Auction T.K.O.’d by Course Match

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How well will Wharton students fare in the remaining two rounds of the course auction? Time will shortly tell.  But when the clock strikes 7 on the evening of March 12, the iconic gavel is set to drop for the last time signaling the close of this year’s auction. This will mark the end of the auction’s 12th and final round as well as the last bout in the system’s sordid 17 year career, which bruised many a student and filled the coffers of a shrewd few with non-monetary currency.

 

Ahead of the fall ’14 semester, Wharton is preparing to debut the new course selection system called Course Match. “The development process for the new system has been underway for over a year and a half, incorporating feedback from students, faculty, and the administration. Ultimately, the goal is to make students as happy as possible,” says Frank DeVecchis, Interim Director of Academic Affairs for the MBA Program Office.

 

The new system is based on recent academic research surrounding “Efficient and Fair Course Allocation” and the “Multi-unit Assignment Problem.” The underlying theory explains that your ability to create a schedule only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with no classes starting before noon, which you had previously credited as an innate art, is actually the science of a complex algorithm.

 

When Course Match goes live in April, Wharton will have “the most sophisticated, technologically advanced and revolutionary system for course selection,” says Gérard Cachon, Department Chair for Operations and Information Management.

 

Much to the chagrin of Nicolaj Siggelkow, students will no longer have to think strategically within Course Match or have to be concerned about others gaining a competitive advantage. Students will now rank preferences across desired classes and the system will output the student’s most optimal schedule. In addition, Course Match is more time efficient than its predecessor, completing the entire selection process over a single round instead of multiple iterations before the add/drop period.

 

“It is definitely a welcomed change. The auction and I have not been fond of one another. I am keen to see how things work out in the fall before I say goodbye, but my expectation is it will be more along the lines of good riddance,” says Julian Bennet WG ’14.

 

A number of events have led to the change. Aside from the auction’s suboptimal satisfaction levels in student surveys, the primary driver towards the system overhaul has been the new curriculum.  Students simply have more choice over a larger portion of their overall course load than when the auction was originally designed in the mid 90’s.

 

Ironically when the auction was first introduced for the 1996-97 academic year, it replaced a course allocation system that had been based on student preferences. At that time, the auction was implemented “to achieve an equitable and efficient allocation of seats in elective courses when demand exceeds supply.” Although this sounds strikingly similar to Course Match’s key mission, both systems are not equals from the standpoint of performance.

 

As part of the beta testing process, students participated in multiple sessions with a side-by-side comparison of both systems. Students chose classes for the spring semester in the auction and in Course Match. In all of the sessions, the majority of students preferred their schedule in Course Match to their schedule from the auction. Testing also shows that Course Match closes the gender gap – women and men like the system equally – whereas with the auction this had previously not been the case.

 

Wharton will literally be the first school in the country to employ this new optimization technology. The algorithm is so dynamic it may even help those who were savvy enough to game the previous system to schedule their first dates at Wharton.

 

Over the next few weeks, the MBA Program Office will be sending out communications to formally introduce the system. Training will also be available for the Class of 2014 starting in early April. In the meantime, if you want to get a head start with the new Course Match user interface, email Cindy Armour (armourwalker@wharton.upenn.edu) to sign up as a beta tester.

 

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