LionPATH Executives Hear Student Concerns, But It’s Not Always That Easy
The idea for LionPATH started eight years ago when some administrators got together and decided Penn State needed a new student information system. Unfortunately, the rest isn’t exactly history.
A steering committee was put together and the first decision was one that would ultimately define the direction of the project throughout the changeover and implementation: rebuild or buy? After bringing in a consultant, they decided to buy.
“They analyzed and looked at what our business practices are and the pros and cons given our business processes and the complexity of the university, and considered which would be better, build or buy?” LionPATH communications specialist Kim Tremaglio.l explained. “Build would mean starting from scratch, picking a language, the whole bit, or they could buy a vendor product.”
The size, complexity, and other aspects of Penn State led the university to choose Oracle’s Peoplesoft Campus Solutions to replace eLion. eLion, which was hosted on ISIS, was outdated and running on a programming language called Natural, which according to LionPATH Project Director Michael Büsges, nobody even knows anymore.
Peoplesoft Campus Solutions was really the only viable option for the university — Büsges said after putting bids out no other system really compared to Oracle’s. Numbers only added to the product’s credibility, as 600 schools use the same Campus Solutions that runs LionPATH, including seven or eight Big Ten universities. The problem, however, is that the program itself is 15-years old.
“It looks exactly the same, [the other universities] have been on this for like 15 years,” Büsges said. “And I think that’s some of the stuff that’s biting us right now — that platform has been basically the same for about 10 years now.”
Büsges admitted that Penn State shied away from opportunities to customize the system and instead opted to go with LionPATH’s front-end (the navigation elements that students and parents see) as it came out of the box from Oracle. But it’s in this lack of customization that the system will be able to better hold up over time. If the university chose to take Peoplesoft Campus Solutions and completely customize it, it may as well have just built its own system. Updates from Oracle would have been essentially useless if Oracle programmers and techs couldn’t even recognize what they were looking at.
It’s similar to when you decide to jailbreak your iPhone or illegally download the Beta version of iOS 7 and then try to take it to the Apple store to get someone to help you with a glitch or other device problem. Apple employees, though geniuses, only know how to fix iPhone problems that arise from the native system. They’re not (technically) trained remedying jailbroken iPhones and won’t help you because you messed with their system.
Part of eLion’s issue was there was so much going on behind the scenes that the backend was a mess. So while Büsges says it’s slightly coming back to haunt those who implement and work on LionPATH that there’s minimal customization and therefore a user interface circa 2006, the system is much more sound, and will be for longer if they just play by the book.
“When you make the transition to a big system for the number of students and the number of programs and courses that are offered system-wide at Penn State, I think it was wise on our part actually to not make a lot of changes so that the energy we had could be focused on making sure that the functionality worked,” said Bonnie Benjamin, who is the team leader for LionPATH’s student aid department.
Büsges iterated that despite being a computer program, only five or six of the 50-plus people on the LionPATH team are IT programmers. The rest work with various aspects of student information to assure the system is doing what it needs to do for their department.
In LionPATH’s eight-year run from idea to implementation, the staff of 50 is a team of full-time employees who work day-in and day-out on LionPATH, even including some nights and weekends along the way. The LionPATH Steering Committee — which hopefully soon will get a student representative — has met on a weekly basis for the past eight years.
There are also a number of advisory committees, including one made up of eight or so students that gave feedback during implementation.
“Admittedly, we did not ask them, ‘Do you like it?’ or ‘Do you want to change it?'” Büsges said. “We showed [LionPATH] to them and said, ‘Does it work for you?’ and the students said yes.”
Part of what Benjamin finds fascinating is how students complained about eLion much in the same way they now do LionPATH. Back in the day (not a day I ever lived in, have you), students would complain incessantly about eLion and the difficulties and dysfunctions that system presented. Benjamin recalled students testing a new eLion page for a student aid function and giving feedback, saying, “We just really don’t like eLion.”
“The old system is never going to be as good as the day it goes away,” Büsges added.
That’s true with everything, people just inherently don’t like change. When you take something that you’ve been using for years and replace it completely, even if it’s the best system you’ve ever used, there’s going to be friction. And while, yes, some of the general student (and parent and teacher) complaints about LionPATH were just a factor of discomfort and change, the issues only built up from there.
