Rich Pickett, the director of administrative information services at the University of San Diego (USD), had a paper problem.
Instead of helping students and their parents, the financial services department was inundated with financial assistance packages that approached nearly 16,000 individual offers by the time the last envelope left the office.
Each individual offer, Pickett said, could include between two and 10 additional pieces of documentation, depending on the financial need and standing of a particular student.
Paper cuts and headaches were becoming more common in a department that really needed to be interacting with students, Pickett said.
"Our staff would print a form and on that form it would say they needed more documents of certain types," Pickett said. "Then they would go to a cubby, get the docs and lick and envelope, seal it and mail it … they were spending all their time stuffing [envelopes] instead of helping students field questions."
The situation was unacceptable, and when the time came in January to obtain more supplies from printers, Pickett simply did not place the order.
"We literally made the decision right after New Year's [that] we were not going to get any more printed material," Pickett said. "Instead, we wanted an extremely rapid development environment for Web-based applications that could access our Oracle database."
The department now wanted to build the lightest, fastest applications and do it all through a Web browser. The speed of the deployment was imperative, Pickett said, because on March 1 the financial aid award letters were due out to students.
Ivy League inspiration saves time and money
Pickett said the inspiration for the project came from his days at Princeton University, where he worked with an application called WebView, which later became an internal utility at Oracle called Flows.
"I looked at the process as the same scenario as when we started [using WebView] at Princeton. I was looking for intermittent processes that added no value," Pickett said. "Envelopes and manual address changes offered no value and can even be negative value."
Since USD already had an existing relationship with Oracle, and many of its systems were legacy systems running Oracle databases, Pickett remained with Oracle when he was choosing a Web-based database product.
Using its Computer Assets Management Information System, USD consolidated data from disparate systems like spreadsheets and Microsoft Access databases into a single, secure system using Oracle Database and Oracle HTML DB. Prior to this consolidation, it was difficult for the university to make timely IT decisions since data first needed to be merged from multiple systems before analysis could occur, Pickett said.
According to the Oracle Web site, Oracle HTML DB is a Web application development tool for the Oracle database that requires a Web browser and limited programming experience.
When the dust had settled from the consolidation, only seven weeks had passed and the department was well ahead of its March 1 deadline. With the switch from paper to Web-based digital documents, the department had also achieved a savings of $40,000 to $50,000 per year, Pickett said.
Even with the monetary savings helping his department internally, Pickett said he was still focused on the student's ease-of-use when it came to the new Web-based format.
"The students' experience is one of issues I will always have," he said. "My goal was to have responses to the students in two seconds or less for pages to be generated. Literally the minute a student submits their information, less than a second later they get their award letter."
Pickett said the browser-based interface was the fastest he had ever seen. It was such a successful deployment, he said, that the USD schools of nursing and law were also brought online with HTML DB earlier this year.
With the browser-based system in place, Pickett said the financial aid department was granted new ways to track students as they signed into the system using their ID number and password. Award notifications could be tracked to guarantee that they had been read and visits could be time-stamped to see how long visitors were on the site and what services they were using. Each of these features could be controlled with a minimal amount of effort through the HTML DB control panel, he said.
New security concerns addressed in a snap
Recent California Social Security legislation passed in 2003 required that any university in the state that had had their database hacked and students' Social Security numbers compromised would immediately have to notify the students, even if the hack was only suspected and not yet verified.
When Pickett and USD moved the legacy systems over to the HTML-based database, the IT staff made sure security on the new system was a top priority. The move, he said, was not as hectic as one might think.
"We removed all the data from the database, built firewalls, SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] and set up security, and with this system you can really set up a really secure environment in a couple of hours -- and that includes the coffee and doughnuts," he said.