Some Pomona students encountered problems while registering for courses two weeks ago as a large number of students using the MyPomona portal overloaded the system. Pomona’s Information Technology Services (ITS) received complaints from students who tried searching for courses, only to find that all courses had seemingly disappeared.
According to ITS Director of Information Systems Andrew Crawford, the number of students on the site was simply too much for the software to handle. When a student searches for courses, the portal connects to each school’s individual course database. However, the portal has a limit to how many connections it can make at a time and when too many students tried to search for courses at the same time, MyPomona ran out of available connections.
Crawford said that the problem stemmed from a misconfiguration of the software, and noted that ITS has since applied an update that greatly increases the number of available connections, which will hopefully prevent this problem from occurring in future semesters.
Some wondered whether the overload was caused by students waiting to submit PERM requests for courses as soon as they closed. On the portal, students are able to submit PERMission to Enroll Requests before their official registration times, in order to allow students who do not meet requirements for the class to obtain permission to add before their official registration time.
According to some, however, this lead to students such as Rishi Sangani PO ’15 “camping” on courses before their registration time in order to be first on the PERM waiting list. Sangani said that he checked the website every hour to see whether the courses he wanted had closed.
However, Pomona Registrar Margaret Adorno said that most faculty do not use the exact order of students on the PERM list when accepting requests, because students can submit a rationale with their PERM. She added, though, that the Office of the Registrar would “look at making a tweak on that so faculty can see the enrollment appointment,” in addition to just the time that the PERM request was sent.
Adorno also said that she sympathizes with students who were frustrated during registration.
“The slowness is really disagreeable, and if you’re doing searches and not getting results, that’s too much user annoyance, definitely,” she said. “I’m sure that they’re really trying to work it out; we have a rather unique situation here.”
Pomona College, like all members of the Claremont University Consortium, allows students to take courses at the other colleges. However, this leads to a complicated technical set-up.
The colleges contract software from Jenzabar, Inc. to handle course, student, and administrative data. But because each college has unique student and administrative data, they keep their databases separate. This then slows down MyPomona, which has to connect to each college’s individual database.
Changing the software, a solution proposed by some students, would have to involve a joint decision by all five colleges.
The current Jenzabar system was implemented in 2002, the year Crawford was hired by ITS. Before that, the colleges used software which didn’t have a web interface.
“It was pretty old school,” Crawford said. “We needed… to support things like the Internet. Pretty important.”
Pomona ITS does try its best to keep the software fast and up-to-date, Crawford said. In recent years, ITS has made changes that speed up the system quite a bit, including switching to a more configurable operating system and using solid-state hard drives, which are far faster than typical computer hard drives.
“Because there are so many layers and moving pieces, we’ll spend a lot of time looking at one and optimizing it, then we’ll look at the next one,” he said, “Staying current on the vendor software, running the latest stable release, it’s an ongoing challenge.”
Other problems with the MyPomona course registration system that students complain about include the inability to use the “Back” button or to open course pages in new tabs.
The problem stems from an outdated technology (called “post back”) in Jenzabar’s software, Crawford said. He added that Pomona College and many of Jenzabar’s other clients are pushing for the problem to be fixed.
In the meantime, many students have learned to use the “Back” link on each page, instead of the button in their browser.
Crawford said that he welcomes feedback from students about the MyPomona portal.
“Students are probably the most tech savvy, no, students are the most tech savvy constituents of our college,” he said, “so their feedback is highly prized.”
“We really appreciate the good nature about the less-than-perfect parts of it all,” Adorno said of Pomona student portal users. “Nevertheless, we want to make it better and better.”