It’s a project that has converted 2 million lines of code, replaced a 1,000 kg mainframe server and will modernize U of T’s student information system, ROSI, for years to come. Set to launch on November 19, the Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS) has been updating the system’s platform to enhance services for U of T’s staff and students.
Led by U of T’s Information Technology Services, the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project has been focused on improving system performance and capacity, and real-time integration with other applications.
“We’ve converted the old code into Java, which is more flexible and resilient, and we’ve moved from the mainframe server to more cost-effective blade servers,” says Frank Boshoff, senior manager, technical solutions and architecture with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “The new web-based platform will provide a foundation for improved information flow, and we’ll be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time.”
The three-year project has involved EASI, Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Information Security & Enterprise Architecture (ISEA). As well, it has included extensive cross-campus consultations and stakeholder engagement.
During peak registration periods, 15,000 students will be able to use the system via ACORN simultaneously, versus the current 700. It will also open up the potential for live integration with divisional systems, and ensure U of T stays at the forefront of technological innovation.
So far, the project team has completed the initial build, system testing, system integration and performance testing. They have also conducted user acceptance testing with over 100 users from all three campuses, and have successfully completed dry run cutovers during October.
The training team has also visited divisions for a second round of information sessions, and is offering training through online videos, webinars, open forums and hands-on help. After all of this preparation, the final transition will happen from November 16 at 4 p.m. to November 19 at 8 a.m. During this time, staff will not be able to log into the system and students will not be able to use ACORN and associated systems.
The next phase of the project will involve developing the Data Decision Support System, which will be a near real-time copy of the platform. It will allow staff to perform operational and analytical reports more quickly during peak registration periods. ACORN will also perform faster for students as they no longer need to compete with administrative staff for processing power.
“This project has been the culmination of lots of planning – it’s one of the largest university-wide initiatives undertaken since the original implementation of ROSI,” says Cathy Eberts, executive director of EASI. “It requires a lot of user feedback and it’s truly a partnership between information technology and our divisional end-users.”
GPAs – they can determine whether a student secures that next scholarship or gets into graduate school. Now a new application, called the GPA Calculator will help all U of T students easily calculate their grades and plan ahead for academic success.
“Through ongoing interviews and usability tests, we discovered the need for this calculator,” says Michael Clark, manager of User Experience and Process Design with U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “This tool allows students to easily type in their pre-existing GPA from ACORN and predict their future grades.”
The calculator is readily available to all students. Students can calculate their sessional, cumulative and annual GPAs, and the application also recommends resources, including academic advising, writing centres, workshops and career advising.
“We wanted to make the application as flexible as possible,” says Laura Klamot, a user experience designer with EASI. “We always try to help students with their next steps. If their GPA isn’t what they want it to be, they can find an academic advisor and writing workshops.”
Klamot worked with Adnan Bhuiyan, a co-op student, who joined EASI for the summer.
“I normally study back-end development, but for this application I worked on front-end development and user experience design,” says Bhuiyan, a third-year U of T Computer Science student. “The tool’s designed to be accessible via keyboard only, via screen readers, as well as other assistive technology. An additional amount of design, development, testing and refinement work went into making this tool mobile and desktop optimized.”
Beyond his co-op experience, Bhuiyan also plans to use the application.
“I’m close to graduating, and my GPA can potentially give me a competitive edge when applying for jobs. Also, if I ever plan to apply for graduate school, I now have a tool that can easily help me plan ahead.”
Fellow third-year student Ramana Trivedi, from the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, agrees. “In my first year I was lost when trying to track my GPA because I was using a spreadsheet – it was a huge waste of time. I’m currently applying to medical school, and my GPA is really important. Now I can finish my calculations in a matter of minutes.”
What’s next for the application?
“After launching the calculator, we’ll collect feedback and plan future enhancements,” says Clark. “We’re constantly focused on the student experience, and we want to make it easier for students to achieve academic success.”
More than 900 students and hundreds of research activities and tests have helped to make ACORN and associated applications all that they are today. Now, U of T’s ACORN Student Advisory Team is recruiting new participants to continue to help shape the student experience.
