Team Betamax HFID Project Proposal

Project Members

  • Adam College : Design Lead : Ample web design experience, including sites built within Olin ( Proficient in PHP, Python, C, and CSS. Places a strong emphasis on teamwork and communication.
  • Jon Tse : Technical Lead : Proficient in XHTML, PHP, CSS, C, and has previous web design experience, including internal Olin sites, such as Can contribute effectively to overall design as well as manage technical aspects of the project. Will serve as liaison to Information Technology department if necessary.
  • Doug Ellwanger : Quality Assurance Lead : Minimal web design experience; has used Python and C. Can contribute to the overall design experience. Cool under fire.
  • Jeremy Freeman : Synergistic Liaison : Little web design experience, but has used Python and C. Strong communication and teamwork skills, capable of taking on a leadership role when necessary.

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Problem Statement

Olin College is a small school with a diverse, creative group of faculty and students. Since the faculty and students come from so many different backgrounds, it is no surprise that there are many different avenues for information dissemination within Olin's community, both academic as well as extracurricular. Olin's IT department has provided BlackBoard, which is supposed to fulfill the role of a web portal for classes and some students groups. A majority of Olin's students and professors feel that BlackBoard is either poorly designed and executed, insufficient, or both. As a result, a myriad of non-BlackBoard course websites have sprung up, either hosted on faculty operated servers or on faculty web space provided by Olin. Each professor has a different policy, and sometimes professors make use of both a course website as well as a BlackBoard site. Student group and project pages are even more numerous and tend to be hosted on just about any available server, from personal desktop computers being run out of dorm rooms, lab computers, IT servers, and faculty run servers. As the student body grows and changes at Olin, the problem is only getting worse.

The IT department at Olin has rolled out a web portal, with the caveat that the portal is not intended for students. The portal software they are using is a Jenzebar product which is intended to replace the archaic telnet interface that the financial services department had been using. Even though the portal isn't designed for students, it still has access to a number of student-specific data sets, such as grades, course enrollment, GPA projection, degree audit, and financial information. Most of this information is available on the Student Information Services (SIS) page, and is, quite frankly, formatted and presented in a much better format there. The portal has frequent double links for the same page, and often requires the user click multiple times to advance themselves down the navigation tree. Ordinarily, this is not particularly unusual, but in this case, there is only one relevant option for the user to click on each step of the way. The most glaring flaw is the fact that the passwords apparently are stored in plaintext in the database, which, while not a interface design issue, is an uncomfortable security risk. The Jenzebar portal does have some potentially useful features, such as a bulletin board messaging system, but because of its other, detrimental, features, it has never been used other than as a novelty item, if at all.

Of course, there are a number of fairly well designed portals that already exist on the web, such as Google personalized home pages, Yahoo! personalized home pages, and various ISP-specific start pages like myEarthLink. The problem with these pages, of course, is that none of them can access internal Olin resources. Additionally, none of these existing systems are suited for Olin specifically, because they don't have the capability to interface with Olin's email and calendar systems, nor can they access student data regarding grades and billing. In the scope of this class, we hope to design and implement a web portal for Olin students that ties together their academics, extracurriculars, email, calendars, and any external to Olin information they desire--weather, Red Sox scores, etc in a simple and easy to modify package.

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Characteristics of Primary Users and their Goals

Our primary users fit broadly into the category of "Olin Students". More specifically, these are students who require a tremendous and varied amount of data from a plethora of websites. These users would like to be able to access all of their relevant information from a single source, and have the ability to customize their information portal. Generally considered technically savvy and computer literate, Olin students may range in technical expertise from able to use most information managements systems to programming their own. Therefore, it is desirable to design an easy to use and transparent system that allows for simultaneous ease of use and customization. Olin students currently accomplish their goals by accessing SIS, course and faculty websites, and other school related websites individually. Many Olin students may have difficulty tracking down websites without memorizing addresses or referring to bookmarks.

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How you will find participants

Since our users are Olin students, it is a trivial task to find participants. We can ask suitemates/roommates, or send out mass e-mails to lists such as Helpme or Carpediem. Ideally, we would like a broad cross-section of Olin students, including first years who haven't used many Olin content management systems (e.g. SIS, Blackboard, the current portal), upper-class students familiar with Olin content technologies, and faculty and staff members who will add content to the system.

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Initial suggested design, with justification.

The first step is to sever the link between the academic aspects of the college and the administrative aspects. This portal will not be designed for inter-department communication at Olin.

As of this moment, our design would start with a minimum collection of features, namely: an RSS reader for course and student group sites with RSS feeds, static links to pages without RSS feeds, and a clean, easy to navigate organization. The incorporation of newsgroups may also go into the basic model. This design appeals to us for its simple approach and clean, efficient, user-content centered portal. A more ambitious version of this project may include Outlook-like features such as e-mail, a calendar, contacts and tasks, as well as SIS functionality. Additionally, students will be able to add some external RSS feeds from enjoyed websites (e.g., CNN, ESPN, Gmail) and other quick-glance information (Weather, Stocks, etc.) to the portal.

The reason why we are planning to build the portal in phases as described is because this is not the first time this project has been discussed at Olin. During the 2005-2006 academic year, the OlinWorks co-curricular did sporadic work on the portal project. While the project never got off the ground, some initial design decisions had been discussed, and it had been decided that the most important features were the ability to aggregate news feeds from both on an off campus and have static links to course websites that didn't provide news feeds. A majority of Olin students live in the Windows environment, so for their purposes, Microsoft Outlook serves as a perfectly good email client and scheduling program. As a result, less emphasis was placed on these two components. To further exacerbate the problem, the IT department is reluctant about allowing access to the Exchange server and SIS server (with good reason), making those aspects of the project harder.

For the purposes of the project, we will ignore the potential backend issues, but will still try to follow the phases. Of course, we don't know if the sentiment from the rest of the student body will support our choice of phases, but we will have to wait for the interviews before that can be determined.

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