Interview with Vice-Rector for Information Technologies in Education of the SPbSPU A.V. Rechinsky, the magazine "Director of Information Service", 01.10.2010

Verification of decision on the student's bench



According to their needs in data collection and data consolidation universities are not much different from any large organization. A university needs a system that will be able to integrate all data sources for analysis.


Certainly, any institution of higher education differs significantly from a commercial entity. High school is a conservative organization; the decisions are taken usually slower than in a business environment. "Nevertheless, like any other company, we need to make management decisions", – said Alexander Rechinsky, Vice-Rector for Information Technologies in Education of the St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University.


A.V. Rechinsky"The university is a large structure, which is engaged in a variety of activities: educational, scientific and research – continues Rechinsky. – To effectively manage such a structure, one need relevant and structured information. For example, reporting forms for the parent organizations, we have to fill out constantly, and their demands are constantly changing. We needed a system that will be able to integrate all data sources for analysis".


By the time when the SPbSPU raised a question about introducing a system for data analysis, are already employed about 17 information systems. Some of them provide the standard functionality (personnel records, bookkeeping, etc.), the other part – the specific tasks for the university: managing the educational process, control of students and graduate students, admission, control of scientific research, etc. The collection and processing of information from such an abundance of sources is complex and troublesome.

According to Rechinsky, heterogeneous structure of information systems is a fairly typical pattern characteristic of most Russian universities. "And not only in universities can you meet such a "zoo" of the disparate automated systems. The result may be a violation of data integrity. Depending to which system you are organizing an inquiry, you can get quite different results. Up to a point the high school management may be happy with that, but when you want accurate data, to make serious management decisions on their basis, the quality of information should be completely different."




Before choosing



When choosing a solution, the BI-system had to solve two problems: First, it must do analytic queries to different data sources, so as not to have to change accounting systems and execute a query without affecting the user's work. Inconvenience that almost inevitably arises when changing the software does not cause the rapid approval of users. For successful implementation we had to persuade the staff of the University that the analytical system is a simple and convenient tool. Secondly, the analytical system should identify gaps in the data.


"When one wants to do something new, a revolution is not necessary, you can move smoothly. After a successful first step it is easier to go to the target – convinced Rechinsky. – We decided for the start to separate a clear data segment, and to evaluate using it as an example, where we have a problem, and to establish the methodology of the analytical system."

According to him, both ordered, and "box" systems are hardly suitable for the university: "Companies that are engaged in automation by order usually promise to deliver a solution, which the customer needs, and are ready for it to justify almost any "transcendental" budget. In other words, customers face serious costs and uncertain prospects. On the other hand, the cheap "box" products lay not less guile. I am against "naked" (as is) "boxed" solutions without serious support from the developer. Factually the analytical work, which a high school is busy with, is very specific and this specificity in such decisions no one, of course, does not account for. I am for an interim solution – proven solutions. Introducing it at an early stage should help a group of professionals". "Finally, the experts of the Spastic have chosen Pentaho BI Suite – the world famous open code platform for creating business intelligence systems. This platform was proposed by the professionals of the company RAMEK.




Step by step




The project started about one year ago. As the test polygons there were selected subject areas – personnel management and training of the highest qualification specialists (postgraduate and doctoral studies). IT Service of the university and specialists of RAMEK developed a structure of analytical data warehouse, data mart for a selected subject areas, have created the tools to visualize analytical data.


The professionals of the IT service were sure that the technical platform had been chosen correctly, when they started using analytical platform as a new tool for developing reports. The key users had also to be convinced in the right choice of the platform – those who are in the high school customers of analytical information.

The difficulty was the fact that university employees have different needs in analytics. The first group – the managers of this institution, people who need to make strategic decisions and who are planning activities of the University for several years ahead. For them are important historical data and dynamic performance, while the picture on the university and the units must be sufficiently generalized. The second group is middle managers – deans, department heads, etc. They are primarily interested in what happens in their subdivisions, and require a fairly high detail of data, sometimes concerning a specific employee or student. Because these two groups solve different problems, then the used analytical tools must be different.


"We have got in our hands a solution that before us was used by many organizations worldwide and it has been adapted for us. In general I am opposed to the situation when first external structures implement something in the high school, and then we found ourselves at their mercy. In addition, for technical university an introduction of a new information system is a good opportunity to attract young specialists to the practical work with new technologies. And our goal – to form a team of specialists capable to support this decision – explains Rechinsky. – When carrying out the pilot project we needed the support of specialists from RAMEK because they have a practice of creating analytic applications and accumulated more experience in doing projects. We still can not independently and without external support develop this solution, but its support has already passed to the IT service. Now, with the support of RAMEK, new subject areas and data sources are being connected to the system.



First results


The indirect benefit of the analytical system we managed to get pretty fast. In the early days of active operation we revealed some inconsistencies and "littered" data, but we managed to correct it and eliminate breakage. The specialists of the university IT service got a tool of rapid preparation of custom reports for users, and users have had the tools to access the shared data. Whereas previously each unit of high school had at its disposal only the data on the unit itself, now the analytical system gives a broader picture of the state of activities.

The management plans to begin soon a building of a unified information system of the university, which will bring together disparate systems through a single data repository and common interface input.



"The main processes of the university were somehow automated, but there was the "zoo" of solutions and systems: different technologies, different platforms and interfaces. Our challenge now is to create a system which can use all units of the university. We plan to test the solution on a pair of faculties and if successful, begin to replicate," – shared his plans Rechinsky.

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