Study of an internet artifact: Usis

This is the season of the year where students can enroll for courses from the second semester. Confusion and error messages spread through the Whatsapp groups. Courses feel like buried treasures buried under cryptic course numbers and walls of windows. The fact that there are different sessions or professors make everything more blurry. It doesn’t help that the Brightspace and Usis don’t coordinate properly and that reshedulings take place due to the lockdown situation.

But I won’t go further by making a rant about the enrollment system. This is just the context that gave me the idea of the topic for this blog post: the artifact that is Usis system.

A tutorial made at the launch in 2010

I’ve always had some curiosity towards the Usis website, even more when at the beginning of the academic year the professors told us they didn’t knew anything about it and the only whey to fix problems was to go through the administration. First of all, professors always know everything, to some degree, apparently, so this is really weird and contributes to Usis’ mysterious aura. Also compared to the slick material design esthetic of Brightspace, the Usis grey windows and tabs gives off some old vibes.

The Usis system in Leiden was launched 10 years ago, I never experienced what was before that, luckily I am not a student with that much study lag. Apparently it was combination of ISIS and U-Twist (those names didn’t age well). The exact date Usis came into use is 29 march 2010. Before continuing, let’s first thank Usis for its decade of service and hope it won’t be two decades.

Apparently, the correct way to write Usis is uSIS, so I’m writings things wrong, but let’s just say that student jargon changes with time like the lexicon and thus this is linguistically and grammatically acceptable.

| =  Digmedianary                              -  O X  |
| Usis     /yzɪs/                                      |
|                                                      |
| Etymology                                            |
| uSIS                                                 |
|                                                      |
| Universiteit Studenten Informatiesysteem             |

It was created under the SANS project, which stands for Samenwerking Nieuw Studenteninformatiesysteem, with the services of Atos Origin and was made with the information system Peoplesoft from Oracle.

The interface looks quite dated, and isn’t really user friendly. You need to put your courses in a cart, and confirm your order. Usis is a bit like what a webshop on Excel could have been.

In some way I appreciate it, it feels different from everything, bit by bit you get used to it, you discover some hyperlinks that bring you to new handy pages. It can be a quite fun experience, if study credits en schedules weren’t involved with it.

It is some time capsule. Looking at the screenshots from ten years ago, there isn’t so much difference.

This is how it looks in 2020

Two years later, Hans Pinckaers, a student made his own solution: extension that displays an interface that is easier to use. However it was temporary, the service isn’t hosted anymore, but the code is still accessible on GitHub.

It still looks like the university added a new main page later on. The big colorful square buttons on a white background, probably meant for tactile screen usage, are quite different with the old fashioned look of the rest of the website. The buttons also redirect towards more recent services. In some way Usis is similar to two face god of time Janus: one side towards the future, another towards the past.

I will finish this blog post with some tweets (which I decided to anonymize since a lot of the account use their full names as twitter handles) to summarize the ten years of Usis.

Usis, het schijnt het nieuwe geniale programma van Uni Leiden te moeten zijn.. Tot nu toe is het onbegrijpelijk!!!

3 May 2020

The #Leiden#University finally launched the #uSis online information system. Can’t believe we waited for this: looks crap, very slow, #fail

3 May 2020

”Usis is not to be understood, Usis is to be tolerated (at most).” – Leiden uni students

7 February 2013

Oh Usis… The stuff of nightmares: Did I have access? Did it work or melt down? Was it new? Can’t remember anything. No recollection of the details 7 years after I left Leiden, except a sense of total panic and dread whenever anyone mentions the word now.

7 October 2020