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LionPATH Is Here To Stay Despite Student Outcry

It is no secret that project LionPATH, the recent replacement for eLion, has had a less than warm reception from Penn State students. Since its debut in the fall 2016 registration period, the software has garnered complaints about its lack of usability, confusing navigation, and dated appearance. This raises one question: Why spend 66 million dollars to replace eLion with LionPATH?

Michael Büsges is the director for the Enterprise Project Management Office at Penn State, and he’s responsible for overseeing the replacement of eLion with LionPATH. Since March 2013, Büsges and his team have worked to transition from ISIS, Penn State’s former student information system, to Oracle People Soft Campus Solutions, which provided the LionPATH software.

ISIS was built by Penn State in the early 1980’s, making the software more than 30 years old. While eLion may have been fine in the eyes of students, Büsges suggests that ISIS was a dated system overdue for replacement.

“There is no doubt that Penn State over the years has done a very good job to create eLion as the user interface for ISIS,” Büsges said. “I’ve used the metaphor that we created the body and the interior of a Mercedes (eLion) but that under the hood, the Mercedes is being powered by a 1985 Toyota Corolla (ISIS). Students only ever saw the Mercedes and not all the trouble we had to endure to keep it going.”

The challenge is maintaining a secure student information system rather than simply designing a user interface. When you have a homegrown software like ISIS, Penn State is responsible for keeping the software up to date and secure. Security is key to the development, as the software is not just a way for students to register for courses, but is also the backbone of administrative services like tuition billing, transcripts, and grades. Handling this sensitive information requires a high level of security.

The need for security in Penn State’s databases was underscored when Chinese hackers gained access to the College of Engineering network over the summer, affecting up to 18,000 students’ personal information as well as information regarding Penn State research for the Department of Defense.

Creating such a highly secure software becomes particularly challenging when dealing with an institution as large as Penn State. Though it may not be pretty, Oracle’s software was apparently the only product that could reliably meet the needs of Penn State’s 97,500 students and 5,600 full-time faculty members across 24 campuses.

“Oracle’s Campus Solution [LionPATH] was chosen because it is the only commercially available product that could readily scale to Penn State’s size and complexity; it is also a mature product that is used by over 600 institutions in the US, including six Big Ten schools, among them the Universities of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin who have been using this product since its earliest versions in the late 1990’s,” Büsges said.

The user interface of the software may not have changed much since the 90’s, but a new version of the software, set for release in 2017, offers some hope for modernization. Büsges explained that the new software will include “fluid” developer tools that will hopefully allow LionPATH to be updated to have a more modern interface. In the meantime, the LionPATH project developers are exploring all options to improve the software.

“There are options within the configuration set up of the self-service module that we have not fully explored, but that will give us the opportunity to streamline some of the navigation that seems to be confusing to some students,” Büsges said. “Additionally, we are talking to third-party vendors who are specifically focused on user interface on multiple platforms. Obviously, this would come at a cost, and I am committed to secure funding if we decide to pursue one of these vendors. The student voice is very helpful in moving this conversations along and set priorities for the administration.”

At least the developers are hearing student concerns now, but it would have been nice have these conversations throughout the development and integration of LionPATH.

“I understand the need to have a LMS [learning management system] that is secure, and I understand that for the school security is the top priority, but LionPATH’s user interface is totally unacceptable,” said Spencer McCullough, a junior in the College of IST and an independent web developer.

McCullough added that one of his classmates in IST 437 chose LionPATH for his “I Can Fix That” project. “Normally these presentations last about 10 minutes, but his lasted 30,” McCullough said. “The class could not help but express their opinions on how the system could be improved.”

McCullough also pointed out that his classmates wondered if the project team behind LionPATH conducted any student focus groups, concluding that the team was likely more concerned with the opinions of faculty members.

According to Project LionPATH’s Facebook page, the first student group tested the system on November 11, 2015. Beyond this though, there is no additional mentioning of student testing groups on either the Facebook page or the project blogThere is also mention of a student steering committee on the project website, but no mention of its members or its actual function.

“For students, it can be easy to feel like our concerns don’t carry much weight,” McCullough said. “Students are your user base though, and they need to feel that their input is valuable. Sure, if you put out a crappy registration system they’re still going to use it, but only because they have no other choice.”

You can’t blame students for being upset when a user-friendly system like eLion is replaced with a system that is confusing and was clearly designed in the 90’s. If students were given more input, perhaps administration would have been less confident in unveiling a system with such a dated front end.

Despite this, the development team for LionPATH, according to Büsges, has been very receptive to the student body’s concerns, giving hope for improvements to LionPATH in the future.

“We have, of course, been following student reaction on various social media and via email comments that we received directly, and have attempted to respond to the concerns expressed as quickly and as comprehensively, as possible,” Büsges said. “We fully understand that, in its current state, the user interface leaves something to be desired, and we already have begun looking into ways to enhance the experience while at the same time staying within the parameters of the delivered product.”

In other words, improvements for LionPATH’s insufferable user interface may be on the horizon. For now, we’re left with this equally terrible training video.

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