U of T rolls out ‘one-stop shop’ for student awards

The University of Toronto has launched the first phase of Award Explorer – a public-facing, centralized awards repository that gives current and prospective students access to thousands of awards, prizes and medals.

Undergraduate and graduate students can easily look for, and apply to, awards in a single location using a combination of keyword searches and filters, including award type, campus, college, faculty, citizenship and more.

“The University of Toronto has a wide range of need- and merit-based financial supports for students,” says Richard Levin, U of T’s university registrar and executive director of enrolment services.

“Award Explorer is a one-stop shop that will make it much easier and faster for students to find the information they need. At the same time, it will streamline the back-end experience for staff.”

The new tool, the result of a partnership between Enrolment Services and Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI), centralizes the comprehensive annual support made available to U of T students. That includes nearly 4,500 admission scholarships, 6,000 in-course scholarships and close to 19,000 bursaries to undergraduate and second entry programs. That’s on top of 16,000 combined awards, fellowships and bursaries to graduate students.

“In the past, students searched for awards on multiple sites and they weren’t always sure what they might be eligible for,” says Donna Wall, the director of financial aid and awards at Enrolment Services. “With the launch of Award Explorer, we’re moving toward a consistent user experience for students and staff. It’s the beginning of building greater awareness of the wide range of need- and merit-based supports available.”

Awards continue to be added to the repository daily by department and faculty administrators. During this transition, current award information will continue to reside on divisional and departmental websites to ensure this information continues to be accessible to the public. Students can also access the tool through ACORN’s “Awards and Aid” page.

“Since 2016, we’ve been gathering input and feedback from the academic divisions and other stakeholders,” says Farah Ally, the Award Explorer project manager. “Engaging closely with our key users, such as Laura Stathopoulos, director of financial aid at the School of Graduate Studies, has contributed to the institutional success of this project.”

Award Explorer is now the primary source of award information at U of T and its functionality will continue to expand. Future phases are already in progress, which include automatically matching students to awards, allowing students to apply for awards online and notifying them about funding decisions and payment information. They will also be able to track the status of their applications, track award payment history and access their award letters.

“This project will transform award administration at U of T and make us a leader in award administration nationally,” says Wall. “We want to continue to attract the best and the brightest students.”


U of T cuts enrolment time by 25 per cent for thousands of students

It’s one of the most intense days of the year for U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science students – when thousands of users log in to the student information system to enrol. But this year, students could breathe a sigh of relief as the system, called ACORN, expertly handled over 53,000 transactions in record time.

In the past, ACORN struggled to deal with a high volume of concurrent users, but a three-year project to modernize the system with a new code base and infrastructure has paid off – on August 2, it took students an average of seven minutes versus nine to complete their enrolment.

The enrolment day and the project, known as the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project, involved Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI), Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Information Security & Enterprise Architecture (ISEA) at U of T’s Information Technology Services.

“This peak enrolment period is the time of year that really puts our system to the test,” says Frank Boshoff, senior manager of technical solutions and architecture with EASI. “This year was the smoothest enrolment to date. The new platform has given us the flexibility to deliver the services that a university of our stature requires.”

To prepare for the big day, the team increased monitoring, analytics and performance testing on the system.

“We had at least three months of preparation and we rolled out improvements to ensure the best user experience possible,” says Haroon Rafique, manager of development operations with EASI. “Leading up to the big day all indications showed that the system was performing well, but we were still waiting to see how it handled such a large volume. There were only slight delays during login and almost negligible performance degradation.”

Last year it took 24 seconds for an average page to load and this year only took 5.8 seconds, allowing students to complete their enrolment more quickly.

After the success of this enrolment period, the team now plans to explore the opportunity to compress the enrolment time period, allowing administrators more time to react to classes that are oversubscribed.

“It was rewarding to see how all of our work has paid off and it will be even more rewarding to see where future improvements take us,” says Laurel Williams, Information Technology Analyst with EASI.

From a broader perspective, the new platform will also offer an opportunity for future integration.

“The results from this day have shown that improving the platform was an investment well worth making,” says Boshoff. “We’re excited about the ability to integrate this platform with other systems and support more responsive, convenient outcomes for constituents.”

