A System Story

When we got started here, we said that a University is a complex system, and systems-thinking methods are useful for understanding a University. How is a University a complex system? Let’s take a look at Midsize U.[1]

Actually, let’s just think about Midsize U’s undergraduate teaching to get started.

Complex systems have a large number of components of different types. In a given semester, there are thousands of students, registered in a couple hundred programs. A few dozen departments in a half-dozen faculties manage the programs, and offer a few hundred courses, taught by a couple hundred instructors, among a hundred classrooms.

Components in complex systems have individual behaviours, but more importantly, there are relationships and interactions between the components. Think about all the interactions as each student takes a few of those courses: students from different programs in the same classrooms, learning from different instructors from different departments. Some students may have identical schedules, but the vast majority only overlap with some of their peers, forming a complex mesh of contact among students, instructors, programs, and departments. Students choosing their courses for a variety of reasons, including program requirements: Some courses are mandatory, some are chosen from option lists, and some are open electives.

Complex systems often have ill-defined boundaries, and can be influenced by outside systems.

They often have embedded sub-systems whose components interact and influence each other.

All these interactions can produce unexpected behaviours that can’t be predicted from the characteristics and behaviours of its components.

People make decisions (often very reasonable ones) within the scope of one sub-system without factoring in other sub-systems or the system at large.

Behavioural changes (decisions) in response to local change of state can cause oscillations in the system which can amplify over time as corrective reactions continue, especially if there is a time lag in the change of state.

Local behavioural changes (decisions) can cascade into other local parts of the system, or into another interrelated system, which can in turn feed back into….

Wait, what? Slow down! Overload!

OK, let me tell you a story.

It spans three years at Midsize U, but here it’s condensed to three minutes of reading, for your convenience.

Like most universities, Midsize U faces government pressure to increase enrolment, while relying more on tuition to cover costs. In response, Midsize U uses budget incentives to encourage departments to increase the number of majors and number of students taught with fewer instructors.

The Department of Apple Science in the Faculty of Fruit offers a large, popular course: “Intro to Fruit Carving”. It is taught by a skilled, popular and well-respected professor. It has engaging subject matter with broad appeal; though a few students take it as a requirement, a majority take it as an elective. It normally has 500 students in one of the largest classrooms, with a waiting list. This year it only has 225 students. Why? Same professor. Same classroom, same time. What happened?

Well, here’s what happened.

Intro to Fruit Carving used to be taught two semesters per year to 200 students each semester, always with a waiting list. Apple Science started offering it only once per year in one of the new huge classrooms. They ended up teaching more students, plus freed up the instructor to teach one of the special small courses for their re-vamped major program. Things look good.

Other departments made similar decisions, resulting in fewer service offerings each semester.

Meanwhile, the Department of Broccoli Studies in the Faculty of Vegetables also has a large-enrollment course: “Comparative Chopping Techniques”. So large, in fact, they have to offer two sections. With fewer offerings, students funnel into the courses available, including this one. But this course is mandatory for several programs, including their own large-enrollment program. Their own students are having trouble getting seats, causing problems with program sequencing.

So, Broccoli Studies made one section for their program’s majors only, and a ‘service’ section for other majors and electives. They scheduled the sections to meet their own constraints, and unknowingly scheduled the service section at the same time as “Intro to Fruit Carving.” After all, what does Broccoli Studies have to do with Apple Science?

Before, students could take both courses; now, they have to choose. But Broccoli Science’s course is a requirement for about 300 students, so they pick that one. In the meantime, those 300 students are still looking for an elective. They find whatever courses they can, and register wherever there are available seats.

Many of the courses they find are offered by other, smaller departments who normally have smaller classes. Suddenly, course enrollment spikes, and despite squeezing a few more into the rooms, there are waiting lists. “Hurrah! We have more students,” the departments say. “All our effort the past two years to promote our courses and programs has finally paid off. With more student enrollment, we can start planning for more share of the budget!”

And so scheduling begins for next year. In order to capture more of the new student demand, the smaller departments fight for larger classrooms for their courses. The space scheduler has a huge problem trying to meet the demand for larger rooms. The available rooms are scheduled to full utilization, but that’s not enough. Based on the argument of rapid growth, these newly popular courses are given priority, and some other ‘static enrollment’ classes (some call them ‘stagnant enrollment’ classes) are moved to slightly smaller rooms.

A space and classroom needs assessment is underway, and this emergent problem is factored in to new renovation priorities for the next year. Initially they were considering changes to several existing student commons to increase the number of students who can study there. A department had moved to a new building which created vacant space, and given the new classroom demands, the plan to renovate the office space into intermediate-sized classrooms is moved up in priority. The student commons budget is redirected to the classroom renovation.

The next year comes around.

Broccoli Studies has a policy that an instructor should only teach “Comparative Chopping Techniques” a maximum number of consecutive times, and a new instructor is assigned. The big class conflicts with another class she teaches, so it is moved to a different time slot.

It no longer conflicts with “Intro to Fruit Carving”, and enrollment jumps back up to 500. Meanwhile, those 300 students aren’t looking for alternative courses anymore, and enrollment drops in the courses that experienced the spike the year before. Continuing the cascade, students seeking the courses which were moved to smaller classrooms end up on waiting lists. Unfortunately, those students need to take the courses, as they appear on short option lists for their program requirements. These senior courses are offered on a rotating basis by most departments, as a means of offering more specialist courses with fewer instructors. Now the students are scrambling to find classes that will fill their schedule and keep them on track for graduation.

The renovations (and budget) for the intermediate-sized classrooms are already committed and underway, though it appears the rooms aren’t really needed yet. Meanwhile, the student societies begin pressing the issue of the shortage of on-campus study space…

Do you see each of those complex system characteristics in this story? What elements of this story remind you of experiences in your own university?


[1] Midsize U is a fictional place.

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