Feature story for ICT News, University of Sydney
Feature story for ICT News online monthly newsletter (University of Sydney) ICT helps cure Summer School blues
December 2006, 1007 words

The Summer School Project team in ICT has been working closely with the Sydney Summer School to ensure the smooth enrolment of thousands of students each year, in May-June and October-December.

The Sydney Summer School has implemented a composite solution comprising a bespoke FileMaker 8 application and a Web enrolment front-end, and linked to the FlexSIS student administration system.

These application software upgrades were necessary because Summer School operators and managers had experienced considerable issues with January enrolments in 2006. Divergent business processes meant that FlexSIS was not able to accommodate their enrolments smoothly.

"We had two problems," says Dr Jillian Stewart, director of the Sydney Summer School. "One was that our students from overseas couldn't make an application very easily because basically you had to come in or you had to send your application to the office and it took anything up to ten, 15 days to turn them around.

"And the second one was that FlexSIS wasn't quite the business model that we needed. Our business model is quite different to the rest of the University. One of the key issues we had was all our units of study have quotas."

There were also problems in FlexSIS financials with allocating payments to Summer School. "Previous debts had a priority," says Renata Zupanc, who was recruited to manage the project and to provide consulting services that would address conflicting outcomes.

In April 2006, a new capital funded project was established to address the issues experienced by 2006 Summer School. Renata conducted an in-depth analysis and formulated three solution options. In June senior management selected one of the options, which would deliver integration of FlexSIS and PeopleSoft Accounts Receivable with the Summer School's new FileMaker system, and OneStop (the University's receipting system).

"Last summer, in 2005-6, the Summer School used FlexSIS for the first time," says Jillian. "This meant that instead of paying on enrolment, students could pay on the invoice. Approximately 36 per cent of applicants decided not to proceed with their Summer School enrolment. Many of them enrolled because they thought they were going to fail. When they passed, they withdrew. Because the FlexSIS system could not deal with quotas and waitlists, it was chaotic. Added to this was a key problem with the invoices because the liabilities were incorrectly loaded by the University, the system was incapable of generating a correct invoice even after many attempts. This led to large numbers of emails, in-person visits and phone calls, which became unmanageable."

Development of the FileMaker system by Advanced Database Systems Pty Ltd was rapid. "[I]t developed quite quickly," says Jillian. "We refined it quite dramatically for summer, because we had much larger numbers in summer. We trialled it with about 700 students in winter, but in summer we're looking at about 2500 students, and some of them take two subjects."

The Summer School Project Team and the Sydney Summer School also worked hard to ensure that student data was handled correctly in FlexSIS. The team made select changes to the FlexSIS application software. They also trained Summer School staff to correctly enter data into FlexSIS.

The FlexSIS new enrolment wizard is being used to ensure all liability codes are correct. Not only have these problems been resolved quickly ("quick wins" is how Renata labels them), there is now a plan to further develop the system so that enrolment data entered into the FileMaker system can be transferred automatically to FlexSIS.

"We were the first to use a total online enrolment system anywhere in the University," says Jillian. "Students can go online and see which units of study are available, all the details, prerequisites, credit points, texts etc. They can choose their units of study, seek permission online, pay by credit card online and actually see their placement in the waitlist if the class is full. They can also withdraw from a unit of study at a later date and add another unit. At any time, they can use the student portal to see the progress of their enrolment, and see if their waitlist position has moved. We can send automatic emails indicating what documents are needed to finalise their enrolment, and they can see on the portal when we have received the documents or their payment."

"It is a Mercedes [between the Web interface and the FileMaker system] and a Peugeot [between the FileMaker system and FlexSIS]," says Renata. A further plan has Summer School students enrolling via the same online enrolment engine that is currently being developed for other University students (see October news item). Options such as these are currently under consideration by senior management.

Now that the system is up and working to specifications, Jillian can think about business development strategies. "In order to grow the market we are targeting the cross-institutional students from both Sydney and interstate, as well as the international study abroad market. We are positioning the Summer School as a shorter, less expensive international experience, particularly for American study-abroad students. This year we have cross-institutional students joining us from all states of Australia except the Northern Territory."

So does she feel that implementing this IT solution has enabled her to expand her business?

"It's actually enabled us to survive, because we could not run another Summer School with an IT system that did little to support the business model. We have found that we do not get the same volume of phone calls or emails or in-person visits, so we can concentrate on providing a much higher level of customer service to those students who really need extra service, and we can do it now with fewer casual staff. As well, my staff are not as stressed. Students tell us they love the system because at any stage of their enrolment they know what is happening.

"Our student market are an online generation, they seek information online, they buy online, and they appreciate being able to do business with us online from anywhere in the world."