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University of Wisconsin Extension: Our Journey from Salesforce to SIS

By February 27, 2017

By: Andrea Deau, Information Technology Director, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Division of Continuing Education, Outreach, and E-Learning

In January 2014, the University of Wisconsin System launched The UW Flexible Option, a portfolio of degrees, certificates, and courses offered through formats that are self-paced, competency-based, and built on best-practice educational principles and learning science. The UW Flexible Option is aimed specifically at adult and non-traditional learners, most of whom already have some college credits and who can most benefit from greater flexibility and access to quality education.

Because the learner progresses at their own pace, a seamless experience interacting with course content, advisors, financial aid, academic planning and progress without confusion is critical to continued engagement and to ultimately to completing their degree. Non-traditional learners frequently have competing priorities, including work and family obligations. We do not want technology to be a barrier.

In this model, we employ a high-touch wrap-around advising model to remove barriers and escort the learner to their goal. In order to help students achieve their goals, advisors need visibility into the learner’s activities as they move forward or stall. The problem we discovered was that tools for managing the student lifecycle are typically designed for administrative back-office functions geared for a traditional higher education semester-based model and were not easily adapted for competency-based education. My employer, the University of Wisconsin-Extension provides operational support, which includes enrollment management through graduation for the program. UW-Extension only recently became degree-granting and did not have a traditional student information system. We therefore, had a decision to make:

Move forward with traditional technology and invest millions for something we knew wouldn’t fit the UW Flexible Option model, or build our own solution?

After assessing the landscape for off-the shelf and emerging new products it became clear no product would meet our needs. All options would require a variety of work-around adaptations and customizations. Since the work was considerable in either case, constructing our own system was the answer. We were already deep into our Salesforce CRM implementation for managing marketing and recruiting functions and learning more about how we could extend the platform even further. After research and planning, we outlined a path forward to create our own Student Engagement System (SES). Not only did we want to have the CRM as a data tool for marketing and recruitment activities, but we want to extend the CRM to manage the student lifecycle and serve as the official system of record for the institution. Our IT ecosystem would need to facilitate:

  • Marketing & Recruiting
  • Admissions
  • Registration & Enrollment
  • Records Management
  • Student Services & Learner Relationship Management
  • Learning Management
  • Billing
  • Financial Aid
  • Graduation & Transcription
  • Alumni
  • Social Engagement

Development began June 2016. Using a combination of internal staff and a partnership with Sierra-Cedar, we built a robust minimum viable product that was ready in November 2016 to accommodate students in a new University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Bachelor of Business Administration Degree.

Our SES is an ecosystem. As the higher education landscape evolves, new models to serve students will continue to emerge. We want our new enterprise technology to be nimble…to evolve over time as needs change. That said, we wanted to capitalize on existing products where possible. A tool to manage the financial aid was not a project we envisioned our IT team planning, building, and implementing. So, faced with this organizational need, we took the following approach:

  • Salesforce – the foundation, the enterprise system supporting business processes and workflow. It is the source of “truth” about the learner.
  • Specialized technology systems for financial aid, learning management, and billing handle the unique needs for their respective business units and feed Salesforce.
  • An open source student-facing portal providing the seamless experience.
  • APIs (application programing interfaces) establish the bi-directional communication flow.

Student Information System Chart

Next steps.

We continue to add new functionality to our current use case every two weeks. In the coming months we will incorporate capabilities for a wider range of use cases and scale automation and workflow.

So, what’s the point?

  • Affordability. This path allows us to scale over time. Invest in components needed at the time instead of paying for software we may never be able to use.
  • A solution specifically meeting organizational needs today, but with the ability to evolve into the future.
  • Consumer friendly technology in a software as a service (SaaS) model. We can provide a secure and modern experience which is updated over time. We did not want to support infrastructure, which would have required hiring specialized staff and expensive upgrades.
  • Focus on milestones in the lifecycle as new opportunities triggering action from those supporting the student, much like a customer relationship management approach.
  • Success of the Learner! Leveraging technology for learning. A 360 degree view of the student lifecycle visible both to staff and the learner creates engagement and insight. In time, we will bring the power of analytics to even better target these insights to all stakeholders, learner included to help them successfully reach their goals.