This is part three of my series of articles about studying at the University of Liverpool online using GNU/Linux. They “officially” only support Mac OS X or Windows, although things work just as well using GNU/Linux.
At some point, your Intake Coordinator will send you a contact form to fill out. The file comes in a proprietary, non-standard format (.doc). Luckily OpenOffice.org 2.x can open it and probably save it again in a way that also works in your Intake Coordinator’s software, but there is no way to guarantee that. Due to the closed nature of the formats the UoL uses, there is absolutely no way they can make sure that every student and every coordinator will get the same results. They are completely at the mercy of the company whose secret this format is, in this case Microsoft.
Add another shame point or two: This contact form could very easily be made into a plain and simple web form, something that is entirely standards-based and has been a proven solution across all platforms for more than a decade. Coupled with the security measures I’ve mentioned in previous Liverpool posts (SSL encryption for data transfers over the web), it would even be more secure than the current solution.
Then there is bloat. The document they send around is 137 KB. The same thing as a web form could be done in less than 10 KB. Multiply this by a reasonable number of students and you get 267.5 MB of data transfer cost vs. only 19 MB using a web form, savings of 93%. Factoring in that many of the UoL students are studying in countries where bandwidth is very expensive, this proprietary format seems a particularly bad choice.
Now add human error. The coordinators presumably need to send out this contact form by hand, then receive the filled out forms and copy the information into some database system. During this process, there is great potential for human error. A web form could automatically talk to the required databases and the coordinator would merely look through the submitted information and correct any mistakes.
As a last point, versioning overhead. Each coordinator can potentially copy the form to their own machine and send it from there. What if the master copy of the form changes and some coordinators forget to update their copy? With this same form somewhere on a web server, you centralize this. The only person who can change the form is the one responsible for the web site, and once the form changes, all students and coordinators receive the same one instantly. The source of version errors is eliminated.
All combined, I would say that the current solution could be massively improved by scrapping it and moving onto the web.