Student Affairs Technology

How a simple web service saved 1,500+ hours of student time

It may only be February, but graduation is already on the minds of many of us in higher education.  It’s an exciting time for our graduating seniors, and a lot of work for us in Student Affairs who do the “behind the scenes” work to make these events run smoothly.

At CSUN, we have an annual event in March called “GradFest” that supports Commencement.  GradFest is an event where students who have applied to graduate can learn everything they need to know about graduation, visit with vendors to purchase a cap and gown, class ring, and so on.  The annual CSUN graduate population is made up of thousands of students, so as you might imagine, this is a large event to plan from a logistical standpoint.

A big part of GradFest is to check that students have indeed applied to graduate – that is, they are “on the list.”  Prior to 2013, this was accomplished by students waiting in a line, where they were manually matched by staff in our Office of Student Involvement and Development to a long list of students who had a) met the criteria to walk and b) applied to graduate.  If students were on that list, they were checked off and sent to a second set of lines where they could purchase their regalia (more on that in a moment).  At this point, you may be asking yourself “why does that first line exist to begin with?”  Great question.  In the distant past (10+ years ago), we had situations where students who had not applied to graduate and were not in fact eligible to walk, purchasing regalia and walking.  Implementing this simple cross-check virtually eliminated the case of the “phantom graduate.”  The downside is that this check was done manually with a paper list, and that takes time.

Many of you who are front-line with students probably already see the other issue.  At any event hosting thousands of students, you’re bound to have some standing in line who – for whatever reason – should not be there because they haven’t done what they were supposed to do.  After waiting in line for as much as an hour, these students find out that they aren’t on the list and need to visit the registrar to sort things out.  They’re not able to move forward and order the most visible artifacts of a graduate, so at this point they’re likely to be upset.

As a web technologist, I saw this situation and thought of ways that we could use web services to simplify event logistics.  One of our big GradFest vendors brings in over fifty of their own computers that are connected to the Internet, so students can easily browse their online store and buy or reserve their regalia.  I thought:  “What if my team could build a simple web app that calls a web service whose sole purpose is to say whether or not a student is on the list?”  If we could do that, then all we’d have to do is present this web page on a browser of the vendor’s computers.  This would not only completely eliminate a line, we’d also free up many hours of professional staff time.  An added side-benefit is that those students who were not on the list would not be quite as upset when told they needed to visit the registrar.  A five-minute wait beats an hour-long wait hands down!

To make this happen, my team had to do four things:

  1. Add to our data warehouse the list of students who had successfully met the criteria to graduate and had successfully applied to participate in their graduation ceremony.
  2. Build a web service that a) verifies a student is in the warehouse, and b) returns a simple “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” value.
  3. Build a bare-bones web app that authenticates a student using their CSUN user id and password.  After authenticating the user, the app invokes the web service and presents appropriate messaging to the student, i.e. “Congratulations…” or “We’re sorry, but…”
  4. Document the process.

Some of you may be asking yourselves:  “Hey Paul, web services have been in general use for over a decade in the larger world.  What’s so special about your implementation?  It sounds super simple.”  And you’d be right to ask that question.  What makes our implementation so special is that waaaay back in 2013, this was the very first production implementation of a web service at CSUN that I’m aware of…and it took us less than two weeks to build!  Once we implemented this simple proof of concept, the vast potential that web services and APIs enable became very real for us.  By making clearly defined data available to applications, we opened up some pretty amazing possibilities.

Ok, so what were the specific successes and issues we experienced?

The successes were dramatic and obvious:

  1. Eliminated a line, saving students 1,500+ hours of time standing in line
  2. Saved professional staff 50+ hours of time manning the line, freeing them up to provide high-touch event services for those students who really needed them
  3. Built a practical proof-of-concept that worked exactly as expected and demonstrated the power of web services
  4. Added a table to our data warehouse containing an always up-to-date list of students who can participate in graduation ceremonies.
  5. Created excitement among our developers around web services and APIs

