We Have an App for That

Eyjafjallajökull. It disrupted air travel all over the world. But can you say it? Unless you’re Icelandic, you probably can’t!

So, now, imagine that you’re the Dean of the Graduate School. May graduation is looming. And it’s your duty to call the names of each and every doctoral graduate who is attending the main university graduation ceremony in the RBC Center as they cross the stage in front of thousands of family and friends. Most names are easy, but unfortunately, there are also some rather tough names to pronounce -- surnames like Hamalainen, Leksrisompong, and Maciejewski, as well as a newly minted Dr. Yaesoubi.

Well, we have an app for that! And according to Dr. Duane Larick, Dean of the Graduate School, he only has to click a few buttons on his computer or Blackberry to get not only a written pronunciation, but a voice recording as well! He says that he “. . . assumed it was magic. . .” until David Edelman, who writes and maintains business application software for the Graduate School, explained the details.

Edelman says that the goal of Doctoral Graduation Attendance Notification (DGAN) is “. . .to automate the entire graduation attendance record keeping process, which relied on paper registration forms and voicemail by allowing doctoral students to sign up online for the graduation ceremony and provide a pronunciation of their names.”

DGAN was part of a larger initiative. Erica Braman Cutchins, the Thesis Editor at the Graduate School, states that conversations with the deans began in 2006. In the past, Cutchins collected all the graduation material in paper form -– including writing the pronunciation of students’ names. Voice mailboxes held only a maximum of 30 messages, “. . . so it was a constant shuffle of recordings. . .” between her and the deans. And Cutchins says that there was always a difference of opinion on the pronunciation. “It was just a huge mess of a procedure that was stuck in the dark ages. It needed a major technology upgrade.”

Cutchins says that Edelman is the genius behind the entire project. She says that he “. . . took the idea, ran with it, and made it work. He gets FULL credit for this system!”

Everyone agrees that DGAN is a big time saver for the deans. As Edelman says, “. . . it automates both the collection of and access to the voice recordings, as well as providing a convenient access point (a Blackberry) to listen to the voice recordings.” In addition, Jack Foster from Enterprise Application Services has automated the entire process of collecting information from commencement attendees, sending it automatically into the Student Information System (SIS) – and in the process, cutting out another ‘work-step’ in the Graduate School.

Larick expands the scope of the project, stating that “. . . automating graduation attendance is part of the larger initiative to go totally paperless here in the graduate school from admissions to graduation.”

How does a doctoral graduate student become part of the automated process? Edelman explains that the system is a set of two web applications that uses the Twilio® software library. The first app asks the student if they will be attending the graduation ceremony and to provide a written version of the pronunciation of their name, as well as their sponsor information. For the second part of the app, the student is asked to enter a phone number to which they have immediate access. The app then calls the phone number provided, and the student is prompted to say his name twice -– once at normal speed and again more slowly. The recording is played back so that the student can re-record if they wish. Finally, the voice recording is stored to be opened in a mobile web app.

That’s where Larick enters the process. He can access the mobile web app through his Blackberry (or computer) and choose a student from a drop-down list. For each student name, he can see both the written pronunciation and listen to the voice recording made by the student.

Currently, Larick has a few mixed feelings about the new app. “I think it has made it much better; that is not always faster. I actually spent even more time practicing [because] I actually felt that I had a chance of correctly pronouncing the names. Of course there are some names that my mid-western accent just will not allow me to get exactly right. I am definitely looking forward to using it in May.” [Note: The app was first used in the December 2009 graduation ceremony.]

On the other hand, Larick says that he can’t see any disadvantages in the app. “The doctoral graduates have spent years here preparing for this moment and we owe it to them to do whatever we can to make it right.”

And that Icelandic volcano? It’s pronounced “AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul” – courtesy of Iceland’s embassy in Washington, DC.


Click here to view archived Graduate School stories.