Student information systems: the story so far

Nicola Yeeles examines how student information systems are changing and what the next chapter may hold

Students want their universities to do a better job at digitising student administration and collaboration. That’s the message coming out of a 2016 DJS Research survey of more than 2,000 full-time and part-time students. And not just in the UK, but across 11 countries. The results make sobering reading. 44% said that they think their universities manage their student admin digitally ‘a little or not at all’. More than one third (36%) of the respondents complained that their university admin is so complex it means they spend less time studying. Almost half (47%) of the respondents said that, given the fees they pay, they would expect their administration to be easier to manage.

It’s clear that students expect us to do better. But the need for efficient student records management has long been identified by education organisations. Until the 1980s, staff kept manual records on students and finances, which remained separate. From then on, computerisation brought with it more efficient information curation. As more and more records went digital in the 1990s, data entry became a key skill. However, while the records themselves were computerised, the management of that information was still not joined-up. In the 2000s, web-based solutions became more possible, allowing people to access different records from different departments: the dawn of the student information system. Across Europe, university collaborations have sprung up to provide these, while in other places state sponsored groups are doing the work. By contrast, in the UK these systems are largely provided by commercial suppliers.

Enhancing student experience

The focus of effort has changed too. Industry director for education at supplier Unit4, Matt Searles, takes up the story: “With a more competitive market, systems are changing from those designed predominantly around the needs of the university, to being more focused on learners. Enhancing the student experience, student retention and student engagement are now all part of the standard vocabulary.” His comments are also relevant to schools; there’s no doubt that the modern wave of student management systems can provide students and parents with a joined-up experience like never before, as they negotiate a complex web of interactions with the organisation, from tuition fees or charges for school trips to curriculum information and attendance, while staff can now enjoy quick access to student performance and other data. Gone are the days when a skilled administrator might pull off a report at the request of a student, parent or educator. The fact that each stakeholder can now access the information themselves means that the interfaces have to be more intuitive than ever before.

With a more competitive market, systems are changing from those designed predominantly around the needs of the university, to being more focused on learners

That focus on functionality is becoming increasingly important, and it’s a key driver for organisations to procure a new product. In its mission statement, the University of Aberdeen has committed to building a digital infrastructure, so it has just procured a new student information system from Unit4. Professor Peter McGeorge, vice-principal for learning and teaching at the University, explains that students’ contact with the University “will benefit from the same easy-to-use digital experience they get outside of university with social media and other retailers.” In particular, students will be able to use a device of their choice to get at the information. The resilience and connectivity of the Microsoft Azure Cloud, where all data will be stored, will also give staff a 360-degree view of the student lifecycle.

But when organisations procure such a game-changing system, how quickly can they get to grips with it? Turning to the schools sector, Andrew Mulholland, marketing director of parental communication specialists Groupcall, explains that getting to grips with the possibilities is a gradual process. In the beginning, schools tend to procure based on a couple of functions. “For example,” he says, “They might want a system that gives them an up-to-the-minute overview of students’ attendance or medical records, or they may need instant access to parent or guardians’ contact details, and once they find a system that meets these immediate requirements they tend to just use it for the same tasks.” But over time, they realise the full functionality; for instance, starting to store notes on behaviour, or doing more in-depth timetabling.

Time well spent

It’s clear then that the story doesn’t end at procurement. Getting to know the system is time well spent on a big investment like this. From a supplier’s point of view, James Weatherill, CEO of Arbor Education, sees that one further change will need to come from training commitments. He says, “I’d like to see a stronger emphasis on CPD around technology and data to ensure all staff in the UK are on a par with those in other countries. A recent study by the Education Policy Institute found that of 36 countries, England ranked 30th in the number of days teachers spend on CPD. That’s just not acceptable if we want to have a world-class education system. People often forget that technology in a business or school context usually doesn’t fail because of the tech, but because of the implementation.”

Mulholland agrees that getting up to speed on a new information system is not a job that should be left to the IT team. “For any system to be successfully implemented into a school, buy-in needs to come from all stakeholders: head teachers, teachers, heads of departments, IT technicians, school managers and parents. Ensuring that all stakeholders are invested in the system and thoroughly understand it and can access it at all times, means that all of its functionalities are utilised to the maximum, delivering a positive return on investment.” Weatherill agrees, “Data shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, and to get maximum benefit you need staff close to the front-line to be using it to make quicker, better decisions. That said, there’ll always be the need for experts, and schools or multi-academy trusts will need to recruit or retrain staff to become power users of such systems.” How to create a power user? Free CPD accredited training events from suppliers are popular. But Mulholland says that when schools can work with suppliers to put on advisory days for neighbouring schools there’s always enthusiasm. “Schools training other schools, or sharing best practice tips or advice is always going to be popular, as schools will always trust other schools.”

What does the future hold for the systems themselves? Certainly, they are constantly evolving to respond to what educators need. But information systems differ in terms of their customisation, which could be more of an issue as we seek to include more variables about learners. As education organisations seek to be as inclusive as possible, one major hurdle can be the technical obstacle of the sex-binary student information system. Recording students’ gender identity, preferred name and preferred pronoun digitally can currently be complex. The system may assume, for example, that a student who was assigned a male sex at birth and now identifies as female should be referred to as ‘she’ when that may not be the case. In future we may need more flexible, customisable fields to reflect students’ preferences.

I’d like to see a stronger emphasis on CPD around technology and data to ensure all staff in the UK are on a par with those in other countries


Customisation is one way of future-proofing the product. As a result, one key attribute that organisations are looking for when procuring is whether the organisation can edit the system. They are looking for the system to integrate with other software, using an API, or perhaps choosing one that uses Java Servlets which don’t require Java to be installed on the user’s computer. The ability to create additional plugins will be important as people demand more and different functionality. For example, as mergers, transnational education and distributed providers increase across UK education, student information systems will need to handle more complex institutional arrangements such as multiple campuses that report as a single provider. Of course, once the system is up and running, the next challenge is how to use that data to take action and make improvements. In a survey carried out by Jisc, 71% of students said they would be happy for data like their library or virtual learning environment usage to be used by their university, if it could help improve their grades. The race to protect privacy while utilising data for performance is now on. Those that win will be the ones who can harness the data within their system for better student attainment and satisfaction. Ready, set… 

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