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Fifty-year-old Melissa Grill is a prime example of today's distance learner. While working in the computer lab of a North Carolina community college, she earned a master's degree in information and telecommunications systems management from Capitol College, based in Laurel, Md.

Nowadays, many IHEs offer degrees online, but what attracted Grill to Capitol was the interactivity of its program. By using Centra One software, the school's distance learners are able to participate in real time with students sitting in a classroom. By clicking a button, a distance learner can "raise a hand" to ask a question or make a comment, and students in the classroom and the instructor can respond.

All of this makes the distance learning experience beneficial to students. But the numbers prove that there's value in offering these programs, too.

Online education is a $6 billion business, according to Eduventures, an independent research firm. Enrollment is expected to exceed one million students this year.

Whether it is at a career-oriented school like Capitol, or a traditional four-year university, distance learning is a lucrative opportunity. Institutions of higher ed are jumping on it, and utilizing the latest technology in the process. Besides exponential enrollment increases brought on by distance education offerings, schools are seeing greater student satisfaction, the betterment of the surrounding communities, and more name recognition as international students enroll.

"The first time you hear it, it sounds like the voice of God," quips Phil Knutel, speaking of the Centra Symposium system at work in several "hybrid" classrooms at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. These special classrooms are equipped with technology to allow communication between an instructor, in-class students, and distance learners. With speakers in the ceiling and microphones at their desks, Bentley students in the master of science programs can discuss ideas with distance learners.

Before 1999, Bentley used videoconferencing to administer its distance education courses. But, as Ruth Horwitz, manager of online programs at Bentley, says, they had to find sites and partners and companies who were willing to let students use their facilities.

The question of distance ed had come up before, but, Horwitz says, the administration was not interested in asynchronous means of teaching like online chat, message boards, or PowerPoint presentations. "They felt they couldn't control quality, and the only way to control quality was for the student to be in absolute, direct contact with the faculty member in real time."

Knutel, director of Academic Technology, Library, and Research Services, had just come on board and decided to use a pilot version of Symposium. And it has turned out to be the only software they've used since 1999. Since making the investment six years ago, Horwitz says the school has been profiting substantially from the distance learning offerings, and in more than one way.

First, the effort expanded Bentley's universe of students, by reaching people throughout the country and the world. "Before it was just people from Boston who didn't want to drive, but now we have students from everywhere," Horwitz says. "We've really expanded, and that is a benefit because we're bringing in a new target market."

Convenience plays a role in bringing new students in, she says. "Students will not take a [traditional] class during tax season, or if they've just had a baby."

Knutel and Horwitz note that the Centra server has never failed them. "When you've got students who are paying $2,700 per class, and you're telling them they are going to be in every class, and they're going to have equal access to the materials and to the teachers as the students in class," Horwitz says, it's crucial to use reliable technology.

Leaders at Capitol College, which has seen its enrollment double as a result of its online offerings, are quick to tout the benefits of online learning programs, too. "It's really expanded our outreach to and access from different segments of the community. We can get out to more people, more regions, more countries, become more well known. And as a consequence of that, we get a lot more diversity in our programs, which I think is good for the student population," says Mike Wood, the school's president and CEO.

In the case of Boston University, however, going online was mainly a way of offering continuing education and graduate degree programs to its alumni. "We have a huge national and international group," says Susan Kryczka, director of the Office of Distance Education.

By using an asynchronous platform like WebCT Vista to administer their programs, students don't have to be at their computers at a particular time. "Increasingly, between home, family, and work obligations, students just can't do that. We only use live audio conferencing when the faculty member wants to have a live conference with the students, but, generally, we don't, because that's part of the appeal of the programs that we offer," Kryczka says.

Although he has no documented proof, Wood believes there is another phenomenon occurring within Capitol's online program: Distance learners tend to be more disciplined; hence, they stay in their programs and ultimately graduate.

"In one respect, they have to be at least as good as, if not better than, the classroom student, because online learning, especially the first few times around, requires a little dedication, diligence, and self-discipline."

Wood says that Capitol has been getting motivated distance learning students enrolling, which has helped result in strong retention and success rates.

