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Posted in Editorials, Opinion

Digest and Calendar System Need to Change

By
January 30, 2008

The Digest | The Calendar | What to Do?

Event listings and online announcement advertisements methods have been overhauled by Student Council, ITS, and the College’s administration this past year. In particular, the rules governing the Reserved Students Digest have changed significantly and ITS installed an online calendar system over the summer.

We believe these changes have not been for the better.

The Reserved Students Digest

At the beginning of last semester, students were told that the Digest would no longer list more mundane events that had a specific time, and would focus more on true announcements. The Student Council declared that it would be, according to The Phoenix, “more limited and its breadth more condensed.”

Unfortunately, because there are no published guidelines on the exact purpose of the Digest, many students are still confused on where to advertise their event or activity. Just yesterday, for example, an Effective Grantsmanship workshop and a lecture were on the afternoon mailing of the Digest. Both of these items are clearly advertising events that should have fallen within the purview of the Swarthmore calendar—so why did they make it onto the mailing list?

We asked Student Council Secretary Liana Katz, and she told us, “technically those two messages should not have been included in the RSD.” However, “there is a list of approved users who can automatically post to the RSD without having their messages approved by me as were those two messages.”

If there are going to be strict rules on what events can be advertised on the Digest, they should be applied evenly, and not only to student events. These exemptions only serve to confuse the issue.

Even if students want to advertise on the Digest, many are unclear on how exactly to do so. The Student Council website has no procedure on how to submit events to the Digest, and the “Plan an Event” section of the calendar website makes no mention of the Digest. Instead, submit announcements through Digest has become a secret passed down by word of mouth.

“Its tough to make announcements without pulling teeth,” one student told the Gazette. “I ended up calling three different people and firing off five emails trying to get it done!”

This confusion was exacerbated by the recent switch from Majordomo mailing list software to Mailman. For a few days at the beginning of this semester, all emails sent to digest@swarthmore.edu were rejected by the software. There had not been any official word on this change, other than two blog posts on the ITS blog which don’t ever specifically mention any changes to the Digest.

A larger problem is that the central premise of this change—that the Digest would be shorter—has not proven true. On 2/28/2007 for example, there were fourteen events in the Digest. Yesterday afternoon, there were twelve. We took a random week from December 2006 and found that there was a total of 84 events in fourteen Digests. During the past seven days, there were 89 events advertised in the same number of Digests.

If the changes haven’t de-cluttered the Digest and are leaving a large portion of the student body confused, why keep them?

The Calendar

The events calendar was implemented over the past summer. It isn’t clear exactly where it came from.

Throughout the Spring 2007 semester ITS held a series of discussions on adopting some kind of unified calendar and email system, and discussed Google Apps in particular. Students loved the idea of a calendar, and for good reason. A centralized location to find and sign up for events is a great idea that every college campus needs.

Active Data Calendar, the software currently in use, was never mentioned to the wider student body. And, unfortunately, the current calendar isn’t up to the job.

One online design firm suggests five rules of web design. The two most important are that the site should be easy to read and easy to navigate. The current site isn’t. The front page of the calendar is six printed pages long, filled with duplicate events which are listed again and again for each day of the week, making it difficult to skim the calendar.

The main page of the calendar has five drop down menus and more than twenty buttons. There is no intuitive and clean way to get a picture of a day’s events.

There is an accepted interface for calendar software. Many students and staff are comfortable with iCal, Outlook, and Google Calendar which all use a similar design to quickly and legibly impart scheduling information. The Events Calendar tosses those conventions out the window, and it doesn’t offer something better.

The calendar has an unquestionably impressive list of features. For most users, however, these features don’t matter if the calendar isn’t easy to quickly read.

Not only is the calendar hard to read, but the events submission process is intimidatingly complex: there are twenty-five information fields. Even with this incredibly detailed information requested for each event, there isn’t a simple way to exclude certain weeks for ongoing group meetings. According to the calendar, most weekly events continue through Spring Break.

Additional barriers for information about events are posed by requiring students to reserve space, a process that requires yet another username and password and navigation through another complex and confusing site.

Last year, advertising an upcoming meeting required a single email. Now it requires filling out an enormous form, making a user account, navigating through two complex websites, and then responding to a bevy of confirmation emails. Instead of using the internet to facilitate inter-college communication, we have regressed.

What to Do?

Unfortunately, there is no single easy solution. Facebook and fliers help to form an ad hoc advertising network, but the are insufficient alone. The Digest is cluttered and the rule changes are unsuccessful. We need a calendar, but the Active Data Calendar fails at the job.

We believe that the College needs to move forward on a unified system like Google Apps. We need to have a serious campus-wide discussion about messaging, calendar, and email systems to create a successful communication network.

In the meantime, we need to have well-publicized and clearly-written rules about what can be posted to the Digest, and they need to be enforced across the board.

Take a minute and suggest your own answers in our comments, and vote in our polls.

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13 Responses to Digest and Calendar System Need to Change

  1. Randall

    January 30, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Okay, so I think that the hand-off from one student council to the next is proving difficult, but it has been, what?, one week, and the criticisms start rolling in?

