Qcumber Retrospective

Qcumber is a simple, accessible course catalog for Queen’s University students. Creating its original incarnation and sharing it was a wonderful experience, but since I’ve been out of Queen’s for more than 18 months, this post will help me relinquish it to future students (especially those who are continuing to maintain and improve it).

The impact and progress made with the site has been exciting to witness; it has grown to involve eight direct contributors, and recently surpassed 1,000,000 pageviews! Qcumber was the first complete website I ever developed, and I regard it as a great success in utility and personal learning. Its current state is the culmination of many people’s work, so I encourage you to read the acknowledgements section. :)

Qcumber's homepage at the time of this post
Qcumber's homepage at the time of this post

Vision

The vision for Qcumber is extremely simple: we strongly believe that:

  • a course catalogue should support “modern” (non-broken) ways of sharing and browsing, like linking to pages, opening tabs, and using the browser’s back button
  • course descriptions, prerequisites and timeslots should be accessible to anyone, not just signed-in current students

Surprisingly, neither of these were available in fall of 2012, when the university bought a new registration system and stopped updating the traditional catalogue website. The features offered by Qcumber are not revolutionary! Nevertheless, they set Qcumber apart from the current offerings to this day.

Thanks to Qcumber, there exists a single page with description, prerequisite, and timeslot information (plus textbooks and past exams, usually) for each course at the university. Here is a screenshot illustrating a typical course page.

A typical course page
A typical course page

Since launch, the team (please see acknowledgements at the bottom) have added some extra features to make things even better. These include:

  • instant term filters
  • links to textbooks and past exams
  • inserting links in prerequisite texts to browse more easily
  • a university department and resource contacts page

In development, there is also a new version of the site (which has better search capabilities), and an awesome prerequisite chart generator.

Traffic

As mentioned before, we’ve hit the 1,000,000 pageview mark, with our peak day reaching over 26,000 pageviews! It is evident that Queen’s students sorely miss the regular browsing experience when trying to organize their schedule each semester.

Here is the summary of traffic to the site:

The summary of Qcumber traffic since launch
The summary of Qcumber traffic since launch

Some interesting patterns are very apparent!

A timeline showing the history of Qcumber. Mmm, patterns.
A timeline showing the history of Qcumber. Mmm, patterns.

The Future

I don’t know what’s in store for Qcumber, but since the Queen’s community clearly needs a course catalog like it, I hope it will continue to be improved and taken care of. Whether through official uptake and support, student government adoption, or continued individual student contributions, students deserve a tool that isn’t yet another stress tugging at their already loaded minds. To anyone following that aim I give my sincere thanks and best wishes!

Acknowledgments

The trail of significant contributions of my friends in both updating the site and adding new features means I cannot nearly claim the site as mine alone own anymore. In fact, I have barely touched it in the past year. The following people are to thank for many of Qcumber’s features, fixing the web scraper when it breaks, experimenting with new ideas, and generally being excellent people.

  • Nissi (The whole site was sparked by her experiences advising students! She also guided the user experience along the way and made the resources page.)
  • Carey Metcalfe (Many chats along the way, numerous internal improvements, tabbed homepage, scraper optimizations, textbook and exam links)
  • Phil Schleihauf (Cool term filters, documentation, code quality)
  • Christine P’ng (Logo design and personal support!)
  • Michael Layzell (Scraper updates, new.qcumber.ca, really cool prerequisite charts)
  • Graham McGregor (Continuing updates to data and scraper)
  • Jamie Macdonald (SSL fix)

Thanks also go to everyone at the Queen’s Hack Nights group, for the great collaborative environment and fun work sessions.

Appendix - History

The site itself launched in December of 2012, but it had a long journey to get there. The idea of making a simple, friendly course catalogue to help students create their timetables actually came to a good friend Nissi during 2010, in the summer. This was during the time of QCARD (and the Arts and Sciences calendar website).

While QCARD was a very… idiosyncratic application (“sleeping” from evening to morning to process requests was an endearing but inconvenient feature), the Arts and Science calendar provided easy and open access to course descriptions and prerequisites (no timeslots, however).

On March 4th, 2012, SOLUS became the official online registration system for Queen’s, as well as the only way to access up-to-date course information. I won’t list out every deficiency of the system, but I will say that I regard it as a frustrating, tedious, inconsistent, and occassionally incorrect system, closed to anyone without a current Queen’s student number. (It also arrived for the price of $35 million, along with HR and financial software.)

At this point, I was more eager to build my own site than to use SOLUS to pick even 10 courses for the coming year (dead serious). Finally, I went back to developing the idea Nissi and I had spoken about the previous summer.

After a month or more of learning about hosting, Twitter Bootstrap, the box model, sass, less, Django, jQuery, webmaster tools, and analytics, I finally switched the site live on December 14th, 2012. The minutes and hours after launch were astonishingly exhilarating, and I could barely tear my eyes from the real-time analytics page for a long time.

After the launch frenzy had settled a bit, Phil joined in and began creating documentation to make the project more accessible to newcomers. Carey also began making modifications to the layout and other aspects. This continued for a number of months, and as I have stepped back from such an active role in the project, others have jumped in and started contributing and, in the last few months, even managing the live site.

I’m uncertain what the future will hold for Qcumber. There are a number of efforts under way to stabilize the project and make updates more regular, and also to add features to the site, but since it is primarily driven by spurts of inspiration on the part of the developers, these are hard to rely upon.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much for reading! :)