SPServices Stories #12 – SharePoint and jQuery SPServices in Education: A Case Study

This entry is part 12 of 21 in the series SPServices Stories

Introduction

Ben Tedder (@bentedder) has long been a fan of SPServices and his writing about it is great, to boot. I liked this post back when Ben first put it up on his blog because it really does tell a story, and SPServices plays a significant role in it.

Ben has built quite a few real-world solutions using SPServices that transcend what SharePoint can do. By using SharePoint as the back end data repository, Ben has managed to create solutions that provide a great user experience and are far more efficient than SharePoint can be when building through the UI. He does this without deploying any server-side code, just as I always aspire to do. Great solutions with minimal footprints.

Thanks to Ben for letting me republish this post from his blog.

SharePoint and jQuery SPServices in Education: A Case Study

24 Sep 2012

bentedder-profile

This is a morphed, updated, renewed version of the SharePoint Scheduling Assistant. I’m not releasing this version quite yet, but this is a brief case study on how it’s working at a specific school.

Business Needs

The International School of Beijing needed a way for Elementary School parents to book time slots with teachers during bi-annual parent-teacher conferences.

The requirements:

  • Easy to use (training is impossible).
  • Integrate into the current intranet portal.
  • Sync with the database to omit any kind of manual setup for secretaries.
  • Deny parents the ability to book more than one slot with the same teacher.
  • Allow parents to book the same slot for two different teachers (in case mother and father come in and meet with 1 teacher each to save time)
  • If two or more parents are online at the same time, correctly queue the submissions so a double booking does not occur.
  • Allow teachers to pre-block out slots where parents cannot book times.
  • Allow teachers the ability to see their entire schedule, including which student is coming in during which time slot.

Solution (SharePoint, jQuery, and SPServices)

A SharePoint solution was built with jQuery to meet the requirements of the Elementary School. Let’s break down how the solution was created:

Part 1 – SharePoint

Within SharePoint three lists were created:

  • Bookings (Each reservation had its own row in this list that stored the details of who booked it, for which teacher, etc.)
  • Time Slots (A pre-determined list of time slots…in this case a list item was created for each 20 minute time slot from 12-6pm on Thursday and Friday Oct 18 and 19).
  • People (An external content type that pulled records from the database for each student, each of their parents, and each of their teacher names)

One of the trickier parts of this solution was grabbing the external content from the database in a usable way. Once it was in, we were able to work with the data. However, this list has 10,000+ items, so dealing with larger data like this was quite challenging. Enter jQuery.

Part 2 – jQuery and SPServices

The bulk of this solution was created with the jQuery and jQuery SPServices Libraries. Using jQuery, we stepped through the process like this:

  1. Get the details of the logged in user (parent) using SPServices
  2. Hit the SharePoint external data list once, filter it by Parent (matching to the Parent login ID), and store it in a javascript object for later use. This was the biggest strain on the system. We minimized the data call to only one time, but even still, pulling a list of 10,000 records even once isn’t super quick.
  3. Get all the children of the logged in parent, push them to a drop-down menu
  4. Get all the teachers of the selected child from #3, push them to another drop-down menu
  5. Get all time slots from the Time Slots list, push to a third drop-down menu
  6. Retroactively disable all time slot options that have already been booked (by searching through the Bookings list for records that match the time slot and the selected teacher)

Once the data was present, the parent could interact with it in two ways, book, and delete.

To book a time slot, the selected child, selected teacher, and selected time slot (along with a comments area) was submitted and saved to the list. To delete a time slot, a delete button is appended to each reservation in the on-screen schedule with the ID of the reservation as the ID of the link element.

The data from the Bookings list is checked once during the time slot selection process, and again during the form submit process to make sure no double bookings have occurred.

Benefits

This solution enables, for the first time at this school, parents to go online and manage their entire Parent-Teacher Conference schedule. Also, as an added bonus, if a mother and father both login, they can see the complete schedule for their child, even if only one of the parents made the bookings.

Once a parent books a time slot, they receive an email containing the details of their reservation.

An additional feature of this solution was that it was duplicated and tweaked for teachers to use a similar interface to pre-block out time slots where they did not want parents to come (ie, lunch, coffee break, going home). In that scenario the “one-block” restriction was removed for teachers, allowing them to customize when parents would be given the option to come in.

Software Development Literacy – Wave of the Future or Doomsday Device?

