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SULAIR looks to develop web portal

University technology departments are currently considering improvements to core Stanford web services, including Zimbra, Axess and Coursework.

While peer schools have made the switch, Stanford’s Information Technology Services seems unlikely to adopt a new email provider service and still uses Zimbra as opposed to a Gmail platform. Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources (SULAIR), on the other hand, is working to develop a centralized online portal for student needs, which would include the needs currently addressed through Axess and Coursework.

(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Zimbra

Stanford’s Zimbra email and calendar portal will update to the software’s newest version, Zimbra 7, during winter quarter. The update will include major calendar improvements.

Information Technology (IT) Services adopted Zimbra three years ago and upgrades to the newest releases of Zimbra 6 every other month. According to Executive Director of Computing Services Matthew Ricks, Zimbra was chosen for its balance of features, cost and the ability to support various operating systems and mobile platforms. However, many students still experience challenges with the product.

“Students indicate that the top areas for continued investment and enhancements include webmail features, ease of use and speed,” wrote Ricks in an email to The Daily.

“Our recent reviews of Zimbra indicate that website and email response during normal operations is generally within tolerances,” he added. “Zimbra does slow down somewhat when email backups are being run, within a 1 a.m. through 5 a.m. backup window each night. This is an issue that we’ve tried to minimize by changing backup procedures and timing.”

To replace outdated email systems, several universities have switched to Gmail through Google Apps for Education, a service provided free to higher educational institutions. While Harvard made the switch in August, Yale is currently transitioning small groups of students at a time.

“We just started our migration in late September, and so far the students seem enthusiastic about the new service,” wrote Jane Livingston, director of IT strategy, governance and policy at Yale, in an email to The Daily. “Letting Google handle our student email both provides the students with a more rich set of services and importantly, it will free up Yale staff time to work on more institutionally-important initiatives that outside vendors like Google can’t deliver.”

The switch at Harvard has received “overwhelmingly positive feedback so far,” wrote Susan Walsh, executive director for technology infrastructure at Harvard, in an email to The Daily.

Several students at Stanford have already chosen to redirect their school email to Gmail

“I think Zimbra is way too slow,” said Annabah Glasser ’15. “I chose to redirect my email to Gmail, and it works like a charm.”

Even when the University adopted the well-received Zimbra system in 2008, many students still chose to redirect their email through Gmail.

Ricks said IT Services has been evaluating the use of Google Apps for Education for over a year.

“While many other colleges and universities have implemented Google Apps, including Gmail, there are outstanding legal and compliance issues which prevent widespread implementation at Stanford at this time,” he said. “One of the top issues is the lack of compliance to accessibility standards across the entire suite of Google Apps. Google must address this to ensure that their products are usable by all, including those with disabilities.”

Coursework

SULAIR, which handles the Coursework website for managing student-faculty interaction, is developing a centralized online portal for student interaction with the University.

Coursework is based off the open-source software Sakai created by a consortium of universities including the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC-Berkeley and Stanford. The software is free to universities.

“We receive feedback primarily through user support and do an annual survey,” said Makoto Tsuchitani, associate director in Faculty Computing Services. “We do a ranking of desired functionality, so we will know what to address first. The student response has generally been much better than the faculty response.”

Because of the consortium-based development model, SULAIR is limited in its ability to make major changes to the program. However, it has developed Coursework’s testing and quizzing modules, donating them to Sakai for widespread use.

However, according to Associate Director of SULAIR Enterprise Systems of Programming Richard Webber, the department continues to receive student complaints about pages’ loading times. According to Webber, the delays stem from the fact that many parties have collaborated in developing Coursework’s pages, creating a complex system architecture.

Both Coursework and Axess have had problems in the past with crashes and slow page-loading speeds. Students and faculty have suggested an aggregate view of all assignments and improvements in file upload.

“There is lots of push in education right now for the student portal, a landing page which is a mash-up of different parts of your life that are interesting and important to you,” Webber said. “You can find your current assignments, grades, what library books you have overdue and other information. We’re going to work on making this type of service available.”

Response to Criticism

A new enrollment system, called SimpleEnroll, was launched on Axess on Aug. 1, in response to student criticism of the old system.

“We’d gotten a lot of input from students on things they didn’t like,” said Director of Student Information Systems Linda Regan, who worked on SimpleEnroll, in an October interview with The Daily. “They couldn’t see their schedules. It was difficult to see when they had time conflicts and they had a lot of issues with the previous system, so we launched [SimpleEnroll] as an alternate.”

Webber suggested that students should not compare Stanford’s websites to Internet staples such as Google and Facebook, as the University’s resources are comparatively limited.

“Things that work so well on the web and set people’s standards for what they expect like Google are a process of elimination from hundreds if not thousands of competitors that have tried to fill a void on the web,” he said. “When you look at higher education and the types of technologies we use, the number of people working and amount of money to be made is negligible in comparison because you are selling software to nonprofit organizations.”

However, he did suggest that Stanford’s sites leave room for improvement.

“The environment isn’t the same and doesn’t lead to the same outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from web development that is out there,” Webber said.