When students join the team, they can expect to attend 45-minute sessions that include activities such as interviews and usability testing. The results will directly inform improvements to projects – from ACORN to applications like the Financial Planning Calculator and GPA Calculator.
“The user-centred design process that we follow is crucial,” says Michael Clark, Manager of User Experience & Process Design with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “Students are part of the formative research, iterative design and post-release community engagement process. When they join our team, they’ll make a difference for their own experiences with U of T’s online services and for other students for years to come.”
Currently, the Advisory Team consists of approximately 150 participants, and organizers are hoping to increase engagement across all three campuses.
“Since starting in 2016, I’ve provided feedback on six applications,” says Melissa Ng, a fifth-year computer science and cognitive science student. “One usability test I did was for the user interface which allows students to find awards, grants and loans in ACORN. The team is really friendly and it’s great to know that my opinion has made an impact on important projects.”
Students like Melissa not only help to improve student life at U of T, but can also add the experience to their Co-Curricular Record, an official record of their co-curricular involvement at U of T. They can also gain practical project experience and build their resumes.
“We want to continue to build a community of students who are interested in improving student services,” says Laura Klamot, “This includes recruiting students from all divisions, years, programs, campuses and also students with accessibility needs.”
In the past, research and testing activities have improved usability, accessibility and have helped U of T to prioritize projects.
“We genuinely want to include students in the process,” says Clark. “Beyond caring about what they have to say, we want to give them a seat at the table to help them determine the strategic direction we plan to take with new initiatives, and to help make existing products and services even better.”
Why is ACORN slow on enrolment day? Can I automatically enrol in my courses? Can U of T buy better servers?
These were just some of the questions asked at this year’s University of Toronto Student Union Street Festival (UTSU). Held on September 12, the ACORN team, from Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI), answered thousands of questions for five hours.
“Our participation in the UTSU Street Fest is important because each year we hear from students about their needs, goals, issues and ideas relating to important initiatives at U of T,” says Michael Clark, Manager of User Experience & Process Design with EASI.
This year, the ACORN team fielded in-person “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) style questions, with representation from EASI’s business analysts, developers, as well as user experience and process designers. This allowed students to inquire about everything from long-term infrastructure improvements to the details of everyday course enrolment.
So, why does ACORN perform more slowly on peak enrolment days?
On these days thousands of students log into the system, but it can only handle 700 concurrent users. The new system, which will go live on November 19, features a new infrastructure and code base and will be able to handle 15,000 concurrent users.
During Street Fest, ACORN staff also recruited students for the ACORN Student Advisory Team for research activities and tests. When students join the team, they can expect to attend 45-minute sessions that will directly inform improvements to ACORN and applications like the Financial Planning Calculator and GPA Calculator.
“We want to continue to build a community of students who are interested in improving student services,” says Laura Klamot, a user experience designer with EASI. “This includes recruiting students from all divisions, years, programs, campuses and also students with accessibility needs.”
In the near future, the student team will test improvements to ACORN’s mobile experience, U of T Map integrations within ACORN, live chat support with registrars and other U of T advisors, and integrating U of T’s Timetable Builder tool within ACORN.
“The input we received this year was consistent with previous research we’ve conducted with students, and will help keep us on course towards realizing improvements to U of T’s online student experience,” says Clark. “As well, it will help inspire future initiatives, leveraging the latest capabilities that EASI and the Next Generation Student Information Services Program will have to offer.”
It was a tense day full of careful monitoring, communications and coffee consumption. On August 3, over 35,000 Faculty of Arts & Science students logged in to ACORN during the largest enrolment day for U of T.
The system successfully handled the massive number of logins during the Faculty’s “priority drop” enrolment period. Now, a day that was previously known as “Black Friday,” when the system crashed in 2015 and 2016, has become “Grey Friday.”
This year’s peak enrolment day became brighter due to the efforts of staff from Information Security and Enterprise Architecture (ISEA), Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) at Information Technology Services.
