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Development at SOCCCD: The Student Design Team Meets SmartSchedule

A Q&A with Bob Bramucci and Jim Gaston

What can your students do to help improve the campus systems they rely on? At South Orange County Community College District, a student design team is credited with the popularity and good fit of that institution's home-grown "SmartSchedule" program.

The student team has worked alongside campus development staff since 2017, tackling the design of features that will truly help real-world students interact with campus scheduling, faculty advising, and registration processes. Here, CT gets a brief history of SOCCCD's Student Design Team and updates from Vice Chancellor of Technology and Learning Robert S. Bramucci and Jim Gaston, SOCCCD's Director of IT.

Mary Grush: Bob and Jim, you are here to talk about SmartSchedule, now in version 2.0, and the impact of a team of student designers on that specific software. But first, have student systems in general changed significantly, say, over the past few decades?

Bob Bramucci: Indeed, much has changed in student systems, especially since the 1980s. Even something as fundamental as registering for classes has changed dramatically just in the past several years. And the student experience is now always changing — hopefully for the best.

When I registered for college in the 1980s, one spent hours, in person, usually waiting in line at the gymnasium. Today's students simply register online, with the average registration session lasting about three and a half minutes.

Other elements affecting the student experience, like tuition payment processes, education technology advances, the increased diversity of the campus community, communications with colleagues and peers, and the digital learning tools we have become accustomed to have changed the culture for existing students. It's quite interesting to compare all this to the college environments of Baby Boomers and GenXers — the same people who now comprise the majority of administrative positions in higher education.

Anyhow, when it was time for administrators at SOCCCD to adopt new technology to help students register for classes and to connect better with faculty and other students online, we did not draw from our own college experiences alone. We turned to our true subject matter experts: the current students.

Grush: Are most students aware of the way you are trying to make interactions with campus systems easier for them, so they can concentrate on learning and their academic goals?

Bramucci: Sure. But we will still get comments from students when things get difficult. "College is hard," we reply, "But registration doesn't have to be." So, we concentrate on streamlining interactions with registration, advising, and scheduling. And we draw on our students as we design our solutions.

Grush: Bob, how did the Student Design Team get started?

Bramucci: Dating back to 1995, SOCCCD, not unlike other community colleges, put its class schedules online. Back then, the static HTML pages were generated in a batch job each night. Then in 2002, the class schedule was upgraded to the first version of SmartSchedule, adding information from the course catalog, faculty profiles, real-time enrollment data, section-specific deadline dates, and campus maps to highlight the location of classes. In 2004, a shopping cart feature was added, fully integrating with the registration system.

Fast forwarding to 2017, the value of student input was finally clear to us, and we responded with the creation of a Student Design Team to assist in the development of SmartSchedule 2.0.

We sought out students to provide input, feedback, and anecdotal information about what they needed to succeed and which features in the registration process could help them in achieving their goals more efficiently. SmartSchedule 2.0 sought to bring information into one place and present it to students in an intuitive and understandable way.

The Student Design Team was created to be more than a one-time focus group meeting: It is a true working group that meets regularly with district IT staff about on-the-ground issues of SmartSchedule development.

Grush: Jim, what are some of the differences — between SmartSchedule and other software — that have allowed SmartSchedule 2.0 to serve students better than typical scheduling software?

Jim Gaston: Well, the class schedule has always been a neglected area in higher education technology. And it's a shame, because the class schedule is the very place where students are making specific, concrete decisions that are truly important and will, absolutely, impact their future. "Academic planning" is the theoretical path, but the class schedule is the place students sift through what is currently offered — there, they actually select desired classes. This is one reason we really need to have our Student Design Team engaged and working on SmartSchedule continuously.

And too often, other student systems are adopted and built in isolation. Then, they are integrated after the fact. They miss a lot of opportunities to create meaningful interactions with the students.

Grush: Jim, what are some of the specific ways you draw on students' input?

Gaston: It starts with the selection process where we try to get a representative cross section of students from the campuses of Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA and Irvine Valley College in Irvine, CA. Students of various ethnic backgrounds, genders, positions in life, areas of study, and career goals have applied, interviewed, and were hired to serve as professional student representatives. Technically speaking, the job of the students who serve on the Student Design Team is to provide helpful input about the operation of SmartSchedule especially — first among other student success tools.

From the design architecture, to the navigation tools, to the wording of each section, students have input on a tool that will influence much of their own college experience. Plus, a bonus for many members of the Student Design Team is the ability to improve the college experience for their peers and future students as well as for themselves. 

Grush: Jim, do the students work extensively with your team of staff developers? And are the students generally tech savvy?

Gaston: The members of the Student Design Team meet weekly with me, and with some members of our team. We meet regularly not only to improve upon the design and development of the SmartSchedule, but to fine tune other products under consideration by SOCCCD's IT Department.

Most of the students on the team are not "techies." In fact, most were brought to the team with limited knowledge and interest about technology — because we want systems designed by and for regular students. For example, Kelsey Lillie, a cosmetology student, openly shares that she has little interest in tech development but thought the opportunity to serve on the design team would be a good experience for her. 

Student Design Team member Sam Seifollahi is using the experience to not only meet new people, but to develop new skills. Sam works to record the "how to" video tutorials for SmartSchedule — an integral marketing tool to ensure that students utilize SmartSchedule to its full potential.

Grush: Bob, going forward, what might you expect to be SmartSchedule's impact?

Bramucci: Now that SmartSchedule 2.0 is up and running, we've narrowed our development focus, to concentrate specifically on the student involvement element of the product development process.

With the potential to serve as a replicable model throughout higher education, SOCCCD's Student Design Team is an example to other two- and four-year institutions about how the student voice, when included early and infused in every phase of the development process, can be an invaluable tool to help ensure that the work of staff and faculty meets the needs of students in today's environment.

The added advantage is that simultaneously, students gain hands-on experience in a professional environment and learn transferable skills that can be utilized throughout the rest of their academic and professional careers.

Overall, the everyday work that takes place on a South Orange County Community College District campus reflects the commitment of community colleges across America to focus on access, responsiveness to community need, and equity. We think SmartSchedule will continue to contribute positively to that and to our community.

[Editor's note: Images courtesy SOCCCD]

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