SFU signs up IT for enrolment

While students at Simon Fraser University still might not get into their desired session of Design and Analysis of Computing Algorithms when registering, with a new Web-based system, at least they won’t be hit with the double whammy of long-distance phone charges.

To register for their courses, students at the university in Burnaby, B.C. used to call into the phone system at a specified time based on their year, grades and other factors to select their courses.

For those traveling when their slot came up, and for international students out of the country, that could be a hassle. Now, thanks to a PeopleSoft-based system implemented with help from Vancouver’s Sierra Systems, registration is completely Web-based.

While students must still wait for their assigned slot, all that’s needed is a Web browser. “A friend of mine said his daughter registered from Spain in 10 minutes,” said SFU’s CIO, Jim Cranston. “She just happened to be there traveling last summer, hopped on the system when her time came and was in and out in 10 minutes.”

The changes are part of a multi-year upgrade of SFU’s Student Information System that included the replacement of 18-year-old legacy systems that spanned student registration and grades to HR and payroll.

Cranston said that while the university wanted to automate many processes and move to a modern, Web-based service model, their hand was forced by the pending retirement of many of the people that supported their legacy applications.

“We were at the point where it was like a house of cards, and if we tried to make one more change it would have fallen over,” said Cranston. “It was really just time for a new system.”

Cranston said that before hiring Sierra to help with the implementation, the university researched what platform it wanted to implement. Besides PeopleSoft, Cranston said SFU also considered SCT-Banner, which is used by a number of Canadian universities, and another product he said was more suited to a college environment.

“After looking at the technology and the feature set, we ended up choosing the PeopleSoft product; we just felt it would suit our needs better,” said Cranston.

David Smithers, Sierra’s vice-president of public relations, said Sierra provided project management, functional experts and technical experts to an SFU project team over the course of the two-and-a-half year project.

When moving from a long-term legacy system with which end users have grown comfortable to a new platform, Smithers said the biggest challenge is change management. Sierra helped by providing training, and Smithers added that it was also important to recognize the unique characteristics of public sector organizations by working with stakeholder groups throughout the process.

“(Also), any organization that replaces systems that old takes that opportunity to change and improve business processes, so the end-users are hit with the double-whammy of new business processes and a new system to learn,” said Smithers.

SFU’s Cranston agreed that change management was the biggest challenge. People were comfortable with the old system and it had been tailored to meet their needs, so they found the new technology challenging.

“A lot of things came out of the woodwork because we’d been doing them for so long and nobody really knew everything about them,” said Cranston. “When you try to write down the rules for a new system you get some of them wrong, and you don’t really see that until you get into production.”

The bumpy patch is over, though, and Cranston said SFU has now gone through seven registration cycles quite smoothly. One remaining sticky point: Cranston said PeopleSoft doesn’t work as well on some of the less-popular browsers as it should, and there are some issues with Macs. Still, as long as a student can get to a Windows machine running Internet Explorer, Cranston said it works great.

However, the university isn’t stopping here. It has finished an online application for graduate school, is building an online financial aid application, and also on the wish list is a degree audit tool, which would help a student see what courses they need to complete different programs.

“We want to keep extending more Web services,” said Cranston. “There’s a big list of enhancements we want to move forward to. Some will be supplied by the vendors and some we’ll build ourselves.”

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