    Also, the random sampling above is flawed: of course there are going to be more rsd notifications the first week of school, go back a year and see how many there were then.

    HOWEVER, I agree the digest needs to be changed. No one knows exactly what’s going on anymore, but the Calendar is a great idea, and one we don’t want to throw out the window. I am, and have been for a few months now, a proponent of an opt-out daily calendar in your inbox in the morning supplemented by the digest in the afternoon. This afternoonly digest should prohibit “events” that can appear in the calendar (the digest council *intended* to implement last semester).

    Finally, I am confident Stuco will take the DG’s advice and make clearer how to post to the digest, and I am sure they will continue to work with ITS amidst a tumult of technological change to streamline the calendar process. This is exactly the kind of feedback stuco was asking for (and holding events for) last semester, and it’s time it comes back to the forefront.

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  2. Student

    January 30, 2008 at 9:32 am

    During a week in December last semester, there were 76 announcements in the Digest. The week for 74 announcements.

    The whole net change was ~8 announcements over the course of a week—one a day.

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  3. Mark Kharas

    January 30, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I don’t think the random sampling is that flawed. The end of semesters are always filled with lots of performances that are advertised in the RSD, so the end and beginning of the semester area always high traffic areas.

    If the RSD is going to be changed then it should be a consistent change. Which would mean having no one automatically being able to post to the digest (including faculty members). All posts should be screened for their appropriateness. And if change is going to happen it shouldn’t happen before there is a working calendar in place that is actually usable. This calendar is far from that point and needs to be markedly improved before any changes need to happen to the RSD.

    But this is in a way beside the point. The change is the silliest thing that I can imagine in the first place. There is so much confusion and frustration being created by a change that DOES NOT reduce the number of e-mails everyone receives. We still get two RSD every day regardless of the change. We still have to open them and scan the headlines for anything we might be interested in. The old process was much easier. Sure, you got notices of the same event multiple times, but you could easily scan the headlines and only read the entries that interested you. Now students have the EXACT same burden of reading the RSD, but the actual information content has been greatly reduced, so if students go looking for what events are happening they have to spend a lot of extra time to try and navigate the at present cumbersome and not effective calendar.

    The RSD change has made it more difficult to advertise events, but more importantly it has made it more difficult to find out about events. I’ve voiced this concern to StuCo before, but I will do it again. The change solves no problems while creating endless new ones. The only sensible thing to do is go back to the old system.

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  4. J.

    January 30, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Opt-Out mailing calendar is the best idea. Seriously, that solves all the problems of the reserved student being gone. Probably the easiest change to implement as well.

    P.S. Daily Gazette doing editorials is awesome. DG >> Phoenix.

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  5. Randall

    January 30, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Sorry, I should have made myself clearer: a random week in december is not the same as the first week of the semester. I have to wonder what the first week of second semester last year was like.

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  6. Paceey

    January 30, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Before the semester started I was hoping to gauge the student body interest in an activity that I am planning for this year. However, I had no clue where such a mailing could be sent: the reserved digest rejected my advertisement almost immediately and both the student calendar and student council websites were not helpful in directing me to someone who could help. This system needs to change!

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  7. Finlay Logan

    January 30, 2008 at 11:43 am

    With all the fabulous calendar software that exists and could be easily integrated with personal mail, other calendars, messaging systems, you name it, (*sigh*, Google Apps) the one that ITS ended up choosing is just embarrassing. Maybe it was free?

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  8. Cecelia

    January 30, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    “At the beginning of last semester, students were told that the Digest would no longer list more mundane events that had a specific time, and would focus more on true announcements.”

    If this change had actually been implemented, I think the calendar system would work better. However, looking back through the Digest emails i’ve recieved this semester, usually 1/3-1/2 of the announcements are for lectures, meetings, or events. Almost all of these are from the Lang center, the deans’ offices, or departmental offices.
    I never minded the amount of digest items, but I understand that a lot of people were annoyed with them, and I agree that a calendar system is a great idea. However, I find it very unfair that the school administration is still allowed to advertise specific events, but the student body is not. In addition to being unfair, this has confused the entire student body. Having some events (but not all) in the digest forces you to look in two places to find events, and many students don’t check the calendar at all, assuming instead that if an event is happening it will be in the digest. (Because why would some but not all events be in the digest?)

    I thank the Daily Gazette for bringing up this issue in a comprehensive and reasonable way, and I urge the Student Council to continue the good work they started with the calendar initiative by ensuring a fair implementation of the guidelines for the Digest, and a better communication of those guidelines, since the student body is still clearly confused by many of the changes.

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  9. Lauren

    January 30, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks for articulating this concern.

    I’ve always felt skeptical about the events/announcements divide between calendar and RSD. I like the idea of a calendar online that can serve as a reference for all our events, but the calendar requires navigation to another website, so I’m only going to check it if I’m looking for something specific. It’s therefore not a tool for publicizing events people haven’t already heard of.

