U tries for computer user-friendliness

Peter Kauffner

Administrators hope technology initiatives mandated by University 2000 will make the University so user-friendly that soon, “Students at the University of Minnesota will never have to think again — except in class,” said Michael Handberg, head of the Web Team at the Registrar’s Office.
U2000 calls for the provision of state-of-the-art technology in the areas of registration, financial aid, admissions and other information processing services. These goals have already been met in large part and initiatives already undertaken should complete the University’s vision for improving technological user-friendliness before the century’s end.
In the last several years, the University community has seen various technological innovations, including the U Card, registration on the World Wide Web, e-mail and Internet access and greater availability of computer labs.
The U Card, introduced in 1995, eliminated to need to carry both a fee statement and the old identification card, and has also made student life more convenient in other ways. About 70,000 U Cards have been issued, said John Stearns, the director of the U Card Office. About 30,000 additional, modified U Cards have been issued to people with temporary access to campus.
“We have a great number of applications up to make life easier for the students. Fee statements are no longer required to cash checks or pay for athletic tickets. Keys are no longer required in many building for after-hours access,” said Stearns.
The card’s Gopher Gold feature allow student to put up to $50 in credit on the card. This feature is intended to reduce students’ need to carry change.
“The copiers in libraries take the card. Soon the computer labs will accept the U Card to pay for printing,” Stearns said.
Eleven vending machines now accept Gopher Gold, and plans call for 176 campus vending to be outfitted with the necessary readers by the end of the year.
“Something like 25 percent of the revenue in the machines with the readers installed was actually done on the card. So acceptance by the student body has been very high,” Stearns said.
The U Card also allows student balances at the Office of Financial Aid to be transferred directly to a checking account at TCF Bank.
“We had over $4 million transferred so far,” said Stearns.
The old student identity card had a bar code, but the U Card uses a magnetic strip.
“The advantage is that bar codes were not really designed to go in wallets. They get dirty,” said Stearns.
Registration is another area in which students are seeing the benefits of new user-friendly technology introduced under the U2000 mandate.
Although the current computer registration program was introduced in 1970, a new Web site provides students with a slick interface that allows them to register. Part of the Web system is still under construction, but the basic registration portion has been operational since last year.
“The key thing is that at the end of the registration process you can build a customized enrollment statement,” Handberg said. “The system will not just tell you what times your classes are and how much your fees are, but it will also tell you what your textbook orders are and print your course guide information and it even prints maps that show you how to get to class.”
The statement also includes information on class deadlines and how to contact faculty members. Student feedback has been very positive, said Handberg.
In 1998, the University plans to launch a new program for registration, financial aid and admissions called PeopleSoft. Combining the three functions in one program is intended to improve efficiency and result in added convenience for students.
“It will automatically transfer stuff from other colleges. It will give you information on how you are progressing toward your degree. It will tell you right away whether a course you’re taking will count toward your degree,” said Kvavik. It will also estimate the likely amount the student will get in financial aid for the quarter.
What makes the adoption of a new system imperative is the dating problem associated with the year 2000.
“If we don’t get the new system in place, (the current registration system) will crash. It can’t discern whether it’s 1900 or 2000 because it only uses the last two digits,” said Robert Kvavik, associate vice president for academic affairs. “The other thing is that we are converting to semesters (in Fall quarter 1999) and we would have to rewrite the entire code to handle semesters.”
The registration, admission and financial aid Web sites will cost the University over $300,000 to implement, said Kvavik.
The upgraded systems could even help students before they study at the University. “Ultimately, you will be able to apply for college electronically,” said Kvavik.
Web technology is also allowing administrators and teaching assistants to help students in new ways.
The registrar’s office will be putting the academic calendar on-line within the next few weeks.
“It’s a place where you can go for all the different deadlines. First and last day of classes, payroll dates — everything you need to know. That will be really user-friendly,” Handberg said.
The University’s Personal Online Organizer Web site allows students to subscribe to various newsletters.
“You can go in and highlight whatever newsletters you want to subscribe to. Instead of getting a paper copy sent to you, you get automated e-mail whenever the newsletter comes out,” Handberg said.
The University’s Distributed Computing Service runs periodic contests to encourage teaching assistants to write Web pages for the classes they teach, said Shih-pau Yen, director of Distributed Computing.
Each participant in the last such contest received $100. The makers of the top six Web pages received $1,000 each.
Internet accounts for all students and staff were introduced in the fall of 1992. Before then, students who wished to use campus computer labs were required to purchase a $40-per-quarter access card.
“We went from 2,500 to 3,500 (students) purchasing a computer access card per quarter to all of a sudden having the entire student population as potential users of the labs,” said Jerry Larson, manager of the public computing facilities.
Yen said e-mail use has increased at least a hundredfold since 1992.
The staff of the computer labs is paid through a 25-cent-per-credit charge all University students must pay. Equipment and other costs are paid through the sale and licensing of University-developed software. Institute of Technology students must pay an additional $100 fee each quarter for the additional computer lab services available to them.