How a simple web service saved 1,500+ hours of student time

It may only be February, but graduation is already on the minds of many of us in higher education.  It’s an exciting time for our graduating seniors, and a lot of work for us in Student Affairs who do the “behind the scenes” work to make these events run smoothly.

At CSUN, we have an annual event in March called “GradFest” that supports Commencement.  GradFest is an event where students who have applied to graduate can learn everything they need to know about graduation, visit with vendors to purchase a cap and gown, class ring, and so on.  The annual CSUN graduate population is made up of thousands of students, so as you might imagine, this is a large event to plan from a logistical standpoint.

A big part of GradFest is to check that students have indeed applied to graduate – that is, they are “on the list.”  Prior to 2013, this was accomplished by students waiting in a line, where they were manually matched by staff in our Office of Student Involvement and Development to a long list of students who had a) met the criteria to walk and b) applied to graduate.  If students were on that list, they were checked off and sent to a second set of lines where they could purchase their regalia (more on that in a moment).  At this point, you may be asking yourself “why does that first line exist to begin with?”  Great question.  In the distant past (10+ years ago), we had situations where students who had not applied to graduate and were not in fact eligible to walk, purchasing regalia and walking.  Implementing this simple cross-check virtually eliminated the case of the “phantom graduate.”  The downside is that this check was done manually with a paper list, and that takes time.

Many of you who are front-line with students probably already see the other issue.  At any event hosting thousands of students, you’re bound to have some standing in line who – for whatever reason – should not be there because they haven’t done what they were supposed to do.  After waiting in line for as much as an hour, these students find out that they aren’t on the list and need to visit the registrar to sort things out.  They’re not able to move forward and order the most visible artifacts of a graduate, so at this point they’re likely to be upset.

As a web technologist, I saw this situation and thought of ways that we could use web services to simplify event logistics.  One of our big GradFest vendors brings in over fifty of their own computers that are connected to the Internet, so students can easily browse their online store and buy or reserve their regalia.  I thought:  “What if my team could build a simple web app that calls a web service whose sole purpose is to say whether or not a student is on the list?”  If we could do that, then all we’d have to do is present this web page on a browser of the vendor’s computers.  This would not only completely eliminate a line, we’d also free up many hours of professional staff time.  An added side-benefit is that those students who were not on the list would not be quite as upset when told they needed to visit the registrar.  A five-minute wait beats an hour-long wait hands down!

To make this happen, my team had to do four things:

  1. Add to our data warehouse the list of students who had successfully met the criteria to graduate and had successfully applied to participate in their graduation ceremony.
  2. Build a web service that a) verifies a student is in the warehouse, and b) returns a simple “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” value.
  3. Build a bare-bones web app that authenticates a student using their CSUN user id and password.  After authenticating the user, the app invokes the web service and presents appropriate messaging to the student, i.e. “Congratulations…” or “We’re sorry, but…”
  4. Document the process.

Some of you may be asking yourselves:  “Hey Paul, web services have been in general use for over a decade in the larger world.  What’s so special about your implementation?  It sounds super simple.”  And you’d be right to ask that question.  What makes our implementation so special is that waaaay back in 2013, this was the very first production implementation of a web service at CSUN that I’m aware of…and it took us less than two weeks to build!  Once we implemented this simple proof of concept, the vast potential that web services and APIs enable became very real for us.  By making clearly defined data available to applications, we opened up some pretty amazing possibilities.

Ok, so what were the specific successes and issues we experienced?

The successes were dramatic and obvious:

  1. Eliminated a line, saving students 1,500+ hours of time standing in line
  2. Saved professional staff 50+ hours of time manning the line, freeing them up to provide high-touch event services for those students who really needed them
  3. Built a practical proof-of-concept that worked exactly as expected and demonstrated the power of web services
  4. Added a table to our data warehouse containing an always up-to-date list of students who can participate in graduation ceremonies.
  5. Created excitement among our developers around web services and APIs

The issues and challenges we experienced are real, but tend towards the philosophical.  For many processes and services on this campus – and I suspect any campus – simply putting your information into a database is a big step forward.  Add a web interface, and you’re talking rocket science!  Ok, I’ll cop to a little hyperbolic license there, but it is fair to say that some people who benefit from a database-powered application tend to get, shall we say, protective of their data.  This human issue almost inevitably leads to data balkanization, more often referred to as silos.  Another issue when implementing web services is that higher ed administrators and even some IT folks are used to thinking about applications in the traditional sense, and don’t give much – if any – time to thinking “a layer above” their application. There are almost always ways in which data and applications can be made useful beyond their original intended purpose.  I believe that strategically thinking about how we make connections between our data and services is the future of technology in Student Affairs.  In short, Student Affairs is a platform.  More on that in another post…

In a few weeks, I look forward to seeing CSUN students use our little app at GradFest.  In a few months, when I attend graduation and hear pomp and circumstance, I’ll know that I and my team had some small hand in making this process just a little bit easier for our students and the staff who support their success.

Good luck to everyone in this 2014 graduation season!

 

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