Registrar’s Office and CNS team up to improve student experience

CNS-SIS team

Above: Clockwise from left, Al Regina, Student Information Systems manager, and his team: Bruce Shuman, Owen Jones, Witold Lustanski, Gleb Yevkin, Herman deHoop, Drew Winters and Kan Yang (Absent: Albert Qi, Josie Stauffer and Eugene Oulman)

In the world of online business, 11.5 million hits a year is a big number. It’s the kind of traffic companies dream about when designing a commercial Web site. Success, when it’s achieved, can make – or suddenly break – your customer-focused strategy. And that’s the challenge staff at York’s Registrar’s Office faced when they set out to put the University’s course offerings online.

Stan TamanWorking with the Student Information Systems team at Computing & Network Services, the Registrar’s Office recently rolled out a significant enhancement to the York Courses Web site that has greatly improved students’ online experience when selecting courses before they register. Originally designed by Jillian Oinonen, assistant registrar, information technology & publications, and quietly introduced about two years ago, the latest version has been launched with additional features and a more powerful infrastructure.

Left: Stan Taman, associate registrar, planning & systems

“As the busiest URL on the York Web site, it was absolutely critical to roll out these enhancements,” said Joanne Duklas, director of registrarial services. “While most of the changes will be somewhat seamless, there are some value-added features to improve delivery of service to students.”

The most noticeable improvements include:

  • Students can now view the exact number of seats remaining in a course section in real time, before they log in to the enrolment system to register. This was the most popular service enhancement requested by students. This functionality will only be viewable until the last date to enrol without permission.

  • Previously “frozen” lecture schedules will now be updated nightly, so students who want to print off the entire schedule will be able to access a current copy.

  • Both graduate and undergraduate students will be able to plot their timetables.

  • Students will be able to plot their exam schedule and immediately identify any conflicts as well as have a personalized copy of their exam timetable.

The limitation of the original system was what’s known in the IT world as the “back end”: the hardware set-up and computing power that processes each one of those 11.5 million hits, most of which come during the busy enrolment period in late summer. Originally built using an Access database, the system quickly outgrew its simple origins and started raising eyebrows at York’s Computing & Network Services, the people who manage the University’s data flow.

With the kind of traffic it was generating, the Courses Web site needed some muscle behind it if it was to handle students’ requests without breaking down and inducing fits of “computer rage” – not what you want when your goal is student-focused service.

Al Regina, Student Information Systems manager and system architect, said the project gave his team a chance to “stretch” their abilities and work on the public side of the York Web site. Normally, his team deals only with student information data which is secured on the private side of the system since it contains personal information that is only available to authorized users.

“You don’t need security access to search for a course,” he said, “so this project will help ease traffic on the enrolment system, which is an added benefit.”

Regina said his team judges Web traffic by looking at a 10-minute statistical snapshot of how many users are on the system at any one time. In peak periods – September is the highest followed by July and January – as many as 2,000-3,000 users can be accessing the site at one time. It’s that kind of high-demand, complex system that is his team’s specialty. Because the Courses Web site is also tied directly to the enrolment database, it can provide up-to-date, real-time information so students know exactly what’s available when they go to choose their courses.

Albert QiRegina said the project, which now uses an Oracle database, needed the stronger software solution as well as larger servers controlled by load-balancing computers to handle the demands at peak periods. The system is written using Apple WebObjects development framework and runs on an Oracle database. Albert Qi (left) was lead developer on the project. The effect of this improved infrastructure will largely go unnoticed by students, which, of course, is the whole point.

The York Courses Web site went live just after the close of the recent January enrolment period, giving everyone a chance to monitor its use and solve any problems before the next busy period in July.