The size of Alaska is sometimes the state's very weakness. Combined with frigid temperatures for much of the year, access to good health care and medicine can be a challenge. Until recently, having a scarcity of pharmacists in rural parts of the state meant uneducated pharmacy technicians often doled out medications only using skills learned on the job.

The state realized more pharmacists were needed in the region, meaning an academic program for pharmacists was desperately needed, says Kathi Baldwin, Pharmacy Technology program director at the University of Alaska. In some cases, pharmacy technicians were practicing by themselves in pharmacies in rural parts of the state. Rather than trying to attract pharmacists to practice there, or setting up an educational program for prospective pharmacists, the state university set up the pharmacy technology program to educate those technicians who had already been working.

A face-to-face program was set up at the university three years ago, but the school knew it was not going to meet the needs of rural Alaska, she says. Without the help of an online program, "we couldn't have helped at all. We couldn't be meeting the needs of the state without some type of course management delivery product. People aren't going to fly in from bush communities to take courses."

Feedback from the 100 or so students this school year has been "tremendous," Baldwin reports. Prior to starting the online program, classes never filled up. And since starting the online version of the program in fall 2004, the university still had not had a fully enrolled class. But this year, Baldwin says the program has gotten a "very enthusiastic reception." The introductory class was filled by August 20, at which point the university had to close registration.

These are 21st-century
skills, and a lot of [companies]
use them. When
our students go into the marketplace,
and they can display that kind
of communication skill, that reflects
well on Bentley.' -Ruth Horwitz, Bentley College

The popularity of the program stems from pharmacy technicians' desire to get a solid understanding of the field. "Their on-the-job training is good, but now they're starting to understand why they're doing something, the ramifications of an error, and when to alert a pharmacist if they see something [wrong]," Baldwin says.

Using video and audio clips of instructors and many photographs, the program tries to make the learning experiences as interactive as possible. The university has even expanded its reach by including students from the South Pacific who want to obtain pharmacy technology certification as well.

Other states have begun initiatives in order to educate their residents and make their states places companies would want to set up shop. For instance, the online programs at Capitol help further a state agenda, Wood says. Maryland's Governor's Workforce Investment Board is focused on replenishing, sustaining, and increasing the capabilities of the workforce. "By doing things with people at work, or while they're studying while working full time, it achieves benefits for the state, for society, as well as for the college," he adds.

There are other intangible benefits to offering distance education programs, notes Horwitz of Bentley. She says it's important that institutions use this type of technology to help prepare their students with the skills that are increasingly valued in the corporate world. "These are 21st-century skills, and a lot of [companies] use them. When our students go into the marketplace, and they can display that kind of communication skill, that reflects well on Bentley," Horwitz says.

Dianne Veenstra, vice president for Information and Outcomes Assessment for Capitol College, also says that since expanding its online programs, Capitol has been able to recruit nationally recognized faculty.

Capitol aims to be regarded as a worldwide leader in the creative use of technology for education. Wood says they are now better able to align themselves with the students' digital world. Online study, he asserts, is actually a much more natural experience for today's student than taking a traditional class. "That's the world they live in."

Some people wear T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with their alma mater's name. Others display bumper stickers on their cars. The younger set may even stick athletic shorts on their bumpers, proudly bearing a school's logo for all the world (walking behind them) to see.

College pride comes in all forms, and it's something universities have taken to the bank, quite literally, thanks to that overwhelming desire for people to buy items with their university's name.

At Wayne State University in Detroit, there are a lot of twins around--14 sets of them this semester alone. Twinned classes, that is. An initiative, now in its fourth year, allows students to enroll in these courses either in a traditional classroom setting (with on-site professor and classmate interaction), or in an online version. The same professor leads both formats.

John Camp, associate vice president and chief information officer, says he's noticed two important things with the twin class approach. First, the online version of the classes always fills up before the on-site version. Second, though student achievement has proven to be about the same in both versions, "the satisfaction level for the online section is higher," Camp notes.

