Benefits: The Student Side

Posted on January 6th, 2011 by Nick Jackson

As Total ReCal nears completion, we’re preparing to open the beta to our pilot group and I’m starting to throw together our promotional materials it’s time to start writing up bits and pieces of our analysis. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t an incredibly dry, boring process which will make you all want to cry but a chance to show you just how damn cool this is going to be, how it will make life easier, and how the work we’ve done can help other institutions up and down the country to drag themselves out of the mire of multiple calendaring systems. First in line: how Total ReCal will benefit students at the University of Lincoln.

In the past, students at Lincoln have used a wide variety of different systems to organise their lives. It’s not uncommon throughout the course of a year to have an induction/reinduction timetable, your academic timetable (which changes regularly), an exam timetable (or two), a list of assessment deadlines, a calendar of meetings with seminar groups or tutors, book due dates, club or society events you want to attend, guest lectures, skills training timetables, a list of gigs you want to see at the Engine Shed and a personal calendar on top of all that. With tens of different systems all trying to tell you when and where you need to be it’s far to easy to miss something or double book yourself. The consequences of mucking up your calendar can range from the mildly annoying through to putting your degree at risk.

Total ReCal (or, as we’re naming it for Lincoln, My Calendar) is the first step towards tidying up some of this mess by dragging as many of these systems as we can together into one. The benefits of this unification are readily apparent, when the University moved exam timetables from a single massive schedule into personal timetables the response was overwhelmingly positive. Even small reductions in the number of disparate systems which are required are welcomed with open arms by a student body who are increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they are presented with. The reasoning why is simple – it’s a lot harder to miss something important if everything is kept in one place.

There’s another massive benefit to My Calendar as well: the ability to subscribe to your calendar and any changes using any method which supports the industry standard iCalendar format. This is used by almost everything which tries to share calendar information, and allows students to seamlessly and effortlessly import their University calendar into whatever they use to organise their personal lives. Windows Live Calendar, Google Calendar, Outlook, iCal and more desktop applications have support built right in. Even better, so do Android phones, Windows Phone 7 handsets, iPhones and many more smartphones. This means that straight out of the box there is a large portion of the student body who can keep their academic timetable, due dates and more right where they want them. Our initial user survey shows that a large portion of students own either a compatible smartphone or something such as an iPod Touch (which also supports the standard), and that a similarly sized chunk goes to the effort of transcribing their academic timetable into whatever they use to manage their time.

My Calendar also features our fanatical dedication to usability, and as a result is built to not only look easy on the eye but also to work happily alongside assistive technologies or on small screens. This is a distinct benefit over the present systems, which variously don’t work on some browsers, aren’t assistive technology friendly, require the user to be on a PC or are just plain ungainly to use. We’re also working alongside various groups and people from around the University to ensure we keep up to date with the latest in usability, and have some intensive testing lined up to make sure it’s as simple and friendly to use as possible. We hope that this ‘pick up and go’ approach will let students find their feet as far as timetabling goes a lot faster than at the moment, by presenting a more familiar interface to calendars. Once they’re happy with the system, it then goes a step further by allowing customisation of exactly what’s displayed and how.

That’s about it for the student benefits which we perceive, although it’s likely that more will appear as people find new and exciting ways to use the service. Stay tuned for how Total ReCal and My Calendar will benefit staff, both those using it for time management and those on the administrative side.

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