By Patrick Szpak
Amanda Weaver is a first-year dance student at Ryerson. She started last fall. Barely. And only because she decided to take matters into her own hands at the last minute.
As a first-year, Weaver had a lot of things to take care of, not least of which was adding courses using the RAMSS system. She was told this would be a snap. All the courses she need for her program would be added automatically by the system. Satisfied, Weaver allowed the days and weeks to pass, occasionally checking to see if her courses had been added. Nothing happened.
Concerned, she phoned her department, which told her to relax. Concern turned to anxiety and anxiety to panic as her deadline for adding courses approached with still nothing.
She phoned the registration office at Ryerson, hoping to get some answers from those supposedly in the know. Instead she got to run a telephone gauntlet as she was transfered from operator to operator.
“It was like a big circle, I would be transferred from person to person, finally ending up with the person I talked to first. I didn’t really feel like they wanted to solve the problem,” she said.
RAMSS, Ryerson’s registration software, was little help. There was no reassuring message telling her courses would be added in the coming days. It was distressingly mute.
Just before the deadline, Weaver added the courses manually. She later found out that the system had worked for some of the other students in the program. Baffled, she wonders what would have happened had she waited and why registration can be such a stressful process.
Weaver is not alone in asking these questions. What’s up with registration and RAMSS at Ryerson?
Ryerson’s Administrative Management Self Service (RAMSS). The abbreviation is supposed to evoke images of Ryerson’s mascot, a mighty ram, but since its launch it’s more likely to remind students of the hair pulling and teeth gnashing that comes with using Rye’s registration software.
We have all experienced, or know someone who has experienced, a RAMSS “beat down”: The confusing interface, the frustration and anxiety of delay offers of admission or graduation, the cryptic error messages, the courses mysteriously being dropped, the fluctuating tuition costs and the infuriating surprise fees. Indeed, before punching a hole in their computer screens some Rye students may have asked themselves: Why are we using this POS, and why does it suck so hard?
Believe it or not, RAMSS makes your lives easier. Launched in March 2005, the software allows students to manage most of the administrative chores of being at university (such as adding courses and checking tuition) from the Internet, more or less 24-7, all the while holding your hand and making sure you don’t do something stupid, like not read the course calendar and add a class you aren’t eligible for. If you own your own computer this can be done in the comfort of your own home, without clothes on, with pizza sauce dripping on your thigh — it’s that convenient.
At least that’s what Ken Scullion, associate registrar at Ryerson, would like students to think. Scullion was director of implementation when RAMSS replaced the older software that was originally run from a room-sized IBM mainframe bought in 1984. Scullion described 20-year-old system as “proprietary” and “no longer supported,” which in the world of computers and software means it’s time for an upgrade.
The software upgrade was made by a company called PeopleSoft. Students interface with the PeopleSoft software through RAMSS. Scullion is happy with the upgrade. He talks about the new system in glowing terms, calling it “robust” and “highly customizable and configurable.” He gushes about its ability to “check dependencies” and the wide suite of tools it offers students. “It’s a very good system overall.”
Scullion says the problems most students are having are not the fault of RAMSS or PeopleSoft, but of students who are not taking time to read the messages the system gives them. “It’s like some people need flashing red lights to go off otherwise they’ll assume that everything is fine.” He doesn’t dispute that students, especially in the year following its launch, had troubles with the RAMSS interface. “The learning curve and anxiety level was high, people were not comfortable with it.” Staff too have been struggling with the system, but he says everyone is learning. He says that things have gotten better and complaints have dwindled.
Students may raise their collective eyebrows at Scullion’s rosy take on RAMSS and PeopleSoft. Of course he’d give an upbeat description, he works at Ryerson; it was his job to implement the system. He is unlikely to call RAMSS a train wreck and offer his resignation.
Scullion has been at Ryerson for decades; he has been working with registration and student record systems for longer than many Rye students have been alive.
If we stand in Scullion’s shoes we can understand why he thinks RAMSS is the shit. Quite simply, RAMSS ain’t your grandpa’s registration software, or your mom’s, or, for that matter, your older brother’s.
In the olden days there was no Interweb and computers, but students still had to register for classes. They did this by putting clothes on and coming to Ryerson during the day.
They stood in lines for hours only to find out the class they wanted was full. Bubble-sheets and surly staff added to the experience. It sucked. In the 1990s, things got a bit better with telephone registration.
Students were given a time to register and would phone in at the specified time. It was all “press one for this, press two for that, enter the 15-digit timetable code for the other thing.”
But Ryerson started with only 20 phone lines. Lots of busy signals and endlessly pressing redial while staying glued to your telephone was the norm. It sucked, but at least you could do it from home.
