This is a three-part series about technology at Boston College, in part following up on a 2005 story on the evolution of course registration titled ‘Getting into your classes’ and a 2006 series titled‘BC gets wired: technology through the decades.’
[aesop_chapter title=”Part I: The 1970s-1990s” subtitle=”Early Days of Course Registration Innovation” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://bcheights.com/longform/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/93-04-20-registration-pic.jpg” bgcolor=”#888888″ revealfx=”off”]
This is the first part in a series about technology at Boston College, in part following up on a 2005 story on the evolution of course registration titled ‘Getting into your classes’ and a 2006 series titled ‘BC gets wired: technology through the decades.’
When Brian Mangiacotti, MCAS ’18, woke up early in his off-campus apartment on Jan. 17, he wasn’t planning to spend more than a couple minutes in the atrium of St. Mary’s Hall. He had been through the process of registering for a Woods College of Advancing Studies class before—one each semester last academic year. He hadn’t had any trouble those days, strolling in around 10 a.m. on the first day of class, handing over his Eagle ID to one of the staff members manning one of a few computers set up by Student Services in Lyons Hall (the location has moved a couple times over the years), and listing the course ID number he wanted. Not a big deal.
This semester, he had an idea that the class he wanted would be more popular, so he took a bus in to campus and arrived outside St Mary’s when it opened at 8 a.m., thinking he would have plenty of time before his first class at 9 a.m. There he found the line, which wasn’t just out the door, but around the pathway and another couple hundred feet down the road toward Commonwealth Ave.
He waited for more than an hour as the line inched forward, missing his first class but finally reaching the front at about 9:30 a.m. As he read off the course code, he got the bad news everyone who showed up that morning feared: the class had just filled.
That’s an example of a modern-day horror story that can garner you plenty of empathy from fellow students. It’s also a small example of something that Boston College’s Information Technology Services Department seeks to minimize: inefficiency.
In some ways, being a part of ITS is a thankless job. BC’s technology department outlined a broad mission statement in an update to its strategic plan in the spring of 2015, noting its purpose to provide “secure, reliable and integrated technology solutions in alignment with academic and administrative goals, while delivering excellence in customer service.” The thing is, people rarely think about ITS when things are going well—when things are slow, down, broken, or perceived as inefficient, that’s when critics show up.
“It’s a juggling act,” said Scott Cann, the technology director of ITS Support. “I think customer expectations is another important thing for any IT shop … technically our customers are students, faculty, parents, and other administrators. So we’ve got to think about their needs and wants, and balance that with keeping things steady, efficient, predictable, that kind of stuff.”
As Cann also pointed out, those needs and wants grow in scale every year, as consumers surround themselves at home with consistently released state-of-the-art technology. Flashy advertisements pressure consumers to choose that which is new. Tighter relative budgets pressure IT organizations to choose that which is stable.
Perhaps that conflict comes to a head no place more than with course registration. It’s a process in which all students must play an active role—unlike the yearly housing lottery, every student must log on to the system themselves.
That system is UIS.
It’s a system that receives a fair share of criticism from students on campus, who cite it as being hard to use and looking antiquated.
“The whole registration process, add-drop period, etc., all of it together is so ridiculous compared to where we should be in 2017,” said Samantha Rodgers, MCAS ’20 . “It’s so out-of-date and hard to use.”
Others, like Jared Hynes, MCAS ’19, wouldn’t necessarily give it a positive review, but also haven’t had any issues with it.
“I’ve heard a lot of people complain about it, but I haven’t really had any problems,” he said. “At first it was like, ‘whoa, this is old,’ but like I said, I haven’t had any major issues with it. It’s worked for me.”
If it sounds like an archaic system from a different world, that’s because in some ways it is. While the function of the current system in place has been tweaked and added to over the years, the interface—a black screen with blue and white writing in a courier-esque font—has not. There is nothing to click on, just codes to enter and return. It wouldn’t look out of place to appear on Matthew Broderick’s screen in the 1983 film WarGames.
