Local Students Make Choosing the Right Canadian University Easier with New WebsiteWritten by Aicha Lasfar
Anyone who has ever sought out post-secondary education knows it can be a struggle to find the perfect program. One team of young Muslims from Ottawa is changing the scene with a new website aimed at helping students find the Canadian university that’s right for them.
Apportal.ca is the brainchild of Abdul Amoud. A Merivale High School graduate currently enrolled at the University of Ottawa, he recalls how his own path to post-secondary education was not so smooth.
“My guidance councillor was not very supportive and did not help me explore options outside of Ottawa,” recalls Abdul. He was interested in pursuing an education outside of the city, but did not find websites from universities very helpful. “The websites were so complicated that I didn’t know where to get the information I needed.”
Abdul was not the only one having issues navigating university websites. The idea for Apportal came to him after he saw many other students also struggling.
“I focused on international students in the beginning,” explains Abdul. “I lived in the Middle East when I was a kid, and now all my friends I knew from primary school were texting me about Canadian universities. I tried to help them out and started going through university websites on their behalf over the summer.”
But Abdul quickly realized that if the university websites were confusing to him, they were surely twice as confusing to his friends who were not familiar with the Canadian system of education.
As it turns out, necessity is the mother of invention, and Abdul was inspired to build a solution to this problem. His goal was to create a website that had all the necessary information students need at a click of a button, without having to surf through pages and pages of content.
“The problems with university websites right now,” explains Abdul, “is that they are giving you too much information, and most of it you don’t need. All I want to know is what it takes to get into this university.”
In contrast, Apportal is much more user friendly. One simply has to use the search engine to look up a program they are interested in (for example, Journalism) and the website pulls up everything you need to know about studying journalism at Canada’s top 20 universities: which universities offer the program, what is the world ranking of each university, how much the tuition fees are, and what the minimum average is to get into the program. All this information is displayed in a neat tabular format.
But that’s not all, Abdul is very happy about the fact that his website displays programs that aren’t as popular or easy to find.
“My friend’s brother told me that he just used the website to apply to the University of Toronto, into a program he didn’t even know existed.”
To further make his point, Abdul explains that universities have a tendency to push forward certain popular programs while not paying special attention to some lesser known programs, which can be detrimental to students looking for the perfect fit.
“When universities came to our high schools to showcase their programs, they would only talk about their flagship programs. They would gloss over everything else,” he says. “There are low-key programs that universities don’t like to flaunt.”
Abdul and his team take pride in the fact that compared to university websites that have multiple pages and tabs to surf through (and dark corners in which to hide less glamorous programs), Apportal is so incredibly simple and straightforward, with few pages to get lost in.
“I make things that I would like to use. I would have loved to have had Apportal when I was in high school because it would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of money.”
How exactly does a young university student start such a website? He needed help and money and so Abdul called his friend, Ziad Skaik, for assistance.
“Ziad Skaik is my best friend. I’ve known him for about five or six years. I trusted him with everything; I told him about the idea. I also told his brother Khalid. They were both excited and got on board. It was December 2015 when we started. We bought a logo, some stock photos and flyers to advertise. We bought a very cheap server for $10 a year. We then went ahead and bought the domain.”
The journey had a few twists and turns. At first, Apportal started as a small business helping international students apply to Canadian universities. For a reasonable fee, Abdul and his team would help students apply and get into programs in Canada. But that didn’t last very long. Abdul was more interested in building a good quality website that helped everyone with their applications.
“We did our first version of the website and it didn’t look so good,” admits Abdul. “It looked good on the screen that it was developed on but didn’t translate well to other devices like phones or tablets.”
In order to fully invest in the creation of Apportal as a useful application, Abdul had to drop the business side of things.
“We shut down the whole part of the website that was making money [through university applications], and we invested the money in buying secure servers, which increases credibility and ranking of the website. We also redesigned the website. I learned how to code over the summer and we started using new technology to code a website from scratch. Our website now works on every single dimension of screen possible.”
