Oct 31 2006

Information Technology as a Marketing Tool for Universities

Harper College's focus on the newest technology attracts students and enhances learning.

The way David McShane sees it, operating a community college isn't any different from running a business. “Schools compete for minds and eyeballs,” he explains. “It's all about providing an outstanding product and satisfying clients.”

While many in academia may bristle at this emerging reality – and the business and technology challenges that accompany it – McShane, the CIO and vice president of information technology for Harper College in Palatine, Ill., isn't shirking this responsibility.

Over the last few years, the school has embraced 21st century thinking and information technology in a major way. It has introduced sophisticated learning centers with smart classrooms, deployed wireless networking across the entire campus and switched on a state-of-the-art enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that helps faculty, administrators and students manage information more effectively. “Today's technology helps us meet the demands of the marketplace,” McShane says. “It's essential for success.”

In an era of tighter budgets and sharp competition for students, Harper is proving that the right mindset and technology can go a long way toward achieving superior results.

The community college boasts a student enrollment of more than 37,000 per year, resulting in a 20 percent increase in full-time equivalent during the last eight years. It already allows students to register for classes while off campus, use library resources over the Internet, place textbook orders online and perform an array of other tasks.

The approach is opening up new opportunities and changing the way learning takes place. “If you don't build it, the students won't come,” McShane observes. “The goal is to provide tools that enable key business functions while keeping the technology as transparent as possible.” In fact, Harper College serves as a model for how community colleges, which are publicly financed, can navigate today's difficult environment. “A strong presence in the community is a recipe for success … and for providing value to students, staff and community members,” McShane says.

Boosting Productivity

The centerpiece of the Harper College campus is the Avanté Center for Science, Health Careers and Emerging Technologies. The 293,000-square-foot facility houses 10 major academic programs, including biology and chemistry, computer science and electronics, cardiac care, dental hygiene, medical imaging and nursing.

Overall, the three-story Avanté Center features 400 rooms, including 27 classrooms equipped with digital technology. Instructors and students are able to tap into a Wi-Fi network, access the Internet, and use school systems to boost performance and productivity.

At the core of Harper's technology infrastructure is a fiber-optic backbone. It provides 2 gigabytes of bandwidth across the 200-acre campus. A traditional wired-fiber Ethernet network and a wireless 802.11a/b/g network overlay provide Internet access throughout the entire campus.

Security remains an important consideration. Harper uses virtual private networking for faculty, administrators and others who must access sensitive data from outside or through a wireless connection. It also deployed an authentication system to manage and restrict access.

Harper began introducing smart classrooms about five years ago and is now retrofitting older rooms to accommodate digital devices and wireless access. It also boasts three cybercafes that provide entrée to university information systems, as well as e-mail and Web access. And the college has developed a business center for corporate executives.

The wireless network has proven to be particularly useful in science labs, where liquids and chemicals often pose dangers to equipment, including computers and batteries. “We have designed certain facilities to take complete advantage of wireless technology,” McShane says.

The ERP initiative is also paying dividends. About a year ago, the community college began migrating to Oracle's e-Business Suite and Student System, which runs on a Linux platform, with far more advanced capabilities.

“The tools and business systems we had in place served us well for 12 years, but they had become outdated,” McShane says. “We needed systems that were more powerful, with intuitive self-service.” The college also wanted to avoid modifying code while embracing a Web-centric self-service business model that could tie together diverse functions and improve internal decision-making and strategic planning.

From the beginning, Harper viewed the ERP implementation as a three-phase project involving financial, human resources (HR) and student information systems. Because the financial system serves as the foundation, it took priority.

Now that it is in place – and handling budgeting, payments, ledger data, and accounts payable and receivable – the school has switched on the HR module (for payroll, attendance and other functions) and is readying the student information system for a spring 2007 launch.

The goal is to establish individualized portals that allow students, once authenticated, to manage a variety of tasks in a single place. The tasks include looking up course descriptions, registering online, accessing grades, viewing transcripts and finding relevant coursework.

Degrees of Excellence

Harper attracts students almost entirely from two high school districts in suburban Chicago. Many of these students have high expectations and demand the same leading-edge tools that are available at four-year schools. As a result, Harper must wholeheartedly embrace information technology. “Expectations about the level of performance and capabilities continue to grow,” McShane says.

Rather than focus entirely on bits and bytes, Harper developed a marketing plan that meshes students' needs and desires with internal initiatives. Twelve years ago, McShane and a cross-functional team examined how they could position the school for a new generation of students and a changing educational and technology environment. Ultimately, the school established a four-year refresh cycle for desktop computers and developed plans for addressing upgrades and replacements for other systems.

From the beginning, McShane kept the school's collective eye on improving core business processes rather than on merely introducing advanced technology solutions. “All the technology was chosen for its strategic value,” he explains. “The latest and best tools do no good if they can't address real-world challenges and help a school remain attractive and competitive.”

Harper College isn't resting on its laurels. McShane says that the school is now eyeing an array of other tools and technologies, including smart cards, Voice over Internet Protocol and podcasting. The key to success, he says, is building a solid network foundation and turning to systems that offer scalability and flexibility, while matching the practical needs of the institution.

“Today's information technology creates enormous opportunities,” McShane says. “For a community college, it's essential to maximize gains and [provide] the services that students increasingly demand.”

Samuel Greengard is a business and technology journalist based in Portland, Ore.

Harper College, Palatine, Ill.

Type of institution: Community college

Founded: 1967

Campus size: 24 buildings over 200 acres

Total budget: $160,860,849

Faculty: 216 full-time, 641 part-time

Students: 25,841 for credit-based classes, 11,408 for continuing education

Number of classes per semester: 3,800

Project: Equip classrooms and other spaces with digital tools, switch on a wireless network and implement an enterprise resource planning system

IT philosophy: “We are a business, and we're competing for students. Information technology allows us to create an environment that meets the needs and desires of today's students,” says David McShane, CIO and vice president of information technology.

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