Course notifier generates buzz

Senior Rob Rankin was sitting in BIL 481 when he overheard two students behind him talking about a friend who had made a program to alert him about the availability of certain courses.

“So, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go ahead and make it for everyone to use,’” Rankin said.

Rankin is the creator of the course notifier option that the university provides on the school Blackboard page during registration. The program has been up since the fall semester of 2011 and has been used by 2,000 users with 8,000 requests for alerts.

Sophomore Gabriela Lins has used the course notifier to help her sign up for courses and map out an ideal schedule that would facilitate her life as a commuter and a work-study student.

“The program gives students greater autonomy over selecting courses … and gives students more ownership of their schedule, and I am extremely grateful for that,” Lins said.

The program itself consists of two parts. One part is referred to as Python, and that component of the program actively searches the UM website every five minutes to check for open courses. The second portion, referred to as PHP, checks to see if those course that have opened up match any of the requests made through the course notifier.

“Programming is very useful if you ever have interest in it,” Rankin said. “It has so many applications so you can really develop it rather quickly.”

The entire program took Rankin less than three hours to make.

Once developed, Rankin began to post a link to his program on various Facebook outlets. These postings then generated about 300 unique visitors with a total of 1,000 course notification requests submitted. He then sent an email to all advisers in the various schools.

William Vilberg, the associate director for instructional advancement, got in touch with Rankin to promote the program on the UM Blackboard page. Rankin was not compensated for his tool, but that was not his motive for creating the program.

“I’m just happy I could help,” he said. “I got a lot of feedback this semester. I’m happy that people are finding it useful and that they’re being honest with things that can improve so that it can improve in the future.”

The course notifier is not Rankin’s only program. He also developed, which takes the data from, a database of law school applicant information, and synthesizes it into an easy-to-consume format. It also notifies users the moment a student’s law school application status changes.

Also available since last fall semester is the UM Campus Cast program, which was done in collaboration with the Atmospheric Science Club, Student Government and the Instructional Advancement Center. sends subscribers daily alerts with weather forecasts for the day.

Rankin, who is a biology and philosophy double major on the pre-law track, has been programming since he was 12.

“I found one application when I was young that would do my homework for me and from there, I just found more and more ways to make it useful to now, where it makes money for me,” he said.

Rankin is also planning on participating in UHack, a 24-hour app creation event where students will get the opportunity to develop ideas for potential applications.

Programming is something Rankin enjoys regardless of what career path he might take, and the course notifier is just one of many products of that enjoyment.

“I do it sometimes for fun, sometimes because I find it useful in cases like this,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll have an idea and it’ll be five o’clock in the afternoon, and I hop on my computer and then its like 5 a.m. That’s just kind of a programmers thing.”