All four of the LionPATH executives I spoke with are aware of how students feel about LionPATH — they weren’t afraid to tell me they’d read my column and even the resulting Facebook comments, but none of them tried to sweep the system’s problems under the rug.
“Don’t get us wrong, we don’t think it’s great either the way it is delivered,” Büsges said. “We know it’s maybe 10 years behind and that’s why we’re exploring now that we have a little bit of time to exhale.”
As for the user-interface update that Provost Nick Jones promised is coming in the spring, the executives aren’t exactly sure which way they’re going to go just yet. Büsges said they’re exploring options including building their own update or hiring a third-party to create one.
“We heard the outcry, we’re not deaf,” he said. “We’re not not listening.”
One of the biggest challenges the university faced in converting the entire student population over to the new system was transferring all of every student’s information. For some features that were noticeably absent like the degree audit (which is now supposedly live), the LionPATH folks had to wait until all of the information was completely transferred over to make the feature available, and even then not everything lined up.
Specifically with the degree audit, there are hundreds of exceptions and special options that an adviser or other university official had to specially enter that now have to be re-entered in order to make your degree audit accurate and complete.
“The audit was one of the most difficult pieces…the data could not be converted because the old eLion audit was also based on a third-party product that had a completely different logic than the new one so then we had to rebuild everything before we could convert that data,” Büsges said.
Similarly, the transcripts encapsulate an aspect of university history that has no place in the current system but must be made available for students who took a class years ago but may still need a transcript. The fact that STAT 200 used to have one less credit and CHEM 110 used to be CHEM 10 made things significantly more difficult, especially when multiplied by the millions of courses that need to be available for 8 million people who may need access to their Penn State records at some point.
With 600 other universities already using the Peoplesoft system, some of the problems that arose were to be expected, and the LionPATH executives planned and prepared to face those issues. It was the unforeseen problems that were a result of letting the masses loose into LionPATH that dug up the unanticipated difficulties.
Furthermore, Penn State’s implementation of LionPATH is one of if not the largest instillation of Peoplesoft ever, which leads to problems with shear numbers well as limiting opportunities for predictability.
“We’ve pushed this product in certain areas where nobody else has pushed it because the bigger schools that have it — Michigan and North Carolina — they aren’t as complex as we are because they don’t have 24 campuses,” Büsges said.
This came into play when it was time for admissions. With so many students applying to so many different campuses and setting their preferences, LionPATH had to be customized to serve the functionality in this regard that eLion did. Büsges said the university did its best but ultimately recreating the system led some to freak out over seemingly-low admissions numbers and over-invite to compensate.
“We built a monster and didn’t fully understand what the monster was,” he said. “This is not going to happen again this year.”
Importantly, Benjamin noted how it’s near-impossible to create an admissions algorithm that predicts how many offered students will attend, and this isn’t the first year there has been a panic over the size of the freshman class. The difference this time was that when the panic started, people went into LionPATH and got lost in the new system which compounded the problem. The blame, though, is not entirely eLion’s to bear.
Eight years of LionPATH being in the works means two full rotations of students going through their four years at Penn State, and even if they did give their opinions on the new system, a product that is going to be implemented long after they graduate doesn’t really mean life or death for them. Now that students are actually using LionPATH, the visual, user-interface issues are a little more prominent than the executives had anticipated.
“The user interface, I honestly didn’t realize that was going to be an issue, it was more about the technical, ‘this is how you do this’ in the new system and the ‘let’s educate,'” Tremaglio said. “Then when you continue to hear that this is an issue, we realized we needed to kind of huddle together and figure out how to communicate that and really listen and figure out the next steps on changing that.”
Ultimately, the folks who live and breathe LionPATH eight hours a day, five days a week (or more!) recognize that the new system isn’t perfect and students are having more problems than initially anticipated. It’s not just a friction to change that is making LionPATH users irate, and that’s where a lot of the frustrations arise from.
“When WebAccess went down it was our fault, when the phones went down it was our fault, I’ve even seen students try to appeal a parking tickets saying, ‘Well there was no parking because LionPATH let all these students in and now I have nowhere else to park,'” Büsges said.
But parking, he says is where he draws the line.
“No, we’re not taking the blame for parking!” he chuckled. Büsges, Benjamin, Tremaglio, and the other LionPATH executives working tirelessly to implement the new system get the concerns. They just seem to wish students would understand they’re not really trying to make our lives miserable.
Though I sympathize with them, I still think we deserved better.