By Ed Brennen
Nursing major Erin Kilban used to rely on old-fashioned pen and paper when it came time to figure out her class schedule. Like most students, Kilban would log into the Student Information System, browse her course options and start mapping out a plan.
“I would draw out a couple of different sketches of what my schedule would look like, which took a long time,” says Kilban, a sophomore from Reading.
But after trying the university’s new Schedule Builder web application, Kilban is happy to say she’ll never have to go the pen-and-paper route again.
Schedule Builder allows students to enter their desired courses, along with any breaks or time off for commitments such as work, athletics or extracurricular activities. It then generates every possible schedule combination in a clean, color-coded, Monday through Friday calendar format using real-time data from the university system. Students can then sort and customize the results, choosing their preferred sections, professors and even class locations. Once they’ve found the perfect course combination, students simply add it to their shopping cart — just as they would when buying a book or a new set of headphones on Amazon.
“It’s a really useful tool that shows you all your options within seconds,” Kilban says. “It’s a tremendous help.”
Junior biology major Christina Michel, who had a chance to beta test Schedule Builder last spring along with Kilban and dozens of other students, agrees.
“I’m a very visual person, so having the color coding on the schedule was very helpful,” Michel says. “I also loved how it can generate the best schedule for you based on what sections you allow the Builder to choose from.”
Schedule Builder, which can be found in the “My Academics” section of the NOW Student Dashboard, was developed in-house by Web Services in the Office of University Relations. The project originated when the UMass President’s Office, looking to streamline the course selection and registration process for students, requested demos from several software vendors that offer similar products — products that can cost institutions around $40,000 per year, according to Executive Director of Web Services Gerry Nelson.
After attending a demo, two members of the Web Services team — Director of Software Development Kareem Abu-Zahra and Software Developer Evan Mulawski — told Nelson that they could build the application themselves.
Two weeks later they had a working prototype of Schedule Builder, which they then presented to the Office of the Registrar. After some fine-tuning based on student beta testing, Schedule Builder was rolled out over the summer to orientation leaders, who helped freshmen and transfer students use it for fall registration.
According to Senior Associate Registrar Mai Nguyen, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“They screamed out and said, ‘This is amazing!’ ” says Nguyen, who is excited to see more students try Schedule Builder during the upcoming advising period in late October and during registration for spring classes in early November. “I think it’s going to be big.”
Nguyen adds that Schedule Builder is a prime example of how the university leverages interactive technologies to provide innovative, strategic applications that enhance student success.
“Students want things so quickly, and our Web Services office does an unbelievable job of staying on top of things,” she says.
Nelson says the biggest hurdle to creating Schedule Builder was gaining access to real-time data from the university server in the UMass President’s Office. Before, the data was downloaded every 45 minutes, which was too long of a delay for students in the midst of the registration process. By working with University Information Technology Services, Nelson says his team was able to get its own server behind the system’s firewall, the first time that level of collaboration had occurred, which makes access to data nearly instantaneous.
Now that Schedule Builder is up and running, Nelson says Web Services is excited about the possibility of sharing the application with other schools in the UMass system. Check out a tutorial on using Schedule Builder.
“It would be great to see more collaboration between campuses at that level,” says Nelson, whose team has already provided demos to representatives from the Boston, Dartmouth and Amherst campuses.
The NOW Student Dashboard, which launched in May 2015, provides students with mobile-friendly access to class schedules (now in a printable, PDF format), grades, parking garage availability, campus recreation center use, shuttle bus tracking and dining hall menus. There are also quick links to the Solution Center.
Web Services developed NOW as a responsive website. For mobile access, users can visit the NOW website on their device and then add it to their home screen so that it appears like an app icon.
In the last year, there have been more than 24,000 visits to NOW from more than 7,000 unique logged-in users.