U of T’s Course Information System gets facelift

The Course Information System (CIS) is kicking off the New Year with a new look and feel – ready to save U of T faculty and administrators hundreds of hours of work.

After three months of usability testing and a survey conducted in early December 2018, CIS will display a redesigned homepage and other functional screens starting March 2019.

CIS was first developed with essential functionality for select units. Now it has been redesigned for a further expansion of its features and a broader user base, including new academic units across U of T. It streamlines syllabi and exams processes for instructors and administrators.

“CIS was initially designed to address some essential business needs. It served that purpose fairly well, but it’s also a living, breathing product that we envisioned as growing to support additional processes,” says Mike Clark, manager of user experience and process design with Enterprise Applications & Solutions Integration (EASI). “We’re now at a point where it makes sense to update the major aspects of the system’s design to accommodate those changes, and continue to afford a successful user experience.”

The system, created by EASI in partnership with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education, is currently being piloted in three divisions on two campuses. It is divided into three modules for instructors to submit syllabi-related materials, pre-exam and final exam details.

“CIS is beginning to reach its full potential in how faculty and staff not only administer courses, but also how it will streamline business processes,” says Julian Weinrib, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education. “We’ve built a strong foundation for the system and the design updates are a big step that will signal its growth.”

To create the redesign, the EASI user experience and process design team conducted extensive one-on-one interviews and usability tests followed by a survey sent to all CIS users. The survey asked users to vote on the three different options by ranking them overall, critiquing specific aspects of each concept, and inviting optional long-form qualitative feedback on what respondents thought of each concept.

A screenshot of task areas in CIS

One option featured the task areas in CIS.

Screenshot of tab-based navigation with courses at the forefrontAnother option featured a tab-based navigation with courses at the forefront.

“We employed our user-centred methodology to figure out which of these options would be most intuitive and usable to the end users,” says Sydney Jia, a user experience researcher with EASI. “We had 85 respondents and were happy with the results, especially because many users provided detailed responses.”

At the end of the extensive research process, users preferred the option with tabs in the navigation and a workflow based on their courses.

Screenshot of the preferred option with a different tab design

The final, preferred option, featured a different tab design with courses at the forefront. 

“It’s important to have this input,” says Jia. “This is a way for users to be genuinely part of the process early on and we can shape the system for their needs. We’re helping to facilitate the best solution for them.”

After receiving and analyzing all of the feedback, the team then integrated it into an improved final design.

Screenshot of the My Courses page that provides updates to instructors

The simple design indicates the statuses of an instructor’s course content and what actions are required.

What’s next for CIS?

In the future, two more undergraduate divisions will be onboarded to the system in summer 2019. The team will also focus on developing an administrative interface to allow divisions to manage their own data within the system.

“As the system evolves, we will be conducting future research activities to ensure users are getting the best experience possible,” says Clark. “We invite anyone who would like to participate in the process to reach out to us – the feedback is invaluable.”

If you are a faculty or staff member who has feedback regarding CIS, please contact cis.help@utoronto.ca

U of T introduces online admission deposits

Applying for programs can be a stressful experience for many students – from writing personal statements to requesting references to hoping for good news. Now, U of T has simplified one part of the process for admitted students, and will soon allow them to pay program admission deposits online.

In the past, students had to mail their admission deposit forms along with deposits in the form of a Canadian dollar bank draft. Starting in spring 2019, students will be able to pay their admission deposits through ACORN anywhere in the world where VISA or Mastercard are accepted.

“Students had to get a bank draft, put it in the mail and wait for it to be received and processed by Student Accounts,” says Audrey Cheung, manager of Student Accounts. “The whole time they’re wondering whether the money has been received and whether their spot in the program is secured.”

The new process will allow students to immediately view a record of their transaction and they will receive a confirmation email. The feature was completed on December 6, 2018, and will appear for those who owe an admissions deposit under the “Finances” section of ACORN.

