U of Alberta gets behind student-developed IT system

A University of Alberta student who didn’t like the university’s online registration system did what any self-respecting computer science student would do: he built his own. Not an entire system, but one that allows students

to do what he says the original system doesn’t — create a class schedule easily – at any time of the day or night.

According to second-year comp-sci student Stephen Kirkham, one problem with the university’s Bear Tracks system, which was built by PeopleSoft, is that it required students to print off pages and pages of class times in order to build a schedule, and it was extremely difficult to make sure one class time didn’t conflict with another. Another problem was it wasn’t always available, he adds.

“”It’s only available six days a week, 20 hours a day,”” said Kirkham. “”It’s closed in the middle of the week and all day on Sunday, so students can’t even look at what courses are available to them on Sundays or the middle of the night, and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ So I said I’m going to build my own system, and I did just that. Five days later I had the initial version online and ready to go.””

Kirkham’s system, called Bear Scat, works is by collecting course information from the Bear Tracks system several times a day. It builds schedules in a colour-coded grid format, marking conflicting classes in red.

“”It’s very visible and intuitive as to exactly what the student needs to do, so it takes a process that could take three to four hours and puts it into a five-minute process.””

Kirkham, who was paying the cost of hosting the program himself for several months in the spring, said as of Aug. 31 there had been some 60,000 unique schedules created using his program. A story in the student newspaper as well as word of mouth fuelled the popularity of the program, resulting in thousands of hits per day, he said.

Now hosted by the Student Union, the program has been updated with new features that allow students to register each of the courses they’ve chosen as well as be notified of their grades. As well, if students want to get into a course that is full, a watch list feature will e-mail them if a spot opens up, saving them the trouble of constantly checking.

Kirkham said he employed the skills he has acquired running his own online business, called Trinic, for nearly four years, in designing Bear Scat. Written in Perl, the program is built on Open BSD running Apache modules. It’s a Web client with its own customized user interface that interfaces with Bear Tracks behind the scenes.

“”It’s really not that difficult,”” he said. “”It’s more like identifying a problem, designing a solution I knew would work, and implementing the system. It’s just a matter of thinking I’m a student, I’m forced to use this system that I hate using, what are the problems with it and what can I do to fix those problems? Having that viewpoint and unique experience that obviously a multi-million-dollar company like PeopleSoft did not have, or even the university themselves when customizing or testing their software, helped me focus and prioritize what I wanted to accomplish.””

According to the U of A’s vice-provost Gretchen Hess, Bear Tracks, the PeopleSoft-built application and the successor to the university’s phone registration system, had problems handling irregularities such as all-year courses.

But Bear Scat can’t replace Bear Tracks — it can only run with it, in fact — and the university can’t take ownership of it.

“”We don’t own Bear Scat so we can’t fix it and work on it,”” she explained. “”Since it was a student project we asked the student union if they would be interested.””

The university gave the student union some money to upgrade some of its security and facilities in order to take over hosting the program, she said. “”It was really win win all the way around. This is really what university is all about. If a first-year student can patch and fix something that wasn’t working very well, I just think that’s neat.””


Although the unviersity is planning a system-wide upgrade to its computer systems, that won’t affect the functionality of Bear Tracks.

“”There were other things that had higher priority,”” says Hess. “”We set priorities and get input from students, and from our point of view this works just fine.””

Hess said the university has renewed its contract with PeopleSoft, and despite the occasional issues that arise, the organization has been happy with the vendor’s offerings.

“”Our policy is PeopleSoft first,”” she said. “”We have a large contract with them and we have been very happy with them.””

PeopleSoft Canada spokespeople did not respond to requests for an interview at press time.

While other users across campus might point to previous problems with PeopleSoft, that has changed, she said.

“”That’s a funny thing. The analogy I use is I own a Hyundai car, a Tiburon sports car. I just love it, but part of reason I got it for a cheap price is that when people think of Hyundai they think of that old awful Pony, and people around campus still snicker when you say PeopleSoft.

“”Those aren’t the people that are deeply involved with working with the system.””

Hess said the university has a policy to look at PeopleSoft first for new products unless PeopleSoft doesn’t offer them or isn’t a good fit.

“”I’m a psychologist, but one of big things I’ve learned in computers is you get your Word on Windows and you put up with it. You might think WordPerfect did some things better, but you put up with it.””

When it comes to problems with bigger systems, though, deciding whether to put up or shut up is a different matter, she said.

“”Customization has cost us tons of money,”” Hess added. “”You customize it once and every upgrade you’ve got to customize it again, so it’s big money over time. Ideally we want to pick products from everywhere that allow us to do minimum amounts of customization.””

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