Online Student Services >> At Their Service

As the demand for technology continues to rise, colleges and universities move all sorts of student services—from laundry monitoring to snack delivery—online.

For years, doing laundry at Columbia University (NY) was just as labor-intensive as it is at most universities. Students schlepped overflowing laundry baskets down to the laundry room, praying there’d be a vacant washing machine. One 30-minute cycle later, a student would return seeking empty dryers, all the while crossing her fingers that a classmate hadn’t tossed the clean clothes onto a dirty table. If a dryer was empty, she could throw her clothes in, turn it on, and come back at the end of a drying cycle, usually 50 minutes or more. If the dryers were all full, however, she literally had to wait around until one became available, whiling away the day in the bowels of her dorm.

Fortunately, as of last spring, laundry life at Columbia has changed dramatically. Today, with the help of a real-time Web-based service called LaundryView (from Waltham, MA “intelligent” laundry systems vendor Mac-Gray; www.macgray.com), students can log on to the system via the LaundryView Web site from a link off the student information system (SIS) portal, to see which machines are free—even before they head to the laundry room.

Students can use their campus debit cards to pay for the wash, and once they put a load in, they can monitor its progress from the same Web page, making sure they get back to catch their load as it finishes. If students prefer, they can even program the service to e-mail them when their load is done. According to Dave Roberts, director of Information Services for the school’s department of housing and dining, the service is designed to maximize convenience.

“From a customer service perspective, this has been a no-holds-barred win,” he says, noting that student demand for a more efficient way to monitor the progress of dormitory laundry machines sparked the implementation in the first place. “On top of the fact that the service makes laundry easier to do, there’s a certain wow factor for students that makes it even better.”

Columbia certainly isn’t the only school embracing this wow factor; at a time when students are demanding improvements in technology across the board, other colleges and universities have moved student services online as well. Some, such as Ohio Northern University and George Washington University (DC), are making use of innovative ideas that “Webify” services once confined to the off-line world. Others, such as Mountain State University (WV) and the University of Alaska system, have focused on the “administrative core” of student services: admissions, registration, student accounts, financial aid, class scheduling, and course management. Still other schools have opted to set their sights on making technical support easily accessible online.

Aid G'es Virtual

Traditional, brick-and-mortar financial aid offices may soon be a thing of the past. Now, thanks to an educational financing option known as the Virtual Financial Aid Office (www.vfao.org), schools can outsource all or part of their student financial aid efforts online.

The patent-pending service run by Greenville, SC-based Weber and Associates (www.weberassocinc.com) is touted to eliminate all paper from the financial aid process. On the front end, students at participating schools sign up, log on, and complete a financial aid interview. On the back end, the VFAO communicates with its client school to make sure that the student is indeed attending, then prepares a financial aid award and originates a loan with a guarantor or bank.

President Harry Weber explains that the company specializes in managing Pell Grants, Federal Family Education Loans, and Federal Direct Loan processing for more than 30,000 students at more than 130 different institutions in 32 states, Guam and Canada. “We do all the work that a financial aid office d'es,” he says. “It’s great for schools that might not want to offer this student service in the traditional way.”

According to Weber, the biggest benefit to participating in the VFAO is cost savings by outsourcing financial aid, as it enables schools to save big bucks on staffing and overhead. Schools that wish to implement the service still must have a financial aid officer on campus to answer questions from each student. This individual has private and secure access to the system so he can know where a student is in the process at all times, Weber says.

But these days, there are other online student services out there, too. Some schools are providing a variety of new interactive services such as online advising and Web-based self-assessments in the areas of career decision-making, learning styles, study skills, personality type, and readiness for online learning—to name just a few. In whatever manner schools choose to explore this new trend, George Gulbis, associate vice president and director of IT at Ohio Northern University, says the services also improve campus life by making technology more accessible for faculty and staff, and by attracting new students to the campus.

“Perhaps the biggest return for the school is that it makes us more competitive,” he points out. “If you’re a student, wouldn’t you want to go to the college that had the coolest services?”

