Administrative and Academic Information Systems: A Shared Vision
Call them ERP systems, student systems, or administrative
systems—these applications have undergone a renaissance with the introduction of
Internet technologies and the enthusiastic acceptance of the World Wide Web by
students. Every administrative system on the market today is either "pure
Internet" or includes an Internet server module integrated with its
In the past, the key driver for acquiring and
implementing administrative systems was the need to automate time-consuming,
complex transactions and processes. Today there is a shared vision: to deliver
increasing levels of computing resources and information services to all members
of the campus community—applicants, students, alumni, faculty, and staff.
Out of the Back Office
With the addition of self-service
Web capabilities to administrative systems, functionality has gone well beyond
administrative staff "in the back office" to include access by, and interaction
among, all campus constituents. Faculty can submit grades while administrators
process invoices, a new employee requisition, or alumni donations. Students can
register for classes, take a course, view grades, review financial aid status,
or participate in campus discussions.
Mobile computing applications for the
PocketPC and other PDA devices enable admissions and athletic department
recruiters to carry the latest applicant information with them to high schools
and recruiting events. Institutions are investing in wireless networks and are
working to deploy mobile teaching and learning applications for notebook
computers, PocketPCs, PDAs, and the just-introduced tablet-sized devices. But
more applications are needed to support mobile e-learning programs.
tools are needed to support faculty advising and academic assessment processes
overall. Providers today are addressing only a small portion of the services
needed. For example, most remote learners do not have access to personal and
career counseling. These services are so lacking to remote learners that the
U.S. Department of Education has labeled them "orphan services."
and vendors alike are beginning to recognize that the campus is really much
broader and more complex than the sum of the functions of current administrative
and academic systems. The next big step in the evolution of
education-applications systems will be to integrate data to better support the
emerging e-education processes, campus wide.
Interoperability: Not Just an Interface—Nor a
Interoperability is a term often used to describe the ease
with which users can "access" or "work with" data across different application
systems. Interoperability is achieved by integrating multiple systems. But the
word "integration" can have many meanings. Some higher education software
providers claim that they provide integration between administrative,
e-learning, and portal applications. In reality, they provide batch interfaces
as a service, with custom programming required.
Batch integration has two
critical and insurmountable faults. First, the data within the systems being
interfaced is not really integrated.
Second, executing the batch processes
usually requires an institution to take its administrative system offline for
several hours. This prohibits an institution from offering true round-the-clock
access to its constituents. Information entered by a student online during the
day will not appear in the administrative system until after the batch process
has run. So, data—such as a notice that a course is closed—entered into the
administrative system is not immediately available in the e-learning
With true integration, information is immediately updated
throughout all integrated solutions. For example, a faculty member teaching a
distance learning course needs to enter a grade only once in the e-learning
environment. The grade will automatically and immediately appear in the
administrative system. Likewise, when notification that a course is closed
appears in the administrative system, it immediately appears in the e-learning
Another example is the tracking of purchases in a campus
bookstore against a student’s financial aid balance. Through a standard Web
browser interface, faculty, students, and others can access personalized
information, e-learning tools and resources, online administrative services, and
powerful collaboration and community-building tools. This integration has the
power to unify the campus experience.
Many campuses have taken the first
steps in this direction with the implementation of an enterprise portal. A
portal can provide a single point of access to individual campus application
systems, supporting bookstores, libraries, and distance learning courses.
However, a portal is only a window. In order to improve the performance and
efficiency of existing systems, it is the data and information processed by
these applications that must be integrated.
Open Standards Play a Role
This level of interoperability
among disparate systems cannot be achieved without open standards. One of the
more significant standards is Extensible Markup Language (XML), believed by many
to be the"communications interface" of the future. Not only d'es it provide a
common protocol for delivery of information, but it also provides an entire
family of technologies to allow applications to exchange
data without the
need to develop individualized application program interfaces (APIs). Open
database connectivity (ODBC) standards are also important in integrating
applications that use different database systems. An application can access both
Oracle and SQL Server databases if they are
organization involved in developing and promoting open specifications for
facilitating online distributed learning activities is the IMS Global Learning
Consortium Inc. IMS is actively working on issues such as locating and using
educational content, tracking learner progress, reporting learner performance,
and exchanging student records between administrative systems.
data interchange (EDI) standards that facilitate the sending and receiving of
electronic documents continue to be important. EDI is the interchange of
structured data according to agreed message standards by electronic means.
Structured data equates to an unambiguous method of presenting the data content
of a document.
As the traditional definitions for what is administrative or
academic continue to blur, the focus for future technology applications needs to
be on a broader, e-education architecture. The institution’s strategic
technology plan must look across all current application systems for gaps in the
support of teaching, learning, and business processes, as well as deficiencies
with respect to the expectations of users. The goal is to equip the institution
to adapt to, and keep pace with, what is becoming a dynamic market for
postsecondary education services, traditional and non-traditional.
Bob Moul is president of SCT Global Education.