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  10. Hipeter

    January 30, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I am a big fan of changing the system of RSD’s. Getting regular & non-trivial e-mails that I have scan through may not be terribly time-consuming but it’s annoying enough that RSD’s regularly end up piling up in my Gmail (which I must say, despite some deficiencies, is pretty amazing and should definitely be considered by the school again).

    So I would love it if RSD’s could be significantly cut down, because I don’t want to have to scan through 15 items and decide whether or not I’m interested in any of them. It may not be rational, but that kind of e-mail is intimidating. And the events listed are not in any particularly helpful order, which makes for more work.

    I would like an easy to access and easy to read and customizable/opt-out calender of all the events happening on campus and possibly nearby off-campus (that therefore must be easy to add events to, so as to encourage it’s use even by less industrious people, like me for instance). So the concept is simple, but the implementation isn’t, apparently. Hopefully that can change.

    When is this being discussed by Student Council in a public hearing again? I might like to get involved in the discussion.

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  11. Stephan

    January 30, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I completely agree with this editorial. At least with the old system it was possible to find out about events. Now it’s just confusing.

    And the new calendar application works very poorly. I think the main issue is that it fails to distinguish between special one-time events and recurring events – for example, most of the group meetings on there are useless because the only people interested in those events are already part of the group and should already know. It also is used as an anouncement system for stuff like art exhibits that reoccur every day.

    At least the reserved students digest was easy to scan. It also required sending an email manually each time to advertise something, a burden that means that far less extraneous stuff got on there.

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  12. Kim

    January 31, 2008 at 1:19 am

    I myself liked the old RSD format. I agree that the new calendar is not a reliable compilation, and since there is now no place where all events are listed, community members have no place to find information about events/occurrences. I dislike the daily opt-out calendar email, since it would have to include multiple days or all new events (since many students here plan their weeks in advance, or schedule meetings around upcoming events), and that would be too much information, I predict.

    I would advocate a return to the old RSD submission guidelines immediately, so that submission is fair and uniform across administration and the student body. The RSD is only free to change, in my opinion, when there is an adequate replacement system.

    I would also throw my two cents in support of google. I use their mail and their calendar, and am very happy with both.

    Thank you DG, and let’s not forget all the amazing things that StuCo has done.

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  13. Lucas Sanders

    January 31, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    My biggest criticism for last semester’s Council on the reserved-students issue stems from their final newsletter (December 2007). While bragging about slowing the growth of reserved-students traffic with the new guidelines, last semester’s Student Council also touted that they had “sent out a number of surveys and Official Reserved Students e-mails (nearly 30!).”

    As I recall, many of these official-reserved-students e-mails consisted of pressing missives that read like this: “Coffee Bars: Open Now! (Saturday afternoon)” In this context, this is (1) an event with a time and date, and (2) not an important administrative notice. Last I checked, official-reserved-students is, well, officially reserved for important administrative notices to the student body. So why did last semester’s Student Council believe that their own official-reserved-students posts did not even need to meet their own new standards for reserved-students announcements?

    At this point, it is important to acknowledge that, as always, half of the members currently on Council were not on Council last semester. I am not intending to criticize the current Council; in fact, I hope that they can use their influence to result in improvement.

    What to do? As far as I’m concerned, send me back to 2004, when everyone could post on equal terms, and each post was delivered *individually* to the entire campus. At the very least, relax the posting guidelines to what can be consistently enforced. (Except then we’ll remember the minor problem that student enforcement of anything will be impossible without revoking the administration’s privileges to post directly to the list.)

    Anyway, make these changes at least until we have a calendar with a usable UI. I had a wish list here, but then I realized that ticking off checkboxes on a requirements list is how we got the current solution. Getting this right will require worrying about the experience of using the site instead of our various wish lists. Which is, of course, hard — but as the Gazette pointed out, there are good examples out there, which should help.

    But there’s one feature request I can’t cut: I want an RSS feed of interesting upcoming non-recurring events on the dashboard. The current calendar supports RSS but still can’t spit out a feed of general interest events. Of course, this is because it can’t display a calendar that’s limited to such a general-interest view. Clearly, if there’s no way to get a set of sensible defaults for what events are interesting for people to see on the calendar — and that’s really what putting a calendar RSS feed on the dashboard will require — the calendar isn’t going to be a convenient substitute for the reserved-students method of event announcement.

    The 2004-era reserved-students system wasn’t great — aside from usability concerns from the sheer volume of messages, it was hard on the mail server. And it’d be worse today, given the intervening increases of traffic on the list. But in my opinion, every step to technologically “improve” the situation from its original form has only made the system less usable. It’s way past time to stop theorizing and tinkering and actually, finally, build a *usable* events announcement system. And start the work yesterday, so it might actually be production-quality by the fall. (When I won’t be here anymore. Sigh.)

    (Corollary: DO NOT make a half-baked change for the sake of “doing something.” The system is not yet as bad as it can get, and we sure as heck don’t want to demonstrate what “worse” looks like.)

    Unrelated: If the Gazette would like some more detailed stats about the size of reserved-students e-mails over time, I’ve done some of that analysis. Just let me know of the interest and I’ll post a summary.

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