Serving Day-to-Day Needs

If anybody knows about online student services, it’s Gulbis. For years, the ONU network was plagued with bandwidth problems caused by students downloading and illegally sharing digital movies and music files. To put it plainly, network performance tanked, and security problems escalated. In an effort to stop the bleeding, last year Gulbis and a small committee set out to find a third-party vendor that he could trust to manage functions and the task of managing digital entertainment for the school. The team found their solution in Herndon, VA-based Ruckus Network Inc. (www.ruckus.com), offering 1.5 million licensed tracks of music, thousands of movies, regional and community features, and a whole lot more.

Ohio Northern University found its SIS solution in an outsourcer offering 1.5 million licensed tracks of music, thousands of movies, regional and community features, and more. Costs are rolled into annual student fees.

Before the ink on the contract had dried, ONU students were legally downloading movies and music files through a password-protected portal. The portal allows ONU students to personalize homepages with movies and music that interest them. At most schools, this service would cost up to $20 per student per semester. At ONU, however, school officials agreed to roll the cost into the annual student fees. Since the service went live this spring, ONU students have downloaded more than 1 million songs. More importantly, Gulbis says that bandwidth performance has improved dramatically, prompting the school to consider renewing the contract for another year.

“There is no question that this service has improved student life and the campus community,” he says. “Each and every one of us, including our students, has been pleasantly surprised.”

Pleasant surprises also abound at George Washington University, where the latest offering in online student services revolves around snacks: pretzels, potato chips, soda—you name it. Thanks to a new third-party service, DCSnacks.com, students now have the ability to order their goodies online. This effort began back in January 2003, when then-GW student Matthew Mandell launched an online business enabling students to purchase snack food for delivery between the hours of 8 pm and 2 am on school nights. At the time, the service met a huge need: None of the convenience stores on or around campus stayed open that late.

AT GW, HUNGRY STUDENTS head to the Web to order late-night snacks.

As word of Mandell’s venture spread, more and more students began signing up to use the system. Then administrators got involved. Per student request, the school ironed out a deal with DCSnacks.com, giving students the capability to pay for their goodies with Colonial Cash, or the money stored on the debit strip of their GWorld Card ID cards. Today, students can log on to the Web site, order anything from tasty morsels to reams of printer paper, and pay for the transaction with their ID cards. When DCsnacks.com employees deliver the food, the employees check the cards to make sure the user matches the photo on the card, and upon positive authentication, they hand over the goods.

“This service gives students another way to spend Colonial Cash dollars without having to go anywhere,” says Ken Pimentel, director of the GWorld Card program. “It’s more of a convenience than anything, but it’s a Web-based service we’ve found students really appreciate.”

More Traditional Services

While convenience and student demand drive online student services at GW and ONU, the need for more efficient services to support administrative services is behind similar efforts at other schools. The University of Alaska system is a perfect example. Here, where campuses and students are spread across a geographic area more than three times the size of Texas, the school needed to move a bevy of mission-critical administrative systems into the online space, for easier access. At the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year, officials under the leadership of CIO Steve Smith turned to Malvern, PA-based SunGard SCT (www.sungardsct.com) for help.

The vendor came back with a $4-million, five-year plan to put most of the services in the institution’s “administrative core” into a Web-based portal called UAOnline. Next, after a stage of further enhancements that brought hardware vendor Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) into the mix, Smith and his development team rebranded the portal as MyUA. The current iteration of the portal boasts Web-based e-mail for students, as well as access to systems for financial aid, course registration, and course management. It offers online applications, the ability to access online transcripts, and a direct tunnel into the University of Alaska library catalogs, as well.

“We want to make available to students as much as we possibly can through this portal,” says Smith, who adds that the only real challenge thus far has been in tweaking the portal code so that each individual campus can add its own colors to the template. “Because we’re so spread out, this really is the only way we can guarantee a uniform experience for all of our students, no matter where they might be.”

Technology officials at Mountain State University embraced a similar philosophy last year when they implemented the Total Campus Management solution from Jenzabar (www.jenzabar.com). The system, much like MyUA, addresses applications that comprise the administrative core. It also features a module for online advising; an exception-based algorithm scans student schedules and automatically informs students which classes they must take in order to fulfill certain requirements. In the past, students were expected to meet in person with coursework advisors, but with thousands of students and only a handful of advisors, the process of securing an appointment often took weeks and even months. Now, this process is entirely automated.

