SFU revamps its registration system

When Simon Fraser University needed to revamp its annual student registration process, it looked to Sierra Systems to implement an online system designed to ease the challenges students face during registration, which they describe as growing more complicated as the Canadian university population expands.

Vancouver-based Sierra Systems used a PeopleSoft suite of products to upgrade Simon Fraser’s core systems dealing with student administration, human resources, payroll, and financial budgets and projects. Sierra Systems provided project management, as well as technical and functional expertise.

The Burnaby, B.C.-based university knew it had to revamp its old-fashioned legacy systems when long-time IT staff began to retire, said chief information officer Jim Cranston.

“We were pretty much stuck with systems that wouldn’t meet our future needs,” Cranston said.

Simon Fraser’s PowerHouse programming language, developed by Cognos in the 1980s, was “two generations behind,” Cranston said.

The VMS operating system was also declining in popularity, he said.

Under Simon Fraser’s old system, students were assigned a specific time to call the university to register for classes, a late-summer ritual where each day “1,000 students (would be) dialing on 40 lines. It’s a pretty clumsy thing for the students to do,” he said.

Now, students, who are still given a specific time to register, may do so online based on their seniority and marks. “They’re happy with it. It’s fast. It’s convenient.”

Despite the improvement over the outdated registration process, there have still been hitches.

Cranston said about one per cent of students will experience technical problems in which the computer system will incorrectly inform them that they have entered the wrong course prerequisite.

“It’s always a constantly changing thing. You’ll never get (the problems)down to zero,” he said.

But the university has noted fewer problems with each passing semester, he said.

The greatest obstacle in updating Simon Fraser’s infrastructure has revolved around the resistance staff put up when they are accustomed to working with technology that is 15- to 20-years-old, said David Smithers, vice-president of public relations at Sierra Systems. 

Changes needed
Smithers said the university moved to a “large, complex, integrated system” from a series of independent systems that Sierra Systems had built on its behalf 20 years ago.

During the upgrade, Sierra Systems helped Simon Fraser to identify business processes that should be changed, and the benefits of doing so, he said.

The systems integrator also encouraged the university to automate systems that work on a manual basis, and was involved in IT staff training.

Sierra Systems said it has completed a handful of student administration upgrades in Canadian and American universities, as well as dozens of human resource implementations in the private sector.

Cranston explained most universities, which over the last eight years have advanced their core business structures, are either buying full-scale solutions such as PeopleSoft’s or developing their own systems.

He said some schools like the University of British Columbia in Vancouver or Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., have in place solid home-grown student systems that can evolve.

Others, however, must deal with obsolete systems and IT staff who are on the verge of retiring. He said building a student system from scratch would cost several million dollars and be pricier than buying a package of solutions.

Installing new student administration technology cost Simon Fraser $9 million.

The implementation of all core university systems, including functions such as payroll and human resources, using PeopleSoft products, came with a price tag of $16.5 million.

The relationship between SFU and Sierra continues. Although the bulk of the work was completed from 2002 to the beginning of 2005, Sierra Systems still dispatches staff to do upgrades at Simon Fraser.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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