Thoughts and tips on using Academica

Academica has been the University’s official portal for a few days now, and the Feedback section has been filling up with likes, dislikes and assorted comments. I’ve combed through the comments so far and have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

Appearance

First, there is the notion of a ‘portal’. In contemporary computing terms, a ‘portal’ is a webpage that leads you to facilities that permit you to do stuff. It’s different from an organization’s ‘website’, which is a webpage that allows you to find out stuff. So a portal should be interactive, while a website should be like a reference work (an almanac or a phone book, or even an encyclopedia).

Categorization

So, most of the links that appear in Academica are either interactive (‘see my paystub’, ‘check my grades’, ‘search for a journal article in the Library’) or lead to interactive links (‘Benefits and Deductions’).

Of course, some lead to other portals, such as the link to the IRB in the Office of Research, and a few are there even though they are static, simply because of popular demand (‘Campus Map’, ‘Research Compliance’), but the principle distinction was between ‘doing things’ and ‘finding out stuff’.

Finding stuff

If you want to use Academica as your portal for everything, you can use the search box at the top and select (with the drop-down arrow) to search the WSU Website, where you can find anything that is searchable (parking structure maps, English major requirements, General Counsel’s office) on the wayne.edu domain.

Appearance

A number of folks commented on the visual appearance (some in less than complementary terms), and seemed to think Pipeline was more visually appealing—an opinion I’d challenge, myself. However, the main reason Academica looks the way it does it that it was designed from the ground up to be easy to use on any device, and particularly to be easy to use with smaller devices, like phones and tablets. It actually detects the size of your display and customizes itself automatically. The reason for this is that increasing numbers of us use mobile devices as our primary means to access the electronic world. A recent study showed that ninety percent of Wayne State students bring smartphones to their classes, and now they can use their phones to check the status of their bursar’s account, or their final grades, and employees can check their paystubs (I just checked mine with my iPhone 5s in three ‘clicks’).

Why did we do this?

Pipeline is at the end of its development cycle–the company that made it is no longer supporting it. That makes it like a car whose spare parts are unavailable. It could keep running, but if it broke suddenly it can’t be repaired. C&IT decided it was better to replace it before that happened, and our local app-programming gurus built something for the twenty-first century. In addition to being usable on all devices it is very adaptable. It will not break a sweat if twenty thousand students check their grades all at once. Those who used Pipeline over the years know that it tended to roll over if demand got heavy. Academica is pretty resilient and should not do that.

Academica is here

As of July 31, Pipeline is being switched off, and will be replaced by Academica. Everything you used to use Pipeline for can be done through Academica, but faster (i.e. with fewer clicks). You can get to:

  • time sheets
  • registration
  • TravelWayne
  • pay stubs
  • class schedules
  • reporting
  • SET Scores

Academica learns your preferences. While the initial display is generic, after you have clicked on particular links a couple of times they will always appear on the ‘front page’. But if you don’t see something, you can always use the search box, a very powerful search engine that can find any link you might need (Search box is circled in red):

Academica search box

Academica also permits messaging within the Wayne State community. Like Twitter it permits #hashtags and @ mentions (ask someone younger than you if you don’t know what those are 🙂 ). Academica is also designed to work perfectly on mobile devices of any size screen.

The ‘stuff on the left’ is a series of threaded conversations, akin to comments on Facebook and similar social networking sites. If that kind of thing doesn’t appeal to you, you can ignore it, but it allows you to ‘converse’ with others in the groups to which you are automatically subscribed (such as one for each class you are registered in, if you are a student) or to create new ones on the fly to hold discussions either in private or publicly.

Finally, as always, ignore any email message that says you have to ‘do something’ to transition to Academica. And especially, don’t click on any links in such messages. When in doubt, type the name into your web browser yourself:  academica.wayne.edu or a.wayne.edu for short. That way, you always know where you are. And where you aren’t.

If you have questions, contact the C&IT Help Desk at (313) 577-HELP or helpdesk@wayne.edu.

Replace Pipeline with Academica in your Bookmarks, soon

Pipeline is about to be replaced with a totally new, social-media-oriented website/portal called Academica. It is device-agnostic, which means it works with all computers, all tablets and most smartphones (something people have been requesting for almost as long as there have been smartphones).

