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The future of education depends on revitalizing back office IT

Amir Tajkarimi Profile picture for user Amir Tajkarimi September 22, 2015
Outdated tech in the back offices of higher education institutions can't deliver what students expect, writes Amir Tajkarimi, SVP global education at Unit4

Young woman seated with education concept © Sergey Nivens –
Revitalizing the back office to meet a new generation of student expectations is the biggest tech challenge for educators right now. Ian Sibbald, Director of Finance at Cranfield University recently blogged about some of the technology requirements for delivering the experience today’s students expect:

… the technology itself is now central to the student experience. They are paying customers and leave school expecting as standard a next-generation interaction with HEIs for any administrative interaction whether it’s timetabling, fees or looking-up courses. Additionally the Millennial generation will compare their HEI interactions with any other online experience – they don’t want a digital downgrade and if unimpressed will air their views on social media for the world to view.

Cloud computing has affected massive transformations in the enterprise and has redefined software and IT consumption for the masses. Computing resources that were once unwieldy and expensive are now scalable, on-demand, and accessible to organizations of all sizes. Yet despite serving students – the business world’s youngest and most knowledgeable and demanding customers – education institutions are falling behind.

In the education space, cloud offerings have armed educators with a vast array of tools for collaboration, assignment management, and scheduling. However, the transformations and agility the cloud is driving in other industries have yet to make their way fully into the campus back office. IT departments at educational institutions are more often tasked with supporting legacy systems and software packages that are increasingly difficult to manage, maintain, and update. This not only impacts operational efficiency and growth, but systemically degrades the student and faculty experience and ultimately compromises the quality of education.

Clearly, as institutions incubate the technology and business leaders of tomorrow, this is not the right precedent to set. Universities of the future need to embrace current technologies to better position themselves to provide quality, end-to-end educational experiences.

Gartner’s March 2015 Market Guide for Higher Education Student Information Systems states:

Many SISs [student information systems] in place today are old implementations of aged technologies that only support traditional students and business models. To address changing business requirements over the years, the SISs installed on the campus have often undergone continual customization. They are routinely augmented with a plethora of bolted-on modules, either developed in-house, from the SIS vendor itself or from third-party providers. The resulting architecture is one that is now often described as complex, brittle and difficult to maintain.

A need for innovation

In most agile and forward-thinking enterprises, traditional on-premises systems and software packages have been replaced with self-service cloud computing offerings. However, a peek into today's campus data centers and IT departments usually reveals a myriad of technological anachronisms: disparate systems with poor integration capabilities, monolithic software packages with limited upgrade paths, complicated licensing schemas (for example, a mix of per CPU, per seat/server). These challenges ultimately contribute to campus-wide inefficiency, stifling growth and innovation.

Over the years, some campus IT departments have addressed problems with point solutions and add-on applications built themselves or acquired from different software vendors. Home-grown applications were often designed by independent developers without extensive domain knowledge in education and suffer from quality and security issues. This has created a patchwork quilt of band-aid solutions that have become too complex and costly to maintain. Saddled with maintaining disparate systems, rectifying data inconsistencies, and manually carrying out processes that should be automated, educational institutions find it increasingly hard to focus on their key competencies -- namely, in delivering quality education.

What the higher education market has been missing is an integrated global solution specifically designed to meet the challenges of universities and colleges. While traditional ERP and administration suites address a range of educational processes and requirements, they are usually comprised of different modules – for managing registration, admission, and financial aid for example – that commonly give the semblance of being integrated, when in actuality they function poorly together.

Revitalizing the campus back office

Today's students and workforce are accustomed to living on the cutting edge of technology – features such as social, mobile, analytics, and the cloud (SMAC) are all common vernacular to the average consumer. Users have the same advanced expectations for computing experiences on campus, but sadly encounter technological stagnation where they expect it the least. They expect education systems to feature self-service portals accessible via both mobile and desktop, integrated course management, and front-to-back operations and accounting.

While dealing with these advanced technical expectations from students, education CIOs are navigating a previously stagnant on-premises market, which is now in transition to the cloud. Cloud is facilitating change for universities so they can begin to leverage the opportunities delivered by social, mobile, and analytics technologies. Easy-to-manage cloud systems are emerging that address the needs of staff, faculty, students, executives, constituents and the public, by streamlining daily activities, reducing costs and increasing productivity.

Today, you can automate the entire campus or multiple campuses around the world through a single system. Revitalizing the back office should be on the requirement list for any progressive education institution and those that do it well are positioning their institutions for future growth.

Image credit: Young woman seated with education concept © Sergey Nivens –

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