When Villanova was ranked #1 on PC Magazine’s “Most Wired Colleges” list in 2007, it was a spectacular achievement that highlighted years of investment and hard work on the part of the University Information Technology (UNIT) staff and a commitment by the administration to bring Villanova into the 21st century. Almost six years have passed since that list was released, and how are we doing now? Well, PC Mag doesn’t do that list anymore, probably because the field has become so homogeneous in technology offerings. In fact, it’s very difficult to find any publication that ranks schools on how tech-savvy they are these days. The last PC Mag rankings were for 2008, when we dropped from #1 to #15. So, let’s figure it out for ourselves, eh?
PC Mag lauded Villanova for its laptop program, because the program provided every student with a Dell as a freshman and as a junior. Today, that program is still in place, communications majors receive MacBooks, and this year’s Dell XPS laptops are the most advanced and sleek that Villanova has ever issued to students. Although we’re still doing well with the laptop program, every year, such a program, which set Villanova apart from institutions like MIT and Boston College in 2007, becomes more common at other colleges and universities.
In the 2007 rankings, PC Mag also highlighted the Applied Finance Lab in the Villanova School of Business as an impressive resource for students. The editors found the use of Bloomberg terminals, digital stock ticker displays and flat-screen LCD TVs showing CNBC particularly impressive. I remember hearing my tour guide at Villanova as a high school senior mention that the school had more Bloomberg terminals than any other undergraduate institution in the world. This year, the Applied Finance Lab expanded with more Bloomberg terminals. If having two terminals was the standard for excellence in 2007-2008, surely having 20 terminals is just running up the score in 2012. Good work, VSB, you improved your distinguishing technological characteristic by a factor of 10! No wonder Wall Street loves our finance majors.
How about the network? That’s a subject that will get you audible groans from students, faculty and staff alike. The internet at Villanova is both loved and hated. When you’re connected, the internet can be lightning fast. But during “primetime” at night, it can slow to an absolute crawl. Certain dorm rooms and apartments don’t receive adequate signal from VU Mobile, especially in older dorms like Stanford. Students love to hate VU Mobile, but the truth of the matter is that providing wireless internet access in buildings built long before Wi-Fi came into existence is a major challenge, especially if those buildings were constructed in very anti-wireless ways (thick stone walls, lead, etc.), so UNIT is actually doing a pretty solid job there. The issue of being asked to install SafeConnect over and over again, however, is a nuisance, although that has improved a bit since the service was started. All in all, running and maintaining the internet network that we so often take for granted seems to be a herculean task that UNIT must undertake along with all the other services they manage.
Let’s get to web services. In 2007, PC Mag applauded Villanova for having WebCT, online class registration and online work study and financial aid management. How are we doing now? First, the clunky and archaic Novasis needs to go. The addition of MyNova has helped a lot, as many functions of Novasis can be accessed in a more user-friendly manner, but Novasis is still mandatory for many functions, including the dreaded online class registration. This is when Novasis grinds you up and spits you out like sunflower seeds. There is no worse experience at Villanova than having your perfect class schedule get demolished by the system taking too long to respond or not recognizing that your registration window has in fact opened, allowing somebody to snake the last spot in the class with that professor you really wanted. The search feature is clunky, the registration feature is the scariest two to sixty seconds of your semester, and the lack of information about some classes and their professors is sketchy at best. Once a replacement for Novasis is put in place, student stress during registration and when grades come out will be much lower. Those two times are heart-wrenching enough and we don’t need a computer system adding to the pain.
For other web services, WebCT was a pain and Blackboard isn’t much better. The user interface is only a little less clunky than Novasis, but it seems to be the least bad solution for the time being though, so I’ll give it some slack. When a truly customizable solution comes along that would offer the ability to make an online learning portal without having to force square pegs into round holes, then Blackboard is deserving of ridicule until said new system is implemented. Finally, the university website is nice. It was nice when I was applying in 2008, it was nice when it got replaced shortly after that, and the newest replacement is nice as well. Sure, branding is important and having a professional website is VERY important, but is it really worth all the cash being dumped on a website refresh every two years?
And let’s not forget, we have Gmail now! While the Microsoft Exchange system in 2009 was a huge upgrade from the very old MS Exchange system being used at my boarding school, having Villanova email through Gmail is incredible! Full integration with my industry-leading Samsung Galaxy S III? Check! Google Calendar? Check! G Drive (aka Google Docs)? Check! Well-played, UNIT!
All in all, it seems that Villanova is doing so-so, compared to the nation-leading brilliance of 2007. The laptop program continues to work very well, the university website is sleek and useful, we have Gmail now, there’s a Villanova mobile app (which very few students use, let alone are aware of), the Applied Finance Lab is ten times more impressive than it already was, etc. Where do we need to improve? Novasis needs to be replaced, VU Mobile needs a miracle, MyNova is okay but should be replaced when Novasis goes the way of the dodo bird, and there could be a better way of communicating issues with the network to UNIT. With these challenges presented to us and the future of technology becoming a reality with each passing day, I believe that it is time for Villanova University to make a bold, new commitment to technology. We should raise money from alumni and bring in corporate sponsors to finance an overhaul of everything related to technology on this campus, in a similar fashion to the on-going Campus Transformation. The improvements being made to the campus landscaping help our external image more directly, yes, but rebuilding technology at Villanova from the ground up would have a lasting impact on student satisfaction, quality of education, career preparedness, student-faculty interaction and our rankings. Think about what it would be like for our tour guides to show perspective new students and their families around our breathtaking, transformed campus and be able to sincerely say that the technology being used at Villanova is unlike anything seen at other schools. Let’s put Villanova back on the technological map. Let’s make Silicon Valley notice us. Let’s have STRONG wireless signal in every corner of this campus. Let’s make class registration something that doesn’t require counseling afterwards. Let’s commit to shatter expectations and put all other schools on notice.
By Will Kavanagh