Let’s take a look at how the day played out:
“Look! There’s a squirrel on my coffee just for ACORN. I was up at 5:30 a.m. and decided to pick up my favourite coffee. It’s such a big day that it’s important to stay fueled,” said Laurel Williams, Information Technology Analyst with EASI. “All of the teams involved are critical to this process. I’ve been working on this project for three to four months and each year we enhance our preparation.”
See how how the team holds up under pressure during Grey Friday (video by Alex Dault)
9 a.m. – First Round of Enrolment
Within the first five seconds of enrolment, 1,000 fourth-year students had logged in.
“I would like to be in the same room as the mainframe to see it smoking!” said Williams.
The mainframe, which looks like a giant, black refrigerator, weighs 1,014 kg and has been working hard since 2012.
In November, the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project will replace the mainframe with faster and more secure Linux servers and a new code base. It will be able to handle 15,000 simultaneous logins compared to the current 700.
“The new platform will be a lot faster – we’ve removed major bottlenecks in the design and we’re expecting a much better experience next year,” said Frank Boshoff, U of T’s Enterprise Architect.
Twenty minutes after students started enrolling, ACORN was back to normal with near instantaneous login.
“It’s great that we’ve cleared the first round with lots of time to spare. This session was easier to handle because there were fewer students applicable to login, but wait until 11 a.m. – when we have our largest round of enrolment,” said Sarosh Jamal, Project Manager/Analyst with EIS.
10 a.m. – Second Round
“Wow, we have 3,390 third-year students logged in already at 10 a.m!” said Williams.
By 10:30 a.m. that wave of students had luckily decreased to 1,695, and fifteen minutes later the system had recovered and was ready once again.
While answering students’ questions on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, Mike Clark, Manager, User Experience & Process Design with EASI, enrolled in his own courses.
“We’ve made more important improvements to ACORN and its underlying infrastructure for this year, and our goal is that the system will perform even better than last year because of those changes,” said Clark.
These improvements included optimizing Weblogin to better handle the large volume of login requests, as well as a ‘webload management day’ waiting page where if students tried to log in to ACORN before their scheduled start time, their session would be kept active and prevent Weblogin from having to process repeated login attempts.
The team also increased the duration and volume of cached registration information in the system to improve performance. And if an individual student made an unusually rapid number of requests, they would be automatically prompted to prove that they were a human via a “captcha.”
How did these improvements help students?
“Compared to last year, we see that more users are spending a longer time actually logged in the system with fewer logins overall, rather than more time spent attempting to login as in previous years, so that’s a really good sign.” said Jamal. “This year, Andre Kalamandeen and the larger developer and test teams helped tune the system so that students enrolled approximately a minute faster.”
Just before the third, and most intense, round of enrolments for second-year students, the team welcomed a surprise visitor.
“I used to have to line up for hours to enrol in classes,” said Bo Wandschneider, U of T’s Chief Information Officer. “Things have really changed since then, and we hope that next year will be even better.”
11 a.m. – Third Round
As expected, the third round of enrolments pushed the system to its limits.
“To prepare for the heaviest loads, we run tests to simulate student logins,” said Williams. “Every time something breaks we try to mitigate the issue.”
The team used live data to monitor the load on the system, as well as its performance
The User Experience & Process Design team was on-hand to assist students, via email and social media support. The team had also produced pre-enrolment information to help manage students’ expectations and provide best practices on such a busy day.
Ibraheem Aziz, a fourth-year Rotman Commerce student, reached over 13,000 students on U of T’s Instagram – providing enrolment tips to students
“On the morning of, we were online from 8:30 a.m. until mid-afternoon responding to urgent student questions, as well as engaging in broader discussions about the overall experience that students had,” said Clark. “Luckily, we didn’t see any outright crashes this year and came away with an objectively improved system from previous ‘priority drop’ days.”
At 11:26 there were 3,608 active users who needed to clear the system to accommodate the next round at 12 p.m.
“How low can we go? There are a lot of pending enrolments and we have to clear this session before 12 p.m.” said Vik Chadalawada, Senior Manager of Student Information Systems with EASI.
