Rob Cobb

Student web services

Oct 09, 2014blogdiamondback

This post is from Oct 09, 2014. My views have probably changed since then. If it's about technology, any code is probably broken by this point.

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

Fifty years ago, when university President Wallace Loh was an undergraduate, students interacted with university administration differently — in writing, in person or over the phone. Now, students conduct most of their business with universities online.

From the day we first look at the university’s website, to when we pull up a map for a campus visit, to submitting our application, to paying tuition, to registering for classes and finally applying for graduation, students primarily interact with the institution online.

And yet, of all facets of our university experience, online interactions are often the most frustrating. Despite Testudo’s (the web service, not the mascot) new look, it still lacks even basic search tools or visual guides for planning our academic careers. Students end up looking off-site at OurUMD, Koofers or RateMyProfessor for information about the professors and classes they are considering. A course description from the professor? A past syllabus? A way to compare classes or schedules with one another? What about integration between the schedule of classes and Venus or drop/add? Not a chance.

The online systems are designed to do only what is necessary, not to go out of the way to help students, who are stuck using an old, slow, buggy system. In the process of choosing classes, I end up opening eight browser tabs at once, checking each professor’s curriculum vitae, ratings and any information I can about the class. I use paper to map out which combinations of classes I need in my four-year plan, which ones I have to take this semester and which ones fit in my schedule.

So what can we do?

Eric Denna, the vice president for information technology, is hard at work making student data more secure in the wake of the February data breach. The Division of Information Technology has its hands full with wiring the entire campus, serving the needs of faculty who can’t figure out how to get sound to accompany their PowerPoint slides, training those same faculty to use Canvas, managing our email and hundreds of other details that keep our beloved university from falling apart.

We can do more to serve the needs of the students, not just the institution.

More than security and PowerPoint projectors, students need well-designed Web services: a functioning search bar on Testudo, consistent navigation and layout between departments and in particular, more powerful tools for advising, scheduling and registration.

This university ought to provide endpoints to its data and invite students and outside developers to improve upon the tools they provide. Designing a new course registration process seems as though it would be a great student project. If this university made its data open and easy to build with, students would make tools for themselves and for one another. UMD Social Scheduler and UMD Schedule Browsing Enhancer are two examples of tools built on top of clunky university Web pages; the old CS Graphic Advisor was another student project built to help students navigate the complexities of advising and course registration.

In dozens of entrepreneurship courses, students are tasked with finding pain points in people’s lives and prototyping solutions, with the operating assumption that they can make a difference and find success by empathizing with product users. Yet the student experience with this university itself is usually frustrating and at times a nightmare. Let’s make it easy for students to solve these problems.

Students will build great things. This university just needs to encourage it.



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