The University Record, July 3, 2000

Online registration via M-Pathways going smoothly

By Rebecca A. Doyle

LS&A first-year student Duncan Smith pores over the choices for his first U-M classes before registering for them using the new Web registration system. Smith and fellow students attending summer orientation sessions have been using the system to register since June 5 with relatively few snags. Most students have said they much prefer Web registration to the now defunct touch-tone telephone registration. Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle
One month ago, the University began registering new students online, bringing live another large piece of the M-Pathways Student Administration System.

While previously student data was kept in separate databases for financial aid, registration, curriculum and student financial records, the data is now available all in one place, sort of like a big vat of vegetable soup. M-Pathways allows access to the data by screening the users according to the functions they need and allows them to pick out certain pieces, permitting them to choose only the carrots or peas, for instance, instead of scooping out a mixed bowlful and having to separate out the unwanted vegetables.

More than 1,200 staff members were specially trained and ready to meet the challenge of using a new system to do their work. A special group of technologists were responsible for transferring the 65,000 student records. Long shifts and some sleepless nights contributed to the smooth and timely transfer of data, notes Linda Hancock Green, M-Pathways communications coordinator.

“Some staff are still working long hours to make sure everything is working correctly,” she said. “For the most part, students who have registered through Wolverine Access have been very happy with the results.” Students who are on campus for summer orientation sessions have been using online registration through Wolverine Access and Green has been collecting comments and suggestions from them. They also send her messages about trouble they have had with online registration or questions about their records, and these she sends to the central offices. Some of the suggestions and requests for improvements will be evaluated and prioritized and later incorporated into the system.

Green says that students currently are able to log in from anywhere in the world to register on the Web, dropping or adding classes for fall term and making last-minute changes to their summer class schedules. The week before Thanksgiving break, students will begin to use the Web-based system to register for winter term classes according to the appointment schedule that will be sent to them. The Web system has replaced touch-tone telephone registration, which is no longer available. The number of dial-in lines available to students for logging in and registering is nearly double the amount used for the telephone registration system, Green says. Students also can use on-campus computers that are connected to the Ethernet and do not require dial-in modems.

In preparation for the change to online registration, staff in all the schools and colleges, the Office of Financial Aid, Student Financial Operations and the Office of the Registrar as well as M-Pathways staff have all worked extremely hard, Green says. While the system changes appear to students only as a convenient way to register, the underlying system changes have taken a monumental amount of work to prepare and test.

“There are not many things the University has done that require this amount of cooperation,” says Thomas McElvain, university registrar. Some of the systems had been in use since the 1960s and had reached capacity for expansion, he adds. “Now we have a baseline system that does all the business processes we did under the old one, but it has the ability to grow. The potential for enhancement is enormous.”

Other universities that implemented Web-based registration had numerous problems, but the U-M’s effort seemed to be comparatively error-free. McElvain attributes this to the administrative commitment to “doing this in a way that made it possible to do it right, providing the resources that minimized the risk of failure.”

He also credits the Regents and the administration with the foresight to provide a backup system by upgrading the older software to be Y2K-compliant so that there would not be a rush to implement new systems without sufficient testing. That foresight, he believes, may be why other universities were not as successful in implementing the PeopleSoft system software for Web-based student registration.

The extra time allowed M-Pathways staff to look at other solutions and ultimately choose an interface to the student data that was different from but compatible with the PeopleSoft data system.

Last year, James Madison University reported serious difficulties with Web registration and shut down its system after only four hours of operation, prompting Gallaudet and Northwestern universities and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh—all of which had planned to implement the software soon—to put their plans on hold.

Other smaller universities and colleges had less trouble, according to John Gohsman, director of the student administration core process unit, who also is vice president of the higher education user group that has implemented at least some of the PeopleSoft system. “We are by far the largest university that has had so little trouble,” he says. He attributes the U-M success with M-Pathways to the long hours and dedication of many of the staff who “have made great personal sacrifices in this extraordinary effort. This is a level of commitment I have not seen, ever,” he adds.