“We wanted to ensure that this feature would be usable by all divisions, and the natural choice was to build it in ACORN,” says David Lock, information systems analyst with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration. “It’s important to give students convenient payment options so we can support U of T’s recruitment and admissions efforts.”

Programs use non-refundable deposits, credited against future tuition, to encourage students to make a commitment. Deposits also help enrolment staff plan ahead for incoming classes.

At the moment, 19 graduate units and two professional programs require incoming students to make a deposit as a condition of accepting an offer. In the future, international students in participating first-entry undergraduate programs will be required to pay deposits.

“The School of Graduate Studies has a distributed model, so different units have different business processes and deadlines,” says Josie Lalonde, director of student academic services at the School of Graduate Studies. “It’s important to offer a convenient solution to students, and this will ideally translate into students accepting their offers of admission.”

For the convenience of the service, students pay a 1.75 per cent processing fee to the payment provider, and they continue to have the option to pay by bank draft.

The team at EASI worked closely with Student Accounts, Enrolment Services and the School of Graduate Studies to determine their needs.

“This was a very consultative process. We worked with the team at EASI to come up with a solution that would work for everyone,” says Lalonde. “We were working with an aggressive timeline, and we’re happy with the results.”

The new functionality is expected to be activated by participating divisions in time for the first batch of international acceptances. Admitted students will see the notice upon logging into ACORN.

“We’re excited about offering this new functionality to incoming students, providing a new option for making the deposit that will hopefully bring a little more peace of mind,” says Lock. “Hopefully a more streamlined process for the academic divisions will help them continue to recruit and retain top students from around the world.”

Revisiting U of T’s faster registration, future modernization

It’s been over two months since U of T completed a three-year project to upgrade its student information system. After converting millions of lines of code and replacing an aging server, where does U of T stand and how will the system fare in the future?

The project, launched on November 19, 2018, was one of the largest of its kind to be undertaken at U of T. The success of the project relied heavily on a collaborative effort between Enterprise Applications & Solutions Integration (EASI), Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Information Security & Enterprise Architecture (ISEA).

“This project was truly monumental,” says Frank Boshoff, senior manager, technical solutions and architecture with EASI. “In the past, our server would be at full capacity during the first two weeks of January. After the transition to the new system, our servers are at 30 per cent capacity, and after more fine tuning this will translate into faster processing in the future.”

The system metrics indicate that students are accomplishing more work in less time with less aggravation. Server use is significantly lower and the bounce rate has dropped by 82 per cent. As a result, most students are accessing the application successfully and navigating to the information they need.

Boshoff predicts that the system will be ready for peak enrolment in July, and will be able to handle 9,000 concurrent users compared to the previous 700.  The new platform will also open up the potential for live integration with divisional systems, and ensure U of T stays at the forefront of technological innovation.

Before launching the platform, the project team conducted 3,657 test cases with a 98.6 per cent success rate. And after the cutover to the new system, thousands of users put it to the test.

“We were happy to see that there were only three regular users who enquired about how to log into the new system. It showed that our change management processes worked well since it was a smooth transition for most users,” says Cathy Eberts, executive director of EASI. “I want to emphasize how important it was to have participation from the divisions – a change like this couldn’t happen without massive support.”

To prepare staff and students for the change, EASI provided information for general awareness, training and support through a website, email updates, articles and social media. The project team also hosted 37 divisional meetings, four technical forums and conducted extensive user acceptance testing with over 200 participants and 500 test cases.

Testers from all divisions found 45 issues, or bugs, with the system. Each week EASI selected a winner for a gift card draw for those who had found issues.

“The user acceptance testing and training process was very straightforward,” says Mari Motrich, responsible for systems and data analysis at the Office of the Registrar, University of Toronto Scarborough. “We received a list of screens to test, and as a team we collected feedback and identified bugs. We also had two training sessions that were really useful – users reported bugs and also learned how to use the new ROSI. Overall, the testing, training and rollout of the project were smooth.”

As with most large technology projects, there are often issues that arise after going live with a new system.

“From November 19 through December we had daily stand-up meetings where we would assess and prioritize issues arising from the project,” says Rodney Branch, manager of client services and process integration at EASI. “During the first week of January, we had a high volume with course changes, student timetable lookups and class lists and reports, and the system performed remarkably well. We’ll continue to address additional issues as they arise and we appreciate users’ patience.”