But aside from difficulties students have running and becoming accustomed to using the program—the former gave Rogers enough trouble registering for spring courses that she missed using out on an early picktime—the program does still work. Each semester, 14,250 undergraduates and graduate students log on in during their selected “picktime,” input codes to search and add courses, and save them to register. An experienced user can be finished in under a minute, see the changes updated on their Agora Portal page soon after, and still have the opportunity at any point afterward to add or drop at will.
It’s an impressive feat considering the system is older than the vast majority of the people using it.
Not many employees at BC today have the institutional memory to recall exactly when students began using the program. An Info Tech newsletter in December 1990 indicated it was first piloted with 300 students that fall—though UIS predates direct student involvement. The author of that article, by the way, was Louise Lonabocker, the University Registrar at the time. She has been the head of Student Services since 1998.
Lonabocker has been involved in course registration longer than just about anyone, starting in BC admissions in 1970 and moving to the registrar’s office in 1976, where she gained enough experience in registration to write the book on it. Or at least a couple sections.
At that time, registration was different. Rather than pulling up a window, selecting five classes meant undertaking a scavenger hunt across campus, scurrying from department to department to get computer punch cards. They would bring those to the Registrar’s office, which would in turn bring those to the computer center.
“It was definitely time-consuming,” recalled Fred Mauriello, BC ’83, and a student who attended BC during the last year of the punch-card system. “The halls could get pretty packed.”
It was a little before this time that, at some point in the 1970s, UIS was born.
Fully computerized registration was discussed as early as 1975, when the University Academic Senate-formed Action Committee to Study Registration returned a majority report recommending a computerized registration system like the one at Georgetown University, which they believed “would eliminate long lines and clerical labor required presently of faculty” according to a Heights article.
Although the change didn’t come quickly, in the spring of 1982 BC launched a computerized system it had designed largely in-house. Students still had to wait in line, but now just one, usually in Gasson 100, where they could be quickly registered by a staff member.
“You could go to one person and they would sign you up for available courses,” Mauriello said. “That made it a lot easier.”
It wasn’t just better for students.
“It was better [for us] in the sense that, we were always worried if something happened to these computer punch cards, we would have lost everything—there was no backup,” Lonabocker said.
It was heralded as a great success that spring, making registration more efficient for everyone. But like with all technology, the perception of efficiency didn’t last. Lines remained hours-long and the few computers sometimes crashed, throwing off schedules. But BC’s tech department responded—this time by going outside the box.
In the late 1980s, BC Information Technology had implemented “Project Glasnost,” an effort spearheaded by the head of Info Tech at the time, Bernard Gleason, to provide open access to administrative information. Gleason was a revolutionary for his time, making BC “the first major university to have a fully integrated library system, an automated admissions system, and an online student information system,” according to a 1993 volume of CAUSE, a publication from a precursor to EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit group aiming to advance technology for higher education. He was also an innovator in integrating voice and data services, which led to one of his four breakthroughs in course registration: U-DIAL.
The first, U-VIEW, was introduced in the fall of 1988. This initiative brought custom-designed ATMs to campus, which allowed students to swipe their ID cards and access their account balance, financial aid, and current courses. Launched in the fall of 1990, U-DIAL allowed students to register for courses via a touch-tone phone, for the first time eliminating the need to stand in a line.
In the spring of 1993, BC established U-Register, a system that allowed students to access and search for courses on Macintosh computers in O’Neill Library—the first of its kind.
But the real notable release—which is still used on campus today—was U-VIEW PLUS.
This was a terminal-based, self-registration application tested by about 300 students in 1990, a time when the majority of the student body felt more comfortable using the also-new U-DIAL. Those with experience using terminals, however, cheered on the new program. According to one unnamed student quoted in the December 1990 Info Tech newsletter, “It is truly the best possible thing you could have done to [ease] registration at BC.”
With these innovations, BC had put itself at the front of the pack. Other universities followed suit with legacy systems of their own in following years, but BC had paved a way. Both Lonabocker and Gleason wrote sections in a 1996 book called Breakthough Systems: Student Access and Registration, in which she and Northwestern University Registrar Donald G. Gwinn compiled accounts of new technological advances.
