Volume 10, Number 2 September 6, 2002

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New $11.9m student info system okayed

By Lawrence McMahen

With Board of Governors approval, a U of S team is forging ahead with a four-year, $11.9-million project to buy a new state-of-the-art web-based student information system.

Project SI! team
Among members of the Project SI! team are, from left: Project Officer Lauri Hovdestad, Computer Systems Manager Larry Custead, Steering Committee Member Chris Sherban, Dadabase Administrator Chris Poole, Program Director Lea Pennock, Project Manager Alan Deschner, System Administrator for Student & Enrolment Services Rosalie Sulik, Associate Vice-President for Information & Communications Technology and Project Co-Sponsor Rick Bunt, and Business Analyst Angie Giesbrecht.

Three leaders of the project say that since the Board's approval in May, the team has been assembled, office space has been readied in the Mitchell Bldg., and they are starting to identify exactly what kind of computer and database functions, hardware and software the University needs.

Student Information (SI!) Program Director Lea Pennock and Project Manager Alan Deschner say this "product selection" phase will result in a Request for Proposals being issued in late-fall or early-winter.

By April - after the half-dozen companies in the field respond with their product pitches - a full project implementation plan will be presented to the Board of Governors, recommending the vendor, equipment, and any customization the University needs.

Pennock, Deschner and David Hannah, Associate Vice-President for Student & Enrolment Services, say when the new system is fully in place - after an expected three- to four-year implementation - it should give U of S students, faculty and staff a cutting-edge student information system that will let them perform 90 per cent of their information transactions themselves, without needing to go to a staff person for time-consuming help.

"There are millions of transactions - including student applications, admission, registration, degree audit, graduation details, payments, and statistical reporting - and we want students to be able to conduct the vast majority of these routine transactions themselves," Hannah says.

"It puts the information and the transactions out there, accessible to the users - to students, faculty members, deans, and support staff," he says.

Students could get at their records night or day, and professors could record students' marks on assignments from their office or home at any time.

"If each of these transactions leaves a student happy, this system will be a big help in enhancing the student experience," Hannah adds.

Pennock and Deschner say the high cost of the new system is because of its huge size and complexity . Student information systems are the largest administrative systems at a university, and the new one will have multiple levels of security and access.

Massive amounts of data and many intricate functions must be transferred from the current system to the new one over a period of a couple of years, and the timing of each changeover must fit into the business cycle of that function at the University.

Pennock says the major goal of having the new system provide for "distributed access" across campus means it will be an extensive and complex system.

"One of the limitations of the old system is that it was designed mainly as a record-keeping system for the Office of the Registrar and Financial Services," Pennock says.

"Now we need distributed access for students, administrators, and faculty on the web, so people can get the information they need and can put information in, given the appropriate security," she says.

Deschner notes that while the U of S currently has "U-STAR", an automated phone system which handles more than 150,000 calls each fall registration period, the new web-accessible system "will literally add a dimension to it. A telephone conversation is linear, one dimensional. On a two-dimensional computer screen you can move through information much more easily and find what you need more quickly.."

The University's need for a new student information system became apparent in recent years for three reasons: vendor companies will no longer supply some obsolete parts of the current 15-year-old system, so it will eventually fail; in today's competitive environment among universities, students and faculty have an expectation that they should be able to get information quickly over the web; and the University and its people have a need for more information than the current system keeps.

In summer 2001, Pennock led the first phase of Project SI!, an extensive campus-wide consultation on what needs students, faculty and staff have for student data.

It found people want the new system to have "role-based distributed access on the web", be able to generate reports, and be interactive and menu-driven.

The fact-finding process resulted in a proposal to the Board of Governors early this year and its May approval of the $11.9-million expenditure over a three-year period.

The compelling case presented to the Board stated said the current "technically and functionally obsolete" system "frustrates both students and staff, and limits our ability to be strategic in using student-related data for academic and institutional planning."

The report to the Board said such information as "course enrolments, student outcomes, student biographical information, scholarships and awards, progress towards degree requirements, and a host of other information" needs to be readily accessible.

Pennock notes the data provided by the new system will be invaluable in key new U of S processes like Systematic Program Review (SPR), Integrated Planning, and enrolment planning.

The U of S project team for this product selection phase includes Lea Pennock (Director), Alan Deschner (Manager), Dean Jones (Senior Systems Analyst), Angie Giesbrecht (Business Analyst), Rosalie Sulik (System Administrator for Student & Enrolment Services), Larry Custead (Computer Systems Manager), Chris Poole (Database Administrator), Lauri Hovdestad (Project Officer), and Mike McGillivray (Audit Services).

A steering committee of senior U of S administrators will also meet regularly to oversee progress on the project.

Pennock notes that Daniel Chong, of the company Gartner Canada, with experience in guiding other universities' transition to new student information systems, has provided valuable help over the past year, and will continue to do so through the product selection phase.

She adds her group is "really gratified and encouraged" by the Board of Governors' support of the project as it moves forward.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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