This past Wednesday, as students flooded onto Minerva to register for courses, McGill software engineering graduate Alex Daskalov put a no-access wall – a letter blocking access to a site – on his website registersmart.org.
The site, known as Smart Minerva, is a scheduling interface that allows students to type in McGill courses and gain access to all of the possible schedules, and CRN codes. Students can then register on the Minerva site by typing in a few numbers, rather than wading through all the scheduling options for courses.
Daskalov put up two different versions of the wall – one that allowed students to access the site after providing their email, and another that did not allow students access to the site at all. The second wall read, “Smart Minerva is struggling to breathe.”
He also started a Facebook event titled “Smarten up, McGill,” in which he urged students to email McGill IT. “Tell them you need Smart Minerva to register,” it read. He later took down the wall, explaining that it was “too cruel not to allow access.”
Smart Minerva is not “under direct threat” by McGill; Daskalov clarified in an interview with the Daily. He also said he could no longer keep maintaining the site for free, and he plans to open source the code if nothing happens as a result of the campaign.
Daskalov started the website in 2008 during his first year at McGill, after being frustrated with Minerva. He has been running it in his free time for just over four years.
The site seems most popular among first year science and engineering students. “When you have a lot of labs to schedule and there are 10 or 15 choices for all of those it’s easier to get visuals of how that would look instead of drawing out charts,” says Anqi Zhang, a U2 Neuroscience student and Daily staffer who joined the Facebook group.
“I always recommend it to lower level students,” says Clarence Leung, a member of the Wikinotes team, in an email to the Daily, adding that the members of the team had all joined the Facebook group as well. Daskalov supports open source software, and is “ an extremely capable software developer,” he explained.
In July, during registration for first years, Daskalov put up a page on the site for one day – similar to the one that was up earlier this week – that asked students to email McGill IT and tell them to fund Smart Minerva.
“ I don’t think [McGill IT] had a sense of just how useless Minerva was,” he said in an email.
According to Daskalov, as a result of the email campaign, he began talking to McGill IT.
“When Alex graduated he offered us the system. But we have legal requirements with purchasing,” explains McGill Chief Information Officer, Ghilaine Roquet.
“Minerva as a presentation interface for students leaves [something] to be desired,” she says. “It’s the first thing I hear from students – please replace Minerva. Smart Minerva was a very interesting development,” she added.
Last fall a selection committee composed of IT and McGill enrolment services members looked at options for making the registration portion of Minerva run more smoothly.
Daskalov explained to The Daily that he was told a decision would be made by October; according to Roquet the selection process was delayed due to the MUNACA strike.
This committee ended up choosing another student-built system called Visual Schedule Builder, in use at Concordia. Alan Weeks, a former student at Concordia, is behind the project.
“We found that it was preferred…and it was also less expensive,” Roquet says, explaining that student focus groups favored the other program. Visual Schedule Builder is slated to go live in May at McGill, in time for the incoming class of 2012.
In addition to showing different combinations of schedules, as Smart Minerva does, Visual Schedule will include maps indicating where classes are located, and a search function to allow students to view courses offered by a specific professor.
Dasklov was unaware that another student initiative was chosen instead of Smart Minerva. “I was told in February, it’s not going to be yours,” Dasklov said. Later in an email he wrote: “Yea, that’s interesting, except that they never themselves told me that, which would’ve been nice.”
“I don’t want to disparage the value of the [Smart Minerva] application,” said Roquet. “I think it is a good application, and it has value – if we didn’t think so, we wouldn’t be looking to put in place a solution that offers that service. When you do that, you have to look at everything and chose the one that is preferred by your users.”