No Scat Left Behind

Monday, 3 September 2007 — 4:30pm | Computing, Studentpolitik

I have remained silent about the Bear Scat debacle over the course of its development this summer, but I think it’s high time to decloak.

Any casual observer of student politics over the span of more than a few years can tell you that between the quick turnover time between successive executives or councils and the erratic fluctuation of institutional memory (if any is still around to fluctuate), nothing sticks, and apathy comes naturally. I’m long past the point where I can rely on the student government to commit to anything reliably, and you should be too.

That said, the U of A Students’ Union occasionally bumbles its way into something that actually impacts students, and that’s when it’s time to intervene—if it’s not too late. As such, I am going to provide a cursory analysis, and at the very end, propose a course of action.

Here are the facts according to Bear Scat creator Steve Kirkham, or as I like to call them, the facts. Here are the facts according to VP (Academic) Bobby Samuel, or as I like to call them, further evidence that the ability of any governing body to properly assess the costs and benefits of any given technology hasn’t improved since the days of the atomic bomb. Gateway coverage is here, with an accompanying editorial by Adam Gaumont.

I strongly recommend perusing the comment thread beneath the editorial, as it contains a few nuggets of wisdom that I’m going to quote directly, because I was going to say the same thing anyway—and in all probability, with far less eloquence and tact.

From Mustafa Hirji:

BearTracks is clearly inferior to Bear Scat, and Bear Tracks really should be better. But there’s a simple fact here: it costs the University literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to make changes to Bear Tracks. From my experience sitting through meetings about BearTracks and reading reports oon the PeopleSoft sytem’s implementation, I can say that without a question, it will cost millions of tuition dollars to bring BearTracks up to the standard of Bear Scat. That’s the reason BearTracks sucks royally right now: the University hasn’t been willing to pay to make the improvements because it would cost way too much and they’d need to cut funding somewhere else (fat chance).

The question here was whether it was better to spend $10,000 to offer Bear Scat, or a few million to improve BearTracks to be closer (though not equal) to Bear Scat’s level.

To me the one that’s best for student experience and student affordability is obvious.

From Chris Jones:

Peoplesoft isn’t going away, and that means that Beartracks isn’t either. The best available alternative, in my mind, is for somebody to acknowledge that Peoplesoft is at best a bad way to do student registration and adequately fund an abstraction layer on top of it for people to actually use. The obvious one is, of course, Bearscat.

This boils down to a number of points, as I see it.

1) The SU severely overestimates the ability of the University and its contracted software operations (in this case, PeopleSoft) to make changes quickly or cheaply.

Not only is the SU passing the buck, it’s doing so with fingers crossed that someone will be on the other end to receive it by the time it gets there. In my experience with large entities building large software systems, I can guarantee that this will not happen to anything even remotely resembling the satisfaction of the end-user, which is, in this case, the student body.

I don’t see any evidence that the SU has been in consultation with anyone even remotely technologically literate in developing their wholly frivolous proposals. In fact, I construe their actions to be evidence to the contrary.

This isn’t saying that the SU should throw its hands in the air and give up on advocating for better online registration services directly from the University and its partners; this is saying that refusing to provide adequate support for Bear Scat is, by way of the harm it does the student body, an absolutely unacceptable bargaining manoeuvre—and certainly one that isn’t going to motivate the University, or PeopleSoft, to provide better services any sooner.

For the sake of assessing internal consistency, let’s take a look at the SU’s Political Policy on Bear Scat, approved by Council 28 June. It’s an ambiguously worded sham as it is (Kirkham explains why), but let us humour it just this once:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Students’ Union will lobby the University to alter Bear Tracks so that it will have features including, but not limited to, a graphic interface and a waitlist notification system.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT, until Bear Tracks includes the above features and attains a level of functionality comparable to that of Bear Scat, the Students’ Union will continue to advocate for support of Bear Scat.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT support of Bear Scat will not burden students or the Students’ Union.

Dispensing with the second resolution rather hastily, are we not?

2) Insufficient support for Bear Scat’s operating costs is functionally equivalent to no support at all.

In case we’ve forgotten, the reason why the SU incorporated the originally independent Bear Scat to begin with in the 2003-2004 academic year was in order to provide integration with the registration system. Mr. Kirkham’s front-end interface was originally designed as a scheduler; SU support added the ability to add, drop and swap courses directly, without having to copy course numbers and do all the actual registration in the University’s Bear Tracks software.

Without adequate funding for the computing hardware to handle the registration feature, the SU has effectively departed from that very policy above, and shot itself in the proverbial foot. Again.

3) The SU has deliberately ignored overwhelming student support and demand for the Bear Scat service.

The SU’s official statement reduces to the statement, “We don’t believe students should be paying for things the University should be paying for.” The current state of Bear Tracks is not a “should” issue. The problem here is that the University isn’t providing adequate services, and “moral authority” or not, the SU’s support of an extant solution takes precedence over its long-term bargaining power. Students need an effective and demonstrably superior way to register for courses now. The software solution is already there; I suggest we use it.

Here is my proposed solution: draft a referendum question and accompanying petition to force the issue in the March 2008 SU election. If passed, this will have the effect of binding the SU to fund Bear Scat out of a dedicated budget funded in part by a fee to the students. As for the specifics of the referendum question—the proposed cost to students, and the duration of the agreement, I think others, such as Mr. Kirkham himself, are far better equipped to perform the requisite analysis. Two years at $0.75 per student per term sounds exceedingly reasonable to me.

This will not solve funding or registration woes for the 2007-2008 academic year, the only year the issue will affect me personally, but I think this is the most effective action students can take to ensure tangible results.

More importantly, it is imperative that we send the SU the message that if we don’t see the University demonstrate a superior long-term solution by next March (and they won’t), the students will pay for Bear Scat independently of where the SU thinks its advocacy priorities lie—and we will do so gladly.

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2 rejoinders to “No Scat Left Behind”

  1. Adam K

    Well I’m glad the SU is functioning great without me.

    Wednesday, 5 September 2007 at 12:52am

  2. Best comments I’ve seen yet on this issue! I totally should have found your blog before this however… how well written! 🙂

    Thursday, 6 September 2007 at 9:24pm

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