A few months ago, I read a newspaper article – which unfortunately I can’t find – about the idea that software development literacy may someday seem as normal as reading literacy is today. I didn’t think it was far-fetched at all. In today’s world *everyone* touches a computer in some way, even if it’s only the chip that runs the fare collector on public transportation. (This isn’t a discussion about rich and poor – I tried to come up with the most benign example I could. Admittedly, it’s more a first world example.)

Today there was an article in the Boston Globe about a company called FreeCause here in Boston that is doing something unique. The story explained that…

…29-year-old company chief executive Michael Jaconi told all 60 of his employees that they had to learn the programming language JavaScript. The idea is not to turn everyone into an engineer, but to give employees — from accountants to designers to salespeople — a better understanding of what goes into developing the company’s software.

Jaconi’s initiative is a recognition that technology has inserted itself into almost every aspect of modern life, and it’s a subject people increasingly need to know. In many companies, technology often creates barriers that separate technical from nontechnical workers.   “There’s a pretty big divide between engineers and nonengineers, and what I wanted to do was bring those two camps closer together,” said Jaconi, a serial entrepreneur and former political campaign worker who is learning to code along with his employees. “I thought that this would facilitate more efficiency, bring teams closer together, and ultimately make our company perform better.”

Oddly, unless I’m really out of it, there’s a bug in the example the article showed in one of the accompanying pictures. Bonus points if you spot it.

Learning JavaScript

Image from the Boston Globe Web site

I tweeted a link. (Through the wonders of HootSuite – the awesome social media tool I prefer over all the others – I also posted it to Facebook and LinkedIn at the same time.)

The fastest response I got on Twitter was from my friend Dan Antion (@DAntion):

I expected I’d hear something similar from a good number of the developers who follow me on Twitter, and eventually I did hear from quite a few with what amounted to disparaging comments about the idea. At best they were, like Dan’s, a sort of “uh-oh”.

I think it’s more complex than that initial reaction and also more important. Let me explain my thoughts.

As a consultant, I am paid to be an expert in some things. What many of my clients don’t realize, though, is that because I don’t specialize in any particular industry and I’ve been in consulting a very long time, I also have to know at least something about a lot of things: car manufacturing, stock trading, theme parks, higher education, pharmaceutical discovery, and the list goes on. (Those are all examples of real projects I’ve worked on over the years.) I have enough humility to know that I’m not an expert in fields out of my chosen one, but I have to know *something* about others in order to advise in a useful way and to write useful solutions.

Think about your major in college. Do you “do” that thing now as your everyday activity? I majored in Mathematics, and it’s pretty rare that I “do” math. I studied all kinds of things in college: psychology, chemistry, film making, rocks for jocks [geology], etc. I don’t “do” any of those things on a daily or even yearly basis. But I’ll argue with anyone who says that a liberal arts education – wherein one studies a wide range of things – doesn’t add up to a well-rounded, multi-talented individual. (Full disclosure: my major was actually called “Computer Mathematics”. The last time I came up with an interesting, computer-based  way to factor primes was in college, though.)

Another thing I’ve seen over my years of consulting is that, generally speaking, the teams that I’ve seen be most effective share some traits. They are usually cross-functional, highly motivated, and inquisitive about each other’s knowledge. I’d take a team with those traits over specific, homogeneous knowledge any day. Note that I mentioned “inquisitive about each other’s knowledge”. That means that they want to learn a little something about what the others know. This helps them to work together more effectively.

As software development becomes more and more pervasive, what’s wrong with everyone having basic literacy in it?

We might be able to interact with technical customer support better. We may be able to understand what to do or not do to avoid infecting our computers with viruses. We may be able to save unending time by not doing things that cause our work to be lost, requiring us to recreate it. We might understand what we’re asking each other for just a little bit better, making us more able to collaborate on the important parts of the task at hand rather than level setting every time.

Simple programming knowledge (I almost said “basic programming knowledge”, but that would be too specific) is an excellent idea. To apply knowledge management principles to “using a computer”, if we can identify what the key things the high performers know that make them good at it and can teach the low performers just a scintilla of that knowledge, everyone’s competency rises. By knowing something about what’s going on under the hood, I posit we all become better digital denizens.

Also note that nothing in the article said that the accountant or the salesperson has to become a software developer. They just have to learn the basics – enough for “every FreeCause employee develop a product such as a Web page or toolbar component that could potentially be integrated into the company’s loyalty rewards software.” That’s potentially. Not definitely, and not absolutely.

I’m going to go with Jaconi’s idea as a wave of the future, and one I welcome. There’s plenty of other stuff to worry about in the doomsday category, and this isn’t one of them.

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