Aug. 7, 2012 at 6:54 PM ET
Marketing major Tim Arnold thought he was doing a good deed — not to mention forming a neat business plan — by creating a Facebook app that helped his fellow University of Central Florida students find out as soon as seats became available for classes they needed, but couldn't get at registration time. But the app's popularity backfired, resulting in the school shutting down access and putting Arnold himself on academic probation.
The app is called U Could Finish, a play on the school's initials, UCF. Its purpose was to notify students by text message, as often as every 60 seconds, to tell them when there were spots available in desired classes. The way it did it was to access UCF's schedule search page — and therein lay the problem.
University of Central Florida officials say the app got so popular, it dramatically slowed down the university’s myUCF servers. Within days, the school shut down access from Arnold’s website — and after finding him in violation of school polices, placed him on academic probation until the end of the 2013 spring semester.
Arnold, who has documented his travails on Facebook, Reddit and on the U Could Finish website, makes some compelling arguments for the app. He says he has invested about $1,000, but has yet to net any proceeds from it, as he was still offering free access codes and testing the system when the university locked it down in June.
A report in the student newspaper, Central Florida Future, had this comment from Courtney Gilmartin, communications coordinator for UCF News & Information, who was quoted as saying:
While the intent of UCouldFinish.com — helping students register for classes — is positive, the way in which the website works places an unmanageable load on UCF’s systems. ... Since mid-December, the website’s software has accessed UCF’s schedule search page up to 220,000 times [and in some cases] as often as every 60 seconds. The frequency of these searches consumes myUCF resources, making it more difficult for other students to use the site.
Nonsense, replied Arnold on Facebook, saying the university's "numbers are wildly inaccurate."
NBC News spoke with Grant Heston, UCF associate vice-president for communications, who said there were some times when the college's system was being accessed 30,000 times in a single day because of U Could Finish users. Even with that number, "the IT folks said it could have led to a complete slowdown of the system."
In addition, he said, "the site was charging a fee, so it was a profit-making venture that was impacting our resources." Again, Arnold said he hadn't made money to date, but it was his intent. The cost of the app was 99 cents.
Some news reports, Heston said, have portrayed the case as the university trying to stop student innovation, but it was about "stopping excessive access of our resources that impact how other people can use them."
"Once it became clear that it was unsustainable, we blocked that site's access."
But Arnold has more to worry about now than his app. A few weeks ago, a hearing was held by a panel from the Office of Student Conduct. In addition to probation, he also has to give up his treasurer role for the Society for Marketing Professionals through next spring.
Arnold — whom NBC News has attempted to contact — is taking his case to Change.org, where he has a petition going, seeking to get the university to allow U Can Finish access again to the school's system.
But that doesn't seem likely to happen. The university, said Heston, has already been at work on a "similar program, and we expect it to be out there soon, and to be free, and it won't take up an inordinate amount of our resources."
Updated, 11:30 am ET Wednesday: Arnold, in email comments to NBC News.com, emphasized that he had "no intentions of making a profit" on his app, that it "was just to help pay the hosting ad other bills to keep the service online and possibly make back some of my development costs." He did receive two payments from one user, he said, "for a total of $7.87. I refunded both transactions right after I found out there was a block between UCF and my server."