NGSIS at Techknowfile 2016

NGSIS will be well represented at this week’s Techknowfile conference. This annual conference brings together hundreds of U of T staff and faculty involved with technology in some capacity to share information, best practices and meet face to face.

NGSIS will have five presentations at the event:



If you’re attending this week and are interested in what we are up to at NGSIS and how we approach our work, please stop by one or more of the presentations!

2015 Year in Review & What’s Next in 2016

2015 was a productive year for NGSIS as we continued on our mission to modernize U of T’s online services with new impactful products and enhanced existing ones. Let’s review some of the highlights before we look ahead to what’s next in 2016.

2015 Review


  • The new Student Web Service and NGSIS flagship product launched in late June for students and has had over 3 million logins in the first 6 months of service.

Degree Explorer

  • Nearly all undergraduate programs are now using Degree Explorer.
  • We’ve seen usage rates significantly grow year over year and in 2015 we approached 600,000 logins.


  • A cross-functional process streamline effort resulted in broad, impactful changes to the November convocation experience.
  • For the first time at U of T, students were able to request and distribute E-tickets for the November ceremonies. Accompanying these changes were a fully redesigned student graduation request process and RSVP web service launched on ACORN.

Business Intelligence – Student Life

  • In partnership with NGSIS, Student Life has implemented several core products in recent years, including the Co-Curricular Record and the Career Learning Network. In order to maximize the utility of these products, the Business Intelligence team worked with Student Life to deliver key analytics for these tools.

Curriculum Management (CM)

  • Curriculum Management will serve as the basis for an authoritative source of course and program information at the University. U of T has negotiated an agreement with KualiCo, the commercial affiliate of the Kuali Foundation, to develop a cloud-based learning Curriculum Management system. NGSIS will be piloting the use of CM with a sample division in consideration of a full rollout of the product at U of T.

Academic Calendar

  • NGSIS has been working on a new content management system tailored for academic calendar publication. The specialized website allows divisions to maintain non-curricular content, select divisional branding, and provide access to tools that can import course and program information from Curriculum Management.


  • ACORN was the first application deployed on a new Cisco and IBM foundation. The IBM foundation provides an integrated platform for critical applications. This enables ACORN to provide a more convenient, well-performing and available application for students. This infrastructure will enable more applications to be built to ACORN’s standards in the future.

Strategic Plan

  • For a program as diverse as NGSIS, it is imperative to have a guiding strategic plan to help coordinate the moving pieces and facilitate ongoing success. Cathy Eberts, NGSIS Program Director, and the NGSIS leadership team worked with our sponsors, stakeholders and key individuals to craft a three year strategic plan. This effort was carried out in stages over a number of months, with the final draft presented to our sponsors and NGSIS Core Team towards the end of 2015. The plan will be released publicly in phases, beginning with our list of initiatives for 2016.


What’s Next in 2016

With over fifty individual projects on the roster for 2016, and the first year of our 2016-2018 strategic plan underway, we are set up for one of our most ambitious years to date. Here’s a glimpse at what we have in store within each of our five strategic priority areas.


Academic and Life Experience


  • Building on the foundation put in place in 2015, we will produce an optimized mobile experience for ACORN, a staff view of the student interface, a timetable generator and a number of enhancements to course enrolment this year.

Degree Explorer

  • In early 2016, we will implement significant changes to the student degree planner and are looking forward to introduce Degree Explorer to graduate students in 2016.


  • StarRez has been one of the most successful administrative products to date within NGSIS. 2016 will mark the first time the University has all 13 core residences using the same administrative system, with Trinity College joining.


Student Records

We’ll be making a number of small but impactful improvements to the records services of ROSI and ACORN this year. The largest effort will focus on adapting to changes in how we receive applicant data from the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC).


Curriculum Design and Development

For staff and faculty we are working on two core systems that will help improve the processes for initiating and maintaining courses, as well as providing a robust suite of tools for instructors to manage their course information. These are two of NGSIS’s flagship projects for 2016.


Student Finances


  • We are looking forward to offering a completely redesigned finances section of ACORN in 2016. This will include online credit card payment for tuition and fees, an online U of T grant application, a new awards and financial aid module and a broad effort to boost levels of financial literacy.

In addition to the work on ACORN, we have two impactful efforts underway:

  • Towards the middle of 2016, we are looking to implement a new student accounts module that will eventually replace the existing ROSI student accounts module. This will ease some of the reconciliation issues we currently face and in the future will help to facilitate greater clarity and more timely information for students.
  • Secondly, we are exploring options for implementing a proper student awards module. These are early days for this initiative and when it’s completed, this will provide students as well as staff with a much better experience for managing the thousands of financial awards available at U of T.


Planning and Analytics

The Business Intelligence team will build off several years of strong results by continuing to analyze the vast quantities of data available to decision makers at U of T. This year’s focus will be on admissions, student retention and course evaluations.


ACORN Released June 22nd!

After a lengthy project cycle, ACORN was released into production June 22nd. Students have been using the new student web service for the past three weeks and with over a quarter million log-ins, so far the system is holding up well.

Over the past few weeks we have been busy supporting the launch, observing the system’s performance and addressing any hot fix issues that need attending to. Our goal with ACORN is to continually evolve the product and to remain responsive to our student and staff communities’ needs.

We are extremely grateful for those in the U of T community who have helped take ACORN from a mere concept and idea through to being a real-world application.