The issues and challenges we experienced are real, but tend towards the philosophical.  For many processes and services on this campus – and I suspect any campus – simply putting your information into a database is a big step forward.  Add a web interface, and you’re talking rocket science!  Ok, I’ll cop to a little hyperbolic license there, but it is fair to say that some people who benefit from a database-powered application tend to get, shall we say, protective of their data.  This human issue almost inevitably leads to data balkanization, more often referred to as silos.  Another issue when implementing web services is that higher ed administrators and even some IT folks are used to thinking about applications in the traditional sense, and don’t give much – if any – time to thinking “a layer above” their application. There are almost always ways in which data and applications can be made useful beyond their original intended purpose.  I believe that strategically thinking about how we make connections between our data and services is the future of technology in Student Affairs.  In short, Student Affairs is a platform.  More on that in another post…

In a few weeks, I look forward to seeing CSUN students use our little app at GradFest.  In a few months, when I attend graduation and hear pomp and circumstance, I’ll know that I and my team had some small hand in making this process just a little bit easier for our students and the staff who support their success.

Good luck to everyone in this 2014 graduation season!


Student Affairs Technology

EDUCAUSE Student Affairs Constituent Group Meeting

Title:  Student Affairs Constituent Group

Facilitator:  David S. Sweeney, Director for Information Technology in Student Affairs at Texas A&M


David got us started by talking about some of the tasks this group wants to take on in 2013 – 2014

First up:  compiling a list of Student Affairs-related commercial software tools.  David was going to send out a survey asking for this, but hasn’t gotten around to doing this just yet.  He found out that EDUCAUSE has a database tool that does this.  Paul said he would assist David with this.  Perhaps this list / data repository can become a good resource for all of us?

Next:  what kind of IT-related things have surfaced this year within SAIT departments and/or Student Affairs?  David created a list of these things, and talked briefly about the EDUCAUSE “Horizon Report” – two of the items on David’s list are on the EDUCAUSE list.  Readers:  go look at the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to do that 🙂

…and the list, please…

  1. SoMe, a.k.a Social Media
  2. Explosion of tablets / BYOD (i.e. how do we support them?  How do we manage secure information on those devices?)  Do we go with permissive or restrictive models?
  3. Emergency reporting and the “dear colleague” letter (Title 9 sexual assault and reporting).  What mechanisms do we have for reporting these and OCR reports?
  4. Student Analytics, i.e Purdue’s “Signals” product.  How do we take that data and incorporate it into other datasets.  How do we count participation in particular events?  Texas A&M is using swipe cards for events to build up a co-curricular portfolio.
  5. Student Learning Outcomes and Co-Curricular Portfolio


In no particular order, we talked about the following stuff…my apologies to attendees for not capturing everyone’s thoughts!


There was some discussion about who IT reports to within Student Affairs.  Oddly, I’m the only one who reports directly to the VP of Student Affairs.  We also talked about centralized versus decentralized IT services.


It’s official:  student analytics is the hot topic of the year!

How many of us actively collect assessment data?  About five out of the 18 attendees are.  Assessment data collection by Student Affairs on many of our campuses is quite rigorous.  On some campuses, this effort was initially looked upon as a burden.  Many use the CampusLabs product (StudentVoice, Baseline, etc.).  Student Affairs clearly is clearly a leader in this space, but our ability to demonstrate the value of our data is spotty, and integration of this data appears to be a long way off in most cases.  I recently blogged about exactly this topic in this post:  “Should Co-Curricular Activities Contribute to Academic Early Warning Systems?”

University of Montana talked about being at “level two” of this process.  David asked a question:  are you running demographics analysis against this information?  Answer:  recently, yes.

University of Toronto pulls their assessment data into Oracle and use it to populate a co-curricular transcript (this sounds very cool).

There appears to be a general problem most of us face:  getting people to create / manage a data warehouse and do the data extraction!  Some campuses have invested in Crystal Reports and have built student data warehouses.  Where does the responsibility lie for doing this?  Should we educate others in our division so they can do it themselves?  One answer provided (sorry, can’t remember your name!) said that creating a department that professionally studies and manages assessment data has worked for them.  This is not a department of one, either, which was very encouraging to hear.

Texas A&M has a new (about 12 months old) student success department that analyzes data.

FERPA was mentioned by some in attendance as a perceived barrier for use of student data for analytics and reporting purposes.  This perception seems to vary from campus to campus.  FERPA is in fact NOT a barrier when it’s used by people who have a day-to-day business need for it.  Some campuses have data ownership “issues” that need to be overcome.

