(Extended version of paper for EUNIS 2001 conference.)
Abstract. There is an evident need for an integrated IS (information system) that would cover all aspects of university administration, even in conservative or traditionally oriented institutions. The experience in the Czech Republic, shows, however, that the concept of a real information system (UIS) is often misunderstood. People cannot sometimes resist the temptation of buying and running relatively cheap and simple systems. They fail to realize that they invested into mere interconnected database tables instead. Simple systems allow to save some data, sum up ECTS credits and print out reports and certificates conferring degrees. These limited functions can never satisfy broad needs of a university with thousands of students and teaching staff.
This paper suggests a different approach. The goal is to design and implement a system that would enable every member of the academic community to create data, to find out useful information, to communicate.
Our expertise was gained during the last two years when the IS of Masaryk University was developed. The system has over 20 thousand active users, 160 application packages, 100 thousand requests per day. It is an intranet system developed in house, fully based on WWW access, using Oracle database and open source tools).
The paper depicts the changes in university life as everyday usage of the IS by students, staff, university management and others shifts the institution towards the "information society". We shall first concentrate on the concept of "student-driven education" and the role of information technology in ambitious attempt to allow students themselves to fine-tune their degree programmes.
The second part of the paper describes the change of the university to a modern institution that is willing to co-operate. This is quite a new aspect in the Czech Republic where rivalty and obsolete competing is very common.
The system is being implemented step by step. From the first set of applications (Catalogue of Course Offerings), it increased its scope to approximately 160 applications. The applications comprise tools for "Lecturer" (20 applications), "Student" (10), "Catalogue of Course Offerings" (40), "Credit Control" (40), "Publications" (10), various tools for presenting information and communication applications (20). For details see "http://is.muni.cz".
The university consists of eight independent faculties, hundred of degree programmes and combined-studies degrees.
There are, however, subjects that must take into account the latest development in the fast-changing world, so that the graduates have a chance to get a good job. Computer science studies are the prime example. Universities may not be able to identify students' needs. Student-driven education is the answer to the problem.
Student-driven education allows students to select individual courses to form their profile. This way, students can fine-tune their degree programmes according to their current needs and also with respect to their ambitions for future. Especially those who indent to study more than one subject could benefit from this new approach. Traditional programmes hardly support interdisciplinary studies and give little flexibility, as the large majority of the courses are compulsory.
In the traditional approach, universities are in full control of available programmes and therefore directly guarantee their standards. Apart from the philosophical reasons, critics often see technical problems, which make implementation of the student-driven education rather difficult. Students' demand for courses can (and will) vary tremendously in every academic year: How could a university cope with such changeable desires? Uncontrolled individual programmes are nightmare for administrative and secretarial staff: Is this student eligible to carry on his studies in the next academic year? Is that student entitled to receive her master degree? All in all, the student-driven education is not easily accepted.
The real life proves that the above mentioned problems can only be overcome with a proper UIS. Once the current degree programmes are algorithmised and entered into UIS with assessment methods, the system then works perfectly and, rather paradoxically, enables student-driven education as well! Managing individual programmes by hand is impossible while it is not an issue any more with UIS.
Let us first concentrate on collecting students' requests, or demand if you like, for courses for the next semester:
Before the next semester starts, heads of departments and deans of faculties agree on time schedules for pre-registration and registration (it also gives a time period when students can make changes). The pre-registration is a period when student choose courses and fill their requests. This is all computerized, requests are time stamped for obvious reasons (the high demand for popular courses must be sorted on "first come first served" basis).
Lecture timetables are created, reflecting the pre-registration and minimizing time collisions. The individual plans are checked and approved by registrar departments. Formal registration take place after that. Students are allowed to make changes, isually during the first two weeks of the term, either because of their timetable (they cannot attend 2 different lectures at the same time) or other reasons (esp. if they were not impressed by the lecturer or the first lecture implies the course is far too easy or difficult).
Students cannot register all courses just according to their desires. Sometimes, one must meet certain criteria, to be able to attend lectures and sit exam:
IS MU is very busy during the pre-registration period. The system has to record all requests, check if applicants are eligible for courses, eliminate excess demands and keep an eye on changes. IS MU keeps list of formally registered courses for each student. In the near future, we would like to incorporate another, fully computerized feature so that IS MU is able to tell whether a particular student is entitled to receive a degree in, say, Informatics or in English Literature. Unfortunately, the algorithm allowing this is extremely difficult to work out. Extensive co-operation with people involved in developing "traditional" degree programmes at the faculties will produce the result eventually. IS MU would then fully support student-driven education.
Standardized and computerized pre-registration and registration procedures open up great opportunities for bright students. They can choose almost any of the 10 thousand courses offered by the MU. In theory, students could register for various courses before the time of IS MU but there were enormous adminstrative barriers. Fortunately, during the time of UIS startup, the students departments had to go through the degree programmes and offerings of other faculties and had the final say on which courses can be suitable for which kind of students. Clearing up the rules raised interest among the students in extending their education.
