Adult Education

Online enrolment system.

Community Colleges

The challenge

Community colleges in Australia run as businesses, and face challenges in addition to those shared by others in the service industry. They must attract students to participate in their short courses. They must also face the daunting task of running and scheduling courses. The larger colleges manage thousands of courses and over 25,000 enrolments per year.

The business of supplying short courses demands that students be attracted, and this means competing with a multitude of leisure activities in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Naturally, colleges desire to extend the reach of their marketing efforts.

Facing these challenges requires the employment of administrative staff, the production and distribution of catalogues many colleges produce several hundred thousand magazines per year and reliance upon mail and telephone communication channels with students.

Colleges need to compete for the attention of students, so their web presence has to be attractive and professional. Budgets are tight, so their administrative costs need to be low. An answer to their requirements would have to provide good value for money, and be able to work with their existing systems. ish group could provide this answer.

The solution

ish’s response began with a single college Sydney Community College. Through a series of meetings, their needs were distilled into a list of requirements, and the final system began to take shape.

They needed a system that could talk to their existing administrative database, which was developed on a mid-range enterprise platform. It already handled enrolments, monitored tutors, tracked student details, and even did their payroll. They needed the new system to allow them to grow, and keep a lid on administrative overhead. Mail and telephone enrolments are expensive and cumbersome, so an expanding college would greatly benefit from the bulk of their enrolments being done online.

They needed a system that could provide a highly reliable web service for students to browse the courses on offer, giving them the option to quickly enrol whenever they wish. They needed a web presence that was professionally and attractively designed, doing justice to the quality of the services they provide: the importance of usability and appeal to intuition cannot be overstated.

And finally, they wanted to easily exploit new marketing channels such as e-mail and SMS messaging to keep interested students informed of college activities and new opportunities.

The system was developed, and ish delivered. Not surprisingly, other colleges have similar needs, and were eager to have similar systems put in place. A number of colleges who share the same office administrative system now each have a customised version of the web enrolment system, giving them the flexibility to operate in their own style.

What constitutes such a system? Too much to describe here, but a number of features stand out.

  • An option to include a template for adding static content, and an access point for users to add contents making it easy for authorised non technical people to change a web page. For example, contact information can be easily changed by college administrators, without the hassle of going through complex technical routines.
  • Course tutors have their own profiles. Right now, they can modify details and propose new courses, while new features are under development.
  • Similarly, students have individual profiles. They can enter and change their contact details and preferences, view their enrolment status, and provide feedback amongst a wealth of other options.
  • Colleges regularly run promotions and offer discounts on some courses. If a student enters a discount code mentioned in a promotion, the enrolment fees that student sees will change, showing the extent of the discount.

  • The communication of course information can be done quickly and easily by SMS message or e-mail, using an interface developed by ish and added to the colleges existing office system. A course tutor can inform students of time or venue changes, and college staff can use the channel for targeted marketing campaigns. Here now is a cost effective opportunity to finely control the reach of college marketing.

Technical architecture

Of course, none of these features would be possible without good technical architecture. Here are the essentials:

  • A standards compliant, Flash free set of web pages form the shell that holds the data. These pages were customised to suit each college’s corporate image, and were professionally designed to place an attractive face of a college on the web.
  • A powerful MySQL database acts as the data repository for the web site, and stores the details displayed within. MySQL has a very open architecture, so moulding it to specified requirements was both simple and cost effective.
  • Apple Computer’s WebObjects application development environment was chosen to provide a back-end framework. This system processes enrolments, confirmations, billing, and the plethora of other administrative tasks that allow for a smooth end user experience. As a J2EE compatible system, WebObjects has proved its worth many times over in heavy-duty applications. Apple’s iTunes Music Store is one example; a web site that has so far processed over 200 milion transactions without a hitch. WebObjects’ excellent developer tools and libraries gave ish the means to produce a simple and expandable application founded solidly upon object oriented principles.
  • A good working relationship was established with SecurePay, and an interface to their system was embedded in the application. Credit card transactions can therefore be processed in real time.
  • Finally, a superset of XML called XML-RPC is used to communicate with the colleges’ existing administrative systems. A college’s staff can enter or change data in their office system, and the changes will propagate immediately to the web site over the internet. When students enrol and tutors update details on the web site, changes will propagate straight away to the office system. The two systems can operate completely independently, and yet are intimately linked. As a result, courses cannot be over enrolled.

Each web sites graphic design is managed by ish, and while the look depends on the college, the underlying directive is constant: make it smart, original and a pleasure to use.

The web sites and applications are hosted on ish’s own co-located servers, running the famously stable FreeBSD operating system; an open source, UNIX-like environment renowned for its reliability under stress, strict adherence to standards, speed and security. Maximum availability was required, and again ish found the best solution, to match the powerful applications the servers were to run. The database is replicated across servers in real time, giving it the reliability of full redundancy.

The story does not end here: extensibility gives the colleges great opportunities to expand their online services.

The result

Their online presence has given the community colleges greater reach than even ish had anticipated; up to 70% of student enrolments are now done online. The software systems used in development moulded a modular, simple and highly extensible solution that will benefit the colleges for years to come. It will grow as they grow.

Tight budgets remained intact: there was no need to replace existing technology, no need to re-train staff, and no need to fix an already working operation.

The students have welcomed the ability to enrol outside office hours, and to look after their own personal details.

The savings on administration and personnel costs alone justify the initial investment. Other gains, and there are some already being realised, will mean that the system repays its cost many times over.