When students talk, colleges and universities have to listen. Online courses are just one of their needs that schools must meet, but the implication is big: E-learning allows students to pick and choose their schools almost regardless of geography, and that's both a challenge and an opportunity for institutions of higher education. So in addition to providing courses online, they are tying them in with all kinds of other systems and services and data to make interacting with the institution as simple and self-service as a student could want.

In fact, the demands of students have been crucial in shaping the way institutions are revamping their core systems. These enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have long been the complex software that manages the data at the heart of a school's administration processes. But the internet has helped change these systems from mainframe, remote, often homegrown systems into versatile central databases that offer up in real time or near real time information that is used by faculty, staff, and students as they need it, how they need it.

In short, they need it correct and they need it now.

This development has also helped the institutions become more efficient in billing and resource allocation, managing course work, communicating with parents and alumni, and performing other tasks that rely on important data.

Centralized databases are nothing new; just about every large institution has a mainframe in its past--maybe still has one in a back room somewhere--that the specially anointed could approach with their queries.

When Georgia Institute of Technology moved from its mainframe to a more flexible system, "the main impetus was to get away from as much maintenance, local support, and having every [application] being homegrown and home-written," says Sonny Monfort, student systems project director.

The same data that used to be in a large central database, or even in multiple large databases, can now be placed in one database that serves it up in different ways for different users. Students looking for an update on their degree progress will be accessing the same records their teachers would view when recording grades, for example. Many separate processes run off the same data, which means there is no longer a danger of different departments using conflicting data about the same student because each was accessing its own local records.

"Business processes seem to change quite a bit. Some might argue not so much in higher ed, but I would argue vehemently against that," says Phil Guth, vice president of Enrollment and Technology Services at Judson College in Elgin, Ill. "Whether it's financial aid information that is changing or a business process itself, it's all about how we process things." For Judson, the starting point is a central database using Jenzabar CX technology. "It's the spot where we always start for any data," says Guth.

Camp echoes that thought. "ERP systems have gotten bigger, more complex; and they have to work together," he says. But the core system "is still the underlying information suite that feeds a lot of things. In Wayne State's case, we run SCT's Banner suite, but of course we put an umbrella over that and we use SCT's Luminus portal technology so people can come to one place and get information through this unifying portal."

Students are demanding more than just online classes. They come to campuses expecting to be able to access information about the school and their own records as easily as they shop or do research online.

Many IHEs have created portals that allow students to view and take action on a variety of matters, such as course registration, dorm-room selection, or academic assignments submission. This access can also be a double-edged sword for students, with the university having an easy way to deliver messages the student may not wish to deal with immediately.

At Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., a four-year-old data system from Jenzabar ties together the administrative and academic sides of the school. "Our financial office has found the system to be enormously helpful," says Gary Kelley, chief information systems officer. For example, if the school needs to inform a student that her balance due is more than, say, $100, and she won't be able to participate in the online dorm-room selection until she reduces the balance, a message is simply sent electronically directly to the student. "If you send that out in an e-mail, students will read it," says Kelley.

Portals are popular with GIT's 16,500 students. As the school's name suggests, the students are very demanding in their technology services. "Waiting overnight or even 15 minutes is not what they want," says Lori Sundal, director of Enterprise Information Systems. GIT is another SCT Banner user, and its administrative, online learning, and student portals are integrated to give real-time access to information--the only school in Georgia delivering it in real time instead of in batch mode, Sundal says.

Guth is upgrading his institution's own system to make better use of its portal abilities. Judson students can view, on their individual portals, a number of components containing specific information such as calendar items, their day's schedule, or a pesky note from the student accounts office about an outstanding bill. The makeup of the page is a mix of customization by the student and required information the school needs to serve up to students. "We can push to the student the information they need," says Guth.

Portals are also playing an important role in dealing with part-time and other nontraditional students, according to a July 2005 ERP report by research firm Datamonitor. "As the number of part-time students with transfer credits taking classes online grows, institutions will be unable to provide sufficient in-person services, and many of these students will prefer serving their own needs online," the report noted.

