Apps aim to take the sting out of selecting classes at Dartmouth

  • Dartmouth sophomore John MacDonald, of Glenelg, Scotland, center, shows his classmates Adam McQuilkin, of Hollis, N.H., left, and Ziray Hao, of Hartford, Conn., the Apple Xcode software used to create apps while getting together at the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2019. They have have developed new technology -- an app and a website -- aimed to ease the planning and registering for classes at the college. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Working in the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2019, Dartmouth sophomores Ziray Hao, left, of Hartford, Conn., and Adam McQuilkin, of Hollis, N.H., work on D-Planner, web-based software that helps students map out courses through their college career. They said it's currently being beta-tested and will launch in about five months. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Working in the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2019, Dartmouth sophomore John MacDonald, of Glenelg, Scotland, does adjustments to the free DartDrop app he launched in early November. With 450 users since it went online, the software helps students decide on classes and has a component for sharing class notes. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com Geoff Hansen

  • Surrounded by code to create it, an on-screen facsimile of an iPhone shows the free DartDrop app created by Dartmouth sophomore John MacDonald, of Glenelg, Scotland, at the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2019. The software helps students decide on classes and has a component for sharing class notes. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2019 5:40:44 PM
Modified: 11/19/2019 4:49:51 PM

College should hurt, the thinking goes. Bleary eyes and on-the-fly meals of dubious nutritional value are badges of honor, and the young scholar who isn’t bedeviled by Faust or confounded by quantum mechanics is missing out.

At Dartmouth College, as at many time-honored institutions, one particularly hellish aspect of the college experience happens before the first syllabus is distributed: class registration. Especially for first-timers, selecting courses and sections is akin to being dropped in the middle of the New York Stock Exchange with no training.

At least that’s how it felt to John MacDonald McCambridge (who uses MacDonald as his surname), a sophomore computer science and math major from Glenelg, Scotland. “I had no idea about what to choose and how to do it,” he said.

Convinced that the process need not be so excruciating, MacDonald has joined with fellow students Adam McQuilkin, Ziray Hao and Benjamin Cape to create a pair of class planning and course selection tools that they say will revolutionize the registration process for students.

“Stress, anxiety and fear are always associated with academic rigor,” MacDonald, 18, said in an interview at Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library earlier this month. “I’m saying it doesn’t have to be that way.”

A few weeks ago, MacDonald launched his mobile app, DartDrop. The free app, currently available on iPhones and iPads, has two components: Class Alert, which uses special algorithms to help students make more informed choices about classes and then get into the classes they choose, and Course Docs, which creates a marketplace for students to buy and sell class notes.

Meanwhile, McQuilkin, Hao and Cape are developing a web-based platform called D-Planner, which helps students map out their coursework for their full college careers by creating a one-stop site containing or linking to all the information they need. The three sophomores began working on the technology last year as part of a class called Design Thinking and later secured an $8,000 grant from the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab at Dartmouth to continue developing it. They plan to launch it in about five months.

“There are over 3,000 courses in the catalog, and each of them has different requirements,” said Hao, 20, a computer science major from Hartford, Conn. “We thought, why don’t we move the data onto a digital platform that can help organize it for them?”

After meeting at the DALI Lab last year, the D-Planner team and MacDonald have been collaborating to promote their products, which operate differently and serve separate functions but which complement each other in helping students plan their coursework in both the short and long term.

The young innovators are among a throng of college students scheming technological coups. A growing number of colleges now offer courses and even majors in mobile app development, a lucrative and fast-growing field: In 2018, app revenue totaled more than $71 billion worldwide, up almost 23% from 2017, according to the app marketplace research group Sensor Tower.

Nor are MacDonald and his friends the first to tackle the problem of antiquated or poorly functioning college information systems. Student inventions have successfully replaced or augmented data systems at colleges around the country, according to a 2014 New York Times article.

It’s hardly surprising.

Course registration is a problem that’s begging for a solution at many colleges, MacDonald said. The way the current registration system at Dartmouth works, students have no way to know when a seat has opened up in a class without continuously monitoring the website. Many stay up all night doing just that. And if they ultimately can’t get one of the classes they want, their whole schedule can come crashing down.

To keep track of all the moving parts, many students devise complex record-keeping systems, often involving multiple Excel spreadsheets. Academic advisors are helpful to varying degrees, MacDonald said, but they are often working with students outside their own departments and don’t always have expertise in a student’s degree program.

“The whole thing feels archaic and stuck in the mud,” MacDonald said.

