Everyone has been here. It feels like nothing works.
Want to sign up for a class? Where do you go: Online Course Information or Online Course Selection? Why do these things exist independently? Want to tell the University the details of your bank account for a direct deposit? Quick, where do you go: Student Information System or “My Pay and Info”? Why are they different?
Yale is powered by baroque systems that few of us understand in their entirety. This was highlighted in the chaos surrounding Yale’s rollout of CourseLeaf, a course catalog that promised to “streamline how you update, edit and publish your academic catalog.” The reality was somewhat different, with numerous problems surrounding how courses could be added to the system and how they were displayed.
CourseLeaf, which cost the University an undisclosed but presumably large sum of money, attempts to solve a problem that Yale (and all universities) have: of creating, organizing and distributing a catalog of courses. The peculiar hiccups of this year’s implementation will probably go away as users learn the idiosyncrasies of opaque software. The disgruntlement surrounding it will evaporate as the knowledge (and authority) of using CourseLeaf is distilled into an elite priesthood of people who know how this particular software works.
The real tragedy is that we are stuck in a Sisyphean process where we reinvent solutions to problems thousands of people have dealt with before, never learning, never growing from our collective human experience. Every university needs a course catalog, yet the combined power of all the innovative geeks in all universities hasn’t resulted in a lasting solution to this widespread problem.
Fundamentally, we have the freedom to build solutions to problems we see in the world. If we are to progress as a civilization, we have an obligation to make our solution accessible to all, so people can spend less time struggling with badly written software and more time solving the mysteries of the universe.
When people do attempt to build solutions to problems — like the duo who built “Blue Book +” — the University’s response has been less than ideal. In this case, Yale shut it down, and, after backing down from the inevitable uproar, accused the duo of “appropriating information.”
Nowhere is the importance of using free software more evident than in the sciences. As scientists, we rely on software to run our machines, to perform our experiments and to analyze our data. Labs that rely on non-free software (and there are several) are often forced into ridiculous situations, like one that maintains a collection of decrepit computers because a microscope can only be run with software that runs on Windows ’95.
It saddens and frustrates me — as it should everyone — when one has to waste time wrestling with poorly designed software and systems. The tragedy is compounded when one realizes that these design disasters are often very expensive. The ultimate blow is when one realizes that those who have the right combination of skills, entrepreneurship and principle to build meaningful solutions to universal problems are forced to waste time reinventing the wheel.