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Free Tool Offers Independent Higher Ed Software Reviews

Software PhD, developed by somebody who's suffered through the software selection process at his own university, introduces a new approach for getting information on higher ed apps.

Selecting an application for institutional use can be a long, drawn out — and frustrating — affair. Vendors may come out of the woodwork to ply their wares, and most of the information schools can get about the products come from the companies themselves, through glossy, carefully composed materials and highly choreographed webinars and live demonstrations.

Finding third-party information about a software package, particularly from those who have current experience with it, requires performing reference checks. Frequently, those customer referrals come directly from the vendor. Of course, they're going to be mostly positive.

Mark Baker knows this process from experience. In recent years the associate registrar at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA participated in selection committees for two programs, one to do scheduling and the other to create an e-catalog. On top of that he has been in touch with multiple colleagues at other universities who struggled with the same challenges he and his coworkers faced: doing their own reference checks.

"That's where it becomes a needle in the haystack," he said. How do you find the schools using a particular product in order to get honest appraisals about their experiences? Frequently, he noted, people who have to do this send out e-mails to big listservs asking for somebody to talk with them; or they do manual hunt among peer institutions for potential contacts.

Realizing that the reference portion of the evaluation phase in software selection was a big problem for everybody, Baker set about coming up with an alternative approach. The idea: to provide a forum service through which people could request information about specific products and a review service on which users could rate the programs they already use.

Forums and Reviews
Software PhD opened for business in January, and already it's drawn participation from users at Harvard, Florida State, UCLA, the University of Calgary and nearly 270 other campuses. Baker said the site has had hundreds of signups among higher ed professionals, including IT directors, deans, vice presidents, and even college presidents.

The service has two main prongs. A forum allows members to interact and post requests for reference contacts for particular software. The forum also includes a topic thread for vendors that want to publicize upcoming webinars about their products and another thread where companies can promote discounts or sales on products.

The forum is complemented by a review and rating section, which Baker compared to Amazon. Software vendors are listed by category; users with experience can rate products from one to five stars on a structured set of questions: ease of installation, customer service, ease of maintenance, overall satisfaction and whether the reviewer would purchase the same product again. An open text area allows them to add comments as well. By allowing users to share their experiences independently, the site provides a transparency about software products and the companies behind them that's sometimes hard to come by in official references. Baker's hope is that with time, each product in the forum will have a minimum of 10 people listed who are willing to talk about their opinions.

Baker launched the site with ratings pages set up for about 20 companies he had worked with himself. Since then, he's added 80 more pages at the request of new members. (Each page carries a button for suggesting a new addition to the roster.)

A Closed Site
Registration is free for people within educational institutions. Baker goes through an approval process for every new member to verify employment at a college or university.

Currently, people who work for vendors can get free membership too, but that will change at some point when the site "grows to critical mass," Baker said. Depending on how much participation vendors want within the site, they'll eventually pay a membership subscription fee of between $75 and $195 per month. Various participation levels allow a company to put up product pages and videos, send out monthly webinar e-mail invitations and add logos to the Software PhD home page to show their support.

In the meantime, vendors have strict guidelines for contributing to the site. They're allowed to pop into forum conversations when participation is relevant; they have to sit on the sidelines otherwise. And only institutional users are allowed to rate, comment and review.

The Power of Transparency
Baker said that the more feedback he gets, the more he realizes that his modest, focused site "could really have a significant impact on the whole software selection process."

Recently, he noted, he'd had a conversation with a colleague at his own university who was complaining about a software purchase. They'd felt misled when some of the features promised in the sales pitch "were further out in the pipeline than we had been told."

Ultimately, it's the value of that kind of informed transparency that could make Software PhD the go-to source for software shopping. "My hope was that people would embrace it and see it as a community of information that would make a big difference in the selection process for schools," Baker opined. "I think everyone will benefit from that information being more readily available."

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