to take a deeper look at whether a student will be getting the proper amount of education to count toward a given credit at the home institution.


Often, the gap widens when an academic advisor must approve major courses and a study abroad advisor is forced to act as the point person for getting syllabi or other materials from a partner organization. Elective courses may be a bit more simply approved, but the process is the same at its core for any courses a student may request approval to take abroad.

Mary Schlarb told us about SUNY Cortland’s previous struggles with the course equivalency process, saying, “Courses were not necessarily being evaluated by a faculty member within the course discipline, so the equivalency might not have been accurate.”

Course Approval serves to bridge the gap between faculty advisors and study abroad office staff by creating a space where all university staff can access the information needed to help a student succeed.


While each university is going to approach this process a bit differently, having a database that connects to an approved course selection and approval process will reduce stress and uncertainty in determining equivalencies.


Ellen Kay: I see. Course Approval helps universities to articulate their workflow and will adapt as the process becomes more streamlined.


David Wright: Yes, the more courses that are approved and input into the Course Approval system, the easier it will be for future study abroad students to get a clear and accessible picture of the academic side of their study abroad experience.

At Course Approval, student success is the name of the game and, ultimately, we strive to act as partners with the study abroad office’s success.


Ellen Kay: How exactly does Course Approval do this?


David Wright: In providing a database application that can evolve and grow on itself over time, we truly believe that students and staff can begin to have a clearer picture of study abroad credits, processes, and final approval results.

Hugh Anderson, the Senior Study Abroad Advisor at SUNY Cortland reciprocates this idea, saying, “Another motivating factor was the creation of a public database of our course equivalencies, which makes it easy for advisors, students, and administrators to view how courses abroad can fit into a student’s degree plan.


It is so important to be able to offer transparency to a student, and Course Approval allows faculty the space and access to information to provide these sorts of honest, up-front answers to a student who is needing to discuss course equivalency options.”


Ellen Kay: Now that we’ve gone over some things that do and don’t work well regarding the course selection and approval process, please tell us a little more about the benefits to students.


David Wright: Remember, at its core, course approval especially for study abroad is a process that can seem daunting but is so instrumental in changing a student’s college career.

When a student feels supported and clear on expectations for their experiences abroad, they feel more confident in their decision to leave their comfort zone.

When academic advisors, registrars, study abroad advisors, organization-based program advisors, department heads, and others are all able to communicate through one system, miscommunications can be much more easily avoided.


The chance for more comprehensive, quicker, and clearer communication between faculty directly correlates to the feelings of support a student will experience.


Ellen Kay: So what should universities’ next step be?


David Wright: Universities should review the current process and try to find the potential roadblocks so that the issues can be targeted. After the major roadblocks are determined and, if Course Approval sounds beneficial, the next step should be to reach out to either one of us for a walkthrough to see how the software can change the experience working through the course selection and approval processes for study abroad.

There are different levels of customization, ranging from an off-the-shelf version for quick deployment to a fully custom version, made specifically for the client.

Ellen Kay: We have received some feedback after speaking with Mary Schlarb and Hugh Anderson at SUNY-Cortland:


“You can say goodbye to the paper files and static, often-out-of-date PDF files,” as Mary Schlarb, the Director, and Senior International Officer at SUNY Cortland, said.


“Instead of outdated methods, trade those myriad files and locations for one agile software that is supported by a team of education consultants, software engineers, and designers.

You can quickly gather information you need from your students to begin the course selection process without having to go through multiple separate departments, meetings, or conversations.


Additionally, later on in the process once you get to the course approval stage, all necessary parties can access the same information surrounding the student’s selections and equivalent courses.


Course Approval is not only a hub that streamlines the course selection and approval process, but also triggers a fully planned workflow. With actions, assignees, time-based tasks, and more, the delegation can fall on the Course Approval software more so than any individual members of staff.”


David Wright: Thank you for sharing that. If anyone reading this wants more information, a quick tour, or a price guide, please either visit our website at courseapproval.com or reach out to us directly at davidwright@courseapproval.com or ellenkay@courseapproval.com


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