BC ITS appeared to stay in stride as the end of the millennium neared. A couple years after several members high up in the administration turned over, the University re-expressed its commitment to stay on top of tech, allocating $3.1 million in part to support “additional technology positions to maintain the school’s standing as a leading technological university,” University Spokesman Jack Dunn said in 1999.
The University turned to the private sector to find someone to lead in the way. At the beginning of that same year, BC hired Kathleen Warner to be its first Information Technology vice president. Warner had been a vice president at Compaq-Digital, and seemed an attractive candidate to steer the University into the 21st century. In February of her first year, she told The Heights that her priorities for the department were establishing an industrial-strength firewall, pushing everything to the web with Project Delta, and making BC a wireless campus. In April, the University appeared around the middle of Yahoo!’s “100 Most Wired” colleges and universities, just a couple years after starting to be included in U.S. News’ expanded rankings.
Not all was trending up, however. Soon after Yahoo!’s rankings were released, The Heights wrote an editorial criticizing BC for having a “computer deficiency,” with just one facility available for students to use. Meanwhile, with ambitious new undertakings like Project Agora and the tuition rising above $30,000, the University realized the need to balance its budget. As we wrote in our editorial, “The question is becoming more and more pertinent every week: What does $30,000 equate to at BC in terms of educational resources?”
[aesop_chapter title=”Part II: The 2000s” subtitle=”After Project Delta, ITS Finds a Contemporary Footing” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://bcheights.com/longform/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/computer-center-longform-1.jpg” bgcolor=”#888888″ revealfx=”off”]
This is the second part in a three-part series about technology at Boston College, in part following up on a 2005 story on the evolution of course registration titled ‘Getting into your classes’ and a 2006 series titled ‘BC gets wired: technology through the decades.’
In the winter of 1999, Boston College was amid an internal battle.
The administration was three years into implementing ‘Project Delta,’ a radical effort intended to make the University more efficient, both in providing better services for students and cutting costs to curb a rising tuition. In the words of former Executive Vice President Frank Campanella in 1996, who helped save BC from bankruptcy in the 1970s and initiated this effort in his second term as EVP, “Project Delta is an effort on the part of the University to dramatically change many of the ways that we do business.”
Not everyone approved of such a change—or even in thinking of BC as a business. There was a rising rift between those calling for greater financial efficiency to slow the soaring tuition, which had spiked over $30,000, and those supporting the Jesuit university’s mission to protect jobs. Campanella and the team faced harsh blowback from some ideas suggested along the way, including having departments hypothesize 40 percent cuts and suggesting that restructuring “might come to layoffs.”
As one 1996 letter to the editor by Michael Eversman, GSSW ’97, read in reaction to the latter statement, “Though no one will disagree that higher education costs must be reeled in … heed the warning that slashing jobs in the name of profits is endemic to society and – sadly – all too common!”
Campanella admitted along the way that it was a harder project to carry out than he had expected, but the team trudged forward, determined to make it work. One main aspect involved creating Student Services, and forming it into the model of “one-stop shopping” it is today, rather than the medley of offices scattered around campus at the time.
“It was very difficult at first because people’s jobs changed,” recalled Louise Lonabocker, the first and current director of Student Services and one of the members working with the redesign at the time. “So they had to learn a lot in order to do the new job … It was a time when a lot of schools went through the same thing. We were one of the first, but there were a couple before us.”
While Lonabocker’s side focused on making in-person service more efficient, Information Technology Services (ITS) pushed to maximize opportunities for self-service. That meant continuing to capitalize on BC’s technological prowess and recent history of innovation in the early 1990s.
That winter in ’99, Kathleen Warner, the newly-named Vice President of Information Technology at BC, gave an interview to The Heights. It was a relatively casual line of questions, in which the interviewers asked about how she was fitting in at BC and her goals for the department. They also asked if she agreed with a statement from University Spokesman Jack Dunn, who had announced a new round of funding was in part going to “maintain the school’s standing as a leading technological university.”