Introducing ACORN to Students

As we near the release date for ACORN we’ve put together a student-focused ‘Introducing ACORN’ website to help raise awareness of the new system for students. In addition to alerting students that big changes are coming, we will provide a brief walkthrough of how students have been instrumental in the project through our user-centred approach, an overview of key ACORN features and an invitation for students to get involved in future ACORN project work.

The short-term purpose of the site is to get students comfortable with the upcoming system changes. Longer-term,  we’ll use this site to highlight upcoming ACORN enhancements such as mobile, student finances and other ongoing improvements.

Introducing ACORN screenshot

Project updates and a look ahead

The end of 2014 was productive for NGSIS as we released two key updates prior to the holiday break:

Transfer Explorer

In collaboration with the Centre for International Experience, we enhanced Transfer Explorer to include courses taken while on exchange. Transfer Explorer now shows student users and student services staff how courses taken abroad will transfer for credit at U of T. We see this as a great exploration opportunity for students planning to study abroad with CIE’s exchange program.


Over summer 2015, the Emarks user interface was redesigned to address numerous usability and navigation issues. Additional workflow and course attributes were also added to accommodate the School of Graduate Studies graduate courses. Following a very successful pilot with four graduate departments during the summer, Emarks is now available and in use by the vast majority of graduate units across the University.
Looking ahead in 2015…

2015 is promising to be another big year for NGSIS. In the short-term, we will be releasing enhancements to Degree Explorer to include course plan submissions for Applied Science students. This is will enhance the Degree Explorer experience for both students and staff and increase the connection between Degree Explorer and course enrolment. Additionally, advising reports will be built in for Arts and Science staff to help support student program progression.

By mid 2015, we will see the first production release for the ACORN project and plenty of work around student accounts, student finances, business intelligence and curriculum management.

Staff consultation: Tapping into a wealth of knowledge

three_campusesIn a recent post we discussed formative research from a student perspective and how this is a key input for our user-centred methodology. Similarly to how we gather and synthesize knowledge directly from students, we do the same with our staff and administrative colleagues. In this post we’ll explore our research and consultation efforts that involve staff and faculty perspectives.

To begin with, here are a few stats from the ACORN project. In the last year we have:

  • Held over 60 meetings and presentations
  • Met with 200+ staff and faculty members
  • Had representation from over 100 departments, divisions and/or units




This is in addition to the students we have interviewed, surveyed and had test our design prototypes.

Why does the NGSIS team do such an intensive consultation? What’s the point of reaching out to all these people and holding all these meetings and presentations? Is all this time spent worth it?

The answer is this: Our user-centred approach depends on the sustained involvement of our community. We can’t build great products for our users if we are working in a vacuum.



For our project teams, this stakeholder involvement yields three critical benefits:

  • First, stakeholders point out potential pitfalls and opportunities that we may not be aware of and would have very little chance of encountering on our own.
  • Second, they help us deepen our understanding of existing frustrations, pain points and processes. We start with a high-level understanding of a topic and with the help of our stakeholders dive deep into the core of an issue. The richness of institutional knowledge and experience in our vast stakeholder group is irreplaceable.
  • Lastly, once we’ve completed fleshing out our vision and begun building a product, our stakeholders help validate our applied understanding through iterative guidance and testing of the solution we create.

formative_research_stageThere is a wonderful symbiosis between the project team and our stakeholders. To create a quality product we need to leverage as much knowledge and understanding as possible from those around us. They are integral to our user-centred approach. The investment in time to gain these insights pays off in droves.

As this blog progresses we’ll continue to explore this topic of stakeholder involvement. Stay tuned!




Introduction to User Centred Design

Over the past two years we have been refining our approach to designing and developing online student services in NGSIS. On the design side of things, the outcome of this process is a structured User Centred Design (UCD) methodology which places the needs and goals of our end users first and foremost in our approach. We have found this methodology to be an effective and efficient way to solve challenging problems and provide maximum benefit through our NGSIS projects.

Our UCD design approach will be the topic of an ongoing series of posts through this blog and recently Mike and I were interviewed by Elizabeth O’Gorek for U of T’s In The Loop newsletter to discuss this very issue. Read the full article if you’re interested and stay tuned for more on this in the coming weeks.

New NGSIS Website and Blog

Following McLuhan’s guidance that the medium is the message we set out to create a web space that has a more modern look and feel, provides useful and engaging content and would allow visitors to dig into the depths and complexity of this program if they desired.

Through this new site and blog, we aim to provide transparency to the what’s, why’s, how’s and when’s of the NGSIS program and its various projects.

The website offers layers of information intended to meet you at your level of interest and time available. At a glance you will find all in-progress projects with their completion percentages on our project list page. Further, you may wish to review a just the facts summary of each project or, for the ambitious, dive deeper into the narrative stories behind each project to learn more about why certain projects were initiated, the problem we were trying to solve and how we came to achieve these results. We have devoted time and energy into these stories because we think it’s important to share some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way and to share context for how certain solutions have come to be.

The blog is an opportunity for us to share aspects of the program in a more conversational manner. We will have regular updates on program activities, a regular series of post contributors and invite guests to provide their take on NGSIS related matters. If you’re interested, subscribe to our blog (below this post) to receive updates when a new post is up.

If you have any comments feel free to leave them or if you have an idea to suggest to NGSIS by all means let us know!