Case Study - Purdue University - Graduate School improves thesis authoring and submission processes
The Purdue University Graduate School was evaluating tools and solutions that would address the following goals:
- Make the thesis writing process easier for students.
- Decrease the amount of time and work required by the Graduate School to review theses.
- Streamline the thesis review process.
Providing premium Overleaf accounts and customized writing templates to all students, faculty and staff is helping the Purdue Graduate School achieve these goals.
Results from 1-year Pilot:
- After a successful 1-year trial, the Purdue Graduate School chose to invest in a 5-year adoption of the Overleaf platform to benefit students, faculty and staff.
- 35% of all STEM students now use the Purdue Overleaf thesis template – with that number continuing to grow.
- In cases where students used Overleaf to write their theses, workload and review times were significantly reduced – from 5 or more graduate staff/student meetings per thesis to approximately 2-3 meetings per thesis.
- Out of 1,400 theses submitted to the Purdue Graduate School per year, ~490 will be submitted using Overleaf – providing an estimated 980 meetings removed, a huge time savings!
- The Purdue Graduate School now recommends the use of Overleaf to all students - “The Graduate School and I recommend you use Overleaf.” - Mark Senn, Engineering Computer Network Systems Programmer.
Prior to partnering with Overleaf, the Purdue Graduate School provided theses templates to students as traditional LaTeX templates and Word documents. Both options had, and continue to present, challenges.
Word documents may be more familiar and easier for students to use initially; however, there are specific formatting requirements and rules that must be followed for a thesis to be accepted which are not easily accomplished using Word. Word requires students to format and compose their documents prior to submission. This is rarely done correctly. A huge amount of time is then required by the Graduate School to reformat, clean up and work with students on finalizing their documents. For the Purdue Graduate School, this resulted in 5 or more meetings between the student and the Graduate School staff.
Due to these formatting requirements, and time needed to fix formatting issues, LaTeX templates have always been preferred by the Graduate School. LaTeX composes the document for students based on the template layout – so there is much less work required on the back-end for formatting. However, with the traditional LaTeX template, the hurdle was the learning curve and accessibility of LaTeX itself. It’s a programming language – so students need to know how to use it. And even though LaTeX is free to download and use, it’s not easy to install and there are versioning issues. So even though Purdue had a LaTeX template which was superior to Word – few students used it. It was highly intimidating.
Purdue was looking for a way to overcome the LaTeX intimidation and accessibility hurdle. They knew that having students use the LaTeX template would save everyone time and headaches in the end, but they also knew they had a challenge getting student and faculty buy-in on a format that was not widely known or used.
They started looking for LaTeX options – they wanted an ‘off the shelf’ solution that would allow students to start using their LaTeX template right away – without having to install and learn the LaTeX programming language. Andy Hughes, a thesis format reviewer in the Electrical Engineering Department came across Overleaf and was impressed. He started the ball rolling by bringing his findings to Mark Jaeger, Manager of the Thesis/Dissertation Office and Dr. Philip Pope, Sr. Associate Dean of the Graduate School.
Andy Hughes, Manager of Web and Multimedia Services, Electrical Engineering Department says:
“I looked at several different LaTeX authoring tools and Overleaf was by far the best. It was easy to use, very intuitive, with nothing to install - just open and write. And the ability to have our template loaded onto their site and ready for students to use made it a perfect fit.”
How Overleaf Helped
Overleaf is a cloud-based, collaborative LaTeX and Rich Text authoring platform. Think of it like Google Docs™, but for researchers, scientists and engineers. It’s incredibly intuitive and simple to use – users go to the website, open a template (over 3000 available), and start to write. There’s nothing to download or install. And users can choose to write in LaTeX or a Rich Text mode, which provides a ‘word processor’ type environment for users who are new to or aren’t familiar with LaTeX. This was perfect for Purdue – it allowed students to use LaTeX quickly and easily and put a friendly face on LaTeX.
On top of that, Purdue took advantage of Overleaf’s ‘TeXperts’ to enhance and improve upon their current thesis template for use in Overleaf. It allows students to very easily click a link, open the template in the cloud-based Overleaf editor, write, and invite collaborators into the document if wanted or required. The platform automatically composes the document for the students, as they write – in real-time – they write on the left and see the finished document on the right. When they’re finished, they simply download the finished file as a PDF or zip file with the LaTeX source and supporting files.
This met the goals of Purdue – they were able to provide their LaTeX template to students in an easy to use format, which in-turn, persuaded more students to use LaTeX, which in-turn eased the thesis writing process for students, which in-turn, saved the Purdue Graduate School staff a lot of time! On top of that, Overleaf provided unexpected benefits.
Overleaf provided a custom Purdue Institutional Web Portal. This allowed the Graduate School to easily provide a URL to students and faculty from which they could quickly enroll for the service with no administration from Purdue. Students and faculty simply used their Purdue email address to enroll – nice and easy. Through this portal, the students and faculty also had access to multiple templates relevant to Purdue students, faculty and researchers. This not only included the thesis template, but templates for scientific journal submissions and standard papers. Access to quick start guides, help, and FAQs were available via the web portal as well and Overleaf ‘TeXperts’ were available to answer questions about the service, the template, or even LaTeX itself.
Overleaf provided marketing and training support – so campus-wide promotion and roll-out was much easier. The Graduate School set up a series of training sessions which, with the help of Overleaf, they marketed to students and faculty. Posters, literature, and swag were provided to help spread the word and entice students to the sessions. Overleaf further supported the effort by attending the sessions live and via webex. Having Overleaf available ‘live’ to explain and help launch the service was beneficial.
And lastly, Overleaf provided a data and analytics web portal which gave Purdue a detailed look into the program and template use. Purdue can access their custom analytics hub at any time and see how many students and faculty are using the service, which departments are using the service, the template use, and what collaborations are happening – both internally and with external institutions. The ability to gather these details allowed the Graduate School to keep track of their trial and make sure it was being used as expected.
Mark Jaeger - Manager, Thesis and Dissertation Office at Purdue says:
"We provide students with customized Overleaf thesis and dissertation templates - it provides a quick and easy way for students to write in the correct format which saves our department huge amounts of time. Overleaf submissions come in beautifully formatted and ready to go!"
Results, Return on Investment and Future Plans
The trial was a huge success! The Purdue Graduate School sees an average of 1,400 theses submissions each year – out of these ~490 or 35% now use the Overleaf template.
These submissions come into the Graduate School correctly formatted and ready to go – allowing the Graduate School staff to work with students on content – not formatting. It allows both students and staff to focus on what’s most important – the research.
By taking out the need to deal with formatting and composition issues, this took the number of meetings between students and Graduate School staff from an average of 5 or more meetings, down to 2-3 meetings. That’s an average of 980 meetings cut!
The feedback from students and faculty has been overwhelmingly positive. The ease of use and accessibility are incomparable and they appreciate the Graduate School providing a tool that is not only useful for their thesis, but for a myriad of other authoring and class projects as well.
With the trial being such a resounding success, Purdue has signed up for a 5-year partnership. Not only will they continue to push Overleaf for thesis use, but they hope to see use of Overleaf grow to other departments and campus use. A possible next step will be to integrate into the Purdue institutional repository – making it simple for students and faculty to write and then submit into the institutional repository directly from within Overleaf - with 1-click.
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