At 11:41 a.m., there were still 2,975 users, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the number of active users dropped to 1,688 by 11:53.
12 p.m. – Fourth round
With the nail-biting part of the day over, the fourth round was a breeze.
“Phew! It’s over!” said Williams.
After an intense four hours, the team gathered for a celebratory lunch.
“Way to go everyone! We all worked really hard to make this happen,” said Chadalawada. “We had a plan, we came prepared and it was well executed. We stayed collected as a team throughout the whole process, doing everything we could to mitigate any issues while tackling social media at the same time. Hopefully the next year will see us evolve from a Grey Friday to a Blue Sky Friday.”
Thank you to everyone on the Grey Friday team, including Client Services Representatives and registrars across the University:
Is a student registered, enrolled in a particular course and succeeding academically? In the past, academic advisors would have to consult multiple computer systems as well as ROSI, U of T’s official student information database, for any recent changes.
Now a new solution, called web services, provides staff with real-time data to help create a seamless student experience.
The solution, introduced by Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI), provides an instant, secure link to ROSI for specific student information. Currently, U of T divisions rely on large data downloads called batch downloads.
“These batch downloads lead to out-of-date information, a huge duplication of data, and security vulnerabilities – as soon as the download is completed, the data starts becoming stale,” says Frank Boshoff, U of T’s Enterprise Architect. “When divisional applications use web services, they help provide accurate information to students and decrease the number of calls, emails and face-to-face meetings.”
The new approach is based on RESTful services – Representational State Transfer – which is used to build lightweight, maintainable and scalable web services. It allows other authorized systems to access pertinent ROSI data, and authorized systems can update ROSI, potentially saving significant administrator effort.
Batch jobs have to download all records – sometimes thousands – to determine which records have changed. web services works on a record-by-record model and only retrieves necessary records.
While this technology won’t replace batch downloads entirely, it will help when real-time transactions are a priority.
EASI recently introduced web services to the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and plans to roll them out to other divisions in the near future.
“We wanted to more tightly integrate our local systems with the data from ROSI and other local and institutional systems of record to improve the user experience,” says Dan Pettigrew, Director of Administrative Systems and Associate Registrar at the Faculty. “In the past, staff sometimes had to consult ROSI and other systems manually because the downloaded ROSI data they were seeing was potentially out of date. We really needed a holistic, real-time view of the student experience.”
On the front lines, web services are already making an impact.
“This has been a dream of mine – it makes our jobs easier and the student experience so much better,” says Leslie Grife, Assistant Director, First Year Academic Services with the Faculty. “Now the Faculty’s Academic Advising system connects directly to the ROSI database. And soon several of our other online services will as well. We can advise students with accurate data, helping them to make better informed decisions.”
In the future, the team will work with U of T’s Information Security and Enterprise Architecture to add an extra layer of security, called OAuth 2.0.
“It comes down to getting the right data to the right person at the right time with minimal effort from the user,” says Boshoff. “Web services enable real-time access to data, which improves the user experience, reducing annoyances and irritation for students, staff and faculty. Things work better when they are designed to work together.”
It will save U of T instructors and administrators hundreds of hours of work, and is projected to save the University over $280, 000 annually. The new Course Information System (CIS), with core functionality set for completion by the end of 2019, will streamline syllabi and exams processes for instructors and administrators, and help students to make better-informed decisions about their education.
The system, created by Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) in partnership with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education, is currently being piloted in three divisions on two campuses.
“In the past, the decentralized process of creating, collecting, reviewing and approving syllabi and exams was paper- and pdf-based,” says Mark Johnston, CIS product manager. “This online system streamlines several disparate processes for instructors and departmental staff, and ensures accuracy and security. Overall, it will free up faculty and staff for more important activities.”
It is divided into three modules for instructors to submit syllabi-related materials, pre-exam and final exam details.
When creating syllabi, instructors can immediately see whether they are meeting divisional and University guidelines. They can also select from a list of pre-written, standardized policies and statements, or use them as the basis for personally crafted statements, and the system will help instructors schedule important course milestones around holidays and important University dates.
