Colleges debugging new software system
By Jessica Strand - Staff Reporter
Highline officials say they hope the second wave of a new software program coming to the college will be a gentle splash and not a tsunami.
CtcLink is a web-based administrative systems program that will be rolling out to all community colleges in Washington state over the next few years. Eventually, students, staff and faculty will be able to register, check on financial aid, check grades, or look up student data seamlessly across all of the state's 34 community and technical colleges.
But the initial foray in ctcLink land has not been rosy. Students at the three pilot colleges – Tacoma, Spokane and Spokane Falls – have had problems with registration and financial aid.
The software was created by Oracle, a company that provides cloud applications, platform services, and engineered systems, according to its website, who were chosen by the Washington state Board of Community and Technical Colleges to provide a replacement for the state's varied and patchwork administrative systems still in use.
The pilot schools have experienced many issues with the software since going live on Aug. 24, 2015, and the waves for updating the other colleges have been set back several times. At the end of last year the rollout was paused indefinitely following an independent review from Gartner, a technology research and advisory company.
"There was an independent outside review that was completed in December, and what that suggested was putting the new implementations on hold until its … verified that everything is functional at the pilot colleges," said Tim Wrye, executive director and chief information odfficer for the Information Technology Services department at Highline. "That review was uncomfortable with pushing ahead with the further waves until we are sure everything is working at the pilots."
The pilot colleges have fixed many of the issues that affect students, but still have some distance to go before the software is functioning properly.
"We went live and then we experience challenges with the software system pretty much right off the bat," said Tamyra Houser, director of Marketing and Communications for Tacoma Community College. "We experienced issues with scheduling, environments, financial aid, and issues that really impacted our students.
"Once we realize that was happening we worked really quickly with the state board partners -- with their project teams to fix all these issues," she said.
Spokane Community College has had similar problems with the system as well.
"We've seen improvement in certain areas -- certainly some of the initial challenges with registration and financial aid we've worked through, and that seems to be working much better now," said Greg Stevens, chief administrations officer for Spokane Community College.
"We had some initial problems with what we call faculty workload -- it's the assignment of classes and payments for those assignments," he said. "That stabilized, and is working better now."
The current major concern is to fix the problems associated with the financial office, which include accounts payable, budgets and payroll, Houser said.
Spokane continues to face problems with financial services as well, Stevens said.
With each update, there have been new issues to deal with than need to be fixed, but things are getting better, Houser said.
"I would say this, we are in much better shape than where we were last year with ctcLink," she said. "Now we're just kind of easing into this new world. There are things that continually pop up that we're learning from. When ctcLink rolls out to other colleges such as Highline, hopefully those schools won't experience the same issues we have.
The Highline team is focused on getting data issues fixed before the rollout to hopefully prevent some of the issues that Tacoma and Spokane faced.
"We are actively working on doing some business process analysis and mapping so that we are prepared for the change," Wrye said. "We will do better going into this future state if we have a clear understanding of what our current state is."
The team is also working on conducting data cleanup as well.
"There are things that we know have caused problems in first link and wave one in the data conversion," he said. "There are things we can look a, identify those patterns, and do some cleanup now."
Since the Gartner review, project resources have been focusing on remediation, which entails finding the problems and fixing them before the software is rescheduled for rollout.
"Most of it is not actually technically not working -- there were some pieces of that -- mostly it's problems in configuration or a lack of training or readiness," Wrye said. "So they're determining what is causing all the pieces that aren't working to not work, focusing on correcting that -- whether it be a technical fix or training -- and then once all that is met then they'll go back to focusing on the future waves."
Despite the problems the pilot colleges have faced, there will be many benefits once all the kinks are worked out.
"Probably the biggest thing is that the existing system, while it's working for us, it's old and really not supported anymore," Wrye said. "It hasn't broken yet but it's a really old system."
Moving to a web-based system is another benefit the Highline team is looking forward to.
"We still, at this point, maintain a piece of software on lots of people's machines solely for them to get at that system so that will be able to go away and everybody can just do it through a web browser," he said.
There are security issues that the IT team will no longer have to worry about once the software is web-based, Wrye said.
"The Web Transaction Server where [students] register and get grades or pay by credit card for tuition, that was an add-on that was built in the early 2000s -- and also has never been the most stable," he said. "That will go away and will be replaced by the same functionality that is … just part of the system and not an add-on."
Spokane officials mentioned the benefit of no longer having add-ons to get the software to do what the college needed it to do as well.
"Legacy system -- the one that Highline is currently using, and the one we've moved away from -- was based on 1980 programming," Spokane's Stevens said. "There were a lot of what we call add-ons. It was somewhat like a little farmhouse where they build a room on each farming season, Crops come in and then you build a new room and it just didn't match up well."
The new software was built to work seamlessly for transferring data across all departments.
"Everything talks together well and moves data across what they call pillars," Stevens said. "Financial data easily moves into the HR pillar, and HR pillar data moves easily into the Student Services pillar. … Highline's administration will function much better in terms of IT once they have this and it's working for them."
Students will have easier access to student information, Houser said.
"For our students, they have a centralized place where they can go -- it's called the student center -- where they can go and access things like their grades, financial aid packages, tuition costs, things like that," she said. "That's a very powerful tool for students."
Another benefit, according to Spokane, is that all the colleges will be able to easily talk to each other.
"There are 28 districts, 34 colleges, that right now really can't share information very effectively," Stevens said. "The systems are so specific to that college that we may talk in different terms or have things in different areas of the computer system."
It's labor intensive to move the information, Stevens said. With the new system, the process will be made much easier to share information between colleges.
"Also our ability as a system to know where students are at, what they're interested in, what they're enrolled in, what they're not interested in, so that we can adjust our programming, he said. "All that's very difficult right now and will be made so much easier with the common system that everybody's using."
Although all the community colleges being able to transfer data will be something native to the programing, it won't be new because work-arounds were implemented, Wrye said.
"Every individual in the system will have a single ID number throughout the state so if either a student or employee goes to another college their ID number will stay the same," he said. "In theory we're doing that now, but that was kind of a midstream change. So lots of people in the system right now multiple ID numbers."
No one is quite sure when the software will be rolling out, and any date is theoretical at this point, but Highline will be in the second wave and will not be one of next colleges to be updated.
"We're wave two, and I think the most realistic at this point is still probably a wave a year," Wrye said. "They've floated some other ideas but nothing has been solidly decided and that's where things kind of stand. Wave one probably has about three to four months' worth of work left so if they got to go in July they could potentially go in October 2017 -- this is all very loose theorization -- and then if wave two sticks to a similar schedule it would be around October 2018.
"That's my best guess but we can't say for certain until these things process through," he said.