The interactive catalog of the future

When sales of the traditional print catalog at Brigham Young University (BYU) began to fall off considerably some years ago, administrators knew it was time for an upgrade.

“About ten years ago, it became clear that students wanted an electronic version,” said Jeff Bunker, Associate Executive Director, Student Academic and Advisement Services (SAAS) at BYU. “So we basically put out an online version of the print catalog.”

Last fall, however, two offices in the SAAS division, the Office of the Registrar and the Office of Communication and Technology (CommTech) came up with some innovative changes that have revolutionized their online catalog’s features.

Last fall, Associate Registrar Coral Taylor and Curriculum Manager Brooke Smith worked with CommTech Associate Director Rob Cook and Communications Manager Michael Kemp worked to envision a catalog that would better meet student, faculty, and staff needs. The new catalog was online within months.

Here is a peek at what makes it unique, and how they did it.

Searchability and connectivity

“A lot of systems require you to log in and allow you to browse,” said Cook. “The purpose of this site is to liberate information and make it available to anyone—students shopping for majors, other universities, and so on.”

One of the most useful functions of the new catalog is its search function, which allows students to search by major, faculty member, outcomes, policies, departments, graduation requirements, and more. (See the catalog here.)

In addition, the catalog is connected to other university information systems.

“When you find the course you want, you can just keep drilling on that to find the faculty and seamlessly slip over into the schedule of classes,” said Bunker. “Students can find course times, course outcomes, and see if seats are available or not. In some cases, if the faculty has input it, students can see syllabi, paper requirements, exam dates, etc.”

Content distribution: Accuracy and efficiency

“Another unique feature of the catalog is how we get all of the content into the system,” said Cook. Previously, the curriculum manager had to input all of the information into the student information system and again into the catalog. That duplication of efforts took about three months, and there was more room for error. In the current workflow, information is only input once and is identical across systems.

No longer is Smith solely responsible for accumulating and inputting all course information. Now content management is distributed across campus. Individual departments can input their own information, including narrative content, such as mission or purpose. Before publishing, all information goes through an editing process to ensure it’s accurate, appropriate, and representative of the university.

“The streamlining and pulling content directly from the system has really helped the curriculum manager spend less time cutting, pasting, checking and proofing,” said Cook. “The change is now made in one source.”

Instead of three months, Smith now spends about three weeks editing content that others have input.

“Prior to this approach, it was difficult to see inconsistences between the student system and the catalog,” said Kemp. “But now, because the catalog replicates exactly what’s in the SIS, it has helped to ensure that data is correct across systems and helped ensure that students are getting accurate information.”

Tech specs: Homegrown with Drupal

BYU has a homegrown SIS which holds all program and course data. The new catalog was written in Drupal, an open-source environment for application development. The catalog retrieves data from the SIS on a daily basis.

“There are lots of ways to build technology and vendors who do different aspects of this—some coupled with the SIS,” Cook said. “But doing it in Drupal allowed us to utilize the expertise we’ve developed. It meant a shorter development time, lower cost, no licensing or software to pay for. We put this together in just a few months—started last October and implemented by the end of January 2016.”

BYU has a decentralized web environment, so solutions and examples can be shared and built on across campus, and an open-source tool was ideal.

Record-keeping and the future

In addition, registrars can appreciate that the catalog is automatically archived in a single-page HTML document, for PDF conversion, on a daily basis.

“We actually have all the catalogs through 2025 already out there in the system, not published,” Cook said. “We have a workflow system where at different times of year, the catalog is in different modes so administrators can access future catalogs. They’re available for internal needs, such as editing and maintaining content.”

In the long-term, the catalog will perpetuate itself. “It’s not just one website,” Cook said. “It’s basically an infinite number of websites in itself.”

To learn more about the future of university catalogs, join the BYU team for their session “The University Catalog of the Future...Today!” at the 2016 AACRAO Technology and Transfer Conference, July 10-12 in Anaheim, CA. Discover more exciting technological content at the conference.

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