Instructors can also submit details for their exams, including logistical information, duration and required equipment.
“This system is especially useful for new instructors,” says Johnston. “They might have to submit syllabi and exam details soon after being hired, and just as the term starts, and we’re helping them to quickly navigate the process.”
For final exams, instructors can upload their exam and printing instructions and either submit them for divisional approval or to an approved print location.
The project has been in production for 18 months and has been piloted with the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“Our goal is to make the administration of courses easy for instructors,” says Professor Susan McCahan, Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education, and project co-sponsor. “The information needed to set a final exam or create a syllabus will flow through an integrated system. We anticipate that this will allow instructors to spend less time on logistics.”
Beyond streamlining processes, the system will help local academic administrators collect and analyze data to make evidence-based decisions.
“We want to provide divisions and units with a suite of tools that will help align course-related business practices, and help them to better understand the academic activity within their units’ courses and programs,” says Julian Weinrib, Special Projects Officer with the Office of the Vice-Provost. “We believe this will help spur important conversations locally, and ultimately help students to better understand and curate their academic experience.”
Similar to the process of building the student information system, ACORN, the team began the project with extensive interviews across the three campuses.
“We’re basing our development on a user-centred approach,” says Johnston. “It’s important to research, build, test, launch and then start all over again to ensure we’re developing an intuitive and informative system.”
In the future, the team will continue to build out functionality while onboarding new divisions. New functionality will include a detailed class list with students’ names, year, programs of study and photos. It will also include tools for an instructor to create their course syllabi directly on CIS and a syllabus archive and repository. In addition, the system will streamline over 18,000 accommodated tests per year at the St. George campus, and will link to Quercus, eMarks, ACORN and Degree Explorer.
“The promise of CIS is to build out useful, usable tools for instructors, departments and divisions from a centrally supported platform that integrate well across our three campuses and the complimentary systems surrounding CIS.”
On June 25, Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) welcomed the first group of users to test the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project.
This phase of testing includes initial preparation for registration.
“We were excited to start the first of six phases today,” says Richard Chow, an information technology analyst with EASI, and the testing lead. “Participants are setting up students and courses for future registration sessions, and ensuring data accuracy.”
If a user finds a bug in the system, their names will be entered into a bi-weekly draw for one of two $10 Tim Hortons gift cards.
“We’ve really tried to make this a fun process!” says Kelly Jay, senior information systems analyst with EASI. “We have a piñata, beach balls and snacks at our testing location in 215 Huron St. This is an opportunity for users to see how the system is performing and to also build community.”
Next steps for testing include registration preparation, student enrolment, marks, awards and convocation.
EASI has created a roadmap to measure progress through the six phases.
“Testing today went really smoothly,” says Chow. “Everyone could familiarize themselves with the new tools, and we expect all users to adapt to the new system quickly.”
Having converted 2 million lines of code and executed over 1,300 test cases, U of T’s Information Technology Services is excited to announce that User Acceptance Testing for the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project will begin in late June.
During this phase, over 100 ROSI users from across all three campuses will put the new platform to the test using their business process expertise.
“EASI and Information Technology Services have done a great job at setting up the new infrastructure, security and code,” says Sinisa Markovic, assistant university registrar and director of operations at Enrolment Services. “Now, as users of the system, it’s our turn to test it and ensure a smooth transition to the new system.”
Donald Boere, registrar of Innis College, agrees.
“This is the exciting part for end users of ROSI. EASI has assembled a team of functional users who will work together to run those complex ROSI transactions they know so well through the new platform.”
The Platform Modernization Project involves structural changes to ROSI to improve system performance and capacity, and real-time integration with enterprise systems.
So far, the project has involved over 30 staff members from EASI, Information Security and Enterprise Architecture and Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions. They’ve built the new system and are now testing its integration with other systems, including ACORN, ROSI Alumni Transcripts and ROSI Express.
“This project is the culmination of lots of planning – it’s one of the largest University-wide initiatives undertaken since the original implementation of ROSI,” says Cathy Eberts, executive director of EASI. “It requires a lot of user feedback and it’s truly a partnership between information technology and our divisional end-users.”
