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A computer screen filled with tabs open to the University of Michigan’s Course Guide, ratemyprofessor.com, Wolverine Access, Atlas and Schedule Builder can only mean one thing for students: registration time. As the Spring/Summer 2021 and Fall 2021 backpacking and registration period prepares to open on March 24, a new Schedule Builder program developed by the Center for Academic Innovation aims to streamline the process.
Prior to its launch, The Michigan Daily was invited to take a tour of the new schedule building tool.
The new tool, which is also launching March 24 and can be accessed through the Atlas homepage, is intended to replace the previous Schedule Builder software which was licensed to the University by third-party company Civitas Learning for around $40,000 annually. Though the simple, colorful aesthetic of the new calendar interface varies slightly from the old tool, the new Atlas Schedule Builder will offer several of the same features as the older one.
David Nesbitt, software portfolio manager at CAI, said the project started in 2019 when the Registrar’s Office asked the CAI to develop a schedule builder in Atlas before the third-party tool came up on its expiration date in February 2021.
“The big difference is that (the new tool) is a homegrown platform,” Nesbitt said. “So this is all built at U of M for U of M students with U of M feedback.”
Key features take inspiration from the previous Schedule Builder
Similar to the previous tool, a student can search for classes offered during the desired academic term and the schedule builder will automatically populate them into an organized weekly schedule. Different classes are represented by various brightly colored boxes aligned with the times listed on the left side of the schedule.
The new tool also includes a “Currently Viewing” tab to better organize possible courses and allows students to add breaks so no courses can be scheduled during those times.
Once a student has selected all their classes and indicated any desired breaks, they can click on “Generate Schedule Options” and the tool will allow them to toggle through all the possible schedule configurations tailored to their specifications in a matter of seconds, similar to the old Schedule Builder.
Nesbitt said even though there are similarities between the two platforms, it benefits the University to own and operate its own tool.
“One thing I really want to emphasize is that we don’t want to compare it too much with the old one,” Nesbitt said. “We want to make sure we’re not saying, ‘oh, (the old tool) is bad. And now it’s good!’ It just makes more sense for the University to have an internal platform and it’s going to bring more cohesiveness across the student experience.”
Airbnb, Amazon and… Atlas?
David Corneail, user experience designer at CAI, said the new platform will be reminiscent of major online shopping sites such as Amazon or Airbnb.
“As designers you’re always thinking about similar products or other products that students are using… so they don’t have to learn a brand new system,” Corneail said. “And people are so familiar with certain sites like Airbnb and Amazon and so it felt natural to… have them come to our site and use our product for a very similar kind of experience.”
Corneail said when he talked to students about the registration process, they were already comparing backpacking to making an online shopping cart. When he was designing and planning the new schedule builder, Corneail said he wanted to expand on this view by using specific language or visual cues to mimic paradigms in online marketplaces.
Corneail said the current Atlas homepage is already set up similar to Airbnb or Google, with very little content on the screen except for the search bar. This invites students to start their registration and schedule building experience by searching by course, instructor or major.
On Atlas, students have already been able to see details for classes such as grade distribution and perceived workload compared to similar credit hours. With the new schedule builder, Corneail said he hopes students will feel as if they are “browsing” for classes in the already-existing Atlas interface by looking at the student feedback and data for each course of interest. Students also have the option to click a pink “bookmark” icon and save courses to their dashboard, which Corneail said is similar to an Amazon wishlist.
Once a student is working on their schedule in the new tool, they can “try out different products” by seeing how classes fit into their potential schedule. They can then choose to review their “cart” and “check-out” by sending their final schedule to their backpack and finishing the official registration process through the University’s registration site.
Corneail said the shopping model works “beautifully” with Atlas because it minimizes the number of interfaces and websites students have to interact with when registering for classes.
“Students would have a lot of tabs open, and they’d be going from one place to another all the time,” Corneail said. “We wanted to bring all the information closer together and keep things in a more central space, like students are used to on (shopping sites).”
Adding access for advisers
In an email to The Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said advisers now have access to the tool under a “view-only” setting, which was previously not allowed with the old tool.
