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Student apps show colleges the tech way

Vaibhav Verma, who built an application that could repeatedly query Rutgers University’s registration system

Aug. 28: Vaibhav Verma was frustrated that he could not get into the most popular courses at Rutgers University, so he decided to try a new approach.

He didn’t sleep outside classrooms to be first in line when the door opened, or send professors a solicitous note. Instead, he built a web-based application that could repeatedly query the New Jersey university’s registration system. As soon as anyone dropped the class, Verma’s tool would send him a message, and he would grab the open spot.

“I built it just because I was a little bit bored,” he said.

By the next semester, 8,000 people had used it.

At Brown University, Jonah Kagan had a clever idea of his own: Get his fellow students to name their three favourite courses, and use the results as a guide for people seeking great, unusual electives. Building the website was easy, but he could not persuade Brown to give him enrolment figures, which would have allowed him to control for differences in class size. So the survey died.

Experiences like those two are becoming common on campuses around the country, as students are showing up the universities that trained them by producing faster, easier-to-navigate, more informative and generally just better versions of the information systems at the heart of undergraduate life.

Students now arriving for fall semester may find course catalogues that they can instantly sort and re-sort according to every imaginable search criteria.

But this culture of innovation has accelerated debates about the flow of information on campus, and forced colleges to reckon with some unexpected results of the programming skills they are imparting.

Last year, 19 students at Baruch College in Manhattan used a computer script to check for openings in crowded courses — at such high frequency that they nearly took down not just Baruch’s computer system but also that of the entire City University of New York.

That earned them a stern talking-to. On the other hand, the scheduling app that two University of California, Berkeley, students devised worked so well that administrators decided to adapt it for official use.

These encounters have proved to be educational, though not always in the way the colleges intend.

“What I really learned,” Kagan said of his negotiations with Brown, “is how hard it is to get the data you need out of these old legacy school information systems”.

To some extent, the tension reflects a basic difference in worldview.

“Students are always more entrepreneurial and understand needs better than bureaucracies can,” said Harry R. Lewis, the director of undergraduate studies for Harvard’s computer science department.

 
 
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