We can do better than SPIRE

By Will Katcher

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(Collegian File Photo)

“University of Massachusetts SPIRE.” The phrase conjures images of a simply-designed but thoroughly flawed website. It brings back memories of wandering the maze of drop-down menus in order to find something as simple as a class schedule, textbook list or semester bill.

For years, UMass students have struggled with the complexity of the portal, which is designed in such a way that makes it looks like it jumped off the computer of a first-year undergraduate with a hobby in web design. But the visual shortcomings of SPIRE are just the beginning.

Despite the technological advancements of the rest of the campus and the well-designed UMass Dining and My UMass apps, the school’s signature student website still lacks a strong mobile presence. Though the website was updated to mobile browsers recently, many of the links on the homepage simply provide access to the desktop version, where the screen dimensions sometimes have difficulty on cellphones.

While this is an issue, organization has consistently been SPIRE’s most glaring weakness. For students, especially incoming freshmen who are inexperienced in SPIRE navigation, finding something as crucial as tuition costs or meals plans can be difficult.

I experienced this earlier this year when trying to find my class materials, including textbooks. From the SPIRE homepage, it takes some exploring to find the full schedule in list form. It’s not in “Enrollment,” where “Add/Drop” is located. It’s not in “Academics,” where grades, transcripts and course history can be found, although this is where you’d think it’d be. It’s actually under “Student Home,” and even then, you need to do some navigating to find the textbook list, hidden on the side of your class schedule.

A student portal that is simple to use and well-designed should be a hallmark of a school like UMass, which puts so much emphasis on STEM. Instead, SPIRE is a source of eye-rolling.

Fortunately, there may be a solution to this issue.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of UMass students capable of writing the code for a cleaner and better-running portal. Think of the fact that there are upward of 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Information and Computer Science. These are smart, experienced and motivated young people who could bring meaningful new ideas to the table.

I’d like to be the first to propose a remake of the SPIRE interface and experience. We can do better and have the resources to do so.

If it’s a matter of money, if UMass doesn’t have the budget to bring in a major web design firm, then I encourage the University to turn to those 1,000 computer science students available right on campus. A small prize and some healthy competition is enough to get the gears turning in the minds of many UMass students.

Think of the possibilities of a contest to create a better site. It’d cost the University next to nothing (especially compared to an outside contractor) and would give valuable experience to those students who want to participate and have something to offer.

The experience alone may be the most valuable take-away from this process. A project of this sort would be the ideal practice for computer science students looking to boost their skill set and add to their résumés.

UMass could walk away with a better-looking and easier to use website, and the University could boast that it was created with the help of the next generation of computer engineers, who will all be UMass alumni. These students get the practice they need to be successful in real-world scenarios and gain experience working on extended projects.

But in the end, the real winners would be everyone who no longer has to deal with SPIRE.

Will Katcher is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.