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Replacing a Disability Services ACCESS System

This case study looks at how one institution had tried but failed to improve their disability services systems. Until they found StudentRelate.

In the disability services department we started to have difficulties providing senior management with the statistics and reports they needed. In the beginning it was just a matter of getting the HESA return done and correct, but gradually the reporting workload started to increase to the point where we felt that the service was suffering because of the reporting demands of others.

Manual systems

We could use Excel for doing the arithmetic work but it took a huge amount of time to get the data from the students' paper files.  It was a matter of getting files out of the filing cabinet, reading the details, then putting them into categories by counting the piles of files to get the statistics to put into Excel. When this was completed it was then an hour or two putting the files back.

We had for some time had student data on our PCs, so those of us who had access to the Registry system could see some of the student data. It was clear that having student data on the screen was the best way to share it.

As you deal with each student, however, you need to keep track of what has been said so that a colleague can get the background before offering help to an individual in the future. We discussed this with our IT support person and he said that Registry would not be suitable for that, and what we wanted would be easy to build using ACCESS.   

Building a system in-house

Our IT support person introduced us to a graduate student who was willing to work on the system very cheaply as he needed the money.  He got part of the system done but the job was bigger than he had expected. At the end of that summer he had a change of plan and moved to another university. What he left behind looked like a good start in solving our problem.  Our IT support people were fully committed to helping but although they had ACCESS skills they could not get free of other projects to actually do our work.

They put is in touch with an ACCESS programmer who worked freelance and although he was expensive we thought we would have our ideal solution for less than £15,000. As the months went by it was plain that he too had underestimated the number of things we needed to do the job. So we had to spend more to complete the work. By the time we had spent £25,000 the system was looking quite useful. We decided to start using the system as planned.

Clunky usage

In fact, many of the functions we needed were not easy to use in practice. They did what we asked for but nobody had anticipated the amount of pressure there would be to work quickly, especially when a student is sitting with you and you are making notes.  The best way to describe it was that it was 'clunky'.  What was very annoying, and something which we had not anticipated, was that saving emails as part of the students' service details required too many steps and mouse clicks.  We became disillusioned as we had expected to make time savings compared to the old paper system.  

In the beginning it was a benefit to see student data on a PC screen in a form of our design. This was a major improvement over using the Registry system to view the same info. We had several standard reports programmed for us and that was a big improvement, but we were always being asked for new reports that were not part of the system and we had to pay the ACCESS programmer to come back. Every year this was costing thousands of pounds.

The ACCESS system did give us the benefit of shared working and we could save notes following meetings and phone calls, so the need for an audit trail was partially satisfied but the lack of emails was a problem. The suppliers of the Registry system suggested to our IT support people that we should use the Registry CRM module as a place to store student disability information. It was worse than the ACCESS system in terms of ease of use, so we decided to invest more in the ACCESS system and used it for another year.  

Need to change

We talked to colleagues who were members of NADP and posted some questions on JISC. Someone had seen StudentRelate demonstrated at the NADP conference and liked it.  Several people who used the system said they were very happy with it and had found it easy to use and very flexible in preparing statistical returns. We visited one university that had been using the system for a few years. They had recently had a threat of a law suit and had been able to provide the whole student history by lunch time of that first day. (Other areas of student services took two weeks and even then could not assure senior management that they had the whole story.)  

What made the decision easy was the fact that the StudentRelate system worked with Outlook, so saving emails was a matter of a single click.  We then found out that our ACCESS programmer couldn't borrow that idea and make it work in our old system, so we really had to move on.  With hindsight we wasted a lot of money on ACCESS, initially thinking it would be cheap, but in fact it cost far more than StudentRelate and it did far less. 

Current system

The StudentRelate people were very helpful, linked their 'Maximizer' database to the Registry database so everything was up-to-date every day. They showed us how to set up new data fields and new screen views to see the student data in different ways for different purposes. Preparing new reports saved a lot of money because we could do that ourselves. The best way to describe the system is that it is 'intuitive'. You need to think about how you set up the data and you do need to have training in the beginning but when new people join, they can do all the basics after about half a day sitting with an experienced user.

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