(Dis)Connect at Webster

Inconvenient, Illogical and Far From User-Friendly, WUV’s Intranet Disappoints

Webster students worldwide should all be familiar with the university’s Connections email and information portal, yet nearly a year after its initiation many are not.

Designed to connect students, staff, and faculty together within individual campuses and at the inter-campus level, connections came at a time when many students were still coming to grips with the online grade reporting system, the former Webster University email system, and a Webster Vienna mail system, Webster.ac.at, which was implemented just over a year and a half ago.

"We had so many passwords, one from the old mail system, a password for checking grades, a pin number for something else, I wasn’t sure what they wanted (for) my Connections account," said Brian Johnson, a Webster Vienna graduate student.

Brian was not alone in his difficulty setting up his account and turned to the administration for help. Bond Benton, the Academic Coordinator at Webster Vienna and administrator responsible for technical support of Connections in Vienna, said that most problems reported to him were found in the initial change over to the new system.

"Most of our people have adopted the system... and I haven’t had a complaint in seven months," said Benton.

On the surface, then, Connections is online. However, it is more that an email and class organization system, and a portal for information, said Webster Vienna’s Director Arthur Hirsh. The system links email, classes and their groups, and passports and its content, in one system. "Connections is useful for courses, for the faculty for example," Hirsh said as he demonstrated the faculty access on his computer. He was clicking through pages that represented classes, their teachers and students. This is a side students rarely see and can be a very powerful tool of education and administration.

Benton gave me a more in-depth view of some of Connections features. As soon as a class is in the system for registration, a dedicated web page is created. Teachers can upload content such as handouts and there is a message board for each class. He showed me the message board for one of his recent classes and how it provided a forum for students to discuss ideas, problems, and other issues related to the class. With Connections all this should be easy, because teachers are able to simply upload their content into fields on the website; no web development tool or knowledge of code is necessary.

Unfortunately it’s not working out that way. Connections is neither simple, nor intuitive. And few seem to think it’s worth the effort.

Though still dis-Connected, students are not reporting to Benton. One of the biggest reasons is that the teachers are not using the system.

"I have to use Connections, but most teachers ask what email address you mostly use," said Webster Undergraduate student Angela Woebking. "Two out of five of my teachers use [the Connections] email," she continued. Other students echoed these numbers. Many students use Connections only for the Webster bulletin.

Webster Prof. Johannes Pollak does not use Connections, because "it does not allow (me) to forward messages from my Webster account to my Academy account."

Prof. Michael Freund found the same problems. "I cannot forward mail from connections to any of my other mail addresses. It always says ‘was sent to,’ but it does not arrive. I have tried several times, to no avail. Maybe it’s me, but judging by my overall experiences with connections, I doubt it." Pollak finds it easier to use students’ email addresses. The system appears to be designed solely for communication with others in the Webster system.

"The system is [also] much too complicated; it has become more difficult to find things," said Pollak.

Freund agreed. "Frankly, compared to many other communication software examples, it is not very inviting," he said. "I have to click on ‘send’ mail when I in fact want to write/compose an email and am therefore looking for that kind of button, in vain."

Even the internal class web pages and message boards are hard to get to, says Woebking. "I wouldn’t even know where to find the message board." And it’s not because she doesn’t know where to look. She is taking a web design class, where they are learning rules for "easy, simple, user-friendly design," none of which Connections follows.

"It is cumbersome, unintuitive, badly designed, (and) rigid in its format… so why bother" said Dr. Freund.

Other problems come from the web-based email client. When trying to access "my Connections email (via web browser), it says loading for half an hour and nothing happens" said Woebking. Instead, she uses Mozilla Thunderbird.

The transmission and reception of email is also painfully slow. Graduate student Sam Schubert has sent test emails to his main yahoo account and back to his Connections account and has found that the turnaround time has been as high as an hour.

Another problem is sustained access. "The system logs you out after ten minutes if you are not using it" said Webster undergraduate Amgard Fahmy. Other students have reported not receiving emails from his Connections account.

Another problem is a lack of technical support.

"When I forgot my password – this was quite a cumbersome process – I guess it’s easier to get into Fort Knox" commented Pollak.

Others have had similar experiences. In researching this article, I decided to log into my Connections account. I had forgotten my account name, simply because the naming system makes no sense. Then I realized I had forgotten my password, so I was asked two security questions. I got the first one but the second one I could not remember and failed five out of five times. I was then informed that my account had been locked, and that I had to call St. Louis or send an email to fix the problem.

I emailed them with the basic information, including that I was in Vienna, and got a prompt reply telling me their office hours, to call if it was urgent, and that I would have a response within four business hours. An hour later I got another email informing me that, for security reasons, they would not give out information of this sort over e-mail and that I should call. My response was short; "That sounds grand, but who is going to pay for my call." Five days later, I have yet to hear back.

It may truly be easier to get into Fort Knox, where, rumor has it, that you are only asked one security question.

"They have never explained why they are enforcing this," complained Woebking. She suspects it is so students cannot get away with saying they did not get a teacher’s email.

But to most, it just seems "like a bunch of red tape. And to be perfectly honest, I hardly ever check my (Connections) email," said Nariana Ortiz, a Webster Vienna graduate student.

With all this said, Connections appears to be a fact of Webster life.

"One of Webster’s strengths is its network, but tyranny of distance will always be a problem," Dr. Hirsh said. It is with this system, which is supposed to make distance less of a factor, that Webster hopes to lower this obstacle.

But it is increasingly apparent that this system was designed for a Midwestern American University, not a community of international campuses in different cultures, technological standards and time zones.

On the main page of all Connections accounts there is a "My Headlines" section. These are streamed from a Midwestern news portal, and a poor one at that. The three top headlines of Friday, Dec. 1 read "The Almanac," "Suspect Picked Up In Detroit Shootings," and "More Lawsuits over Sago Mine Disaster." (I am from the Midwest, and even I think these headlines are jejune and asinine.) Users are not allowed to change their news portal either, unlike many other services such as Yahoo Mail. Other than the top stories, there two other selections of news, Entertainment, which repeated the Almanac story, and Sports.

I never knew the Almanac was so popular.

Under "Home" one can click on a hotlink that read, "Click here to get all the latest news stories, stock quotes, sports scores, and take advantage of many other information services." I decided to see what other information services were available to me. I had time to make a sandwich while I waited for it to load. When I came back it still hadn’t loaded and refused to do so for another fifteen minutes before I gave up.

Dr. Freund thinks the system might be necessary, though in need of a few improvements: "We cannot go back to post-it notes or airmail letters for people all over. Though on second thought, I think I like the idea of carrier pigeons."

Other articles from this issue