Hybrid class scheduling restrictions disrupt students’ graduation timelines


Cho Yin Rachel Lo

Students cross the intersection of Boylston St. and Tremont St. in front of the Little Building.

By Dana Gerber

A college policy that prohibits students from mixing flex—a hybrid of in-person and online courses—and online-only courses is disrupting some students’ meticulously planned schedules and graduation plans. 

The policy, which is continuing into the spring semester from the fall, was enacted to give students who opted for the online-only modality first priority in selecting classes from the limited menu of online courses, Michaele Whelan, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, said.

“There are students who need to enroll in online only classes, including new students, and we need to ensure that all those students are fully enrolled in the limited spaces,” Whelan wrote in an emailed statement.

According to data obtained from the Registrar’s Office, the college is offering 806 undergraduate flex classes and 170 undergraduate online-only classes this spring. Not every class is offered in each format, meaning that some students may not be able to enroll in classes required to graduate. 

After hearing from several seniors who required certain online classes to graduate, she consulted with Academic Cabinet—which includes the chair of each major as well as several administrators—to develop a stringent exception process that would grant some students enrolled in flex learning access to online-only courses.

“We have created an exception process that begins with students contacting their [department] chairs with a compelling reason for taking an online class; chairs will review this and discuss with Anne Doyle, who leads the registrar’s office and advising,” Whelan said.

The only students currently eligible for an exception are seniors who show a “curricular need” for an online-only class, Doyle said. Once the spring semester begins, the exception process will be open to underclassmen. 

“Right now, we can’t allow a lot of students into the online classes, because they still have new students who haven’t registered yet,” she said. “We have to let the new students register in their declared modality, which is either flex or online.” 

That exception process is currently restricted in case students switch from flex to online before the start of the spring semester, Doyle said. Some students may face complicated travel plans as COVID-19 case numbers spike in the state and nationwide

“There might be some students who are going home, and then they change their minds, change from flex to online,” Doyle said. “We need to make sure we have space for each student to make those choices.”

Students had to declare their modality by Oct. 19, though they can still change their decision by contacting the Academic Advising Center, The Registrar’s Office, or The Office of Student Success. 

Junior Alexandra Dudley was planning on completing her hearing and deafness minor in the spring semester with the course “Disability and the Media”, until she learned that, as a student in the flex program, she couldn’t enroll in the online-only class. She was also planning to use the Disability and the Media course to fulfill her U.S. diversity requirement, which she needs to graduate.

“I was really frustrated when I emailed the registrar and they wouldn’t let me take it, even though I pretty much said I need the class, not just for my minor but to graduate,” Dudley said. “If I was a senior, I’d be really, really pissed.” 

Dudley said she’s now hoping the Disability and the Media course is offered in the fall, as she plans to attend the ELA program in the spring of 2022. 

“A lot of students at Emerson plan out their schedules very meticulously and if one thing goes wrong, it’s a problem regarding how we graduate or our degree,” she said. “[It would be great] if they advertised, ‘This is what we can do for you if this is a problem.’” 

Some students did not learn of the limitations to flex and online class enrollment until they began registering. Senior Michael Grant planned his course schedule ahead of time, but was locked out of an online-only class, unaware he wasn’t allowed to enroll in it. 

“It sort of messed up my whole schedule,” he said. “I ended up having to take something else, and then, while I was figuring out the issue of the online-only, my backup plan filled up, so then I couldn’t take that and I have to find a completely different class to take.” 

Grant was able to find a suitable replacement but said the lack of communication from the college about the restriction was frustrating. The modality restriction is noted in a few places on the college’s website, but has not been widely publicized. The exception process, which Whelan said was only recently developed, has not been publicly announced. 

Grant added that he doesn’t understand why flex students aren’t allowed to enroll in online courses if there are still seats available after online-only students are given first priority.

“There’s already a system in place… seniors get first access, juniors get second access, sophomores get third access, [first years] get fourth. Just put online, and then flex in that same kind of an order,” he said. “It’s not hard to think of—they already thought of it.” 

Dudley echoed Grant’s frustrations and said she wished the college could be more accommodating to students’ schedules, especially since not every online-only class would likely be completely filled by the start of the semester. 

Online-only courses’ average “fill rate”—the number of students enrolled in classes out of the number of students a course is capped at—was about 78 percent in the fall semester, according to the Registrar’s Office data. For the spring, it’s about 57 percent, though not every eligible student may have registered yet. 

“[Online-only students] should not get screwed over because they chose to stay home,” Dudley said. “But I do think flex kids should get second priority or be allowed to be put on waitlists or something, because I definitely can see how this could screw up some people’s majors or minors.” 

Senior Rachel Stern faced the opposite dilemma. She wanted to be a completely remote student due to health concerns but wouldn’t be able to fulfill her degree requirements with the available menu of online-only courses. 

“Since I’m a senior, I have certain classes that I need to take so I can graduate,” Stern, who eventually opted for flex learning, said. “When I looked at the classes offered online, they had none of the stuff that I needed to take.”

She said she would be happy to Zoom into in-person classes from her home in New York but didn’t think it was an option.

“I’m just disappointed that they’re not giving us a little bit of wiggle room with COVID and everything,” she said.