In higher education, deadlines usually apply to students rushing to turn in papers or finish exams, but IT deadlines can be just as important. When you’re ready to upgrade to a new cloud-based student information system (SIS), it’s best to partner with a vendor that not only builds great software but also specializes in getting the system up and running.
A successful implementation is a highly coordinated collaboration between your team, who best understand the current data and administrative processes, and the software vendor with expertise in areas like data conversion and project management.
The SIS market is growing quickly and tech partners are getting better at bringing new systems online quickly and smoothly. What’s at stake? The global SIS market is expected to hit $9 billion next year, so competition is fierce.
Implementation is a bit like an orchestra rehearsal: You need different sections, such as strings, wind and percussion to come together and create a unified sound. With an SIS, you are pulling data from different departments, sometimes working on disparate systems, and integrating it all together to create a new single source of truth.
There are bound to be hiccups and glitches, but with a good partner and by adhering to the process (think of it as rehearsals), a successful implementation leads to a finely-tuned debut.
A successful implementation requires coordination with your IT leaders and key stakeholders, and timely training for your faculty, staff and students. To ensure a successful transition, your new vendor should follow a detailed multi-step implementation process. When done right, your school will be up and running with a SaaS solution that improves efficiency and effectiveness.
One more bit of insight: The best concertos weren’t created in a day, and neither is a new SIS implementation. Be patient! Approach your migration as a phased-in process. Start with the foundational elements, get those running smoothly, and then add more advanced features such as third-party integrations, as your team gets more comfortable with the software.
Step 1: Set an Implementation Schedule
When you’re making a new major change to your software and technology stack, you want to set a timeline that causes the least amount of headache and stress. In higher education, the beginning of a semester is a flurry of activity and the final few weeks are too. Those high-activity periods are probably not a good time to take your computer system offline and implement a new SIS.
It’s also important to consider the financial aid year and timing of student federal loan origination. You don’t want to transition to a new SIS during these critical windows and potentially disrupt financial aid disbursement or reporting schedules.
To select a go-live date, look for a lull in your school’s activity and target those dates for the final stages of migration to a new student data management system. For example, a semester based school might opt to implement a new SIS during the summer vacation, while a cohort or asynchronous school could use the December holiday break or a cohort break to make the transition.
Be sure to give your team enough time to implement, and train your users on the new system before the majority of your students return to the classrooms.
Step 2: Determine How Much Data to Convert
Data conversion is the process of taking your school’s old data and putting it into the new student management system. That might sound simple, but it is a very complex task. It’s also the most important step – your new SIS is only as good as the data you feed it.
Here’s the process: Moving from legacy software to a new higher education data management system involves transferring hundreds of thousands of data points (maybe even more for a larger school) to another system without deleting information or introducing errors.
The more data your school has, the longer this process will take. If different departments like financial aid, marketing, admissions and billing operate multiple software platforms, then the process is even more involved and time-consuming.
For a successful data conversion, you need to allocate a sufficient amount of time for this stage. The exact amount depends on the size of the school and amount of data you have.
Suffice it to say, the larger your school and the more departments and programs you offer, the longer this will take. But you don’t want to take shortcuts or rush. If you don’t allow for successful data conversion, it could result in errors or create more challenges to launching on schedule.
So how do you ensure a successful data conversion? There are several strategies or options for migrating student data rather than a full conversion. Your SIS partner can help you select the best one for your school’s needs.
First, you should determine what data you need. Post-secondary schools have troves of data relating to admissions, registration, finance, alumni etc, and some of it might not be useful or mission critical.
Deciding what data you really need can help your team develop the best strategy for migrating it. The options include manual entry, data conversion or—if possible—data archiving in the existing SIS.
- Manual Data Entry: This option is best for smaller schools with about 100 students. Before you launch your new SIS, your school’s active records will be manually entered into the new system and then historical information is added later over time. Manually entering data is time consuming, which is why it’s only for small schools with fewer records, but it is a cost-effective route if you can handle it in-house.