“I think that the school right now, from what I’ve observed and learned about the infrastructure, is very progressive,” Warner responded. “I think it has an opportunity to be a leader in information technology among other institutions in higher education. I think we have a little ways to go.”
It was a positive message at a time that remained somewhat rocky for BC. The jury was still out on Project Delta, which had planned to end on June 6, 2000 with a hopeful savings of $25 million out of the budget by 2003. Things on the ITS side didn’t exactly go as planned.
On July 28, just about a year and a half after she started, Warner resigned. The move from the private sector to a college setting had been a difficult one for her. A couple of the goals she set early on came to fruition—including upgrading the campus infrastructure and preparing to make BC wireless—but she did not manage to deliver to a level the University had hoped.
“Even though I thoroughly enjoyed all of the challenges and rewards BC had to offer, I was a technologist at heart and anxious to continue working with those who shared the same vision I had for the future,” Warner said in an email a few weeks ago.
Warner acknowledged that the administration supported ITS and its advances at the time, but said that a balancing of the budget led to a decrease in staff.
“IT was one of them,” she said. “This resulted in IT reworking its strategic plan with the realization that it could not achieve the planned goal of being a leading technology university in the near future.”
While the number of positions in ITS had been on the rise since the early 1990s, it dropped down from 105 in the fall of 2000 to 99 in the fall of 2002, according to the BC Fact Books. (No fact book was published in 2001.)
According to Jim Kreinbring, the project manager of Project Delta and the current director of administration, these types of changes weren’t uncommon in ITS departments around 2000-02, especially with the severe drops in the stock market stemming from the fallout of the dot-com bubble. Project Delta did not result in any layoffs, however, and would not have been a cause of such cuts.
“It was always clear that the primary way to reduce cost was through the deployment of better technology — putting information online and moving services to the web, making them accessible and available 24/7, rather than from 9:00 to 5:00,” Kreinbring said in an email. “As a result, ITS was not seen as a place to reduce budgets.”
In fact, Project Delta inspired lasting improvements for ITS, including the solidification of the Agora system, which has been a main portal for students to access a growing variety of information for the past 20 years. Not only that, but the passage of time showed Delta was a success, saving the University upwards of $50 million in operating costs by 2011.
But ITS also invested a good deal of time and money around that period to be Y2K-ready on top of the stock market downturn. With two co-directors running ITS in the interim after Warner’s departure, the department did not approach the lofty hopes she had once promised.
By this time, in 2002, Student Services had already been talking to ITS about the possibility of getting course registration on the web for several years.
“It has been discussed, it’s on our list of IT requests,” Lonabocker told The Heights that spring. “But at this point it hasn’t been targeted for an implementation date.”
The black UIS screen wasn’t considered outdated at this point, but Lonabocker knew that day would come. The terminal U-VIEW PLUS was still an alternative method for students to use besides over-the-phone registration with U-DIAL. Internet speeds at the time also weren’t what they are today, meaning that, while a web application in 2002 would have already been more user-friendly, it wouldn’t necessarily have been as efficient. So the “University Information System,” then over 10 years old to the student body and decades-old to ITS, was still going strong.
Not everything in ITS was. When Marian Moore, the eventual replacement for Turner as VP of ITS, assumed the role in 2002, she found a campus with technological weaknesses: namely, the University’s main computer center. Over the prior couple decades, it had moved back and forth between Gasson Hall and O’Neill Library, and by the mid-2000s its location in O’Neill had outlasted its expected life by about 10 years. So, she brought Michael Bourque on board as the executive director of information technology.
“When I first came to BC in 2003, we realized we had a lot of infrastructure challenges,” said Bourque, who rose to associate vice president for information technology in 2005 and vice president following Moore’s retirement in 2010. “The first thing was we had to get the computer center stable … We strengthened our staff and we got the computer center modernized and stable to address some serious reliability issues.”
For example, the facility in O’Neill lacked a backup power generator, meaning a power outage could leave the system down for eight to 12 hours. Some parts of it were at risk to not be fully recovered at all. The lack of space also meant a lack of satisfactory air conditioning units, which led to a growing concern about the processors overheating.
