Frustrated by new SIS headaches, students create software cure

Dan Fenton (second from left) and Thomas DeMeo (upper far right) answer questions about the software they created to improve the new SIS class search at SG Senate Friday.

A sense of frustration with the new Student Information System has given birth to software designed to plaster over the rough spots.

Dan Fenton and Thomas DeMeo, fourth year computer engineering students, built the software last week, and demoed it Friday at the Student Government Senate meeting.

The software makes small but significant changes that help to make a confusing new system a little friendlier.

Discontent With The New

“When you get in there for real, you’re going to find a lot more things you want to change,” said Joe Loffredo, assistant vice president and registrar, who sits on a 33-member committee charged with steering the team building the new SIS.

He finds new things he wants to change daily, he told SG. And some of the requests he’s made have been ignored for months. For instance, the new system still shows rows of courses marked inactive.

The team has become more responsive, he said, in reaction to critical feedback from students. The team began showing the system to students a few weeks ago in preparation for fall enrollment (previously called registration) scheduled for late April.

Fenton and DeMeo have front row seats for student complaint: DeMeo sits on the SG Tech Committee and a panel that advises the new SIS team, and Fenton is a resident adviser who was among an early group of RAs the system was shown to.

The students didn’t like some of what they saw, and asked SG to advocate for major change. But because engineering a complex software system can be a bit like steering the Titanic, it’s unlikely that change will come soon.

Tweaks Remove Confusion

The software solution Fenton and DeMeo created sweeps away the muted blues of the system’s current design, and redecorates with RIT orange and brown. It moves the class search from the left of the screen and places it squarely in the center. Then it tops the page with an RIT logo.

Immediately, an alien landscape starts to look familiar.

Before And After

The new SIS class search before being modified by the software (left) and after modification (right). Drag the handle or click on either side to reveal the differences.

The software prevents users from entering invalid data into certain fields. It removes unneeded clutter and words. And where the system refers to new terms — for instance, the word “units” is slated to replace credit hours — the software adds an overlay to explain the lack of difference: “Units are credits,” it says.

Perhaps the most welcome change, however, is in how an academic subject is selected: In the new SIS course search, a user can click a button to bring up a list of subjects (accounting, anthropology, architecture, etc.) that they can limit their search to. But when users do that now, they are presented with a list of subject codes that use letters (ACCT, ANTH, ARCH). Those codes won’t be used until RIT switches to semesters in 2013. So if a user selects one, they will receive zero search results. Instead, the user must know to select a course code that uses numbers (0101, 0510, 5010) from a different list, which can be accessed by clicking on a row of numbers at the top of the screen.

Get all that? Good, because the new SIS demands that you do.

Worse, the list with the number codes is organized by number. So you have to know which number you’re looking for, or browse through several screens until you find the subject you want.

The software that Fenton and DeMeo built simply translates the letters to the equivalent numbers, so the user can select from either list. No special knowledge required.

“Is everyone excited about this?” DeMeo asked, to an approving roar from SG.

An Imperfect Solution

The software he and Fenton built is a “user script,” which works by modifying the new SIS website moments after a user’s computer retrieves a page and begins displaying it. User scripts are a well-known method to change the behavior and style of a website in ways the website creator never intended. The result is an almost-imperceptibly fast switch from the default colors to the custom ones, from the default features to the enhanced features.

But to get these benefits, users have to add the software to their web browser, and it only works in Firefox, Chrome and Safari, not Internet Explorer. Fenton and DeMeo checked with Information & Technology Services, which told them IE was used by a relatively small proportion of RIT students anyway.

The result remains imperfect. SG discussed the problems inherent in a solution like this: Will the software break when the new SIS changes? Will users know how to install it? Will users even know to install it? If the user switches to a different computer, say in a lab, will they be subjected to an unmodified SIS and be completely lost?

Peter Mikitsh, senator for the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences (GCCIS), wanted to know why the changes couldn’t simply be enabled on the new SIS by default. DeMeo replied that changing the system directly is a better solution than modifying the interface after it loads.

Doing that, however, is among a long list of other tasks that have to be completed on the new SIS.

DeMeo hopes the fixes his software applies will be temporary, and will one day be supplanted by official fixes from the new SIS team.

Next Steps

Despite that, DeMeo sees this as an opportunity for the institute to embrace user customization of all stripes. He and Fenton plan to meet with a group from ITS to discuss the new extension, and to discuss how student-built changes like this can be supported in the future.

The result could be a plethora of customizations built by students and available for the choosing. Maybe a student will decide to make the interface yellow. Maybe another will add inline scores from Rate My Professors. The possibilities are endless.

SG Vice President Phil Amsler is an obvious fan. Student initiatives like this are what makes the institute awesome, he told Senate, and he promised to hug Fenton and DeMeo if they added professor ratings.

Amsler offered to distribute the software by putting it on the SG website and by “publicizing the heck out of it,” but Fenton and DeMeo plan to wait until after they meet with ITS to decide what to do.