The next phase of the project will involve developing the Data Decision Support System, which will be a near real-time copy of the ROSI data. It will allow staff to perform operational and analytical reports more quickly during peak registration periods. ACORN will also perform faster for students as they no longer need to compete with administrative staff for processing power.

“Overall, we’re very happy with how this project was rolled out,” says Eberts. “We’re setting the stage for technological innovation and ensuring that we have a platform in place upon which we can build and integrate new services.”

Thank you to all of our user acceptance testers, divisional users and the main project team who helped make this project a success.

U of T hosts first international residence application conference

As an application that is used by all 13 U of T residences, StarRez has streamlined the residence process for thousands of students – from the application process to deposits, room assignments and maintenance.

On November 7, StarRez users came together to discover best practices, tips and tricks, and to discuss process improvements. The event, called International StarRez Regional Connect, was the first conference of its kind hosted outside of the US, and welcomed close to 70 users and 12 institutions.

“The goal for this day was to provide an opportunity to connect and learn from colleagues at other local StarRez institutions, and it did not disappoint,” says Jen Radley, manager of U of T’s Housing Services. “This event helped facilitate conversations around industry trends and best practices, as well as networking with other StarRez users. It was a great opportunity for collaboration and conversation!”

U of T’s Student Family Housing implemented StarRez in 2007 with the help of Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI), and a year later Chestnut Residence and Victoria College residence launched the residence admissions platform.

Now a university-wide application, U of T uses 22 modules and manages more than 28 residence applications. StarRez is also used to manage maintenance and facilities, residence life activities, and conference and events services at various campuses/residences.

“Over the past six years, the process of setting up and transitioning U of T’s residence management portal from the StarRez desktop client to a web portal has been an incredibly collaborative and community building effort,” says Vik Chadalawada, senior manager of student information systems with EASI. “Yet another fine enterprise example of how technology when combined with people and process is a winning formula for service adoption.”

In a broader sense, StarRez has over 600 customers in 15 countries, supporting more than 1.5 million residents.

“The U of T residence community is quite collaborative, but also diverse. This event enabled us to connect with other institutions that shared issues that were unique to individual residences at U of T,” says Arlene Clement, director of Housing Services.

Next steps for the project include developing a new portal, called Portal X, that will provide an enhanced and streamlined residence application portal across the university.

“Since this year’s event was so successful, we look forward to continuing these conversations in the future,” says Radley. “Peer-to-peer learning is so important and it really helps to hear from others who are facing similar challenges and who need to remain current with trends in the housing industry. Stay tuned for details about next year’s event!”

U of T launches faster registration, future modernization

After three years of intense preparation, the success of the Platform Modernization Project came down to one weekend. Led by Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS), the project involved converting over 2 million lines of code and replacing an aging server. The new platform will modernize U of T’s student information system for years to come.

From November 16 to 19, teams from Enterprise Applications & Solutions Integration (EASI), Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Information Security & Enterprise Architecture (ISEA) worked around the clock to ensure a smooth cutover to the new system.

Staff attend a pre-cutover planning meeting

The support team attends a pre-cutover planning meeting (photo by Sarosh Jamal)

“A project with a ‘hard’ cutover – meaning all-or-nothing – requires a talented and motivated cross-functional team,” says Frank Boshoff, senior manager, technical solutions and architecture with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “The results speak for themselves. In a single weekend, ROSI changed from being a legacy mainframe application with roots in the mid-1970’s, to an Internet-savvy application with some modern smarts.”

In the future, 15,000 students will be able to use the system via ACORN simultaneously, versus the current 700. The new platform will also open up the potential for live integration with divisional systems, and ensure U of T stays at the forefront of technological innovation.

How did the team pull off such a large-scale project?

“A project of this size requires many talented resources, not only from EASI, but also from across Information Technology Services departments, and support from our user community has been phenomenal,” says Cathy Eberts, executive director of EASI. “Many of our divisional colleagues participated in the user acceptance testing and in implementing a number of new products.”