Delivering services to Endicott's graduate and professional divisions are priorities for Kelley. "The areas of distance education and the needs of those people are significantly different from the normal day students," he says. "The different locations they're in, wanting to take a class at 3 in the morning, pay for their courses online, have discussions with their coursemates online--for lack of a better term, it's the virtual classroom."

Parents of students can also benefit from portal access to a student's records, but this is usually governed by privacy concerns. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act grants students who are at least 18 years old some control over access to their student records.

Preventing mischievous or criminal outsiders who also want access to that information is another issue, because they are unlikely to care about FERPA or maintaining good family relations. To guard against those possibilities, campus tech leaders report using a range of methods, including mandating standardized procedures for connecting student computers to the network, using a tough user-authentication protocol known as Kerberos, and closely defining the rights of the users to move about within the system.

ERP systems are, by nature, complex and important. Changing them takes a lot of work to ensure the new software will do everything and more than the legacy systems they replace.

This summer, Indiana's Purdue University began a three-year process of adopting SAP for Higher Education & Research as its platform to integrate data, reform its business processes, and web-enable services for its 68,000 students on four campuses. The initiative, OnePurdue, will "integrate all enterprise data, information and administrative processes," says Morgan Olsen, executive vice president and treasurer of Purdue, who calls it the largest information technology and business redesign effort ever undertaken at the institution. The resulting processes will cross traditional departmental and campus boundaries.

Information now stored in multiple legacy systems--and sometimes in conflicting forms--will be consolidated and cleaned up. "A single data source that is always current will replace hundreds of data silos currently in operation throughout the university," says Olsen. That means Purdue can give each faculty member and student a single, unique ID number, and students could do things like register for classes, check the status of financial aid, or view their progress toward graduation; faculty members will be able to download class rosters, enter grades, and access student advisory information; and university employees will be able to access their individualized retirement and flexible spending accounts, tax information, and time-off records.

"We will move from our current brittle and outdated business systems to one university-wide system that is flexible, efficient, and user-centric," says Olsen.

Malcolm Woodfield, SAP's director of Global Business Development for Higher Education, added that the user-centric goal "will provide enhanced levels of service and access to students and faculty, while at the same time adding crucial security control" on the university's campuses.

Olsen also points out the business intelligence benefits of clarifying its data structure and simplifying access. Business intelligence is the ability to make full use of the data stored in an enterprise, and to serve it up in multiple new types of reports and real-time monitoring.

Wayne State's Camp agrees. "If you build your ERP correctly, you have information you can feed up to people [in online reporting]," he says. "A lot of us are moving toward data warehouses--integrated databases where we can do operational reporting as well as strategic reporting," such as tracking how students are performing.

Campus tech leaders note that the more users rely on a system for serving up information, the more they expect the data to be correct and the electronic service available.

To help him head off problems before they are even noticed by the end users, Camp has employed robots in his system to watch over it from end to end. He notes that a problem with someone's e-mail doesn't necessarily manifest itself on the e-mail server; it may well be a problem elsewhere in the network that handles e-mail delivery.

So his electronic sentinels are testing the campus services 24 hours a day. He can tell if something is up and running, and if it is responding slowly or inappropriately. "I want to be able to alert customer service teams before a student notices there is a problem," he says.

Institutions will continue to face ERP challenges in the future. Database technology continues to evolve. Sundal notes that Oracle is changing its tool set, which will affect the technology of software that works with Oracle. She says Oracle's controversial purchase of rival PeopleSoft earlier this year jumpstarted Oracle's transition into new tools and programming.

But no matter how much technology changes, campuses are likely to look for ways to adopt it, adapt it, and build on it to keep pace with the expectations of their customers.

"It's the value question," says Guth. As tuition rises, "parents and students need to see value in that tuition: 'Look what I'm getting: wireless access, up-to-date lab machines that are well maintained, I can have my student's laptop get on the network easily.' There are still people out there who will pay if they can be sold on the fact that you have value in what you're offering a student."

John Burton is the West Coast correspondent for University Business.

While planning its wireless implementation, tech leaders at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., hadn't given much thought to security issues until a guest speaker at a college-sponsored conference complimented the college's chief information officer, Robert Renaud, on the excellent wireless service.

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