In addition, the level of training established for end-users in student services procedures is unprecedented at the U-M. Gohsman notes that before M-Pathways was installed, staff members probably learned from someone at the desk next to them how to work with student data. Few classes and little formal training were available. Staff members have worked diligently to get up to speed on the new procedures, which Gohsman admits have taken effort to learn.

“But I think the learning curve will go way down as people move around and go into different parts of the software,” he says.

Provost Nancy Cantor and Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Robert Kasdin both noted that the successful implementation of the student administration system was a feat worthy of recognition.

“It has gone fabulously,” Cantor said. “It is a successful collaboration among the central offices, the schools and colleges, and decentralized units of which we can be very proud.”

Kasdin noted the relative silence surrounding the successful implementation. He observed that “this is a case of the dog not barking.”

Data conversion team members glad the hard part’s over

In a flood, fire or tornado, people gather together and form bonds that sometimes last a lifetime.

That’s the kind of relationship that Kortney Briske says developed between the team members who worked around the clock to test and implement the student administration system.

Hard work and worry were companions to the conversion team responsible for transferring 65,000 student records from the legacy system to the new M-Pathways system. But the excitement, friendships and results were worth the effort.

“There was a real sense of pride and camaraderie,” says Briske, systems project coordinator in the Office of the Registrar. “There was lots of stress, but seeing months of hard work happen for real was exciting. Many of these people will continue to work together, but some of the consultants have left. I’ve made some good friends I probably won’t see anymore.”

Briske was one of the leaders for the project that orchestrated more than 70 data conversion programs in the schools and colleges and other units when student data was moved from the old to the new system.

“We practiced the conversion four times, and the last three were around-the-clock,” he says. He and other leaders took turns catching naps in one of the offices while the process ran, awaking every hour when someone reported another piece had been completed.

Although the process was not without error, “things went very well,” Briske says. “Our most frequent problem was converting transfer credits. In some areas, we were trying to take data that had a variety of things and fit them into the new, very rigid system. There were about 4,000 errors that needed to be cleaned up manually.

“All the student data is transferred now, but we are still doing some cleanup. This summer and fall we will work to stabilize everything. We’re working on some more enhancements and looking at a schedule for fixes and enhancements,” he says.

Then what? Will the teams disband, having finished their work?

Oh, no, Briske notes. They are looking forward to implementing the human resource piece of M-Pathways, scheduled for next spring.

Law School staffer has high praise for new system

Although she says there are still a few frustrations, Katherine Gottschalk in the Law School’s financial aid office has high praise for the financial aid portion of the M-Pathways Student Administration System.

“We have been very pleased with how it has worked for us,” Gottschalk says. “We anticipated crises and got none. I didn’t expect it would go as smoothly as it did.” The merit-based portion of the M-Pathways financial aid software has been in operation since the beginning of June, and the need-based portion is scheduled to go live in February 2001.

Before the M-Pathways system, the Law School and several other units on campus operated their own systems of financial aid determination and disbursement. Now, they still will do that, but will access the centralized student data in order to perform those functions. That means Gottschalk and her staff will spend less time entering data.

One of the unforeseen “glitches” that Gottschalk notes is that her office can no longer change students’ addresses. She says that one student who did not have an address listed did not get her financial aid award as quickly as she would have because the system would not allow a direct deposit without an address in the database.

On the other hand, she says, the Law School might have had as many as three addresses for the same student—a problem that having a single, large, relational database eliminates.

“There’s no grumbling and groaning here,” she says. “The transition was extremely smooth and we are spending less time processing award payments.” Gottschalk admits that her staff is one used to change. Financial aid rules and regulations change often and “if you’re not good at change, you don’t stay in financial aid,”

But the best part of the new system, Gottschalk says, is the Help Desk.

“They are unbelievably helpful. There’s always some frustration when we haven’t figured out the things that we need to do, and sometimes we don’t even know where to look for things. But the staff at the Help Desk is cheerful, friendly and very helpful. I’ve just been completely impressed with those people. And they always get back to me with an answer the same day.”