Core team group shot outside after cutover

The core team celebrates after the successful cutover (photo by Sarosh Jamal)

The next phase of the project will involve developing the Data Decision Support System, which will be a near real-time copy of the ROSI data. It will allow staff to perform operational and analytical reports more quickly during peak registration periods. ACORN will also perform faster for students as they no longer need to compete with administrative staff for processing power.

“Now we can begin to integrate ROSI with other systems, within ITS and the divisions, to better meet academic and administrative needs,” says Boshoff. “The Data Decision Support System is part of this process, offering improved security and helping staff to work more efficiently. We’re excited for the future!”

Thank you to all of our user acceptance testers, divisional users and the main project team who helped make this project a success.

Project team:

Hossein Aliabadi Gerry Lindo
Dharmesh Amalsadia Paul Littlefield
Diana Augustin Robert Liu
Diana Avon David Lock
Katie Babcock Mezba Mahtab
John Bassani Sinisa Markovic
Joe Bate Sue Mcglashan
Christine Beckermann Philip Millenaar
Donald Boere Evan Moir
Brenda Boshoff Wei-hua (Walter)Ni
Frank Boshoff Michael O’Cleirigh
Rod Branch Jose Parada
Cidalia Carreiro Andrey Pletnev
Kun Chai Dana Pogaceanu
Kim Chan Haroon Rafique
June Cheng Ted Sikorski
Magdelene Cheung Pete St Onge
Richard Chow Petru Sugar
Hung Chu Joanne Sukhai
Alex Dault Alex Tchakhamakhtchian
Paul Day Blair Thompson
Cris Diaconu Ken Tsang
Miki Harmath Luzinda Van Huyssteen
Matthew Hendrickson Parani Vinayagamoorthy
Titus Hsu Amanda Werkhaizer
Sarosh Jamal Gaye Wignall
Kelly Jay Laurel Williams
Sydney Jia Zoe Wong
Andre Kalamandeen Mike Wyers
Laura Klamot David Yin
Anton Kruger Bruce Zhu
Nicky Lai


Faster U of T student registration, future modernization

It’s a project that has converted 2 million lines of code, replaced a 1,000 kg mainframe server and will modernize U of T’s student information system, ROSI, for years to come. Set to launch on November 19, the Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS) has been updating the system’s platform to enhance services for U of T’s staff and students.

Led by U of T’s Information Technology Services, the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project has been focused on improving system performance and capacity, and real-time integration with other applications.

“We’ve converted the old code into Java, which is more flexible and resilient, and we’ve moved from the mainframe server to more cost-effective blade servers.” says Frank Boshoff, senior manager, technical solutions and architecture with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “The new platform will provide a foundation for improved information flow, and we’ll be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time.”

The three-year project has involved EASI, Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Information Security & Enterprise Architecture (ISEA). As well, it has included extensive cross-campus consultations and stakeholder engagement.

During peak registration periods, 15,000 students will be able to use the system via ACORN simultaneously, versus the current 700. It will also open up the potential for live integration with divisional systems, and ensure U of T stays at the forefront of technological innovation.

So far, the project team has completed the initial build, system testing, system integration and performance testing. They have also conducted user acceptance testing with over 100 users from all three campuses, and have successfully completed dry run cutovers during October.

The training team is currently visiting divisions for a second round of information sessions, and is offering training through online videos, webinars, open forums and hands-on-help. After all of this preparation, the final cutover will happen from end-of-day November 16 to beginning-of-day November 19.

The next phase of the project will involve developing the Data Decision Support System, which will be a near real-time copy of the platform. It will allow staff to perform operational and analytical reports more quickly during peak registration periods. ACORN will also perform faster for students as they no longer need to compete with administrative staff for processing power.

“This project has been the culmination of lots of planning – it’s one of the largest university-wide initiatives undertaken since the original implementation of ROSI,” says Cathy Eberts, executive director of EASI. “It requires a lot of user feedback and it’s truly a partnership between information technology and our divisional end-users.”