- Data Conversion: This is the most comprehensive approach to data migration. An experienced SIS vendor will migrate the data into your new system using algorithms, which is quicker and more accurate than manual data entry, but still requires a lot of time and effort. Schools have a variety of data – admissions, transcripts, billing, student records and alumni information – that can be converted. The process includes mapping, scrubbing, eliminating duplicates and transferring data. For larger schools with thousands of historical records, data conversion is the most cost-effective approach.
- Data Archiving: Keep in mind that it might not be necessary to migrate everything to your new SIS. If you retain access to your old system, you may have the option of archiving less critical data there.
Step 3: Validate the Data
No matter which data entry method you choose to convert to the new SIS, data validation is one of the most important steps in this process to ensure a successful implementation.
Your new SIS is only as reliable and accurate as the data you migrate, so it’s critical to validate the information for accuracy by comparing data in the new system with your original data. This will require time and attention, so you don’t want to skimp on this step.
No SIS vendor will be as familiar with the data as your team, who works with the information on a daily basis. Inaccurate data will not only jeopardize the benefits of your new SIS, but it’s also more difficult to fix bad data after the system goes live.
Step 4: Configure the System
While the data is being validated, your new vendor will also be configuring your new SIS. This is the process for setting up the system to fit your administrative needs. A modern, cloud-based SIS allows users to configure hundreds of functions and options, from billing to messaging to user access. There’s a library of pre-built reports that you can tailor to your specifications and you can set up rules to filter information.
An integrated SIS offers the ability to have different functions work together in concert, including admissions, registration, billing and financial aid. Just keep in mind that the more custom configurations and rules you want to set up, the longer this process will take.
For example, it might take only a day or two for smaller career and trade schools with just a few programs and billing options to establish their functions. Schools with a larger student population need to dedicate more time to set up their rules.
The important thing is to set up the system as best you can before your students and administrators need to use it.
Step 5: Integrate Your Third-Party Platforms
It’s essential that your new student data management software plays nicely with third-party platforms. These include payment systems, email and texting services, financial aid modules or learning management systems. Your school needs these functions and a well-built SIS can support them.
During the sourcing process for a new SIS, make sure it supports the third-party platforms your school uses—or you need to consider changing those. You don’t want to get too deep into the transition process only to learn that your new SIS doesn’t integrate with other vendors.
Once you’ve established the compatibility, you’ll need your outside vendors to work closely with your new SIS team to configure, test and launch the third-party integrations. Be sure to extensively test these functions before launching your new SIS. You don’t want a situation where an outside vendor’s functions, such as payments, don’t work and cause unnecessary delays and headaches.
Step 6: Get the Training and Support for Your New SIS
A good technology partner stands by your side every step of the way. When you subscribe to a new SaaS student management solution, you’re leaping into the latest cloud-based SIS technology, and there’s going to be a learning curve. The best SIS providers offer customized and detailed on-site and online training. Identify your IT staff and other users who will need training and hold them accountable for the training and testing.
Once your system is ready for testing and launch, you want to lean on your technology partner for any issues that might arise. Look for a partner that has a deep online knowledge base, as well as a responsive support desk that responds quickly and that is available off-hours and on weekends (after all, we know that’s when the biggest problems usually occur).
Once your system launches, it’s a good idea to hold additional training so users can ask questions and use their early experiences to navigate the system and learn its capabilities.
Key Data Conversion Considerations
Now that we’ve covered the six steps to successfully implement a new SIS, here are some additional thoughts for a smooth transition.
- Start small and add features over time. Most schools don’t need every feature and integration at launch. Whether you’re a small trade school or a large four-year non-profit school, begin on a manageable scale and add the extra features as your team learns the software.
- Don’t look for shortcuts. They’ll just cost you in time, money and frustrations.
- Hold your team accountable. Make sure your IT team, key stakeholders and primary users attend all the training sessions. Listen to their questions and concerns, and share resources and help desk information.
- Stay on schedule. Have your data ready to go on time, otherwise it could create delays in conversion, testing and launch.