Graduating to the Net
Paul Sherlock sometimes feels like his job is “a bit like The Wiggles.”
“We get a new customer base every year,” says Sherlock, Director of Information Strategy and Technology Services at the University of South Australia, where he serves more than 36,000 students and nearly 2,400 staff. “Every year, they are younger and even more expectant. Students are coming to us with increased IT literacy and their expectation is that they can do anything online.”
To meet those expectations, UniSA has devised a strategy to put every service it provides to students online, so that anything from an initial inquiry about enrolment to eventual graduation can be conducted on the Net. Sherlock says the organisation is close to its goal. “We can manage graduation online and students even book a gown.”
“They want instant gratification and instant service, so this gives them immediate service and matches their generation. We have gone as far as any university in terms of overall application of IT and are now even pushing the boundaries that students told us about in surveys.”
UniSA’s enthusiasm for the Net is a response to students’ desires, but also a proactive play to ready the institution for coming changes in the higher education sector.
“In 2012, the enrolment caps on all universities come off and there will be freer competition,” Sherlock explains. “Those universities that offer the best student experience will attract more students. Funding flows with the students, so that’s an important link.”
Creating and maintaining systems to cater to those students is more complex than the kind of work that universities have been required to perform in the past.
“The impact on us now is we have to be around 24x7,” Sherlock says. “It is very difficult to get scheduled downtime windows when you are teaching almost 52 weeks a year: we now have seven teaching periods and run exams 26 weeks a year.”
“We also have students around the globe. Muslim students offshore, for example, have no expectation of Christmas holidays. It’s now a very diverse customer base and you have the best technology to handle that information flow.”
Sherlock’s response to this looming change included an upgrade to the University’s core applications, a PeopleSoft campus management application that was reaching the end of its supported lifespan. But the upgrade was not only defensive. “We wanted to get access to new functionality,” Sherlock says. “There is a range of things the product does around student administration, financials, and managing the campus community.”
Some of those functions were important, as they allowed streamlining the student enrolment process, which is now entirely online. Students can now enrol in subjects, then individual tutorials online, without the tedious queuing and manual processes that often characterised the first weeks of a university semester.
Staff were also an audience for the upgrade, with new features that make it easier for academics to upload marks to portals from which students can learn their grades, another hoped-for improvement. Again, that improvement loops back to satisfying students.
“Given the numbers of students whose work academics have to mark, if the process is smooth, that smooth improves their productivity at the coalface, which in turn improves outcomes for students.”
“We don’t upgrade for the sake of it, but plan how it will deliver savings by improving student experience or more staff productivity,” he says, adding that the upgrade to PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solutions 9.0 was estimated to save a not-unwelcome $2.5 million in IT costs over five years.
UniSA is also investing in some other applications.
“We’re spending $10 million on a range of software tools for online learning,” Sherlock says.
“We have a philosophy that ‘who we teach’ is the students, and they are managed in the student management system. Then we have ‘what we teach’, which is in the curriculum system.”
The latter application is bespoke, as the University could find no software that met its requirements.
Another software development project helps to manage professional placements for students studying vocations like nursing or teaching, who are required to include work as part of their degrees.
“We need to be able to prove that experience to include it in academic transcripts,” Sherlock says. “For a university like ours, the issue is about producing graduates that are job-ready. When students undertake placements, it provides an educational experience that makes them job-ready.”
A third application, learning management, uses the open source Moodle software and Sherlock believes this mix of commercial, bespoke and open source software is necessary to ensure his IT team can deliver the systems that students demand.
“We use the full range of tools available to us to come up with a unique offering,” he says, and that uniqueness will hopefully translate into the student-attracting, staff productivity-enhancing mix that the University requires to succeed in its challenging environment.
Those challenges aren’t all about meeting the new paradigm. Sherlock still has compliance chores, as education is a strongly-regulated industry.
“When regulations change and say a student is only entitled to seven years of study under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, we have to be able to implement that. You need to know that a student has had two years somewhere else and can only have five with you.”
“Those changes impact on the student management systems” and mean there is some traditional IT work to be done.
But the new demands in the education sector mean Sherlock says he “likes to think we are operating on a more leading edge than dealing with regulatory changes.”
And operating at that level is a challenge Sherlock enjoys, as he says thinking outside traditional IT concerns and responding to modern students’ needs and desires has “changed my role”.
Those changes aren’t expected, as yet, to see him don a skivvy and sing. But you imagine that if students at UniSA expect that of their IT team, Sherlock would find a way to make it happen!
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