Abdul and the Skaik brothers also had help from a friend, “Khalid had a good friend, Jawad Marwan. He was the ‘plug’, he was the one who made things happen,” recalls Abdul. “He told us how things should go, as he’s very smart about web development and business. He gave us a lot of resources and we were so thankful for that.”
Making a website from scratch is one thing, but how did Abdul come up with all the data necessary to feed Apportal’s database? The answer is both simple, yet complicated.
This was when the young inventor had to get help and hire a data miner, a local high school student, Sarah Aly.
“Sarah Aly did amazing work. She did the data mining, research, and data scraping and put all the information that we needed into an Excel file.”
Data mining is a process in which raw data or information is researched, extracted, and organized into a useful format. Abdul explains further, “Data mining sounds really simple - to just go through websites and get the information. But honestly, it took [Sarah] a while. It’s very time consuming. It’s not easy to just copy information from websites. She can’t just drag and drop the cursor, it wasn’t like that. At some point she had to take the information out and enter it one by one.”
If Sarah has her work cut out for her now, it’s about to get even more serious. Apportal currently only features Canada’s top 20 universities but Abdul hopes for an expansion. He would like to add more educational establishments to the list and include PhD, Masters, and part-time programs which aren’t featured yet.
He would also like to include pages in the website to help international students with their transition to Canada.
“I would like to include information about living in Canadian cities,” explains Abdul. “I get questions from international students like ‘Where do I live? How is the weather in Halifax [for example]? How expensive is it to live there?’”
Acquiring this sort of information will necessitate a whole new level of data mining, yet Apportal is completely free to use, and is not currently generating any revenue.
“It’s absolutely free, we don’t even have ads on it,” Abdul says proudly. “We tried putting ads, but it kind of ruined the look of the website. Apportal looked gorgeous to me, and I couldn’t ruin it with ads.”
“I’ve always admired applications that were just free,” he continues. “I want to be known for a beautiful application that feels free. But all the changes we want to make to Apportal are impossible without funding.”
“No matter how much I try, at some point it’s going to have to start making money.”
Abdul knows how hard his team members work and wants to ensure that they get paid properly and fairly, “The data mining is such a struggle, it’s something that takes weeks and effort. You can’t pay someone minimum wage and ask them to do this kind of job.”
So how exactly does Abdul hope to accomplish an application that feels free while paying data miners and developers?
“I was really hoping to find an unconventional way of funding,” he explains. “I tried to get the universities to put money into it or to get a benefactor.”
Another method Abdul was interested in was the concept of “controlled ads” or, in this case, ads that actually relate to Apportal’s theme of facilitating access to post-secondary education.
“Other [similar] websites have ads, but they are useful and they lead to university websites themselves. That’s something I really want to do, but you need recognition for that and have to people who can validate the website.”
Like many young and upcoming projects, Abdul recognizes that Apportal needs to get out through word of mouth. In the beginning, he tried getting in touch with universities with whom he already had a good relationship.
“I tried to reach the [Dalhousie University] admissions office and they liked our website but already had a relationship with other websites.”
Abdul didn’t get discouraged. He believed Apportal was unique and worth fighting for. Instead, he reached out to more familiar ground, “I contacted my old high school. I talked to the principal and told her about the website. The school then went and shared it on their Facebook page. I think they also told students to start using it because I started to see a spike in usage from Merivale high school servers.”
For a young entrepreneur, this was really appreciated, “I was really happy, it was heartwarming to see that they supported me even though I don’t go to their school anymore.”
As for the future of his project, Abdul is hopeful. Most of all, he’s grateful for the team that helped him make his vision a reality, “I really want to give credit to Sarah Aly and Ziad Skaik and his brother Khalid who set up the meeting with Jawad and made core structural designs of the website in its primary stage.”
“Sarah Aly was very supportive. She starting sharing the website; started talking to her guidance councillors about it. Her work was remarkable and she exceeded expectations.”
In the end, Abdul sees Apportal as a success, but also a stepping stone to bigger things.
“I’m already working on something bigger,” Abdul acknowledges. “Apportal is only for people looking to get into Canadian Universities. We will continue to work on Apportal, but we’re also working on something that people all around the world can use.”
Visit the Apportal website here
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