Paul talked briefly about how he met with LinkedIn CEO at Web2.0 conference about four years ago to talk about developing a service to generate a standardized format for co-curricular transcripts that could be easily imported into a student’s professional profile.  There was interest in this, but there was agreement that there isn’t one well-defined standard.  Maybe our group can think about what kinds of information should be in that kind of profile?  A number of great suggestions were made about taking advantage of Career Services’ expertise with what employers are currently looking for.


This group could undoubtedly have gone for a couple hours, but it was lunchtime so we reluctantly had to break.  There was consensus among the group to contribute to our constituent list serve, which can be found here:  Let’s get cracking, SAPros!

Student Affairs Technology

Should Co-Curricular Activities Contribute to Academic Early Warning Systems?

I was reflecting recently on some of the things that puzzle me about Student Affairs.  One of those things is related to the strategic use of web technology on my campus…I’ll get to that part in a minute.

In February 2013, Dr. Vincent Tinto visited CSUN and gave a presentation with the title “Student Success Does Not Arise By Chance.”  He had a number of very interesting things to say about student success, one of them related to academic early warning systems.  Bottom line:  the earlier you can identify a student who is having trouble, the better.  The sooner we can positively intervene, the more likely that student is to persist.  No surprise there.  He went on to talk a bit about how our friends on the academic side of the house have tools with measurable inputs to help them flag students who might fit the “at risk” category.  One measurable input includes class involvement via in-class discussion, LMS participation, or some other measurable way.  Of course, faculty are also able to tell at-risk students by changes in appearance, disruptive behavior, spotty attendance, etc.

My question to Dr. Tinto was this:  “What are the best examples you have seen of incorporating co-curricular signals into early warning systems?”  To my astonishment, his response was that he was not aware of any such systems.  This is something that I’ve been advocating for many years, but with little success.  I think that one challenge is that many of us view our own departments without respect to how they interact with all the other areas on campus (notwithstanding the high-profile collaborations that exist on every campus).  Another challenge that I think we face is that our systems tend to be built to support the needs of our own discrete processes, without considering how the information within our system may be useful to other areas on campus.  I’m sure you’re already thinking:  Student Affairs has hundreds of quantifiable indicators we could use to identify students who may be at-risk.  And of course, you’d be right.

We all know that mere participation in activities with like-minded students – whether it’s a student/academic club, a living learning community in campus housing, student government, you name it – is positively correlated with retention and student success.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as part of a student’s co-curricular transcript, we could see what activities they’re involved with?  More importantly, could we not also use these very same indicators – or more correctly a lack of them – to proactively prevent students from falling into the at-risk category before they get anywhere near the danger zone?

One of the things I’m passionate about is using web technologies to build web applications and services that connect students to people and other services.  My department’s mission statement is simple:  build user-friendly, student-centric online services.  We’ve built plenty of stand-alone systems, but standalone systems are a bit like a computer that isn’t connected to the Internet…pretty useful for word processing, spreadsheets, and singe-player gaming, but ultimately kind of lonely and a little boring.  Start connecting to other systems, though, and things get interesting pretty fast.  For example:  if we know what a student’s major is, why not recommend a related club they can join, or expose that information to our career centers so they can automagically show them internships and job opportunities within their major?  How about tying those same internships and opportunities to our friends in Advancement and their database of successful alumni?  Could we recommend upcoming campus events that might interest students?  If we know what a student’s GPA is (and it’s high enough), why can’t we proactively recommend participation in student government when a senate seat from their college is open?  With the focus on assessment and measurement of learning outcomes, we have a rich trove of data on which to draw (most of which is sadly locked away in disparate repositories).  I’m sure you recognize the functionality I’m talking about:  it’s a simple recommendation engine.  If you use Netflix, you already “get” what this is about.  This idea gets really powerful if we can connect it to our academic warning systems…

Being around people who share the same interests and passions as we do is extremely powerful.  It fires us up, gets us excited about what we do, and helps make our lives more fulfilling.  Why wouldn’t we want to “bootstrap” these kinds of experiences for our students?  The good news is that it isn’t that hard, it just requires us to think a little beyond our immediate system and process needs, and consider how we can leverage our information in other, often unexpected areas.

What do you think?  Has somebody already done this somewhere and I’m just not aware of it?  Hit me up on “the twitter” @paulschantz or leave a comment below.  I look forward to hearing from you!