“With the previous tool, we did not have an option to give advisers view-only access to the scheduling tool,” Fitzgerald said. “There was a feature that allowed advisers access to their students in Schedule Builder, but they would have access to add and delete classes. It was decided that it was not appropriate to give advisers that access.”
Jennifer Taylor, adviser for first-year and undeclared students in the College of Engineering, said when she engaged with freshmen at orientation it was slightly cumbersome to help students work through creating their schedule in Schedule Builder when she had never had the opportunity to use the tool herself.
“We would have the students login themselves and register and then they would have to show us what they could see,” Taylor said.
Taylor was one of several advisers across campus who worked with CAI during the planning stage to provide initial ideas about what features advisers would want to see in the new tool.
Taylor said she is excited about a recently added “course collection” feature that gives anyone with access to Atlas the opportunity to create a folder with a group of courses and send it to a student via a share link. The student can then import that collection into their schedule builder and work with their adviser to find the best configuration for them.
“Being able to set up a mock course schedule and then send it to a student is very exciting to us as advisors because it’s great to be able to use technology as a tool to communicate with students through advising,” Taylor said.
From ART to Atlas to schedule builder: a short history
Though the new schedule builder tool has been in the works for just two years, both it and Atlas are part of a bigger project that started in the early 2000s.
Gus Evrard, professor of physics and astronomy, first became involved with Academic Reporting Tools, ART 1.0, around 2003 when he heard a proposal from then-LSA Dean Philip Hanlon.
Evrard said the University supported Hanlon’s request to design a virtual tool that would analyze pairings of classes by looking at the strength of the correlation between when the two classes were taken. This was intended to help plan out efficient “course paths” by identifying common pairs of classes taken either subsequently or simultaneously.
Evrard launched the ART 1.0 site in 2006 as a place for faculty to find basic — particularly grade- and enrollment-based — information about singular courses.
An updated version, ART 2.0, which was focused on giving students rather than just faculty a way to access and visualize data concerning courses, majors and professors, officially launched on March 23, 2016.
“We came up with essentially three decks of cards, for courses, instructors and for majors,” Evrard said. “An important part of all of this was having a strong design team… because this is all visual information, and there’s a lot of it. So the ability to present this information in a way that people can easily digest was super important.”
In September 2019, ART 2.0 was rebranded into Atlas, which Nesbitt said was primarily done to alleviate confusion about the acronym ART which some students associated with art and design.
Corneail and Evrard said the online shopping model was a direct result of student input at the Design Jam, an event hosted by the CAI in Nov. 2019, where students worked in teams to design a new schedule building tool.
“The wealth of detail we got out of (the Design Jam) was refined and shaped into the schedule builder, in the product that you’re going to use soon,” Evrard said. “And that’s going to continue to shape our product, like when somebody gives us feedback through the feedback button, we read it. And we respond.”
Overall, the tool’s developers told The Daily noted the ultimate test will be what students think of the new tool when they begin using it in the upcoming registration process. In general, students told The Daily they look forward to the launch of the new schedule builder.
Business freshman Victoria Kovac said she used the old tool to plan out her previous two semesters and hopes for greater flexibility in terms of the color options in the new one.
“I didn’t like that you couldn’t change the colors with the other one, so I hope they can incorporate that somehow,” Kovac said. “The thing I really liked about the old one is that it could create a lot of schedules and you could click through them and see your options visually.”
Kinesiology junior Joseph Shoemaker said he was an avid user of the old tool and of Atlas, becoming well acquainted with both while teaching several School of Kinesiology freshmen how to use them over the summer when he worked as a peer adviser during orientation.
Shoemaker said he is excited to see how Atlas and the schedule builder will be consolidated on a single interface, and looks forward to playing around with the new tool to organize fall schedules for himself and his friends.
“I used (the old tool) pretty much every semester for all my classes and my friends’ schedules so we could plan out our schedules together if we could take classes together and that type of stuff,” Shoemaker said. “I hope (the new tool) flows well, just to make it easier for people to use. Making it aesthetically pleasing and easily accessible is pretty much all I could ask for.”
Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article said David Nesbitt is a software design portfolio manager. His actual title is software portfolio manager.
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