Study Abroad or How I Learned to Stop Worrying | firez
Web Services

Study Abroad – or « How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love SITS »

So, three years ago, we moved the course pages in the CMS from their old home to our good old Sky home-made web server. After it was completed, we began moving Studying Abroad from its three former homes into one.

It went terribly wrong

This is the story of what went wrong, why it went wrong and how we fixed it all with the brand new web pages we launched last week. It’s also the story of how a service that has always been an afterthought on the web has become a precursor to some of the things we want to do as part of the relaunch project.

In 2000 there was a page. In 2005, ERASMUS/Socrates and the Transatlantic Student Exchange split into two microsites. In 2014, a third site appeared for some reason in international admissions. It was a disaster.

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The 2014 plan:

  • We should go back to having one site instead of two and a half.
  • You shouldn’t worry about which structural exchange program you will use when choosing.
  • It should match the new design course pages because it’s about studying.
  • It should be nice and easy to choose which country you want to go to.

So what went wrong and why?

  1. Don’t merge old sites
    We just put them next to each other, but they were still separate for Erasmus and non-Erasmus.
  2. It’s not actually part of /study
    We had built Studying Abroad with the idea that “it’s all study, it’s all admissions”. This meant that it shared many of the design features of the rest of the studio section. However, many of these were completely irrelevant. If you’re a current student looking for an exchange, the course finder doesn’t need to take up a significant portion of your screen. Also, the left navigation bar was shared with Undergraduate, meaning it was cluttered with loads of pages that, again, weren’t relevant to the audience.
  3. Build the site upside down
    It turns out that the exchanges are based on topics. We don’t have computer exchanges in France, so a computer student looking at French partners will be disappointed.
  4. Starting too early
    By the time we realized the rather crippling flaw in issue #3, we had most of the site built. Also, after spending so much time on it while trying to figure it out, we were constantly rewriting and changing it. This meant that we were at a point where if anything changed for a partner we would have to update it in five points.
  5. Two years of tweaks.
    After launch, we spent two years trying to fix the shoehorns into something that was pretty flawed. It wasn’t easy, and coupled with the complexity of the backend, it only made it worse. Curiously, in the latest version even the logo had tried to escape.

Making things right

Determined not to repeat such mistakes, I started planning for the replacement long before we had the ability to actually implement it.

The site structure needed to reflect the user journey for whatever user was on the site. Instead of dividing the site into Erasmus and non-Erasmus, the division was between Dundee students and those wishing to come here.

For a Dundee student, the course is key. We have built a filter system similar to scholarship/room booking searches. Our computer science student therefore only sees the 29 partners relevant to him, rather than the full list of over 110.

They can also filter by language, so if they prefer to be taught in English, remove the two Italian partners.

For an incoming student, we’ve kept the list of countries, although we expect most to come directly to the partner page, either from Google or from their institution.

Our new partner pages are much more focused on showcasing the University of Dundee, with student testimonials, photos of accommodation and the ability to showcase forms for their subjects.

That’s great, but what about maintenance?

To lighten the maintenance load, we’ve reduced the number of pages from 267… to 266. So after this less than stellar reduction in content, how are we going to make sure our partner lists don’t go bad again?

If you were paying attention, you might remember I said we needed to update partner information in five places:

  1. Update the AGN record to SITS
  2. Refresh the outgoing HTML page on Sky
  3. Update the HTML page coming to Sky
  4. Update the outgoing content section on T4 CMS
  5. Update the content section coming to T4 CMS

Even after the old Sky sites were taken down meaning we were down to three pages it was still difficult. Pam or Karen were updating SITS, then we’d get an email request to fix the website. Requests are often complex (partners wanting to change their name to an Anglicized version, switching partners with similar names, problems with accented characters), plus they came in thick and fast and it was easy to get confused. At the end of the old site, hundreds of emails later, we noticed that several missing partners and others that should have been removed were still active.

Five 2 three 2 one

SITS is our current student management system. Responsible for maintaining student records, from application to graduation. Our trading partners exist within SITS as agents (on screen AGN in SITS parlance), allowing us to admit them to Dundee.

So if this data already exists, why duplicate it? All the errors occurred while trying to keep the web versions separate, so why not remove this step?

With a little help from UoDIT to enable our servers to read the SITS database, some suggestions from Admissions and Registry, and a lot of work from our development team, we realized we could run partner pages entirely on the information which Admissions was already maintaining.

Admissions had to do some work sorting out their data and had to add two extra fields, but once that was done the site essentially built itself.

For a partner update or removal, admissions update record, it will update on the web overnight. That’s all. No more missing partners, no more zombie partners, no more confusion between North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina.

Our web workload is now reduced to adding partners (now a ten second job, not half an hour) and routine photo and text maintenance.

With proper content verification, decent testing, and a redesign of the latest templates, we finally had a site that worked for everyone. Dundee students can filter by their course and only get relevant partners for their course. There is no more Erasmus/non-Erasmus split, with partners showing the correct information on their info pages.

The future

Studying abroad is far from unusual, there are many places on the website where there are several intermediate steps where problems can be introduced. Being able to take content directly from the horse’s mouth allows us to avoid many of these problems and is something we hope to do a lot more as part of the web restart project. Of course this introduces new problems, particularly around complying with our Content Style Guide, but none of them are insurmountable and the benefits far outweigh the costs.