An undergraduate-led engineering team is rebuilding Carta — a popular course-planning website where students can read course reviews and create schedules — to speed up response times and give the platform the capability to add new features in the future.
The CartaLab team plans to release a beta version of Carta V2 this Sunday to work out any bugs in the system. Once the team trusts the system is highly stable and trustworthy, it will roll out the platform to all students.
“Hopefully before the end of this academic year, we’re going to fully replace the current Carta,” he said.
About a year ago, when the CartaLab team began to notice how slow the service was, it came to a crossroads: it could either quickly modify the preexisting code or invest in a complete rebuild. A rebuild would add longevity and portability to the system, along with speed.
Because the platform wasn’t designed to support its current traffic levels, the team decided to create a second version of Carta that will replace the current service.
“I came to the Carta faculty team two years ago and started talking about how I thought a rewrite could be really helpful for Carta,” said John Reinstra ’20, the CartaLab engineering team leader. “And eventually I got approval to start working on that and and built up a team of 15 or so people.”
The first version of Carta debuted in the summer of 2016, the result of just months of work by a team of three professors, one graduate student and six undergraduates. As a result, “it wasn’t designed for long-term service and support,” said Graduate School of Education professor Mitchell Stevens, a co-lead on Carta V2 and one of the faculty researchers on the initial team.
“Every software project I’ve ever known, any company or any research group, you build it the first time kind of quickly, not knowing what features will be important, not knowing whether anybody’s really going to want to use it,” said John Mitchell ’78, a computer science and engineering professor and another Carta V2 co-lead.
Carta V2 aims to address two major shortcomings that exist in the current version — speed and the inability to upgrade software — with the added advantage that the team knows exactly what it wants to do.
“Now we know all the features ahead of time, as opposed to learning about them as we build it,” said Andreas Paepcke, a computer science professor and a senior research scientist on the project.
The changes to V2 will organize the software, making it easier to add new features.
Stevens and Paepcke both credit Reinstra with playing the most extensive role in the development of Carta V2. As a current undergraduate, Reinstra is drawing on his own experiences to create a version of Carta that better serves students.
“[Carta V1] wasn’t optimized to be easy to maintain … and wasn’t really optimized for the user experience, either,” Reinstra said.
Almost 95% of students use the service, according to Paepcke.
“I really think it’s great that we have a student team building a project platform for you,” Mitchell said. “Because there’s nothing like being one of the users building the product.”
The CartaLab team is researching with Stanford undergraduates as part of Carta V2 to better understand how students navigate their preferences and academic goals as they move through college.
“I don’t think the intent of Carta V2 is we presumed something is broken, and we’re going to fix it,” Stevens said. “More like, if we can understand how students navigate this journey then we could have clearer signposts for them as they move through school.”
The team also wants to develop Carta V2 into an open-source platform that can be shared for free with other universities. Because Carta was originally developed for Stanford data, this is not possible in its current form.
“The software makes some assumptions about the particulars of Stanford’s data formats,” Paepcke said. “And so once you know exactly what you’re building, you can separate those, and you can have a little layer of software— that is the only thing you have to change.”
In addition to helping students, Carta benefits universities as well, Stevens said.
“It’s a way of helping schools understand how their students make decisions better, helping students make more informed decisions about their academic career,” he added. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for making content available at a low or more modest cost.”
Upon Carta V2’s initial release, students shouldn’t expect to see many outward changes, according to Reinstra.
“What you’ll notice is different is that you stay logged in, and it will be faster,” he said. “It’s also going to be red, instead of blue. I think it will make it feel like it’s more of a Stanford service.”
Contact Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ashlee Kupor at akupor ‘at’ stanford.edu.