Campus Calendaring Systems Help Keep the College Community Involved, Informed

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Higher education institutions are very decentralized. Departments operate independently and cater to diverse audiences of alumni, parents, students and faculty - all of which have distinct needs and interests. As a result, scheduling and tracking events, course schedules, meeting rooms and other resources are massive tasks that often intensify with the requirement for publishing online calendars. Despite these challenges, campus calendaring systems are vital to on-campus life, as well as for maintaining and enhancing relationships with alumni, parents and the greater college community.

Integrated campus calendaring systems enable schedule and resource owners to control their domains, while allowing authorized users to enter and modify schedule information. These systems also provide multiple views into the master calendar, permitting users to see either the entire campus schedule or just the subsets of current interest. In addition, a good calendaring system is an effective community builder that serves as the focal point for the activities of a small club on campus, as well as helps the entire alumni body remain connected to the school and feel like part of the larger campus community.

Calendaring and scheduling on most campuses include the following activities:

  • Event calendaring to publish and promote events tocampus residents, alumni and the surrounding community. Calendar usersgenerally want to view all campus events, events of a specific type (e.g.,the chess club), or multiple subsets of events (e.g., football schedules, on-campus movies and live entertainment).
  • Personal and group calendars to store and presentdate-based information that is unique either to individuals or to specificgroups.
  • Resource scheduling, which is the crucial task ofensuring that meeting rooms, projectors, lab equipment and other resourcesare available to the right people at the right time.

Selecting the Ideal Calendaring System

Understanding how users will interact with the calendaring system, as well as identifying immediate and long-term goals for a campuswide integrated system are the first steps. The next step is selecting a calendaring system that incorporates the following five capabilities:

  1. Flexible architecture that combines both distributed and centralized storage of calendar information.
  2. Usability that offers flexible viewing and subset selection, browsing, subscriptions and alerts.
  3. Authentication that enables a single sign-on and links to existing authentication systems.
  4. Enables access from any location, using any wired or wirelessdevice.
  5. Integration with course scheduling systems,e-learning systems, personal calendars, e-mail, campus portals andpersonal electronic devices.

Architecture

In most calendaring systems, calendar data is stored either on users' desktops or in a central location. The ideal system should support a combination of the two. In the local scenario, users manipulate and display calendars using local software, but the primary disadvantage is that maintaining the required software on hundreds or thousands of users' computers can be a tedious proposition. With the central calendar location, maintaining the accuracy and currency of a central schedule is clearly easier formultiple, distributed calendars. But it d'es require that users have access to a network connection to view and alter their calendars.

Usability

Calendar views. For the vast majority of campus calendar users, the key to a successful system is the ease with which they can view and display calendar information. A flexible system allows users to select the global view, recognizing that it may be extremely crowded, or one or more subsets that are of particular interest at the moment. Furthermore, the student might like to view the selected information for a specific time period. Students will also want flexibility to display the results in either wall calendar style or as a text list, as well as the ability to download the results into a PDA or laptop.

Subscriptions and alerts. A very useful calendar feature allows users to subscribe to a particular calendar so that new events and changes are automatically e-mailed to the user. Even greater flexibility allows the user to subscribe to specific events or for specific time periods, so that all changes to those events or dates result in an e-mail message to the subscriber. The ideal system would also allow alerts to be sent by alternate methods, such as to a pager or other wireless device.

Authentication

A campus calendaring system should validate users against the access controls for calendar information before providing it to ensure users are accessing only authorized information. However, a campus calendaring system should not impose user IDs and passwords to control access. It should use LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) or integrate with an existing single sign-on or authentication system to make the calendaring system easier to administer and use. Integration with a campus portal may be one way to achieve this goal.

Access

The reach of a campus calendaring system helps determine its success. At the very least, it must be accessible via the Web from desktops, laptops and public terminals. Ideally, it should also offer a subset of functions to PDAs and, perhaps, to cell phone users. The user interface for all of these users is an ordinary Web browser.

Integration

Course scheduling. Although extremely important, personal, event and resource scheduling systems are just one aspect of campus scheduling. The other critical scheduling arena involves the work of scheduling courses, students and classroom facilities. The algorithms used for academic scheduling are very sophisticated and bear little resemblance to the work of scheduling and maintaining group and personal calendars. Therefore, it is not necessary for a campus calendaring system to tackle the actual work of academic scheduling. However, it can be extremely helpful for the campus calendaring system to serve as the single window into academic schedules as well as event and resource calendars.

E-mail. To send reminders and other notifications to users, calendaring systems must integrate with campus e-mail. Fortunately, e-mail integration is quite easy to achieve due to the widespread adoption of e-mail standards such as POP, SMTP and IMAP. While some vendors have bundled calendaring and e-mail products, it is important to note that this approach limits a school from choosing best-of-breed products.

Portals. Portals, which provide a unified view of disparate systems, are making inroads into higher education. In addition to an integrated data view of campus information systems, portals frequently fulfill another important role by providing single sign-on capabilities. When anticipating the integration of a campus calendaring system with a portal, institutions should consider a Web-based calendaring system because they offer easy integration with most portal technology.

Personal electronics. Wireless networking has taken root on many college campuses, and connecting wireless devices to the campus calendar is an obvious choice. Therefore, calendar applications must be prepared to support near-real-time updates to a much larger population of remote devices. In addition, calendaring systems should support simple ways for users to select specific events that they want to download to their pocket calendars.

Who Owns Calendaring?

With all the key features established, the next problem is determining who owns the calendaring system. In some schools, campus calendaring is owned and managed by the information technology services group, because it is considered to be part of the campus infrastructure. In others, the calendar is considered to be an essential outreach vehicle, not unlike the alumni magazine, campus newsletters or the catalog used by prospective students. In these schools, the calendar is managed by a public affairs or marketing department.

Either approach can work, but schools must think carefully about their goals and how best to achieve them. One danger with the first approach is that IT departments may focus more on features and functions, which could lose the end-user focus that is necessary for successful calendaring. The risk with the second tactic is that the marketing group may not properly consider all of the infrastructure implications in a broadly used tool like a campus calendar.

Build vs. Buy

Universities tend to have pools of graduate and undergraduate student programmers, so it is often tempting to assign a group of student developers to create a calendaring system from scratch. The job can be even easier due to the growing availability of open source toolkits, such as the University of Washington's UW Calendar project (www.washington.edu/ucal).

One obvious disadvantage of student programmers is that they have a bad habit of leaving after they graduate. Even if a calendaring project is managed by the university IT department, employee turnover and project reassignments can jeopardize long-term projects like a calendaring system. The result is that for campus-critical systems like calendaring, many colleges and universities turn to software companies that specialize in building robust, full-featured calendaring systems that can be customized to their specific needs.

Summary

Campus calendars fill a very central role in student, faculty and staff life on campus. They also play a key part in keeping alumni, parents and the community involved and informed. The most capable systems provide public event calendaring; personal and group scheduling for faculty, staff and students; and resource reservation, while offering the ability to integrate with the campus portal and existing course scheduling systems.

Contact Information
WebEvent Inc.
Andover, MA
(978) 975-3344
www.webevent.com

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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