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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.