As stated above, the concept of student-driven education, allowing individual multi-disciplinary degree programmes, is not terribly popular, esp. among administrative and secretarial staff. There were doubts at Masaryk University whether students want to work harder and whether they would accept the responsibility for their programmes. The pre-registration proved that the number of such students is slowly increasing. IS MU is also capable of comparing how open-minded various registrar departments are to multi-disciplinary studies. The system also helps to psychologically increase "the rate of their openness".
The system can encourage students if the Catalogue of Course Offerings provides a complete list with details. This is a big "if" as there will always be lecturers or tutors ignoring IT! It might take some time before they realize IT helps people communicate and this way they can save both their own time and attract students interested in their lectures.
The real student-driven education will take a while to be fully accepted and implemented. Multi-disciplinary degree programmes might need another 5 or 10 years to develop. Still, there are signs that some faculties are on the right way: they consider possibilities of a few basic packages of courses for students from different faculties (including certificates conferring success in exams).
MU is located in a number of buildings shattered all over the city of Brno. Communication, therefore, is a big problem. It should not come as a surprise that even representatives of faculties do not know one another sometimes. IS MU recognized the needs for communication and implemented them. The most essential characteristics are:
Other IS MU application that brings faculties together is able to transform various documents in MS Office format and present them on the web so they are readable for everyone. A dedicated server stores important documents, like meeting notes, various regulations, agreements and other documents. One can thus immediately compare the work being done at different faculties. Both, conscious and unconscious comparisons of students' departments, teaching staff or teaching & learning methods that every IS MU user can make is the driving force behind progressive improvements of each department. The force is apparent even in faculties that are less IT-oriented: if others can do it why are we behind? IS MU contributes to various aspects of university life, even in areas that are not its top priority.
Therefore, one of the main objectives of every university must be to provide students with proper education of the best possible kind. Some say: "How does UIS fit in? Aren't you just moving bits & bytes and promoting bureaucracy? Aren't you asking too much of staff members who should rather concentrate on lectures and tutorials?" We believe that these questions arise from prejudice against computer networks.
Admin departments and management are dependent on UIS, students benefit from available information provided thanks to the contribution of the teaching staff (e.g. students can access the detailed Catalogue of Course Offerings, they can enroll for courses, register for exams or receive group E-mail messages of their lecturers). From the above questions one could get the wrong impression that UIS is not terribly useful for lecturers or tutors themselves. And yet, lecturers and tutors are the "key" users who make UIS a better product. IS MU provides useful applications for them as well. Probably the most popular one is the group E-mail facility (university staff can easily target various groups of students) as well as the students' database with recent photographs.
Let us now mention 3 examples of features for students, hardly possible without IS MU:
From the point of view of MU's management department, IS MU brought two new services:
Everyone has already come across the word "Internet". If the scared people are encouraged and motivated, they will put some effort into understanding the basics of UIS. The knowledge gained will serve them very well. They will be able to work with usual applications and experience pleasure from surfing all the World Wide Web system, not just one particular UIS.
On the other hand, people who are comfortable with computers will find IS MU user friendly and easy to master.
Our experience shows us that students have no problems with computer literacy. They are usually well prepared from secondary schools and the level of their knowledge is getting better every year. Two years passed from the implementation of IS MU and the majority of the first-year students are familiar with email and the Web. Another, rather positive, by-product of IS MU is the fact that four thousand students of the faculty of pedagogy (or in other words, four thousand future teachers) are aware of benefits that IT can offer both to admin departments and to educational purposes as well. Real life experience with IS MU is by far the best. We hope that they will promote the main principles in secondary and basic schools.
The two-year experience with IS MU shows that IT is becoming more popular even among the teaching staff specializing in humanities. User-friendly applications of IS MU helped them build up confidence and a number of them started to exploit IT for education purposes. Communication thanks to email, presentation on their web-sites or sharing interesting URL are the most popular ones.
There will soon be a need for another feature of UIS: distant lifelong education/degree programmes. Web-sites and CD ROMs are to take over traditional teaching methods.
The traditional universities of Eastern European type are very complicated institutions. Elected management cannot "bully" lectures and scientists to use UIS. This would be very foolish and contra-productive. The management staff should promote UIS patiently in every possible way, pointing out the benefits and opportunities for all its users. This should be a part of every university's long term policy. To be able to take the full advantage of UIS, the system must be "sensible", everything must be in good proportion. What is the point of incorporating clever algorithms, professional graphics, or having superb computer network and most recent web applets if data supplied into the system are incomplete or wrong? The most recent information must be fed into UIS, which is the main goal. It is possible but only when every UIS user manages data that fall to his responsibility. Positive motivation is essential. Students, lectures, tutors, everyone must be persuaded about the benefits of UIS for then. They must understand that UIS is not only for the management. Then they will be willing to contribute and co-operate, even when it comes to collecting data or statistics for management themselves.
Designing and implementing UIS is a tough challenge. Not everyone appreciates your work. It would be wrong to pretend that IS MU runs smoothly and has had no problems with the described methodology. And our task is still not finished. Nevertheless, we have reached a phase when the benefits of the system are visible. Our time and effort put into IS MU pay dividends.
Head of Computer Systems Unit and Head of IS MU Project
Iva Hollanová, Miroslava Misáková, Jan Pazdziora
IS MU Project
Faculty of Informatics