Finally came the first of the web interfaces: ROWS. It allowed you to register from the web, but only from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It couldn’t check if you were adding a course you weren’t supposed to.
It was also based on the 20-year-old software. The interface was clunky, but you could do it from home on your computer. It worked, but at times sucked. See a pattern here?
Registration and managing student records have never been a cinch. And yes, students complained (or at least the student papers did) with each “improvement.”
First it was the endless lines, then it was the maddening busy signals, then it was ROWS bugs and finally it is the RAMSS clusterfuck. In each case complaints followed closely after systems were introduced, then they would die off as students got used to the systems and their drawbacks.
From Scullion’s point of view, things have improved.
He recalls the first time he heard that a student used the telephone system to add a course at 3 a.m.
“I was surprised then, but now I don’t bat an eye at the idea.” We’ve come a long way.
That’s not to say everyone in Ryerson thinks everything is hunky-dory.
President Sheldon Levy is not as sanguine about RAMSS as Scullion. He says you can’t be on academic council without hearing about frustrations with RAMSS.
But he is reluctant to blame the software for the problem. “There is a difference from the system being a problem and our policies and practices being the problem,” Levy said.
He added that Ryerson is not a typical liberal arts university, where students can pick and choose courses as though it were a smorgasbord. “Ryerson is not like that. We are very program specific. This puts great challenges on flexibility.”
What exactly does this mean? Levy said the program should be able to make time tables, but can’t, thanks to university policy.
“(Time-tabling) was creating for the system the challenge of trying to deliver something to the students that was not deliverable because of the constraints we put on the system by our policies and practices. So you had to change our policy and practices in order to give the system the ability to create the flexibility.”
An attentive reader may remember that one of the strengths of the PeopleSoft software, according to Scullion, is that it is very “customizable.”
But here it would seem that the university is customizing itself to the dictates of the PeopleSoft software, and not vice versa. In Levy’s defence, all of these changes are meant to benefit students.
“It can’t be the students at the bottom of the totem pole after other needs are looked after,” he said. *** Was PeopleSoft and the student interface, RAMSS, the best option for the university?
If Ryerson wanted a modern, web-based and full-featured registration and student record system they had two choices: make their own or buy it off the shelf from a big corporate supplier.
Scullion said that Ryerson couldn’t make its own software, citing a lack of resources and expertise. So, instead, Ryerson bought canned software from a company called CGI that said it could customize PeopleSoft’s software to meet Ryerson’s needs (yes, it’s complicated).
Scullion said using PeopleSoft has definite advantages for the university, including steady updates for the software from PeopleSoft and a large pool of experts should something go wrong.
Over 200 universities in North America have chosen PeopleSoft software for their systems. Most have no big problems. However, the student interfaces are often a concern.
At the University of Alberta, the PeopleSoft student interface, Bear Tracks, was widely panned by students for being needlessly hard to use.
First-year computer science student Steve Kirkham was so frustrated with the system’s inability to make time-tables that he decided to make his own interface with PeopleSoft.
In a few days, with no money, he had made Bear Scat, a much more intuitive interface than the university’s Bear Track system. Bear Scat became so popular it was eventually adopted by the university, and then hosted by the student union.
Kirkham says it’s not hard to develop good interfaces for students if you understand their concerns. Unfortunately, he says that the PeopleSoft programmers and university administrators have a tough time with this.
“They don’t get the needs of their students,” said Kirkham, adding that he thinks PeopleSoft doesn’t develop easy-to-use software because “it wants to make money from all the consultants.”
He says that the interface for students is an afterthought for software designers. He goes on to say that universities should develop their own software if possible, as it allows them to truly customize it to their needs.
Jim Hoover is a professor of software engineering at the University of Alberta. Of the problems with interfaces like RAMSS and PeopleSoft, Hoover says “These kinds of screw ups are typical, because so few of the decision-makers, software suppliers and users actually bother to talk with people who know something about building good systems that supply value to an organization.”
Hoover also described what happens when thing go terribly wrong with PeopleSoft, something Ryerson has avoided.
He points to the disastrous implementation in California, particularly at Stanford University, as being a good example of what happens when things go askew.
The system there has now cost well over $100 million. Scullion said he couldn’t recall a rough estimate of how much Ryerson’s PeopleSoft implementation cost, but said it wouldn’t be higher than comparable institutions.
You can be certain the system is not cheap. The state of California signed a contract with PeopleSoft to put their system into all 24 of the state-run universities. The cost? $450 million.
That is over $19 million for each university. Granted, the costs of California universities are likely (hopefully) much higher than Ryerson’s. But that’s the price of progress.