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University Course Catalog: Next for Faceted Search?

by David Sturtz

So speaking of faceted search, a study in the current issue of Wichita State University’s Usability News inadvertently investigates the question of search vs. browse in relation to using an online course schedule. This seems like an ideal problem to solve with faceted search technology.

The paper, Searching the University Course Schedule Using a Digital FlipBook, compares task completion times of students using an e-book version of the schedule to those using an online version through a search form. Looking at combined task times there was no clear winner. Among the individual tasks, however, the e-book beat the search form on four of the nine tasks.

In actuality, the observations seem to suggest that neither is an optimal solution for the task. Users encountered problems including:

  • Difficulties browsing courses (rather than searching)
  • Lack of user-friendly labeling
  • No graceful handling of failed searches
  • No support for side-by-side comparisons of courses

The course catalogs I have had to deal with were all horrible. They functioned just well enough to allow students to register for courses, but were no help in exploring the options available. Just like the library’s OPAC, these systems are locked into the internal classification structure (course numbers) used by the college. Developing ways for students to explore the offerings using their own understanding and terminology seems like a small change that could have a significant effect on the college experience.

Testing this out seems like an ideal situation for doing a more qualitative study with interview-based tasks. Several times a year students actually need to use these interfaces. It would be interesting to see how they work for real-life problems.

Does anyone know of a really great college course catalog interface? Share your links in the comments.

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