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Rice Internet services in need of a makeover

By Christoph Meyer     2/7/12 6:00pm

Who knew Rice's Internet student services needed to be improved? It turns out, most of us are painfully aware of this fact every day. Faced with the necessary tasks of checking email, registering for classes or checking on our homework, most Rice students access the Internet on an hourly basis. Computers and the Internet have become a fundamental part of our daily lives and our academic experience. From the Common Application to applying for graduation, our time at Rice consists of a significant online component. While our university has made significant strides in many domains over the past few years, through new buildings, initiatives and research discoveries, it feels as though we have seriously stagnated in terms of our Information Technology. While we may be attending Rice in the year 2012, core online elements of our educational experience remain behind the times.

One of our first introductions to life as a Rice student occurs during the summer before matriculation and happens to take place online. In order to complete some of the more mundane tasks of attending Rice, we are sent to the site that has now become familiar to us all: Esther. I remember the first time I used Esther and how thoroughly confused and frustrated I was. I may not be a Computer Science major, but I know a poor website when I see one. In addition to the sub-par user-friendliness, I immediately felt a blast from the past, as if I had suddenly gone back to using my Windows 98 computer. Four years later, I often still have the same reaction, wondering how old this software is and why there haven't been any improvements. The "search" function is pretty much useless, as it will only rarely help you find what you are looking for. The task of resolving holds, our favorite registration pre-requisite, can be nebulous and aggravating if one doesn't have a friendly peer academic advisor on hand for assistance. How about checking grades? Is there really no way that we could receive email notifications that grades have been submitted? With all the advances that have occurred in online technology over the past years, this website seems absolutely archaic. Rice has developed a Facebook page, Fondren Library has created an app, and our president has a Twitter, but we're still using this 1990s website for all of our most important interactions with the university. Inconceivable.

As disappointing as Esther has been, it is only one component of a larger set of poor online functions to which we have access. Esther may be an essential part of our experience, but we tend not to use it on a daily basis and it certainly doesn't feature as many homepages. Email, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. As most of us are subscribed to listservs, OWL-Space messages or email chains, our inbox gets flooded continuously. Given that email is arguably the single most important tool in our academic experience, Rice Webmail underserves students' needs in this domain, only offering marginally over a gigabyte of space and poor functionality. As reported last year in Thresher, more than 70 percent of Rice students forward their email to another provider. While some may do so out of convenience, most are simply trying to avoid dealing with Rice's system. Rice Webmail seems like a constant reminder of why Gmail has come to dominate past providers such as Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. Similar to Esther, this email service seems totally outdated. While Gmail was supposedly going to be launched at Rice this year, it still remains unclear why it has taken so long. Institutions such as Northwestern University, which I visited four years ago as a prospective student, had already been using Gmail for a while. It goes without saying that transitioning to a new email provider is a sensitive issue, and Rice must limit its vulnerability. However, the use of such an out-of-date system is nonetheless disappointing. For a university that prides itself on being innovative and modern, our email service does not fit the bill.

While Rice has done a solid job in other areas of Internet presence or technology infrastructure, such as updating the versions of Microsoft on the computers or the new Fondren website, other key online elements fall short of students' desires and needs. OWL-Space, for example, is also far from perfect. In addition to having frequent down-periods, it does little to facilitate interaction between students and professors. Why are people able to see each other online but not chat with each other? Why are the forums so uninviting to users, limiting their potential as a powerful tool for collaboration? Why can't students post questions to which professors respond with answers, for all to see? The list goes on, but in comparison to the other defunct technologies, OWL-Space generally seems somewhat more effective even if that's not really saying much.

The time has come for Rice to implement systems more contemporary to this age. It comes as little surprise that students were so impressed with the fairly basic (yet useful) schedule planner that was finally introduced this year, when we have grown accustomed to such antiquated systems. Rice needs to start focusing on updating these intrinsic and vital online systems. We may love themes celebrating the '90s, but when it comes to technology, let us look forward rather than remain in the past.

Christoph Meyer is aHanszen College senior.

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