How time flies – A review of the innovation that made punch cards a thing of the past at ETH

Back in the day, myStudies, eDoz and other electronic applications were still unimaginable…. and ETH staff and students had neither a user name nor a login.

Half a year has now passed since the national lockdown was declared. Since then, our lives have been turned upside down. A number of things also had to change as quickly as possible at ETH. Everything that could be done online was done online. And when needs must, a great deal is possible. Within only two weeks, all lectures went online, study hours were replaced by podcasts and communication was handled via email by everyone. This was an outstanding feat that the universities accomplished in order to prevent further contagion.

All of this would have been impossible without the support of IT, and to coincide with the start of the semester, we would like to use this post to recall the beginnings of the digitisation of the enrolment and registration process.

Why does this digitisation step deserve its own post? If you compare today’s ETH with the university as it was 30 years ago, you would no longer recognise it. Back then, students had to report to the office in person and stand in line to register for their studies. Mountains of documents piled up in storage rooms and the course catalogue was a book with hundreds of pages.

This was changed in the 1990s by a small team of developers from IT Services in cooperation with Academic Services (the Rectorate). Proprietary software was developed to automate and digitise all these steps. This project represented a milestone in IT support and is one of the key reasons why ETH is so well organised. Let us return to the origins of our current clients such as myStudies, course catalogue, eApply and EduApp, which have made the organisation of the teaching process much easier.

What must be, must be – the vision

The reasons that called for an IT system were many and varied and became increasingly relevant: on the one hand, ETH wanted to ease the burden on the environment and use less paper. On the other hand, teaching became more and more complex, the number of students at ETH increased and organisation became increasingly difficult using the available resources. An efficient solution was needed. Later on, the Bologna Reform was introduced, which fundamentally changed the structure of studies and offered a perfect opportunity to design a new system, since the reform could not be supported sufficiently by the old systems.

And so this got the ball rolling. Academic Services and IT Services joined forces and worked on the development of an individual system for ETH. Why is this so special? Often universities use standard solutions, i.e. software that is not specifically adapted to their own needs. This often leads to problems, because this software is not as specific as it should be. The advantage of implementing your own solution is that it can be adapted to the complex needs of ETH in considerable detail.

The project was the very first application of the IT department outside of research. ETH was now even more in the media spotlight than before; the pressure was huge – everything had to work. For this article I had the chance to talk to some of the brains behind the project and got first-hand information about the processes that led to digitisation.

The Implementation

The project was a collaboration between Academic Services and IT Services. The underlying database was designed and developed by IT Services on the basis of detailed specifications. On the technical side, Claudia Farnung was consulted as external support. She kindly gave me the chance to interview her in order to gain an insight. She came to ETH in 2001 as a business analyst to work out the details of the new applications.

What the new system had to be able to do was initially discussed at a conceptual level and subsequently in detail in numerous workshops. Together with the experts, Claudia Farnung then created concepts and detailed specifications, which in turn went through many reviews together with IT Services until a version was ready for the developers to work with.

The software is uniformly designed, structured and documented, enabling individual areas of the software to be put together like pieces of a mosaic. There are many applications that all access a common database. The software system now has three application levels – firstly, the PowerBuilder-based fat clients, which are used in the background by the administrative departments and are seldom seen by non-employees. Then there are the well-known web clients like myStudies or eDoz, which were implemented with the help of Java, followed by the web clients available for external users, such as eApply, and the course catalogue. All components of the system are operated internally at ETH.

When your time at the office is like a beach holiday

Only seven in-house developers worked on the software, but external experts were also consulted. The developers did not have the ideal premises at the time. The team was based in the main building right next to the library beneath the ETH’s roof, where it could get very hot in summer. As unpleasant as they could be at times, these circumstances did yield some funny moments. On some days it was so hot that employees came to work in swimwear, recalls Andreas Jost (ITS Software Services).

Once the core system was fully coded, extensive testing was the next important step, because the software had to be ready to enable the biannual rush of students to book modules. Load tests were carried out, tests on functionality and checks on how intuitive the clients are to use. Although I grew up with modern technology around me, it is always fascinating to see what is possible. The load tests were done purely with simulations that imitated thousands of students accessing the clients simultaneously. Impressive when you think about it! But compared to all the software, which was designed by a few dozen men and women, it’s a mere trifle…

This is where things got serious!

2001 was a crucial year for the project: The students were allowed to use the system for the first time! For the first time, electronic enrolment was made accessible to aspiring computer scientists and forestry students, with all other courses of study following one semester later. The feedback was good and the students were satisfied.

In the meantime, everything has been digitised, from registration for studies, to module booking, to examination schedules, with the exception of the secondary education certificates, which by law may not be submitted digitally.

What’s next?

The system has now been in use for more than 20 years. The evaluation revealed that the system has proven itself and will be continued. What challenges are ahead? “More communication,” says Giorgio Broggi (Section Manager ITS Software Services and former line manager in the project still with the department name ITS Academic Management Applications and Support / ID Betriebsinformatik). The team would like to bridge the divide between professors and students and enable improved dialogue. This will also be the focus in the coming years. However, planning is hardly possible for more than three years ahead. Progress in IT Services occurs at a break-neck pace and long-term projects can therefore only be planned very vaguely or not at all. This makes it all the more impressive that the system can keep up with these fast-changing times!

The project still faces another hurdle: the generation change. The original members of the development team, which was primarily represented by a single generation, will be retiring soon. Who will take over which tasks and who knows the system well enough to solve any problems that arise? However, Giorgio Broggi is not especially concerned in this regard. He has already found some competent employees to whom he can hand over these tasks safely. We are confident that the handover will take place without any problems and look forward to further exciting projects at our university. Here’s to many more milestones!

Text & Research by Kaja Walter, ITS PR & Communication, IT Services


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