What's the Latest in SIS Developments?

Let's discuss the evolving vendor landscape of student information systems! What new players are emerging in the SIS field? What is on the horizon for technology and function? What isn't, but should be? Are technological advances driving innovation? Will the Cloud mean the end of customization and differentiation? Whether you are investigating new systems, content where you are, or just curious about recent and future developments come join in the discussion with Michael Burke, Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from Harvard University.

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Michael Burke

Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Harvard University

What's the Latest in SIS Developments?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Mike, please share your role on campus and your desire to come and present at the AACRAO Annual Meeting. 

I am the Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. In addition, I co-chair the initiative to implement Harvard’s first university-wide student information system. Being registrar you make so many connections throughout the university community that it becomes apparent quickly how valuable and essential it is to have a network of colleagues with whom you can work.

That is why the network of colleagues becomes so important and one of the reasons I have come to value my network of colleagues at AACRAO. I can be much more effective on campus by nurturing relationships with colleagues at other colleges and universities. Though our individual campuses clearly have unique cultural aspects to them, we are all in the business of helping our institutions, faculty, students, and alumni succeed. Attending the annual meeting, participating in webinars, and even presenting workshops magnifies my potential to serve my campus. Though it’s a crunch to get the sessions done in time, I find it’s a much more enriching and enjoyable conference when I am actively involved.

What are some recent developments and trends that you have noticed with regard to SIS?

Much of the talk these days seems to focus on the Cloud (or third-party hosted solutions) and software as a service (SAAS). Hosted solutions do not change much for the registrar experience but they may have profound impacts on IT services. For many years universities built up their own hardware infrastructure to support the rise of campus computing (research, administrative, networking, etc.) Now I’m seeing a move to outsource the infrastructure to the Cloud. Some universities are making bold moves to move databases, applications, and networks to systems offsite managed by third parties such as Amazon and Microsoft. Though this service obviously costs money you may end up saving more because you no longer need the staff, technology, and physical resources to host these services on campus. You would need fewer database administrators, fewer server and network engineers, and potentially fewer support personnel.

The potential risks, of course, include short and long term cost variability (Amazon charges more during peak usage times, for example), reliability, and data security. These can be mitigated through service agreements and other factors but the risks still exist.

The second big thing that has been coming for a number of years is software as a service (SAAS). Like the Cloud, the technological overhead of SAAS is offsite. You buy the service and users sign on with a web browser; no local installation required. That typically means updates and upgrades are a thing of the past (in terms of major, costly IT projects). The major vendors and even consulting companies are offering hosted solutions and I think the allure of downsizing IT staff and infrastructure will be hard for universities to resist. Likewise, the major vendors, Ellucian and Oracle, seem to be rushing into the SAAS market now that Workday is making a play at capturing market share with an enterprise system offered exclusively as a SAAS (though it is yet to be launched).

Please share some best practices that you have observed in the profession?

When it comes to developing expertise in student information systems, my best advice is to attend user conferences, set Google alerts for your vendors, and nurture those professional relationships with colleagues who are also using your system. I have yet to meet the person who has captured all the knowledge about using an SIS, so rely on one another; help each other out; recognize that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you have to do something new with your system.

What are some innovations that you have been impressed by and think our members should investigate further?

A:  What impresses me more is not what but who. Some universities are very good at leveraging the creativity and motivation of its students. Students will let you know how to improve a system and they will let you know how they actually use it. A good analogy that would be easily understood on campuses is that of pathways. Smart campuses pave pathways that people actually use. Rather than trying to arbitrarily change pedestrian behavior, you can recognize that people will walk in the path of least resistance or in the most direct route. When thinking about how to develop or improve systems, observe student behavior and use those pathways as inspiration. Ask students. Better yet, involve them in your technology design and decision making. If you need apps for your student system, get students to help you. It’s a great learning exercise for them, and it is a cost-effective way for you to bring about design improvements led by key stakeholders.

What do you foresee are some predictions about the future with regard to SIS development? 

I think there will be less technological and also procedural differentiation across universities, which will allow SAAS providers to make stronger inroads into the enterprise system market. If universities like Harvard can embark on university-wide projects using vendor solutions it is a sign that the higher education student system enterprise market is moving towards less individualization and more standardization. This may sound scary to those rugged academic individualists but the upside is that when you are using the same tools as other schools you can draw upon a much wider and more experienced resource and talent pool. How many of us have tried to hire staff members with expertise in a system that only we use? Many of us have been there. How many of us have faced the need to make major changes to our business processes or to our student systems but had no network of colleagues from which to gain insight and seek solutions? In this instance, we are not losing anything by standardizing our tools.

What do you hope attendees will glean from sitting in your session?

Frankly, I always hope to learn as much from the attendees as they will from me. I like to spark discussion and to hear counterpoints so that the time spent together is more productive. Anyone can piece together the bits of information that I will share, but synthesizing it in real time with people highly experienced using these systems will be valuable to me and hopefully also to the attendees. For those not using one of the vendor solutions, perhaps they will come away with an understanding of the commercial sector and be informed about the product landscape and roadmaps.