Is it just me, or do Minerva and WebCT feel straight out of the year 2000? And I’m not talking about the jet-pack, robot-maid paradise that people dreamed about in the ’60s. These sites are some sort of nightmare cross between early message boards and a disorganized filing cabinet. Well, suffer no more: McGill software engineering student Alex Daskalov heard our cries of frustration echoing against the glass walls of the Cyberthèque. In response, he created Smart Minerva and Docuum – two slick, user-friendly tools that put McGill’s attempts at digitization to shame.
I recently corresponded with Alex – over email, of course – about his work.
The McGill Daily: What motivated you to create Smart Minerva and Docuum?
Alex Daskalov: I had a miserable time registering for courses my first time around and, like most students, came to hate Minerva and everything related to registration. Smart Minerva was my attempt to introduce the feature that I absolutely needed to register without pulling out my hair: the ability to select potential classes and see all the ways those classes could be combined.
Docuum was born because I was finding it difficult to sign up for classes with little more than a one-paragraph description detailing the course, and there was growing sentiment that McGill should be releasing course syllabi for all courses prior to registration. I realized that pooling other kinds of course materials would also be useful, and in that spirit, Docuum supports and encourages sharing any kinds of documents that would be helpful to other students.
MD: Why do you think Minerva is so difficult to use? Why haven’t clunky platforms like Minerva and WebCT been revamped?
AD: In transitions from one medium to another, it’s common for people to simultaneously transition practices that worked in the old directly to the new. It’s easy to imagine that course registration once took place in some building on campus, with students coming in to choose exactly which sections of a class to take. When computers and eventually the Internet came around, the natural progression was to move course registration from that old building into a computer, while handily forgetting that while we’re storing courses on a computer we might as well use the computer to compute.
Minerva was developed by a third party, and is currently being licensed to McGill. The trend here is that a large company will produce some software and manage to pull some strings to get the software purchased on a license lasting a number of years, with no input from students or professors. I’m going to sound cynical by saying this, but the reason Minerva and other IT services are in the state they are in is simply that McGill doesn’t care about its students or how difficult the software they supply is to use. They’re not the ones using it.
WebCT is another issue to tackle because it is produced by a company that is currently exploiting their overreaching patents to sue any company making services that get in the way of their business model. It’s disappointing that McGill supports a company like Blackboard, but to be fair, I don’t think McGill has the technical expertise to use any of the free alternatives. The most disconcerting part of all of this is that, as far as I know, there is no way for students to understand the full extent of how much money McGill is wasting in supporting their IT services. I’d love for this data to be exposed, but I won’t hold my breath for it.
MD: Speaking as someone who has created sites that are both well-designed and highly functional, what is your design philosophy?
AD: Most products – software especially – overburden people with a slew of features operable through an interface that was slapped on as a last minute thought. If I have a design philosophy it’s that we should build our products with due consideration to how the product will be used by real people. Simplicity and elegance are noble goals and can guide everything from visual design and user interaction to the internal architecture of an application.
—compiled by Leah Pires