Calvin students design new resource for ordering textbooks


photo by john muyskens

With their new website, Peter VandeHaar and Matt Greeley want to change the way you buy books for classes online.

The idea was born out of frustration: VandeHaar spoke of his frustration when purchasing books for class on the internet, having to search each book individually by ISBN on Amazon to find the best prices.

Inspired by the simplicity and ease of use of SlatePermutate, a course scheduling website developed by a Calvin alumnus, VandeHaar hatched a plan to streamline the book buying process for Calvin students.

A team totalling five members built the site as a class project for CS 262: Software Engineering. Taught by Dr. Keith Vander Linden, the course involves creating a software application over the course of the semester.

Projects can be anything from a smartphone app to a website. Past project ideas have involved student-to-student book sales, dorm maintenance requests and a system to request web pages be unblocked from Calvin’s internet filter.

While Greeley and VandeHaar were the primary developers on the project, Paul Jeon, Jiwon Nam and Ziyi Wang contributed in the areas of project management and generating cool ideas.

The course, which involves students not only of computer science, but also of information systems, emphasizes excellence not only on the engineering, but also the management side, of creating a successful software project.

Both Greeley and VandeHaar described developing the website as a process of collaboration and learning.

“Peter and I work together well,” said Greeley. “We both have a passion to make this a really cool website and we work together to get it done.”

“When you spend hundreds of hours coding you learn a lot about programming, but also we learned a lot about user experience and about how people respond to what we built,” said VandeHaar.

While the pair learned a lot of technical knowledge, they also learned how to use feedback from users well.

“Peter and I want feedback,” said Greeley, “I would encourage people to try it out and see what happens and let us know.”

The site lists the books for each course at Calvin. To find courses, the site provides search boxes that are similar to SlatePermutate, but go beyond them in terms of functionality.

Greeley describes the search boxes as the “be all and end all for entering information.” Students can search for courses by the code (e.g. “CS-332-A”), the name of the course (“Adv Computer Networks”) or the name of the instructor (“Victor Norman”).

“A smart algorithm” drives the search experience, claims Greeley. “It’s got a little bit of artificial intelligence.”

Once a student selects a class, the site will list all of the books required for the course alongside their respective prices at the campus bookstore, Amazon, Valore, Abebooks and Half. The site can also be used as a general purpose price comparison tool by searching for a book by ISBN.

The team also built an extension for the Chrome web browser. While it is a separate entity from the website, Greeley claims that the original purpose was to generate interest in the website.

The extension started by adding links to other e-retailers on campus store booklist page, but it soon grew. The extension augments Moodle, WebPrint and people search, and provides convenient links to Portal, StudentMail and Enhanced Student News.

Currently the extension is only available for Chrome, but the team plans to extend it to other browsers. VandeHaar, the main developer of the extension, mentioned that he open-sourced the code.

This means that anyone can download the code and modify or extend it however they like. VandeHaar proposed that students of CS 100, an introductory computer science course, could modify the extension as a class project, something he described as a “great way of fixing difficulties for Calvin students.”

Both Greeley and VandeHaar emphasized that the website was not done yet and that they were still responding to user feedback.

“Our main focus is Calvin College and making that perfect,” stated Greeley. “I think we are almost there.”

Other schools, however, are already up and running.

“If if works at Calvin and people like it,” said Greeley of their expansion plans, “why wouldn’t it work at other schools?”

As of right now, has expanded to several other Michigan schools. Alongside Calvin, the site features Hope, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Delta College.