It’s also smart itself. It remembers the tasks within the system that you use most, and bubbles them up to the front page so that most common tasks are always one click away. For example, if you’re a faculty member it will put Download Classlists and TravelWayne up front and center, but if you have to approve timesheets that link will be right there as well. In general most tasks should be no more than one, or at most two clicks away.

It also comes with a built-in messaging system that is similar in features to Twitter. It allows you to use hashtags (#hashtag) and mentions (@GeoffNathan). There will be streams associated with a number of common topics of discussion, as well as streams for departments and one for each class being taught.

Academica is still being developed (technically it’s in beta), but you’re welcome to try it right now. Just go to academica.wayne.edu and log in as usual. You will have the option to switch to exclusive use of Academica (instead of Pipeline), but there is always a button available to switch back to the old Pipeline interface if you need to.
Since it’s still under development, C&IT is looking for feedback, which you can send by writing to academica@wayne.edu, or by going to http://computing.wayne.edu/academicafeedback .

The official roll-out will be some time in the fall, but feel free to play with it now. Who knows, you may never want to switch back to Pipeline. Academica and Pipeline will both be available at first, but Pipeline will be shut down in the 2014-2015 academic year when we are confident that Academica can support all of our campus needs.

Here’s a preview of what the interface looks like, showing only the links part:

Academica Links Section

Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?

Those of you familiar with British sitcoms might be aware of the show The IT Crowd, about an IT support office for a huge but mysterious company. Their catchphrase is the title of this blog. The reason I’m bringing this up is that C&IT is going to do just that this coming Sunday. Everything you know and love will go away from midnight Saturday night till 10 AM Sunday morning, and this blog is intended to provide a sense of why this is being done and what effects it will have.

As you might imagine, C&IT has hundreds of servers, running Pipeline, Blackboard, Banner and even each other. The last bit is because much of the C&IT infrastructure runs on virtual machines rather than having one operating system per machine, and there is also complex load balancing going on. When there are thousands of people visiting Blackboard at the same time a ‘traffic cop’ assigns them to different routes to the basic Blackboard files.
Consequently, the electrical power demands of these hundreds of units are very large, and require  a very elaborate system to assure continuous power. The system includes an enormous battery back-up system, and beyond that, a natural gas-powered generator to power the entire building independently when power problems occur. All this is necessary to deal with the vagaries of electrical supply in the city of Detroit, especially during the peak-demand summer months.

The electricity comes into the primary room to the un-interruptable power supply (UPS) system and is then routed to power distribution units (PDU’s) where the power is transformed from 480 volts to 208 volts before being distributed through panels that are similar to the circuit breaker panels in your basement. Over the years the number of servers has increased, and it’s time to rewire the PDU’s  in order to make sure that servers are connected redundantly to the PDU’s and subsequently the breakers. But, as you know if you’ve ever thought about doing this at home, you need to shut off the entire power supply before you touch anything. So, early on Sunday morning (specifically 12:01 AM) we’ll start shutting down all the computers. Because they are all interconnected, this is a complex and slow process. Then the electrical guys will do the rewiring, and finally we’ll turn it all back on again, which is again, a very slow and careful process. This is why we’re allocating ten hours for the complete change. It’s possible it will take less time, but just to be sure, we’re being very cautious.

So, everything you normally use (Blackboard, Pipeline, Banner, Wayne Connect email…) will be turned off between midnight and 10 AM Sunday morning. We’re hoping, because the university is closed Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day, that this will not be too disruptive.

You need to upgrade your Internet Explorer to enter grades or download classlists

If you use Internet Explorer, and you are still using version 7, you will need to upgrade to version 8, or switch to a different browser, such as Firefox. Microsoft issued a security upgrade to IE7 which broke its ability to run drop-down menus. Pipeline uses dropdown menus for various functions, such as Web Time Entry (which most faculty don’t use), but also for Download Class List, which you’ll be using shortly. Not to mention inputting grades, which is not as far off as it seems.
The gory details (including how to do this and where to get help) are here:
computing.wayne.edu