That all changed following a long-awaited transition, when ITS moved to St. Clements Hall on Brighton in the fall of 2006. The machine room today is home to all of BC’s data, which sits on nearly 1,800 Unix and Windows servers and miles of cables in a secure area that is staffed 24/7, complete with 150 tons of air conditioning to keep them from running hot. It has an advanced backup system with a generator, backup copies at a remote location, and consistent data recovery drills. And on top of that, it all resides in an old chapel, with stained glass windows of different saints—including St. Isidore, the patron saint of computers—staring down at the state-of-the-art technology.
Now sitting comfortable on a solid base, ITS had the chance to take a step back and see which systems needed the most immediate attention. After all, UIS isn’t one of just a few systems—it’s one of about 300 that ITS upkeeps for every other function of the University, not to mention infrastructure, security, and more. And when Bernie Gleason, the leader of Information Technology during its formative days, had written it all those years ago, he had done a pretty good job.
Good enough, in fact, that when most schools were ready to get on-board with a computerized self-service course registration system in the mid to late-1990s, BC didn’t have to bother—it already had one that worked well.
During that next decade, through the dot-com bubble and all, technology companies changed hands rapidly. The two main vendors that had come out with student information systems in the ’90s, at one time named Oracle and Ellucian, respectively, were no exception. In fact, as Bourque explains, marketing a student information system is very difficult. Where financial and human resource systems are a must-have for nearly every company, there are only a few thousand colleges in the United States, meaning those organizations in need of a student system are far more limited—and many of those institutions are satisfied riding out old systems until they are in dire need of a fix. That means these vendors haven’t invested much to upgrade them. The result: in the mid-2000s, when BC was finally ready to look at upgrading students information systems like UIS, the big, popular vendors were pretty much still offering 1990s technology.
Still, in 2008, Bourque says his department was looking very seriously at software from PeopleSoft—a subset of Oracle since 2005—as an option for its new student system. Then the financial crisis struck, and everything was put on hold. When BC had returned to a position where it could afford to act, ITS didn’t like what it saw.
“Come back a few years later, and what happened was, that system that we’re looking at hadn’t been improved,” Bourque said. “It’s just a couple years older and its future looks less positive.”
So BC switched gears. In 2012, it became involved with a consortium of other schools who were working together on developing an open-source system, which would provide more technological and financial flexibility than going solely with one of the vendors. It also let ITS take incremental steps in replacing systems, allowing them to focus their attention on doing each step right.
And then, unexpectedly, personnel changes and budget issues arose with the other schools involved. The consortium broke down.
That left BC ITS with a decision to make. It could finally compromise and make the jump to a relatively modern vendor product and away from the system that The Heights called “borderline archaic” as early as 2007. Or it could it return back to its innovative roots and develop a new, in-house system itself.
Meanwhile, UIS kept on chugging.
[aesop_chapter title=”Part III: The 2010s” subtitle=”With no better alternative, ITS is turning in-house to replace UIS” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://bcheights.com/longform/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/bcservices.jpg” bgcolor=”#888888″ minheight=”300px” revealfx=”off”]
This is the third and final part of a three-part series about technology at Boston College, in part following up on a 2005 story on the evolution of course registration titled ‘Getting into your classes’ and a 2006 series titled ‘BC gets wired: technology through the decades.’
There’s a saying that circulates around those in-the-know about Boston College’s student information system:
“UIS will be replaced when the Mods are knocked down.”
Carried in on trains in 1970 and dropped into place from cranes, the Mods weren’t so much temporary apartments as boxcars that could legally be inhabited in their early days. Along the way, they have been given just enough cosmetic adjustments to keep them around another few years—and still they reside in the middle of Lower Campus, making up a field of 39 temporary houses that are coming up on age 50.
UIS, which was also born in the ’70s, has also been sustained through tweaks over the course of its lifetime. BC’s Information Technology Services (ITS) has kept it alive through numerous technological innovations over the decades—including the development and rise of the internet—and functioning in an age where technology changes as fast as the weather in New England.
