March/April 2003 // Commentary
Creating a Unified Digital Campus to Satisfy the Needs of 21st Century Learners
by Bob Moul
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Bob Moul "Creating a Unified Digital Campus to Satisfy the Needs of 21st Century Learners" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Information technology (IT) has become as pervasive and expected as basic utilities within most campuses, and users' expectations for service continue to increase. In response, many institutions are eager to add new technology applications and systems that will expand the reach of applications to more users, enhance services, and increase efficiency. However, adding stand-alone applications and systems will not address these goals. Instead, institutions must strive to unify all of their disparate technology applications and systems into a single digital campus. As president of field operations for a leading technology services provider, my knowledge of these issues stems from the extensive interactions I have had with presidents, chancellors, and their staffs over the past 2 years.

Typically, different technology systems support teaching, learning, and administration. For example, most institutions have an administrative system that they either purchased or developed themselves. This system houses an institution's core data and allows staff to execute the processes that support the business of education. These processes include registering a student, applying for financial aid, and issuing payroll. A second system consisting of course management software houses the applications that allow faculty members to teach via distance learning or to integrate technology into the classroom. This system includes applications for managing content and for interacting with students online. Most recent technology advances have occurred in this area of e-learning.

A host of other data subsystems exist throughout the campus; these include applications for the library and bookstore, among others. At many institutions, these are stand-alone systems?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthere is little to no integration of data or processes among them. The lack of integration among these systems creates three key problems: (1) It hinders efficiencies in an institution; (2) it makes it difficult for faculty members to integrate technology into teaching and learning; and (3) it prevents institutions from serving students and other constituents who have increased expectations for seamless access and personalization of data. Addressing these three issues will ultimately help an institution fulfill its unique mission.

Integrating Disparate Data Systems into a Single Digital Campus

Today, Web registration and online grade access are almost commonplace. But learners must enter multiple systems to access all of their student data and services because the underlying systems are not unified. For example, at some institutions, new applications for e-learning (e.g., WebCT and Blackboard) and library access (e.g., Dynix and Endeavor Voyager) are stand-alone systems. They are not integrated, and data do not automatically flow among the applications and the administrative system. If a student changes his or her address when registering for a course, the update is not communicated automatically to the library, to e-learning applications, or to other data systems.

Problems that stem from lack of integration have been compounded by the expanded use of e-learning software. I have talked to representatives of many institutions, and they all have the same concern about distance learning courses: the difficulty of managing the tasks involved in getting information from the course management software to the administrative software, and vice versa, without human intervention and without error.

Integration is lacking because most vendors provide integration only for their own administrative systems and related applications. This means that an institution's IT staff must spend considerable time building the interfaces and then upgrading and maintaining them as vendors update the software for their individual applications. Despite emerging standards for open systems, much of this integration work is still done by brute force: Developers and systems specialists force one system to talk to another, which takes time and money. Each time a new system is added or an old one is upgraded or removed, work on this front must continue. Because this task is costly and time-consuming for the IT department, many institutions do not tackle the challenge, allowing shadow systems to co-exist throughout the campus.

Some institutions perform batch processes to move data from one system to the next, but this method can be cumbersome and slow?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand in the interim, data are not synchronized. The result is a dissatisfying experience for the user. For example, if a student enters a new address online into a housing system and then accesses another institutional system, he or she would expect to see the address updated there as well. If it is not, the student may question the reliability of the institution's database and feel frustrated at having to re-enter the information.

A single, unified digital campus enables real-time, bi-directional integration update between administrative systems and other applications, including those from different vendors and those built by institutions. Users have one entry point to all the information they need, and they can make all the transactions they require without interruption, even though the data reside in multiple systems. For example, a student can collaborate with others, conduct research, distribute his credentials, and transact administrative tasks from a single login. In the area of e-learning, course registration, drop/adds, and name changes that occur in the e-learning system are automatically transferred to and updated in the administrative system. As a result, information remains current and accurate in both systems, and faculty members are freed from time-consuming clerical tasks.

Systems integration also reduces the data-entry burden on the administrative staff. For example, when an administrative user enters the fact that a student has graduated, a whole series of events occur automatically: The student's library card is rendered useless, a notice goes out to collect the student's dorm key, the student's bookstore debit card is cashed out, and his or her parking space is reassigned. All of this happens without user intervention.

Some administrators and faculty members worry that the integration of IT systems could result in a loss of personalized student services offline, or the possibility of one problem (e.g., a late tuition payment) causing a complete loss of campus services. However, insofar as IT integration frees up staff time, it also allows for better personalized service when problems arise. The focus of support staff can be oriented more fully toward the particular situation of the student rather than toward maintaining the infrastructure. Similarly, if integrated IT might occasionally result in a systemic problem, it also allows for systemic solutions by a single department or division on campus. In this regard, the overall benefits of an integrated IT system outweigh its disadvantages, provided that such integration remains relatively seamless and promotes interoperability.

The adoption of industry-wide standards is a current sign of support for interoperability among different platforms and systems. Industry-standard Internet technologies like XML and HTML will provide the support needed for real-time interoperability, removing the friction of information exchange. XML messaging in particular will allow each product to plug in to the digital campus of the future. Web services, a new and emerging technology based on standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), will allow dissimilar systems to interact and integrate over the Web. The movement toward a standard of interoperability is similar to the networking movement in the hardware environment several years ago: The industry moved from mainframes to mini-computers to the current networking standard that enables different hardware to communicate with each other?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùinterchanging files and messages, and balancing jobs.

Re-orienting the Infrastructure with a Focus on Users, not Departments

In addition to unifying all campus systems, institutions need to reorient their infrastructures so that they meet the needs of users. Most current technology infrastructures were built to support the needs of departments, like human resources or finance.

To build a user-centric infrastructure, IT personnel must take a holistic view of constituents' needs and make all the services that they require available online. Some of these services might support the cultural and social aspects of an institution's mission and expose students to a larger range of activities and events. Often, these are the services that students enjoy with a group of people who have shared values or a shared purpose (e.g., participants in Greek life or intramural sports). They also allow prospective students and alumni to engage with the "life" of the institution and maintain connections with the community.

Personal services also must be available to users, when and where they want to access them. These are services that are delivered one-on-one, often with a need for a high degree of confidentiality. They might include personal counseling, health and wellness centers, and career counseling. For example, a residential learner going through the difficult end of a romantic relationship might decide to initiate contact with a psychotherapist online; a staff member battling a weight problem might want information on the warning signs of bulimia; or an alumnus in the middle of a career transition might look for interview opportunities offered by the college. Institutions might also provide portfolio services for individuals to document their learning experiences over time.

Identifying and delivering all of these services, and integrating all campus applications, is a difficult challenge. A key issue is that integration among various systems relies on the creation of rules for conducting transactions between departments and systems, between learners and their instructors, and between learners and the various services they touch. Identifying and defining these roles requires a comprehensive, team-based approach throughout the institution. In addition, exceptions to automated processes must be identified and codified so that personalized student services can continue to function efficiently within the new IT framework.

Admittedly, there is no silver bullet that institutions can inject into their infrastructure to create the digital campus. However, many of the necessary technologies, standards, and services for integrating campus systems are available today, and ongoing progress is being made in all areas. Mercy College in New York (Exhibit 1) and Johnson County Community College in Kansas (Exhibit 2) are among the institutions that have begun successful efforts to build a unified infrastructure. By bringing a wide range of applications into a single e-education infrastructure, institutions can increase the quality and number of services available to constituents, reduce inefficiencies, and improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

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