My University's Web Department is Missing a Huge Opportunity

This is a story about how UMass Lowell’s web department is dropping the ball on providing adequate solutions for its students and is simultaneously being entirely inefficient with its resources.

Earlier this year, I won $20,000 for a concept I submitted to an Innocentivecompetition titled “Design of Student-centric Websites for Open-Enrollment Colleges and Institutions.” My concept, called Aprendatook first place in a field of 762 solvers around the world. The gist of Aprenda is that it can effectively replace the systems most schools use for degree management, class registration, grades, financial information, success trends, and more. More realistically, it is a front end that can interact with Universities’ current systems like PeopleSoft and Datatel. The Lumina Foundation, a large education-focused group, created the challenge and they now own non-exclusive rights to Aprenda and are working with schools around the country to implement it.

Aprenda, with a UMass Lowell theme

Aprenda, with a UMass Lowell theme

My manager at MITRE showed me the challenge and immediately knew I could win it, not because I considered myself exceptional or anything like that, but because I had spent years cursing the system I was forced to use for the same purpose. UMass Lowell uses Oracle PeopleSoft for all things administration (in fact, the entire UMass System does). They call it iSiS, which if you can get past the obnoxious capitalization stands for “Intercampus Student Information System” and it’s fairly safe to say that it’s the most universally hated aspect of attending the school– the runner up being a 116-year-old bridge with a narrow sidewalk that slopes down towards the river a hundred feet below. I assume that whoever designed PeopleSoft (assuming it was done by a human, which isn’t 100% certain) has never forgiven themselves for the disaster they’ve subjected thousands of businesses and organizations to. Anyway, I digress.

The paradise that is iSiS

The paradise that is iSiS

UMass Lowell just poured a whole lot of money into the new “Solution Center.“ Not surprisingly, since our administration is fairly progressive, a large portion of that funding was allocated to the development of new web and mobile applications, including a better front-end for iSiS. That sounds just like what Lumina is looking to partner with schools for! Needless to say, I got excited about the idea of Aprenda at UMass Lowell, especially after an upper administrator told me the school just might actually be interested.

But of course, our web department has decided to not even consider using the Aprenda concept to provide “the highest quality of student service”.

The school has nothing to lose here. They’re definitely missing a huge opportunity to start working with their own students to develop solutions for students, a relationship that Stanford has begun recognizing the merits of. I guess Stanford, a leading school in technology, is just doing it wrong.

But seriously, what would be the benefits of using an award-winning design?

1. Aprenda is a Good Product

We’re not talking about something from a middle school science fair. Aprenda is a designed and developed front end that was created based on user research from students at this school. It’s design has been commended and validated by one of the largest educational foundations in the country along with numerous UI/UX professionals. Students love it too. I’ve stopped counting the times I’ve been asked “so why don’t we have that?” Aprenda is simple and intuitive while being flexible and extensible.

2. It’s Already Designed

So the design is one less step for the “implementation team” to worry about. No guesswork. It’s being handed to them. And that’s a gift, because it is safe to say that our students haven’t been wild about the school’s web and mobile UI efforts thus far.

3. It Would be Quicker and Cheaper to Build

The Lumina Foundation is looking to partner with schools to build this for different back end systems like PeopleSoft. That means contributions from both sides, so UMass Lowell’s resources could be spent much more efficiently implementing this a lot faster than doing the whole job from scratch and on their own.

4. It Would Transform the Admin-Student Relationship

“We are re-examining our relationships to students and our role as administrator. We’re actually going to mentor students in real-life use cases. We think this constitutes an additional learning experience for the students,” says Tim Flood, Director of Student Affairs Information Systems at Stanford University. Many of UMass Lowell’s computer science students are bored with the canned projects they’re doing in class. Is there a serious reason not to work with them to develop truly beneficial systems for the place they spend four years at? Is it really that bad to blur the lines between who is creating the system and who is using it?

5. The Marketing Potential

UMass Lowell’s mottos include “A Campus on the Move”, “A Vision for Progress”, and “Work Ready, Life Ready, World Ready”. Would it not legitimize these taglines to actually demonstrate that out students are becoming work/life/world ready by using their skills to move a campus forward? Is that not a vision for progress? Is that not marketable?

Priorities

This all comes after the web department shut down the development of my Roadster app for iOS over concerns that ”students would confuse it with an official UMass Lowell project” and that it needed to branded in a way that adequately distanced itself from the school. Never mind that it fixed the problem of students not knowing how to get from place to place and had racked hundreds of downloads in the first two days. But don’t worry; they’re eventually working on a similar app “written in .NET and cross-compiled to iOS and Android” that includes similar functionality. I’ll be pretty surprised if I see that before I’m gone.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the conversation we had about using Aprenda for the new “Solution Center” was about ten times shorter than the conversation we had about how my website for the Honors Ambassador Program was not allowed to included the UMass Lowell logo on it (which was a 15 pixel square!), even though we’re an official ambassador organization of the university. Priorities.

Anyway, the saddest part of this all is that of the multiple schools considering implementing Aprenda, my own school won’t even talk to me about it. It seems to me that they’d rather keep complete control over the process than provide the best solutions to their students. If UMass Lowell can’t take seriously the work of their students, why would they expect employers to? It’s really surprising coming from a school that is doing so much else right.