In the words of Bernie Gleason, the head of Information Technology in the ’80s and ’90s and the creator of BC’s custom ‘University Information System,’ “Technology is changing all the time. I could probably predict what buildings would look like in five years, but not technology.”
Of course, no one predicted the Mods would become the hottest commodity in the annual on-campus housing lottery, while the rumors of an updated course registration system have remained wistful hopes of registering students twice a year—but that’s set to change.
“[It] is no longer a rumor,” said Scott Cann, BC’s technology director of ITS Support. “It’s actually happening.”
It is happening, slowly and gradually breaking the punchline of the joke. There are plenty of students who never had a real issue with UIS after getting over the initial learning curve, including Riya Thomas, MCAS ’20.
“I don’t mind it,” she said. “I do not feel that it is a system that needs to be completely deleted or replaced, it just needs modifications … [When I used it for my] second semester it was pretty easy, it was not stressful.”
Some, like, Alex Moger, MCAS ’17, even enjoy the system—he still recalls the first time he used it at orientation, during the period when incoming students go to the Rat and, with the help of a faculty adviser, register for their first BC courses.
“I remember my first thought was it felt like playing one of those old video games with the green lettering, the black background, just all very retro,” he said. “It was all very cool … I’m fine with UIS, I think it’s kinda fun.”
But then others have had far more complicated experiences. Maddy Karsten, MCAS ’19, for example, ran into a multi-day issue this past Winter Break. She was seeking an override into two different courses, and received permission from both professors: she just needed to log on with UIS. But she couldn’t—even after trying multiple approaches and consulting multiple help guides.
After reaching out to one of her professors, Karsten thought she found the answer. They told her that she had an immunization hold on her record, meaning she had to visit her doctor’s office at home in the two days before she was due to fly back to BC. She managed to get the record and keep her flight, but upon arriving at University Health Services, she was told she did not actually have a hold—there was a glitch in the system.
Karsten ended up getting into the classes, though she hasn’t forgotten the headache of those couple weeks.
“Safe to say I am ready for an updated system,” she said.
ITS knows that its system is outdated—it’s as eager to replace to replace as anyone, though not enough to rush the process. ITS also understands that its primary clients, teenage and early-20s undergraduates, have little experience using tech such as terminals. The department therefore provides multiple services to help students registering in a manner it knows they have little experience with, including a live chat and telephone hotline from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and support help desk in O’Neill Library.
A couple years ago, they also set up a module at registration.bc.edu that emulates UIS without the need to download a terminal—a main issue that many students run into as the machines they use become further distanced from the old language UIS was written in. It also benefits students studying abroad, who might have difficulty accessing registration. Those students receive an email a couple weeks before registration with their picktime, registration codes, and overall information, including a link to registration.bc.edu. The Office of Student Services also includes the link in their newsletter and website, though specifically does not advertise it—the site can only handle 200 students at once, according to Louise Lonabocker, the head of Student Services who recently announced her upcoming retirement.
“The desktop client should be used and registration.bc.edu is just a backup for anyone who is unable to download the client,” she said in an email.
Students have tried their hand at helping ease the task of getting the courses you want. A couple years back, one student created a website called eagleclasscheck.com, which allowed students to enter the code of a course that had filled. If a spot opened up in the course, the user received an email to notify them. That site, however, has ceased to be maintained.
In the fall of 2016, Kevin Sullivan, CSOM ’17, and Richard Lucas, BC ’15, launched an app called EagleScribe, a similar tool to help students find open courses. Users have the ability to search for and save up to three courses on their iPhone or Android, and will then get a notification if a spot becomes available. The problem, as Lonabocker pointed out, is that it isn’t a BC service, even if Sullivan and Co. did get some pointers from ITS on how to make the app more efficient.
“It’s nice, but it’s not supported,” she said. “It’s written by students, and if the student leaves, who’s going to support it?”
Lonabocker has other ideas for a new system that would ideally make such a notification app redundant. One of her main hopes for the new system is a formalized way to handle waitlists, since that isn’t something built into UIS—hence leading 4,500 unique users to register with EagleScribe as of January. Waitlists are currently a free-for-all by department, with some leaving it to the professors to interact directly with students over email, while others, such as the computer science department, require students to appear in-person on the day of their registration to add their name to a list.
