PROBLEM: Among the unique challenges facing educational institutions in the early years of the twenty-first century is how best to serve a diverse user base with new technologies in a time of tight budgetary restrictions. While many businesses in the private sector can focus on the handful of software solutions that fit their particular needs, colleges, universities, and other institutions must attempt to integrate large-scale solutions for the entire campus community with a myriad of applications and business methodologies used at the individual department level.
To make this mandate even more challenging, many state-funded educational institutions are facing belt-tightening measures that put a cramp on their information technology budget and force them to focus on crucial services, often at the expense of innovation. Consolidating core software functions and getting existing and new applications to “play well together” makes perfect sense in such a climate.
While the current economic slowdown may have stalled some bold and exciting plans for the future, it also may provide a chance to clean up some of the sloppiness left behind after ten years of rapid, often directionless, growth.
SOLUTION: The needs of each department of an educational institution are so diverse that it would be foolhardy to try to develop one application to meet them all. However, there is no reason the basic functions common to all departments, the “business infrastructure,” cannot be tapped by each department for its own purposes. The salient reasons for developing on a common framework include:
- Efficiency — The integration of accounting and billing methods allows departments that use their own software for business services to directly tap the data provided by a centralized entity that provides services to the entire campus, such as a Financial Services office. By the same token, a common platform such as the web allows a facilities management department, for instance, to provide utility billing and work order information to departments in a paperless format, as well as to streamline common services such as work order submission.
- Security — Every application with sensitive or private information requires a database to store user logins, passwords, and permissions. The ability to use one central database to store this information for many applications means each user need only remember one login and password, and authentication can be handled in one place, meaning fewer access points need to be secured.
- Interdisciplinary study — Institutions are beginning to recognize the value of linking different disciplines for a common good. For instance, a researcher into online security issues might find it useful to share information with a behavioral scientist to understand why people are willing or unwilling to provide credit card information online. Or an historian might find it useful to plumb data from a molecular biologist’s lab to understand the dispersion patterns of ancient human populations.
METHODS: Fortunately, technology can be used to ease many of the unique headaches universities, colleges, and academies must endure. The emergence of middleware solutions using standard data formats like XML can be powerful tools in the right hands. While the IT department for the institution itself must provide some support for these methodologies, there are concrete solutions individual departments and other organizations on campus can use to get themselves up to speed:
- The Central Authentication Service (CAS) — Developed at Yale University, CAS is an open source method for authenticating users in one place for many different applications. Integrating existing applications into a CAS solution allows users to provide their login and password combination once, and these credentials are passed to every application the user accesses during that browser session, including uPortal, webmail, and custom software. Applications large and small can capitalize on this technology with a good developer and a little help from the central IT department.
- Adopting a web-based interface — The proliferation of web technology is approaching a level of sophistication that will eventually rival that of desktop technology for even heavily data-intensive applications. While we may never live in a web-only world, it’s not too soon to capitalize on the unique advantages a web-based application or a web interface for an existing non-web application provides. Aside from making the application available to any machine with a web browser (the other kind are very hard to find these days), a web solution in many cases replaces paper and phone calls as a means of doing business.
- Maximizing existing assets — While it would be nice in the best of all possible worlds to replace an aging application with a brand-spanking new one, it is not always feasible. Under tight budgets, getting the most out of existing applications is often the right way to go. While not all applications are worth salvaging, a surprising number can be retooled or replaced one piece at a time, keeping the underlying data structure intact until it makes sense to upgrade to newer back-end technologies. Additionally, even legacy databases can often be coaxed into providing their essential data in a usable format, even if it has to be converted from raw text. Often, such a conversion leads to a streamlined data structure after columns and tables that are no longer used have been dropped.
SUMMARY: While universities face a set of challenges rare outside of academia, highly diverse user bases and shrinking budgets need not mean substandard application design. An intelligent mix of integration, centralization, and the incremental replacement of outdated technologies can ease these challenges and allow an educational institution to focus on its primary objective, to educate.