Sending out an SIS
The University should take advantage of third-party vendors to help fulfill its students' online needs
Note: Due to an editorial error, this article was mistakenly printed in the Life Section of the April 25th Cavalier Daily under a different byline.
Every semester when course registration rolls around, I, like most students, quickly become frustrated using the University's $58.9 million integrated Student Information System (SIS) to register and browse for classes. Most who have encountered SIS realize it is clumsy and awkward, often requiring many more clicks than necessary to accomplish a simple task. I will not pulp SIS any further, but rather propose some changes I believe should be made to the University's online presence.
Where SIS fails, namely in usability and speed, third party solutions - systems created independently from the University administration - have sprung up and become commonplace. Some students currently make use of Physics Prof. Lou Bloomfield's "Lou's List" to browse for and select courses, after which they actually register for them on SIS. This de facto system seems to work well, so I wondered why more "add ons" for SIS have not been so successful.
Planning and registering for courses is a fraction of the potential for University-wide online integration. Besides class selection, there are textbooks to be bought, courses to be taught and roommates to be found. There is a surprising contrast between the success students have with University-planned initiatives Collab, SIS or atUVa, and third party systems, such as Amazon, Lou's List and Cramster. These third-party websites allow for exchanging textbooks, searching the University course catalog, and getting homework help. In addition to these websites, there are many others students rely on, proving that the task of creating a better integrated online ecosystem surrounding the University's Academical Village should be left to a third party.
Over winter break I began work on a website called UVaMarket.com, which allows students to buy textbooks directly from other students. By eliminating the middleman, such as Amazon or the Bookstore, I figured students would be able to save money on their textbooks. The site works by finding all the books one needs for the classes he or she plans on taking, and then finding another University student who already took the same class or classes in order to organize the exchange.
After the beta launch of this website, which was surprisingly successful, I received a few suggestions for improvements. It is beautiful having third parties develop solutions addressing University problems because they are forced to ship their products - or update their sites - more often. A University-developed system, like SIS, is forced onto students. But in the case of a website which students use by choice, unless I ship high quality products as fast as my competitors, people will flock from my system to another, since they are free to do so.
Some of the suggestions included changes which were so overarching they would require a complete redesign of the site, which is what I have been working on finishing for the end of the semester. The potential changes include better organizing the layout of some pages, integrating course reviews and commentary, matching students with peer tutors and matching open apartment spaces with renters.
Some may argue that if all of these features could be integrated into one comprehensive package, someone would have already done so. These skeptics are correct in asserting that there are similar solutions which do exist online. The problem is that none of them are tailored specifically for the University, and so they actually suit our needs worse than the current myriad of boards scattered around grounds. Also, since no single solution accomplishes integrating University course data with class reviews, peer tutoring and a dynamic marketplace, none are appealing enough for most students to adopt.
The University uses SIS because PeopleSoft developed a secure platform which meets the University's needs. I believe an online community dedicated to exchanging textbooks, finding tutors, reviewing courses and matching apartments with renters could be a successful augmentation to SIS if developed specifically for the University community.
Is there an ethical concern in relying on a third party to maintain websites related to University life? Unlike SIS, which guards financial and personal data, none of the four pieces of extra online functionality we need require any more personal information than one's email address. Since third-party systems are opt-in by definition, the user does have a say in what information, if any, he or she wishes to disclose.
Further, the concern over reliability is subverted by the tendency of the mobile vulgus, or "fickle crowd." If the site were to experience an unacceptable amount of down time, the fickle users would join the next best competitor. While in theory this point may seem to show that third party systems lend to dispersion of users, the fact is that the site's upkeepers will realize the criticality of the situation, and place emphasis on maintaining a reliable and secure website.
Some think it is immoral to make a profit off a system which is tied tightly to the University community of students. Given that most websites marketed to the world wide web never realize enough revenue to break even, turning a maximum audience of under 20,000 students into a profitable venture has even lower probability.
Although it may not be a profitable business venture, I still believe that adding a third party option for an online functionality to solve Univeristy needs would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Andrew Kouri's column appears biweekly Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com