Lonabocker has also been talking about the idea of a “shopping basket, similar to Amazon.com” since at least 2005. That is a vision she still holds on to, as is the faint possibility that a new system will be available within the next year.
That seems unlikely as things stand now, but a new system is on the horizon—one even the original developer of UIS believes needs to come to fruition.
“The whole orientation of the thing has to change,” Gleason said a few weeks ago, now long-retired but still interested in university technology, writing a four-page, single-spaced report detailing his thoughts on BC course registration. One of his possible considerations for the future included implementing a new registration system via the cloud and following a trend of having a third-party provider host the software-as-a-service (SaaS). This would mean that BC would find an already-active registration program to use—like Canvas for homework and grades posting and IMLeagues for intramural management. With the right needs, it can be a quick and relatively easy fix.
For course registration, however, it would be more complicated. First of all, there are few or no standalone course registration systems that could accommodate the broad needs of a university like BC, which has over 14,000 students who need to register each semester. Such a system more typically comes as a piece of an entire student information system, like the ones from Oracle and Ellucian that BC considered adopting in the late-2000s.
Georgetown is one school that decided to make a switch to such a system. In 2009, Georgetown implemented a university-wide system called Banna—an Ellucian product that provides students with self-service registration. The administration there is currently looking into moving to the next version, since the service provider and technology aren’t supported on all modern platforms.
“It gives us a moment to look at out business priorities and ask whether or not the product suits the need or whether or not there is another product that has been developed in the last seven years,” said Annamarie Bianco, Georgetown’s University registrar.
Bianco, who worked at the City College of New York before making the move to Georgetown, had experience with a 1970s legacy system there, too—and she knows the difficulty in making a change to a web portal.
“Especially when you have a system that does everything you need it to, finding a product that can fit all those requirements into a prepackaged product is hard,” she said.
As Bianco said, the main difficulty, besides being relatively expensive, relatively outdated, and relatively unsteady business investments for the future, is a lack of customization. While the big vendor systems are designed with a certain amount of flexibility to meet slightly different client needs, BC would have to adjust more of its own operations and even roll back some systems, including financial aid.
“We had just made a financial aid system, which is one of the most complicated systems a University can implement,” said Michael Bourque, the vice president of ITS. “If we wanted to now go get [such a product], we’d have to regress our financial aid system. It would be like taking two steps forward to take one step forward.”
By 2012, BC didn’t want to compromise.
The University brought in an outside firm for a second opinion, and that firm agreed: BC’s best move was to march ahead on its own, without the consortium that had left the development team in the lurch. ITS grabbed the code completed up to that point while it was still open-source and tucked it away to work on.
In the meantime, ITS had plenty on its plate. In the fall of 2014, the University transitioned to Google Apps, a radical change from the email and storage previously provided. In the fall of 2015, ITS made campus-wide WiFi upgrades, modernizing infrastructure, improving security, and requiring a connection to eduroam (officially, “ed-joo-rome”), which allows students from other universities with the same credential system to connect. The department has even worked to boost cell phone reception in certain areas across campus.
The newest change visible to the student body in the past couple weeks has been with the Course Information and Schedule, a searchable catalog that was added to Agora Portal in 2013 as an alternative to the print booklet for browsing course offerings. The new page includes a fresh look and adds in a new Syllabus Search program replacing the old eSyllabus, allowing professors to post their syllabi for the upcoming semester prior to registration.
Since its development in the late-’90s, Agora Portal has become a more and more crucial tool for students to use the more than 60 services offered, from course information, to financial aid, to housing registration. But while many services have historically been hosted on the Agora Portal, the Course Information and Schedule is one of the first to make a move to a new host: BC Services.
This is the future home of BC systems, the planned replacement for Agora Portal. Although Cann says nothing is set in stone, the Portal is tentatively on track to be retired soon.
“I’d say inside of the next year. But that’s a guess, I’m speaking for a large number of people who are working hard on it,” he said.
