Tracing Back UIS

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 titledBC 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.”

PARALLAX

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?”

Featured Graphic by Franciso Ruela / Heights Editor

About Alec Greaney 98 Articles
Retired. But you can probably still follow him on Twitter @AlecGreaney.