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Remembering the Days — Punch cards and passing out: class registration blues

Remembering the Days - episode 68

We all have memories of college courses we took years ago. The courses we struggled in, the courses where we managed to make an A — the courses that we thought would never end or didn’t end well.

If you’re an alumnus of a certain age, just signing up for those courses might have been an ordeal in itself. I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the evolution of class registration at the University of South Carolina. It’s a story shaped by computer punch cards and a January icestorm that had university telephones ringing off the hook.

Now, let me say right off the bat, if you graduated in the past 20 years or so, your experience in registering for classes at Carolina was probably — hopefully — straightforward. You probably logged onto a website, maybe sitting in your pajamas with a cup of coffee, and so long as there were enough course sections for the classes you wanted, your schedule was finalized before you finished your coffee.

On the other hand, if you were a student in the 1960s, the 1970s or early ‘80s, signing up for classes could have taken hours, standing in long lines at the Carolina Coliseum with thousands of other students. I know, I know — this might sound like those Dad stories we all heard growing up about walking back and forth to school uphill both ways. But stick with me here; it is kind of a quirky chapter in the university’s history of technology.

I talked to Bob Askins who had a long career working in the University Registrars office at USC. That office is the official keeper of student grades and transcripts — you don’t graduate unless the registrars office says so. They’re also in charge of class registration. Bob was hired by a man named Luke Gunter, USC’s registrar years ago who was a pioneer in using computer technology to solve problems.

Bob Askins: “He had been in the Navy and then I don't know if he did any work in data there, but when he was at the university, I don't know if it was when he first came to the university, but he worked in what was then called the data processing center. So he had some familiarity and background in data processing. I think that also helped him be a very effective registrar and change agent at the university because not only was he familiar with technology, but he knew the people who were running the mainframe systems and knew how to communicate with them and how to ask for the things that he wanted to get done.”

It was probably early in the 1960s when the university started using computer punch cards for class registration.

Bob Askins: “If you wanted to, say, register for English 101, you would go to a table where they had a box full of cards and they would give you cards to put into an envelope, and the cards were pre-punched with the numbers that represented the schedule code for the course you wanted to enroll in. So you would collect the cards that you needed for the courses that you wanted to take and then you would turn that in and they would run that set of cards for you and that would create your schedule. It was a little cumbersome. One of the challenges, of course, because you had a physical card is if you needed to change something, then you had to go back and get a different card with a different set of numbers to run. So the adjusting of your schedule was much more difficult.”

The punch cards were replaced by a system nicknamed OSCAR, an acronym for optical scanner computer-assisted registration. With OSCAR, the computer punch cards were replaced by fill-in-the-bubble scantron sheets like the ones used for standardized tests. But before students filled those out, they would have to find a master class schedule for the upcoming semester. The university would print 40,000 to 50,000 of them — each one the size of a thick newspaper — and distributed them all over campus.

Bob Askins:  “It was sort of like people waiting for, you know, the Daily News to come out. People were like, ‘Where's the master schedule? When is it coming out?’ And these big trucks would come and we'd offload them.”

You’d scroll through this tabloid of course listings, searching for the classes you needed for the next semester, and each course was assigned a unique number. On your assigned day for class registration, you would head to the Coliseum with your list of course numbers or maybe you would try to pick out your courses from the master schedule while standing in line ­— there was plenty of time for that. When you finally inched your way down into the bowels of the Coliseum, you would use a No. 2 pencil to fill in the correct bubbles on your registration sheet and start praying that the courses you wanted weren’t already filled up or that you had darkened the correct bubbles on the sheet.

Bob Askins: “Often when you would go to the Coliseum where we would hold the arena registrations, it might take you most of a day. You know, there would be lines sometimes wrapped around the Coliseum. And of course, with fall registration in August, it was quite warm. And so we would set up big fans outside to try to help people stay a little bit cool. But almost invariably, sometime during that week, you would have someone pass out just from being overheated, standing in the sun.”

See, this is like a ‘Dad/school story,’ only instead of trudging uphill through the snow, USC students back then sometimes got heat stroke standing in line to register for classes.

Anyway, you turned in your bubble sheet and that was fed into an optical scanning device, and then, if all the stars in the universe aligned, a massive mainframe computer would spit out your class schedule and you’d head to the bursar’s office to pay tuition.

The OSCAR system got the job done, but there was a lot of room for technological improvement. An intervention from Mother Nature kickstarted the process.

Bob Askins: “There was an ice storm one January, just as school was about to begin, and the president's office was flooded with phone calls wanting to know, ‘Is school going to start on time or are we going to have registration at the Coliseum?’ all this sort of thing.”

It was a legitimate concern. With icy roads and spotty power outages, no one really knew if class registration at the Coliseum was going to take place. Remember, this was the late 1980s, before the Internet and smart phones and all the other ways we stay connected today.

Jim Holderman was president of the university at the time, and he asked the registrar’s office to find a better way to keep students informed. Luke Gunter, the registrar, had already begun looking into telephone technology that provided pre-recorded responses to common questions — sort of like an FAQ on a webpage today.

Carolina named its system TIPS, short for telephone information processing system. At first, it was just used for answering everyday questions from students, but eventually it replaced OSCAR for class registration. Students could use a touch tone phone to enter the number code for the courses they wanted to take and, voila, they could register for class without standing in long lines at the Coliseum.

To get the student body acclimated to the TIPS system, the registrar’s office enlisted the help of a media arts class to develop a promotional video. Those clever students developed a soap opera parody called “As the World Tips,” and the video was shown all over campus.

Bob Askins:  “In its in its early days, students thought it was it was very handy, pretty cool. It fairly quickly became passé with the students, but it was certainly still much more convenient than anything they had had access to previously.”

By the mid-1990s, the emergence of the Internet pointed to an even better way of registering for classes.

Bob Askins: “People were beginning to find some fault with the registration systems we had. They wanted a more efficient way, an easier way of doing things. Students were seeing web applications in other areas, so students began to clamor for the ability to do things online. The computer center had its hands full, so they weren't really interested in taking something like that on. We had a registrar at the time, Richard Beyer, and he had a little bit of experience with that, encouraged the registrar's office to develop a web presence pretty soon after he arrived in the mid-90s.”

The new system was called VIPS, visual information processing system, and, more than 25 years later, web-based class registration is still the thing. The system has been tweaked and improved to accommodate the 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students on the Columbia campus and so class registration just sort of happens now — quietly and without anyone taking notice.

That’s the way class registration should be, of course, but Bob Askins still has fond memories of the old days when university staff would string telephone and data lines throughout the concourse of the Coliseum, setting up green-screen computer monitors and huge corkboards with course listings. It was an all-hands-on-deck experience for scores of staff members who worked feverishly back then to make sure every student got registered.

Bob Askins: “It was a bit of an ordeal in some respects, but it also was — I've heard a lot of people speak fondly of it because it was also kind of a social event, both for students because you would run into friends and other people and you had time standing there in line to talk to people. So it really was a bit of a social event for students, but also for, I think for the employees who were staging the registration.”

Well, those days are long gone, and who knows what kind of technology lies ahead. One thing is for sure, Carolina students probably won’t ever have to contend with icestorms or heat waves when it comes to registering for classes.

That’s all for this episode. Next time, we’re going to look back at a controversial plan to move the entire University of South Carolina campus — and the president who was hired to make it happen. That’s next on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.