Using D-Planner, students can more easily see the big picture for their programs of study, said McQuilkin, lead developer of D-Planner. On the site, which McQuilkin demonstrated on his laptop in the library, terms are laid out in tiles, which students can fill in with the classes they need to complete their degrees. The classes in their program are listed on the side of the page, and they can click on them to read descriptions. Those who are still on the fence about their majors can map out multiple programs.

“All of this information is so widely scattered,” said McQuilkin, 19, a computer science major from Hollis, N.H. “We bring all of the information that Dartmouth gives its students onto one platform.”

DartDrop also uses data that’s publicly available, along with internal artificial intelligence algorithms that provide insights into the data. The app synthesizes reviews from teacher rating sites and interviews with students and applies a one-word label — “Great” for example — to each course section to describe its degree of difficulty and popularity. Users can easily browse courses and choose accordingly. If the course they choose is not available, Class Alert will continuously monitor the class and send them alerts if and when a seat opens up.

To ensure the app doesn’t become a victim of its own success, MacDonald has also built in a “natural inhibitor” so that students can monitor only a certain number of courses at a time.

The other component of DartDrop, Course Docs, gives students an additional piece of information in planning their coursework. They can purchase class notes from former students, vetted by MacDonald and some of his friends to ensure they’re high quality and don’t contain test answers or other ethically problematic material.

A growing body of evidence supports the value of taking notes by hand in helping students understand and retain information, suggesting that purchasing notes could actually put students at a disadvantage.

But MacDonald says Course Docs isn’t designed to be a shortcut so much as an additional tool. He hopes it will serve another purpose as well: financing the app. Eventually, he hopes to employ a “freemium” pricing strategy, meaning the app itself will remain free but paying users will have access to additional features.

But he insists he’s not in it for the potential payout.

MacDonald was just 14 when he developed his first app, a math learning app called PHS Maths, while attending high school in Scotland. With no outside funds to develop it, he built a server out of Legos. The app had 3,000 users as of last year and helped win MacDonald a scholarship to study in the United States. Several commercial companies wanted to buy it, but MacDonald gave it away to his high school math teacher.

“I don’t care about the money side,” said MacDonald, who worked 18-hour days for weeks at a time programming DartDrop. “I’m just not wired in that way.”

MacDonald said he’s more interested in solving a problem. “I really feel deeply that I can help Dartmouth students,” he said.

The D-Planner team is also looking for ways to continue funding their site. Ideally, they’d like Dartmouth to partner with them on the product. As of now, that looks uncertain. McQuilken said D-Planner got a cool reception from the registrar’s office.

“It is absolutely not their first priority,” he said.

Registrar Meredith Braz said in an email that she doesn’t recall specifics about her meeting with the D-Planner team last January, but does remember offering them feedback. She said it’s not uncommon for students to approach the registrar’s office with new ideas and that the adoption of those ideas depends on a variety of factors, including student and faculty feedback and the availability of funds and other resources.

DartDrop may prove a harder sell than D-Planner among faculty and staff because it contains a couple of controversial components. For one, professor rating sites are generally unpopular among faculty. But MacDonald said he’s only using data that’s already publicly available. Additionally, he’s designed his algorithm so that newer positive ratings can quickly improve a professor’s rating on his app.

The other, perhaps bigger, problem is that by using a computer to monitor the school’s information system, DartDrop may be in violation of school rules. MacDonald readily admits this possibility but is undeterred by it.

“Sometimes you have to do what’s in the best interest of the students,” he said.

If user numbers are an indication, the app is filling a need. Two weeks after its official launch, DartDrop has about 450 users. So many page requests were run on it the first day that it crashed.

The technologies are not without supporters among faculty either.

“I think it’s an excellent thing if it helps students make informed choices about their classes,” said economics professor Erzo Luttmer.

Luttmer said he read about DartDrop in the school newspaper, The Dartmouth, earlier this month and contacted MacDonald expressing his enthusiasm for it. He encouraged MacDonald to incorporate data from the college’s official professor review system to give it more validity. The school’s review system has a 90% participation rate, because students can’t view their grades online until they’ve completed reviews, Luttmer said. However, it doesn’t function well on the other end.

“Students don’t use it because the interface is very clunky,” he said. “There is this wealth of information out there that doesn’t get used.”

MacDonald said he hopes to incorporate the college’s official review system into his app, but would prefer to get the school’s blessing first.

But with or without Dartmouth’s buy-in, the inventors are moving ahead with their plans.

“I believe in it,” McQuilkin said. “I think it’s something that needs to happen.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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