Case Study

Putting a Web-Enabled Database To Work at Syracuse University

As Director of the Student Records Office for the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse, I oversee the processing of a vast mass of student data--who's who, who's where, and who's taking what course from whom. With around 1,000 first-year students in the system at any given time, along with faculty, advisors, and staff, the data presents a significant management challenge.

Job One: Streamlining Registration
We have a centralized Oracle PeopleSoft system for student administration, but we needed a secondary system that we could customize to the needs of individual groups.  
The first thing we needed to tackle was registration, so we created AutoReg, a custom, home-grown  application based on FileMaker Pro that processes course registrations and scheduling. It's a complex task requiring the manipulation of multiple levels of data to ensure that all schedules are completed in a timely manner. AutoReg comprises a total of 35 databases, containing more than 100,000 individual records.

AutoReg streamlines what was a long, cumbersome, aggravating process. Prior to its development, the Registrar's Office performed its functions using the PeopleSoft system. They reported it took an average of 75 minutes per student to complete the registration and scheduling process. We've reduced that time to approximately 30 seconds per student for 80 percent of the first-year student population, and are working to improve the system so that we can get closer to 100 percent. This is a cost savings of approximately $10,000 each summer, along with a much better outcome, providing more students their first-choice schedules and fewer incomplete schedules.

Since we first deployed it, we've upgraded the AutoReg system in several ways. We can send PDF documents to students, faculty, and staff directly from the system. Students can receive a confirmation of their course selections via PDF, and faculty has the option of obtaining necessary information in PDF as well. This helps ensure that documents can be opened and shared, regardless of what hardware and software students and faculty are using.

Improving Advisor-Student Communications
One new capability we're especially excited about is Web Viewer, a feature that allows us to access and display Web content within a layout. Web Viewer and the 360Works SuperContainer plugin for FileMaker Pro are enabling us to enhance the AutoReg system to improve advisor and student collaboration to help boost academic achievement. Advisors conduct phone sessions over the summer with incoming students to prepare them before their arrival on campus. We previously distributed hard-copy photographs of students to advisors prior to the sessions to help provide more personalized consultations. With 1,000 new students coming in each fall, tracking student pictures and making copies for 60 different advisors took an inordinate amount of time and energy. With Web Viewer, students will be able to upload their photos to AutoReg, and their advisors will be able to view them online. The photos will also be used as part of the university's academic planning survey, which requires that students send a picture of themselves along with their responses.

Using Web Viewer, we have already brought math, French, and Spanish placement tests online. Students used to take the placement exams during the summer using a paper test and did not get their results until they arrived on campus. Students also register during the summer, and this used to be a paper-based process as well. Now, instead of having their hard-copy tests sent to a processing center and waiting for the results, students can go online to take the test, and see their scores in an instant.

Automating Administration
We are automating many administrative tasks, too. There's now an online procedure for distributing absence memos to professors. Previously, students contacted the Dean's Office, and a staff member coordinated the process manually, ensuring that the proper forms reached faculty members. What once took about 30 minutes now takes less than five minutes with the new system.

Also in the works is a degree audit system that is about one-third complete. We have struggled with implementing a degree audit system for years. Our staff today has to create a hard-copy sheet for each student and update it every semester. We are looking forward to putting this process online so that faculty and advisors can have instant, up to date access to degree information when they are coaching students about remaining degree requirements.

We have also begun creating on a transfer credit database that will help automate a labor-intensive and sometimes inconsistent task. Students have to provide their transcripts from previous schools and then we indicate how we will accept each credit. It's a constant process of reevaluation that takes a lot of research time. Using Web Viewer, students will be able to upload course information, and we will have a view into course catalogs of other institutions, making the process faster and more standardized.

It's very rewarding to make people's jobs easier and with our new way of creating Web-based databases, there are many ways to do this. We've found many labor-saving, money-saving ways to streamline our processes. And having a system that's easy to use and adaptable is essential, because every day, it helps me uncover diverse needs and find a way to support them--all without having to hire a consultant.

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If  you would like to share your stories with your peers--how your department solved a problem, how you improved the technology at your university, how you implemented an innovative technology-based program, etc.--please contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Ann Marie McGinnis is director, Student Records Office, for Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences.

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