Benefits of the NGSIS Platform Modernization Project:

  • Permits 15,000 students to access the system via ACORN simultaneously versus the current 700
  • Opens up the potential for live integration between divisional systems and ROSI
  • Provides new option for PDF output
  • Allows for a modern file management interface
  • Helps U of T stay at the forefront of technological innovation

U of T launches GPA Calculator application

GPAs – they can determine whether a student secures that next scholarship or gets into graduate school. Now a new application, called the GPA Calculator will help all U of T students easily calculate their grades and plan ahead for academic success.

“Through ongoing interviews and usability tests, we discovered the need for this calculator,” says Michael Clark, manager of User Experience and Process Design with U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “This tool allows students to easily type in their pre-existing GPA from ACORN and predict their future grades.”

The calculator is readily available to all students. Students can calculate their sessional, cumulative and annual GPAs, and the application also recommends resources, including academic advising, writing centres, workshops and career advising.

“We wanted to make the application as flexible as possible,” says Laura Klamot, a user experience designer with EASI. “We always try to help students with their next steps. If their GPA isn’t what they want it to be, they can find an academic advisor and writing workshops.”

Klamot worked with Adnan Bhuiyan, a co-op student, who joined EASI for the summer.

“I normally study back-end development, but for this application I worked on front-end development and user experience design,” says Bhuiyan, a third-year U of T Computer Science student. “The tool’s designed to be accessible via keyboard only, via screen readers, as well as other assistive technology. An additional amount of design, development, testing and refinement work went into making this tool mobile and desktop optimized.”

Beyond his co-op experience, Bhuiyan also plans to use the application.

“I’m close to graduating, and my GPA can potentially give me a competitive edge when applying for jobs. Also, if I ever plan to apply for graduate school, I now have a tool that can easily help me plan ahead.”

Fellow third-year student Ramana Trivedi, from the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, agrees. “In my first year I was lost when trying to track my GPA because I was using a spreadsheet – it was a huge waste of time. I’m currently applying to medical school, and my GPA is really important. Now I can finish my calculations in a matter of minutes.”

What’s next for the application?

“After launching the calculator, we’ll collect feedback and plan future enhancements,” says Clark. “We’re constantly focused on the student experience, and we want to make it easier for students to achieve academic success.”

See a demo of the GPA Calculator

U of T recruiting for the ACORN Student Advisory Team

More than 900 students and hundreds of research activities and tests have helped to make ACORN and associated applications all that they are today. Now, U of T’s ACORN Student Advisory Team is recruiting new participants to continue to help shape the student experience.

When students join the team, they can expect to attend 45-minute sessions that include activities such as interviews and usability testing. The results will directly inform improvements to projects – from ACORN to applications like the Financial Planning Calculator and GPA Calculator.

“The user-centred design process that we follow is crucial,” says Michael Clark, Manager of User Experience & Process Design with Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “Students are part of the formative research, iterative design and post-release community engagement process. When they join our team, they’ll make a difference for their own experiences with U of T’s online services and for other students for years to come.”

Currently, the Advisory Team consists of approximately 150 participants, and organizers are hoping to increase engagement across all three campuses.

“Since starting in 2016, I’ve provided feedback on six applications,” says Melissa Ng, a fifth-year computer science and cognitive science student. “One usability test I did was for the user interface which allows students to find awards, grants and loans in ACORN. The team is really friendly and it’s great to know that my opinion has made an impact on important projects.”

Students like Melissa not only help to improve student life at U of T, but can also add the experience to their Co-Curricular Record, an official record of their co-curricular involvement at U of T. They can also gain practical project experience and build their resumes.

“We want to continue to build a community of students who are interested in improving student services,” says Laura Klamot, “This includes recruiting students from all divisions, years, programs, campuses and also students with accessibility needs.”

In the past, research and testing activities have improved usability, accessibility and have helped U of T to prioritize projects.

“We genuinely want to include students in the process,” says Clark. “Beyond caring about what they have to say, we want to give them a seat at the table to help them determine the strategic direction we plan to take with new initiatives, and to help make existing products and services even better.”

Are you interested in joining the ACORN Student Advisory Team? Sign up to make an impact on the student experience.