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Banish Mars, hail Minerva
Registering at McGill has taken another technological leap forward - students enrolling for the Fall semester were able to do so online - instead of waiting on the line. The phone-based registration system in use up until now - MARS - with its often interminable waits and voice prompts, has been retired.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
The replacement - Minerva - is an online registration system that allows students to sign up for their classes, change their addresses and view their grades.
"MARS, which was so exciting when it first came out, had become almost a nightmare, according to students. MARS had only 48 phone lines, so if you didn't get in to that first 48 you just got a busy tone - during peak periods some people would report stories of getting busy tones all day long," explained Sylvia Franke, Student Information System (SIS) project manager.
"What's neat about the web is that we can allow about 700 concurrent users, even more depending on what they're doing. Unlike MARS, which went down every night, ours is a 24/7 service. The bottlenecks that people experienced with MARS have pretty much gone away," said Franke.
Mohammed Sobhan, a third year international development studies student, said that although he and his friends have all had problems with the system, overall it is a huge improvement over MARS.
"It's much better - you don't have to deal with that woman - she always seemed pissed," he said of the MARS voice prompt system.
Nada Moucdia, U3 French literature and translation, said the system is much more efficient.
"Minerva lets you know right away if a section is closed - on MARS you didn't find that out until you'd already gone through the menu," she said.
Although the SIS portion of Minerva only started being used by students for registration in May 2002, the software "went live" in fall 2001, when class timetables and limits were entered into the system. A small pilot group of music students used Minerva to register in the spring of this year.
Mindful of the strain thousands of registering students could put on the system (the University of Toronto's online registration was plagued by six-hour delays and frequent crashes this summer), it was decided by the SIS project to phase in registration. Graduating students could log on April 29, with students in lower years registering on dates staggered throughout the summer.
The heaviest day was August 6, when new students were allowed to register.
"That was our scariest time. We did have denial of service for a period of about two hours but that was nothing compared to the busy tones they would have received in times previous," said Franke.
On that day, registration started at 8 am. By 8:02 there were 610 students logged on. Although more than 700 students were denied access - in order to keep the system from bogging down - by 10 am there was no further denial of service. Heavy periods were also experienced in early September as students added or dropped classes, which prevented some students from logging on during daytime hours. A software patch and new hardware are expected to prevent the problem from recurring near the during add/drop deadline period in January.
"We're feeling very solid now," said Franke.
Anna Walsh, associate registrar of student records, pointed out that in addition to student registration, there's a lot more to the project "behind the scenes." Minerva replaces a number of systems that McGill had built up over 30 years.
Minerva is McGill's customization of SCT Corp's Banner software. Banner is used by several institutions across North America, so McGill can draw on the experience of other schools in its efforts to adapt to the new software. Banner had a rocky start at McGill, and the change-over process has at times been thorny. The requirement for two identification numbers during the transition phase has caused a number of glitches and organizational difficulties - student records have been affected and fee statements were delayed this year.
"We're really impressed with the patience of staff and students in learning a new system - it sure makes our job a lot easier when we get that cooperation," Walsh said.
The SIS project was the third phase of the Minerva project -earlier phases dealt with finance and payroll systems. Roger Rigelhof, Director of the Banner Information Project Unit, explained that the goal of the project is to have a central data system.
The "one-stop shopping" ideal benefits faculty as well. In addition to being able to access their class lists online, new software has been introduced this year that automatically updates WebCT class lists from the Minerva database, saving both faculty and students time. The course management system will also be able to send marks directly to Minerva as they are finalized. This replaces the previous, more labour intensive process of downloading from one program and uploading to another.
"If you are a student and also an employee and you want to change your address, you only have to do it once - that's common data for the whole system," said Rigelhof, adding that a central database does not mean everyone on the system will be able to see all of any person's information.
The Office for Students with Disabilities is paying close attention to the SIS project implementation. Director Joan Wolforth said that doing away with MARS was a definite plus for students with hearing impairments, but those with visual impairments need assurance that they will be able to access the system as well. These students often need to use "screen readers" - programs that use voice synthesizers to describe what is on a computer screen, for which web interfaces can cause problems. Wolforth already thinks the system will be more accessible to most students.
"I think it will be an improvement for everyone … for students with reading problems or who have difficulty in taking in information it's good to have that information in front of you and to know where you stand," said Wolforth.
"I think it's good that the university is consulting us when these changes take place, so we can be involved in the development process rather than trying to solve problems afterwards."