User acceptance testing will run from June to September, and will follow the basic flow of U of T’s academic cycle. Users will attend workshops related to their business areas and will work with specific checklists for each ROSI module.
The goals are to review a wide breadth of execution paths, uncover specialized business processes that may not have been tested, and confirm the usability of the web-based application.
“We’ve combined our strategy, based on best practices, with a solid test plan,” says Mike Wyers, quality assurance lead at EASI. “Richard Chow, an information technology analyst at EASI, created the test plan and is a true subject matter expert – he understands the big picture and details of ROSI – so the test plan will help us collect feedback at every step of the process.”
Benefits of the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project:Permits 15,000 students to access the system via ACORN simultaneously versus the current 700.
Provides new option for PDF output
Allows for a modern file management interface
Opens up the potential for live integration between divisional systems and ROSI
Helps U of T stay at the forefront of technological innovation
Next steps for the project include performance testing and go-live planning.
“As part of the performance testing, we’ll simulate 15,000 concurrent registrations. The current system can only handle 700,” says Philip Millenaar, project manager with EASI. “We’re also planning several dry runs to test out cutting over to the new environment – we want to make sure that we’re a well-oiled machine before the go-live date.”
What can testers expect as part of the process?
“Beyond testing the system for specific business processes, we want to ensure the testing is fun,” says Eberts. “We’re offering rewards, and it’s a great way to bring the ROSI community together.”
It’s the most stressful time of the year – final exams. Now, a new U of T application will help to ease anxiety by speeding up exam attendance, improving student tracking, and enhancing the overall staff and student experience.
The application, called Exam Invigilation, was recently piloted with over 500 students at the Faculty of Arts & Science (A&S). It was developed by U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI).
“In the past, staff used the small photo on the TCard to confirm a student’s identity, and they relied on a paper-based registration process,” says Vik Chadalawada, Senior Manager of Student Information Systems with EASI. “Now, they can quickly scan the student’s TCard, confirm their identity on a tablet that displays large photos, and accurately track student information.”
The technology relies on a Bluetooth scanner that links to the tablets and connects to Student Life’s TCard photo database. During its recent pilot with A&S, the application saved staff over half the registration time, compared to the previous process.
“Our goal is to let students focus on writing their exams, which is the culmination of a lot of hard work,” says Christine Babikian, Associate Director, Scheduling & Examinations at A&S. “In the past, staff would walk around the examination room and ask students to sign a registration sheet. Now, they can avoid interrupting students by silently scanning their TCards.”
As a backup, if students forget their TCard for their exam, staff can manually register them by checking a piece of official identification against the TCard photo database.
The application also allows staff to track student information in real time. It shows how many students have checked in for the exam and which ones are late or absent. Staff can view a student’s entire exam history to see patterns of absences or lateness, and it can track seat numbers, helping staff to investigate possible academic offences.
“Any approved staff can easily log in to the student information system and follow up with students who didn’t write the exam,” says Paul Day, an Information Systems Analyst & Client Services Representative with EASI. “There’s no longer any paper-based back and forth between the exams, registrars and academic integrity offices.”
The application is based on a model originally developed by the University of Toronto Mississauga with Cesar Mejia, Associate Registrar of Scheduling and Systems Management. This version was instrumental in helping EASI to develop an enterprise-wide level solution for U of T.
And the University of Toronto Scarborough was the first to pilot it in 2016 and 2017. The EASI team initially worked with Naureen Nizam, UTSC Associate Registrar and Director of Systems and Operations, to use it with 1,106 students in courses ranging from chemistry and biology to psychology and sociology.
What’s next for Exam Invigilation?
A&S plans to use it in large examination locations in December 2018. The team at EASI also plans to incorporate information from Accessibility Services so staff know which students are writing exams at different locations.
“We’re excited about how this application could be implemented for all other divisions having similar challenges within U of T,” says Chadalawada. “It is yet another area of systems innovation that we are proud to have within our solutions portfolio at EASI.”