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Under the hood of higher ed student information systems

Student information systems move toward cloud storage, mobile accessibility and streamlined system integration
University Business, December 2016
Students at Connecticut College can access its student information system via mobile or desktop.
Students at Connecticut College can access its student information system via mobile or desktop.

In today’s world of vast networks and complex data analysis, the student information system is becoming a powerful tool to track—and influence—student success. By looking at the big picture of data generated across an institution’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software—including the student information system—universities can begin to forecast student outcomes.

“We’re recognizing that much of our ability to predict student success is based on their performance and behaviors in the first year,” says Vicki Tambellini, president and CEO of the Tambellini Group, an edtech research firm that releases an annual report on the SIS market. “Many institutions are looking at how student behavior will impact outcomes, and what the intervention should be when the behavior is flagged.”

Campus leaders have long understood the importance of flagging at-risk students, but the collected data was often insufficient to recommend individualized actions such as tutoring, addressing health issues or resolving roommate conflicts.

“Now we know enough to suggest specific interventions,” Tambellini says, referring to both the SIS and retention software with which it can integrate. “We can use that information to impact their long-term success.”

Student information systems still, of course, serve as a hub of essential information and interactions—providing the platform for course registration, attendance tracking, assessment scores and more.

As the SIS becomes more complex, many institutions are storing data in the cloud, providing streamlined mobile access to course registration and other services, and increasing integration with learning management systems.

Into the cloud

Cloud-based products are making a significant impact on the SIS market. Earlier this year, Unit4 introduced the first cloud-based SIS that uses a software-as-a-service model, notes Tambellini’s 2016 report on SIS market share, trends and leaders in U.S. higher education. Since then, several other providers, including Workday and Oracle, have announced plans to launch their own cloud-based SIS platforms, the report adds.

Tambellini sees the cloud as an inevitable destination for SIS data.

“More and more institutions are acknowledging that it’s no longer a discussion of if, but when, they will migrate their core student information systems to the cloud,” she says. “The answer for when depends largely on whether the solution they’re currently using is fulfilling the institution’s needs, and whether they have the willingness and ability to change.”

Shifting from site-hosted data storage to a cloud-based service can be tricky. “It requires a significant amount of preparation and change, including careful reallocation of responsibilities,” says Tambellini. “It’s a fundamental shift in thinking about how business gets done at the institution.”

That shift often involves moving responsibilities from the IT department to the business office, where leaders must be ready to take on new responsibilities.

Higher ed has also been hesitant to shift SIS into the cloud due to data security concerns. While security is still part of the discussion, in Tambellini’s experience the anxieties are waning. “Two years ago, CIOs were concerned about security in the cloud, but today they recognize that the largest vendors have done extensive testing and made significant investments to keep data secure,” she says.

Touro College and University System in New York recently transitioned to a cloud-based SIS from one of the larger traditional providers. Previously, Touro used a 1988 ERP system, with the SIS as one of its modules.

“It was time for a massive upgrade,” says Matthew Bonilla, vice president of student administrative services. “I’ve been dealing with ERP systems for years, and one thing that Touro did really well was to spend a lot of time on business process review before we made a decision.”

The institution hired an independent company to analyze all of its business operations and functional areas, from students to clients to human resources.

Since Touro comprises 32 campuses, Bonilla believes getting a big-picture review of the institution’s needs was extremely valuable in the decision-making process. Ultimately, cost savings was a tremendous motivator for choosing a cloud-based system.

“When administrators realize how affordable cloud solutions are, they’re going to head in that direction quickly,” he says. “Once we made a choice, we were then able to get every campus to agree to a specific way of operating it. For the sake of simplicity, we decided to keep it vanilla and not start customizing the system.”

For institutions considering a shift to a cloud-based system, Bonilla recommends seeking a well-defined hosting agreement with the vendor. “You need to understand what you’re still responsible for even though you’re being hosted,” he says. “Make sure you clearly define the relationship so when there’s an issue, you know which person to contact to get it resolved.”

Moving toward mobile

The SIS is also shifting toward the mobile user.

“There’s a broad understanding that mobile-first experience is a requirement,” says Tambellini. Because of the influence of e-commerce giants, today’s students expect a similar, frictionless consumer experience when interacting with their educational institution.

“Machine learning has also spilled into the SIS applications and can make suggestions based on what it’s learning about the student,” Tambellini says. For example, a registration app could suggest new courses for students based on what they’ve taken in the past.

A streamlined mobile experience—for both administrators interacting with the data and students accessing their grades—is a key feature to look for in an SIS, says Allen Chen, chief information officer at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “It’s important for student profiles to be easy to navigate, with easily formatted views on everything.”

Most, if not all, of the mainline vendors now offer mobile SIS accessibility to students, and even institutions operating legacy systems are hopping on the mobile bandwagon.

“Any system has got to be able to provide a mobile access point in addition to accommodating tablets, computers and other devices,” says Jack Chen, chief information officer at Adelphi University in New York. “Even though we have a legacy system, we do have a mobile app that allows students to access the course management system, look at their grades and transcript information, connect to our e-campus portal, and do course evaluations.”

Integrating learning management systems

The SIS and learning management system are now in some cases closer than ever before, as some vendors have begun introducing the LMS as a separate module of the ERP.

“They have not announced any plans to build or replace a comprehensive LMS like Blackboard or Canvas,” says Tambellini. “But institutions can certainly bring their LMS data into the system—for example, if you wanted to import LMS data into your transcript, you can do that.”

Increasing integration between student information and learning management systems means better tracking for student success. While schools will still use separate retention software, the SIS itself can in some cases work in flagging at-risk students. In Workday’s SIS, for example, a student whose grade on the LMS has fallen below a certain level will not be able to register for courses.

Integration is valuable, but Allen Chen sees the worlds of LMS and SIS remaining separate. “I think it’s going to stay two separate systems, not because there isn’t a logical connection, but because you have to find a company that’s good at both, and that’s really difficult,” he says.

“However, I think we need increasing integration between the systems,” Chen adds. “If we’re going to illustrate the profile of a successful student, the two systems will need to talk to each other much more seamlessly.”

Resources

Jessica Leigh Brown is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based writer.

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