Are Trinity’s clubs and societies watching the technological revolution pass by?

Luke McGuinness

Staff Writer

With the advent of new technology, many parts of college life are becoming easier. Access through Blackboard to lectures notes, file sharing through Dropbox, and entry into college grounds through the use of Near Field Communication (NFC) enabled student cards are just a handful of the many examples that could be offered. Both college and the students themselves are making the most of new software and products on offer, but it would seem that student societies here in the college have so far missed out on the benefits that this technological revolution could bring them.

In recent years, the processing power of small mobile devices such as iPads and other tablets has increased dramatically, meaning that the current pen and paper methods employed by societies in signing up new members could be considered slightly old-fashioned. For example, the Hist and the Phil are only a few societies that collect data by computer. The membership fee is paid at the stall in Front Square, and the new member is issued with a ticket and directions to the society rooms, where committee members plug their information straight into stationary laptop. This system seems to work, allowing a more detailed profile of each member to be built up. This is, however, a notable exception, as most societies still employ the traditional pen and paper, “insert table in MS Word” approach, often limiting the details collected to a member’s name, student number, e-mail address, and occasionally their course.

There are some considerable drawbacks to this old fashioned, hard copy method. As mentioned, only a few select details can be collected on each student. This method would also seem to be inefficient, as all of the details must be transcribed into a spreadsheet or e-mail list at a later date, creating a lot of extra work for what is probably an already swamped committee. There is also the possibility that a sheet with some twenty or thirty members contact details could go missing, meaning that a society might lose out on being able to contact what could prove to be a large portion of their membership due to only having the one hard copy of records. While some systems employed by the larger societies are better than most, there still seems to be some room for improvement. Societies would benefit greatly from having more detailed information on each of their members in addition to the basics. For example, for an all-inclusive society like the Phil or the Hist, details of students’ courses of study could be collected. With this information in a spreadsheet, when a speaker/debate suited to a particular course is coming up, in addition to a general e-mail to all members about the event, a tailored e-mail could be sent to those who registered an interest in that particular area, providing a more detailed description. Additionally, with features such as Mail Merge from Microsoft, it would be possible to have the e-mail open with the student’s name, thus having the e-mail seem even more like a personal invite rather than just an open call. The same could be done by societies with a smaller focus group of students, but rather than taking a student’s course of study, details of which particular area of that society’s activities they are interested in could be collected. This database of members could also be used to track whether or not a particular member has paid. It could also be used to aid societies in offering four-year membership, as students’ names could be checked against records when handing out cards in subsequent years. One of the potential problems with this kind of system lies in collecting the information in a way that maximizes the benefits for both the society and the student, while also keeping the time needed to collect the data as short as possible, so as not to dissuade potential members from joining.

“In recent years, the processing power of small mobile devices such as iPads and other tablets has increased dramatically, meaning that the current pen and paper methods employed by societies in signing up new members could be considered slightly old-fashioned.”

In recent times, Google has lead the way in providing powerful, free, online tools, including spreadsheets, word processing and now even scripts. One of the less known tools, Google Forms, allows you to create, edit and publish your very own form online. You can customise the wording of the questions; decide whether to provide a list of options or to leave them open-ended, and even the theme and colour scheme of the form itself. By employing Google Forms, a student’s name, e-mail address, year of study and other information may be rapidly gathered. A form may also have a number of pages that a student will be directed to based on their answer to a particular question: for example, if Science was selected as a student’s course of study, the form might link them to the page within the form where they can choose which areas of Science they prefer, be it Chemistry, Biology or Physics. It would even be possible to have a question dedicated to which committee/society member signed the student up, and award a prize to the person who has secured the most sign-ups by the end of the week.

However, the beautiful thing about using Google Forms to sign-up students is its practicality. After the form is filled out, the answers are filed straight into an accompanying spreadsheet. This would eliminate the need for the transcription of answers after the fact, reducing the human error aspect. The spreadsheet can be downloaded as an Excel file and put to working as outlined above. All of the data collected ends up online and in the same place, so there is no searching for that lost folder of paper sheets come the end of the Freshers’ Week.

Additionally, Google Forms has the advantage of being mobile, meaning that committee members would be free to roam the stalls with a 3G enabled tablet, speaking to students and signing them up on the spot if they turn out to be interested. Google Forms can also be used by many people simultaneously, meaning that any number people can be signing up at the same time.

It seems that Trinity’s societies have some work to do in terms of catching up with the mobile technology revolution. Signing-up students using mobile technology is not the only area where societies could employ technology to make things easier for their committees and to increase their presence on campus, but as it is free and the old system can be reverted to if the technology fails, it seems like it might be a good place to start.

Illustration: Natalie Duda