Fluctuat et Mergitur

Your voice of reason at Paris-Saclay

GoodUni Digital Infrastructure
The organization of Paris-Saclay worked basically by exchanging Excel sheets by email. The recipient of such a sheet would fill out certain columns, mark the changes in red, and then return it to the sender. The sender would open the document, find the red cells, and copy/paste the values into the master Excel sheet. Sometimes, the receiver was also asked to fill a Google Sheet instead. This process led to a variegated exchange of emails which we illustrate here by a selection:
This system did not just cause an immense workload, it was also extremely error-prone: People would forget to take into account updates, they would fill out the wrong cells (overwriting the content of other people), they would open it with different software systems and thus cause changes in the formatting, or they would copy-paste into the wrong cells. In at least one case, a document was sent in the French date format (01/04/2018), but, due to a different software configuration, sent back in the American format (04/01/2018). This caused a study track to open its applications from January 4th to January 8th — instead of from the 1st of April to the 1st of August.

Digital Organization at Télécom ParisTech

It is no wonder than that all eyes turned towards Télécom ParisTech. After all, the engineering school consideres itself the best digital school in France. Hopes were high when the school vowed to bring its digital dimension to the Paris-Saclay project. We have therefore studied how the digital administration works at this school. As an example, we show here the transmission of course grades from the lecturer to the central administration, and to Paris-Saclay, in 2017.
The process involves 5 different job positions (study inspector, lecturer, jury of the master’s program, head of the computer science field, head of the SOEIST school), 4 different software systems (Synapses, Diploma, Google sheets, email), and 3 different file formats (Excel, PDF, and HTML). Most of the time is spent just verifying whether data entered on one end arrived at the other end. This verification is necessary, because every step is error-prone, and may (and did) lose data. That said, the process is already much better than in 2016, when the verification of grades happened by manually scanning printed Excel tables. Several improvements to the process are also planned for the near future. Nevertheless, the system will encounter challenges when it will have to work in the frame of NewUni, and when it will have to bridge co-accredited study fields across NewUni and Paris-Saclay.

Digital Organization at NewUni

The step that was initially proposed to improve this procedure was to end the contract of the study inspector. This person is obviously the least important one in the process, and removing her would greatly reduce the work for the other involved people. But then, something unexpected happened.

As we have reported before, the founding members of NewUni have drafted a document that is known as the GoodUni-document. This document lays the foundations for the new university project. It introduces a revolutionary new way of planning such projects: Instead of first accepting students and then worrying about the infrastructure, the document proposes to first put in place the infrastructure and then start accepting students.

For the digital infrastructure, the document proposes a very concrete solution. It explains that a new type of software will be written for the NewUni partners. This software is a type of Google Sheets, where every cell can be read and edited only by specific people. Consider, e.g., a sheet that contains the grades of the students (shown on the right). Every lecturer can edit the column with the grades of their course — but not the other columns. Every student can read the row of their grades — but not the other rows. The study inspector can see all grades of all students in all courses.

Another spreadsheet, which contains the final grades of the students, can be read by the students, but edited only by the jury. This spreadsheet is also shared with the study coordinators of NewUni. Thus, they can see the grades of all students — without the need to transfer any data anywhere. The same applies to the study coordinators at Paris-Saclay, if they are involved in joint study tracks. The traceability of the data is ensured by enforcing logins before modifications, and by keeping a complete version history.

One of the features of the system is that anyone can create and share such spreadsheets — much like anyone can create Google Spreadsheets. Therefore, it can handle not just course grades and diploma grades, but also application opening dates, course evaluation modalities, HCERES evaluation questions, course evaluations by students, course schedules, course enrollments, validation of teaching hours, vacation requests, refund forms, and travel requests — since in the end, all of these are all just shared spreadsheets with access rights. Dr. Naibaf, one of the co-inventors of the system, remembers:

Before, we were too focused on Synapses, and we believed that we had to extend it until it supports all desired functionalities. We did not see that there was a more general need for a tool to share tabular information. Therefore, it was quite enlightening when we found that most applications are just shared spreadsheets with access rights. We do not need separate software implementations for these — let alone paper forms.
Thus, there will be no more sending around of Excel sheets at NewUni. The new software will be operational by the end of 2018, and will replace the existing systems in the course of the next years. Dr. Naibaf is happy: “Finally, Télécom ParisTech can contribute a digital dimension somewhere”.

See what other changes GoodUni brings!

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