For all new students, starting their first term at college or semester at university, can be both an exiting and daunting time. Moving out of home for the first time, getting to grips with new surroundings, making new friends, and to know which room, building or even campus is which can be a little overwhelming. On top of this, technology has grown and developed so much, how can colleges and universities ensure that all these factors of taking education to the next level is a smooth smooth and uncomplicated?
Recently Gerald Haigh, freelance writer to Microsoft, visited Birmingham City University to see how they have improved their support to both students and staff and save money with the application of Microsoft Biz Talk.
Lost in cyberspace
As a student, you need to be confident with your virtual surroundings, finding your own faculty, the library, the department that deals with accommodation. Then there’s the university’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and the separate site that tells you where you are with your course work. Oh, and you want an electronic card to get you into that building you haven’t found yet? That’ll be yet another website. Then on top of this, in most cases you’ll need to remember and use login details for all of them.
The same goes for staff members, except there’ll be other important sites you need to visit regularly, such as human resources who know all about your employment details and whether or not you’ve used up all your holiday entitlement.
Up until 2009, this is how it was a Birmingham City University, and how it probably is now in some institutions.
The university had 68 different faculty and departmental web sites, with multiple log ins. Not only was it all a pain to navigate and use, but it was difficult to gather data together in a way that would provide useful information for staff and students. Servicing all of the sites, too, was a considerable challenge, involving a number of development teams
Finding a solution
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, there came a time for the university to say enough is enough, and to seek a solution that would bring everything together – a single portal with the coveted stamp of “access all areas”.
The task fell largely into the domain of Paul Aspel, Head of Integration and Development, and Team Leader, Rich Caine.
“We’d already had some experience of integration,” says Paul, “Because we’d developed an in-house intranet at the University’s Technology Innovation Centre (TIC) .Basically, that work showed us the principle of integration.”
Doing the same thing for the whole university, though, was a task of a different order. Making in-house links at database level would be difficult and the result would be inadequate. The job called for the implementation of a Service Orientated Architecture (SOA)
“We looked at various solutions, including open source and also some very expensive products, but we found we could get enterprise level Biz Talk at a substantial educational discount for around £34,000, which represented best value for money.”
Having accomplished the integration of multiple websites and enterprise systems, the next step was to provide staff and students with a university intranet with a “single sign on” (SSO). The result is ‘iCity’, giving the user a bespoke home page tailored to the person who’s logged in. The SOA feature called “Orchestration” ensures that when a user logs in, the system “knows” who they are. Armed with that knowledge, it will pull together a wealth of information including their print account, notices about their courses, books they have on loan (and whether any are overdue) and a list of unread mail (Birmingham City University is one of a number of HE institutions to have discovered the benefits for students, staff and IT teams of replacing in-house email with Microsoft’s Live@Edu)
All is displayed to the user in summary form on the home page, from where they can click through for the detail. Without that level of service, much of the information a student or staff member needs would only be accessible through a positive effort to find it on one of a large number of websites, each with its own log-in requirements.
As Rich says, “ You’d only know you had a library book accumulating fines if you happened to log on to the library system for some reason. Instead, it’s there on your home page in iCity.”
Very importantly in terms of recruitment and retention of students, the systems, including Biz Talk, which support the iCity portal make it possible to engage prospective students not just before they arrive but before they enrol.
“Once they have a firm offer they have access to some iCity features, and fill in some pre-enrolment details. Then once enrolled we expand their access. Then when they come to face to face enrolment there’s a lot less to do.”
Benefits to students
In a year when Birmingham City University, along with others, is announcing its scale of forthcoming tuition fees, demonstrating value to students is clearly very important. The importance in which students place on their access to iCity is seen in the extent to which it is used. Having gone on line for the first time in Summer 2010, iCity is now having 8000 unique visitors each weekday, and almost half that number on Saturdays and Sundays. (When iCity went off line briefly just after midnight on a Sunday recently, there were instant email complaints from 60 users who worked through the night)
“It’s become the way they work,” says Rich Caine.
Confirming the quality of the service, Birmingham City University was awarded the 2010 Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Support for Students.
Benefits for IT staff
The integration of multiple sites with Biz Talk has meant that instead of up to 25 IT developers working across a range of platforms the whole service is now looked after by a team of 12.
Had Biz Talk not been available, the choice would have been between a proprietary alternative on the one hand and tailoring an open source or entirely in-house system on the other. Either would have been considerably more expensive than using Biz Talk – Paul Aspel estimates that developing an in-house integration would have cost the university half a million pounds, and the end result wouldn’t have been as good.
Looking to the future
With the arrival of cloud services and the possibility of using Biz Talk for integration beyond the university, the sky’s the limit for Birmingham City University. Students and staff are also being given smartphone access to iCity, soon to be written about in a future blog post.