Student Affairs Technology Uncategorized

The Edward Snowden Affair: A Teachable Moment for Student Affairs and Higher Ed

The erosion of our collective privacy has been going on for a very long time.  Most of us are (sometimes grudgingly) comfortable with the exchange of our personal information for useful products and services.  The biggest problem most people seem to have with the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program is that it can and does gather digital information about everyone, and can use it at any time for any reason.  The fact that a relative “schlub” in the organization can access and use that information is one of the main points Snowden’s whistleblowing meant to get across.  This got me thinking about how we use data in higher education.

In higher ed, we’ve been collecting lots of data for a long time, and we’re bound by law (FERPA, HIPAA, etc.) to protect and retain student data.  Our student information systems have detailed security policies outlining granular role-based access, aka which employees get to see which student information.  These policies are generally structured on a “need-to-know” basis.  Here’s my two-part question to the reader:  first, how many of us in higher ed have articulated a policy about the data we collect on our students and how we use it?  Second – and more importantly – how many of us have published such a policy that has been specifically drafted for our students?

Every Student Affairs professional I know wants to use data to help our students be successful.  When properly applied, it’s a boon to our profession.  It helps us determine our students’ interests so we can help them choose an appropriate degree program.  We know this reduces both time to graduation and major changes.  Data helps us identify clubs, affinity groups, and other co-curricular activities our students can participate in.  We know that co-curricular activity participation increases retention, especially among first and second year students.  In our day-to-day jobs, we regularly use student data to determine satisfactory academic progress, GPA, eligibility to vote in student elections, reporting of all kinds, and so on.  With the move toward self-service web applications, we’re increasingly presenting data to our students and shifting more decision-making responsibility onto their shoulders.  This is a great opportunity for us to educate students on how we use data to help them, while increasing transparency about their data’s use.

In my opinion, that last bit about transparency is the key element for higher education. There are no shortage of articles about “big data” tools and how organizations use them for competitive advantage (whatever that means).  However, the tools themselves don’t address the more fundamental nature of how we “connect the dots” between disparate data points.  We should inform our students how we use their information so they can make better choices.  We should teach our students how they can use this information to their advantage.  We should help students understand that they are the masters of their own data.  In the same way that provides insight into how we spend our money, our student data should provide insight that lets students thoughtfully determine where they should spend most of their effort.

What do you think?

Student Affairs Technology

#SATechCali2013 – or “How to Set Up an Unconference” – Part 1

I love keeping up with the latest trends in Internet technology.

One event I used to attend was the O’Reilly Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. The breadth of this now “on hiatus” conference was huge and unmatched by any higher ed conference I’ve seen thus far. Where else could you see the biggest names in Internet technology lay out some of the coolest ideas and world-changing work they do? The scrappy startups – some of which made their homes just blocks from Moscone Center – were always there too. Whether it was Werner Vogels from Amazon talking about what it really means to make a data center have “six nines uptime,” or Amy Jo Kim and Buster Benson talking about creating better user experiences through the ethical use of gamification techniques, or talks about “big data” and data visualization, it was a fantastically valuable experience. It gave me all kinds of ideas about things I could do “back home.” What I actually brought back from those conferences and implemented is a topic for another post 😉

The excitement of conference ideas was difficult to convey to my colleagues, much less implement…many ideas were simply years ahead of what most folks were ready to think about. To be fair, some people in higher ed actually do think and write about some of these ideas. The difference is that the people at Web 2.0 were actually DOING them at “web scale.” I began thinking about how I could convert some of these big ideas into something practical and useful for my colleagues who are lifelong Student Affairs professionals.

That’s when I hooked up with Ed Cabellon from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts ( and Joe Sabado from UC Santa Barbara ( Ed successfully put on a couple of “unconferences” (see and for more info), and Joe was interested in setting up such an event on the West Coast. An unconference is in many ways like a meetup; I’d been to a few of those before, and they were all great. After a few emails back and forth about the kinds of things Joe and I would need to do to put on a successful unconference, I did a Google+ Hangout “call” with Ed. It was immediately obvious that this was exactly the kind of thing I needed to do.

As you can imagine, there are a ton of details to attend to, but I think Joe and I are up for it! What I can say for certain is that it will be held at CSUN in early June 2013, and it will have a lot of great, practical ideas about technology that you can take back to your campus and use right away. More to come!

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