The beta version, however, is already available to access online at bcservices.bc.edu. It is a more modern-looking site pointing to 183 different services, though many of the links have yet to be properly established. The main difference between how Agora Portal functioned and how ITS envisions this new service catalog is that a user will not have to be logged in to see the whole list of services. Many services—the ones with little icons of locks—will prompt a user to log on at a certain point, but they can still see some information about it before entering any credentials. As a part of this, ITS has also been increasing its single sign-on capability, meaning that once a user logs in for one service, the browser will remember them automatically if they move to use another service.
“I don’t want to call it a portal replacement, because it’s really not,” Cann said. “We want to create one place where people start from, and then everything that they need to do is searchable or linked from there … I hate the phrase one-stop shopping, but that’s what it is.”
ITS is also currently working on updating the student account system and continuing to update the look and feel of the main website, www.bc.edu, which received its first major overhaul since 2006 at the beginning of last year. They are a few months from rolling out a new student account system—another replacement of an old framework that Gleason initially wrote, according to Bourque.
Kronos, the system which student employees of the University use to log their hours, is yet another system close to an update. In many ways, Kronos parallels UIS—it is an old system (though not nearly as old) that requires Internet Explorer and a specific Java program to run, though students can make use of a Citrix app called ‘Kronos Access’ that will launch it for them. This upgrade, which is currently in testing and is due to go live in June, will eliminate the need to use Citrix, according to ITS, making it far easier for students to log hours on their own machines.
Once the dust settles a bit on these projects, ITS already has its next move planned: officially, finally, at long last, turning its full attention to replacing UIS.
“It has begun,” Bourque said.
There is no firm timetable set for its release, though Bourque says it is due to come out over the next few years. It is still early for Bourque to commit to the specifics, though he confirmed that some sort of shopping cart is being worked into the design. He was said that there are potential plans to release the student information system beyond Chestnut Hill—one unnamed school has already shown interest, he said.
“We hope to see this be used by a wider set of colleges and universities, and hope to foster a community that can help support it for the future,” Bourque said. “When we got involved with this consortium, our hope was we’d have at least more than us. But our feeling was, if it ended up being just us, we could do it, because we’ve done it for 35 years.”
And then, Bourque said, that’s pretty much it for that whole area. ITS’ job certainly won’t be finished after it completes the student information system. There’s always more to be done—more than time allows. But the completion of that system marks an informal point where ITS will have caught up. Their next steps will be returning to revamp systems that were already redone during Bourque’s tenure.
Though UIS may not have changed much during that time, registration overall has become easier since we last covered the topic in-depth in 2005. BC flirted for several years with a successful run of PEPS, an online professor evaluation system helping students get a better idea of the type of professor they were signing up for. Instead of browsing through a course catalog to look for a certain keyword in a class, the descriptions of nearly 4,600 courses are a quick search away. And even for someone standing in that long, long Woods College line on the first day of add/drop, they now have the ability to pull out their phone and constantly check to see if their desired course fills, minimizing time they might waste in the line.
And even that practice might be a thing of the past in a couple years. Sarah Piepgrass, an academic & student services specialist for WCAS, said she hopes the new system would allow undergraduates to self-register. Cann couldn’t confirm this is a definite part of the plan, but couldn’t see a reason it wouldn’t be.
The goal, after all, is to design a system that can fit BC’s specific needs as well as and better than Gleason’s UIS. Nothing created these days could be expected to last nearly as long, but ITS is still striving for something that will be as dependable.
In a nutshell, that’s the biggest reason why UIS lives on. BC may seem like it’s behind other universities in technology if you merely glance at the one system, but the University is working on a whole different technological timeline, one that the death-defying UIS shifted BC to years ago by appearing earlier and being stable for longer. Its unparalleled durability has helped to give ITS more freedom to ride a new wave of momentum in the 21st century.
So even if UIS’ days are numbered, the mark it has left at Boston College isn’t going away.
After all, it has been a hell of a run.
DJ Recny also contributed to this reporting.
Featured Graphic by Francisco Ruela / Heights Editor
Images captured by Amelie Trieu and from Heights archives.