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 client/server databases.
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.
And, more 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."
Institutions 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 Portal
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 environment.
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 system environment.
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
ODBC-compliant.
A critical 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.
Electronic 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.

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