Because Mountain State offers a mix of classroom-based academic studies and innovative programs including independent study, cohort-based learning communities, and distance education, this SIS approach has worked wonders. Provost Jill Hopkins says the school needed an integrated Internet-enabled administrative system to manage the unique features of each of its programs, and says the institution “couldn’t have invented a better tool” itself. One area that MSU online services do not cover: financial aid. Instead, school leaders have outsourced the school’s financial aid function to the Virtual Financial Aid Office (www.vfao.org; see “Aid G'es Virtual,” page 32).

“Everything we do—whether it’s online advising or financial aid—the whole idea behind it is to improve the student experience,” Hopkins says. “Over time we’ve discovered that allowing students to have self-service capabilities in the online environment is a key component to keeping them happy.”

In the Service of Support

Though not always considered part of the constellation of student services covered by student information systems, support is indeed a primary service to students, staff, and faculty alike, and many would argue that it is a savvy institution that views it as such. After all, it’s the rare campus community member who d'es not need help with information technology at one time or another.

The help desk wasn’t always so helpful, however, at East Carolina University (NC). When the 22,000-student school signed on for the Blackboard Learning System (www.blackboard.com) in 2002, it hired one full-time technologist to handle all technical support calls pertaining to Blackboard-specific technology. This one-person support team updated static Web pages and routed Blackboard support calls straight to the campus help desk. The problem, of course, was that call volumes were way too high for one person to handle, and without a centralized database to store support resolutions, there was no way for campus technicians to troubleshoot without consulting with Blackboard headquarters.

Support calls backlogged. Students complained. Finally, the school acted to resolve the problem, inking a deal with Reston, VA-based Parature (www.parature.com) for software that entirely automated the support process. In all, ECU implemented five modules of Parature’s software—eTicket, eService, eDownload, eReport, and eContact. After two weeks, says Matt Long, the school’s Blackboard Administrator, ECU rolled out a campus support portal to assist users navigating the Blackboard system. Today, the portal boasts more than 130 articles to instruct users on how to help themselves, as well as a Web-based interface with live assistance for more interactive support.

“Instead of spending a lot of time and money installing a complex help desk system, [Parature] took us just two weeks to get up, and [at] a fraction of the cost” says Long, who adds that ECU now solves 98 percent of all Blackboard technical support calls without outside help.

Connecting the Community-College Student

Campus technologists went to the Web in similar fashion at Clark State Community College (OH), where a new portal of video clips has transformed the way the school handles distance learning and professional development. This effort began two years ago, when the college decided it needed a new video editing solution to help students learn about the WebCT (www.webct.com) course management system. Though IT officials wanted the solution to be easy to use so professors could create content quickly and conveniently without taking too much time out of their busy schedules, importantly, the school wanted the product to facilitate human connections between students and their professors—undeniably a true service to students who needed more interaction with their instructors.

After researching its options, Clark State selected Camtasia Studio from TechSmith (www.techsmith.com) in Okemos, MI. The Web-based video content creation tool quickly replaced the incumbent automated class capture system, which instructors had never fully embraced because it was so complicated. Now, students have vastly improved video access to content, instruction, and instructors and, says Instructional Design instructor Clarence Maise, “It’s a great tool that our staff likes to use, and it d'esn’t force them to change their teaching style at all.” What could be better than improving service to students without extracting a pound of flesh from campus educators or administrators?

Student Services 101

Delivering online student services is a science that’s evolved for years. The seminal thinking on this subject, “Guide to Developing Online Student Services,” was published in 1999 by the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (www.wcet.info), and was the fruit of a three-year project funded by the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. In 2003, WCET completed work on yet another project, “Beyond the Administrative Core: Creating Web-Based Services for Online Services.” This second paper provides detailed descriptions and resources to assist institutions in the implementation of student services delivered remotely or over the Web. Both documents are available on the WCET Web site, www.wcet.info.

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