Like many institutions, the University of St. Francis rolled out an online portal a few years ago in order to offer round-the-clock support and information to the entire campus community. Given its varied academic profile - a main campus in Joliet, Ill.; a satellite campus in Albuquerque, N.M.; and a thriving distance-learning program - officials hoped the integration of technology into business processes would lead to greater efficiencies and cost savings.
“We’re based in Joliet, but probably about 70 percent of our students are spread out across the country,” says Gerard Kickul, chief information officer. “We have a very big online program. Our thinking was, if we can deliver classes online, why can’t we deliver the support services online, too?”
While most users understood portal basics - single sign-on, remote e-mail and calendar access - they failed to grasp the new system’s full potential. It wasn’t until St. Francis’s technology staff met with the campus community and listened - really listened - to users that the true value of the portal began to be realized. The meetings, Kickul says, reoriented the university’s attitudes toward technology, with the Division of Academic and Information Support Services explaining how the portal could improve services at a fraction of the cost and learning what students, faculty, and staff were looking for in such a service. Before long, additional suggestions for improving services and reducing costs were pouring in.
Armed with such valuable intelligence, Academic and Information Support Services has enriched St. Francis’s portal with a wide-ranging series of applications and services whose impact is felt across its campuses.
In admissions, for example, the application process is now online, and counselors have a dedicated dashboard to assist them. Students use the portal to sign up for classes, view their grades, participate in a deferred payment plan, and more. Calendaring and content management systems allow for much easier information sharing; faculty and administrators can reserve rooms with a click; and purchasing, tuition, and budgeting functions are all online. The portal has even impacted the university’s academic affairs, through course and instructor evaluations, grading, student advising functions, and more.
The quantifiable metrics are impressive, led by university-wide cost reductions of more than $250,000, captured through savings in such areas as printing, copying, and greater efficiencies of newly installed hardware. Additionally, over the last four years, the university has seen a 200 percent increase in portal usage, and in surveys, nine of 10 students rate the service as good to very good. St. Francis’s results have been sufficiently intriguing to several other institutions to impel them to invite the university’s technology staff to assist them in designing and implementing their own portal systems.
Originally, St. Francis used Jasig’s open-source system uPortal; last year, the university went under the hood and created its own portal, one more customized to its needs. According to Kickul, it hasn’t taken long for users to realize that the system has allowed them to automate mundane duties and focus on matters of greater strategic importance.
“Departments really got on board,” he says. “It was an accumulation of us going in and looking at the business processes. We didn’t reduce the labor force; they’re now able to go on to more complex issues and tasks.”