Why is Higher Ed Different? is a multi-part series where we explore the unique needs and requirements of Higher Ed IT. We, at Optimal Partners, are passionate about Higher Ed and feel that it’s unlike any other industry out there. Whether you’re a newcomer or an industry veteran, it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle and forget to really take note of these idiosyncrasies. Paying attention to them, however, will make a world of difference in your projects.
Colleges and universities require administrative tools, human resource software, and security systems, just like any business, but they also service thousands of students and hundreds of faculty that need to be considered when creating deliverables in Higher Ed IT. Even in the cases where software is designed to serve both Higher Ed and “Big Business,” those tools are specifically tweaked to meet the needs of the former. In our last article in this series, we discussed how the development processes for these systems differ from corporate IT. This part in our series aims to outline some of the key software produced by Higher Ed IT projects, whether they’re slightly altered versions of very popular products or systems that are distinctly Higher Ed.
These systems allow students to take online courses, faculty to interact with their students, and staff to manage their e-learning environments.
While instructional software may be supplemental to training exercises in the business world, it is the glue that holds Higher Ed IT together. Colleges and universities require specifically tailored tools in order to effectively further the education of their students. Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas and Moodle, are arguably the most important of these tools, acting as the backbone for e-learning and servicing a majority of an institution’s user base. These systems allow students to take online courses, faculty to interact with their students, and staff to manage their e-learning environments while providing data for other systems. Many LMS’s also include instructional authoring tools, which allow instructional designers to create interesting and engaging learning experiences. Although businesses might use LMS’s to train employees, a college or university relies on them to function in the modern day.
Higher Ed IT is at the forefront of modern education technology, which brings with it an ever-increasing set of unique requirements. The best example of this is Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs, which are online courses that are open to the public and serve as a flexible online learning environment. While not everyone can attend a four-year university, often due to time restraints or geographical limitations, MOOCs provide these individuals with a chance to pursue their education.
Systems for University Administration
Although administrative software is not unique to Higher Ed in and of itself, many of the systems that are shared between Higher Ed and the business sector are tweaked to meet each organization’s specific needs. For example, while most businesses use Human Resource systems, universities need their software to account for not only staff, but students, faculty, contracted workers, and volunteers as well. Financial systems need to be able to deal with student’s financial aid and donations from alumni. Business intelligence software and reports are adapted to track student performance and the performance of departments that are unique to colleges and universities. Even documentation management systems need to compensate for how different workflow can be, as the inclusion of different systems introduces new requirements for how information needs to be managed.
When a normal version can’t be adjusted to meet Higher Ed’s needs, new systems are developed to compensate for the differing user base. The Student Information System (SIS), for instance, is similar to a normal HR system, except that it specifically collects and stores data on the institution’s student base. It also serves a lot of other systems in Higher Ed, providing vital information required for other software to operate. There’s a good chance that if you’re working in Higher Ed IT, you’ll interact with an SIS at one point or another.
These products are essential for colleges and universities to function, yet aren’t used in many other professional settings.
The university IT environment is full of products that were created for Higher Ed: enrollment systems process thousands of admission applications each year, deciding who is accepted into the new class. Alumni management software not only helps universities keep track of students once they graduate, but also helping raise funds for the school. Research Administrative Systems manage the academic research of professors and graduate students. These products are essential for colleges and universities to function, yet aren’t used in many other professional settings.
Software for Life on Campus
Higher Ed IT incorporates everything that happens on campus, from residential student management to medical clinics. While some corporate environments, like the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, look similar to a university campus, most don’t come close to the scope of an average four-year institution, and therefore require very different systems to manage their facilities.
Residential students are the lifeblood of campus life, since they live, learn, and often, work on-site. Residential management systems help keep track of student housing and any events that happen in residential areas on campus. Security systems are also very important, but unlike the business sector, a university security system is required to compensate for thousands of people living on campus. University staff can’t just turn off the lights at the end of their shift and close down shop; campus systems are active at all times of day, 24/7, 365.
The average college student can most often be found in three places on campus throughout a semester: sitting in class, relaxing in the residence halls, or studying in the library. The library serves many functions to many people throughout the year, all of which are taken care of by unique systems designed for Higher Ed. A library isn’t just an office space for students, however; it’s an academic hub for the entire campus, requiring very specific products to function properly.
Most businesses don’t need to facilitate on-site health care for their users, but a college campus requires medical clinics to guarantee the safety of its students, staff, and faculty. These clinics serve an incredible volume of people; each with their own medical records, allergies, and medication, and therefore, require medical systems to manage all of their data. Restrictions and standards that are unique to the medical field may also affect these Higher Ed systems, such as FERPA and HIPAA.
Even the parking systems in Higher Ed go beyond simply designating parking spaces for staff. College campuses need to compensate for up to thousands of vehicles entering and leaving every day. Special events make parking even more complex, sometimes reassigning parking lots at a day’s notice or closing off some parking areas entirely. A successful parking system will allow staff to compensate for the day-to-day upkeep required for a college campus to thrive.
Deliverables of All Kinds
The products developed for Higher Ed IT perfectly exemplify how different it can be from working in the business sector. Some projects may involve keeping software up to health care standards while others might need to compensate for the wide variety of end-users in the university environment. Higher Ed IT is a combination of specially tailored systems and entirely unique software, which makes keeping up with Why is Higher Ed Different all the more important.
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