Tech-Sharing Boosts CUNY First

At Hostos Community College, students win prizes for using home grown technology to register for classes early and perform other tasks. At Brooklyn College, long lines at the registrar have thinned, thanks to a new online appointment scheduler for face-to-face advisement. And IT staff at John Jay College of Criminal Justice have devised a secure wireless link between two college buildings without using expensive fiber optic wiring.

Increasingly, grassroots applications are being shared — across departments and among the colleges — to improve communications and student services and promote efficiency and savings. Now a plan has emerged to incorporate many of these innovations into CUNY First, the sweeping, five-year-old initiative to shed antiquated 20th century software and streamline essential common University-wide business transactions, from registering for courses to paying bills.

“Tech-sharing and CUNY First are a natural fit,” said Executive Vice Chancellor Allan Dobrin, who also serves as the University chief operating officer. Dobrin noted that the CUNY First initiative has from the start been a full partnership with the colleges. “Together we are re-engineering the system. It would have been impossible without an open, collaborative culture.”

Behavorial scientist Ofer Tchernichovski of City College helped create a software program and smartphone application to assist facilities managers with requests for service and repairs.

The topic of grassroots collaboration was presented at the annual CUNY IT Conference last December and quickly became part of monthly discussions at the University’s IT Steering Committee, which has representatives from every campus. “People liked the concept,” recalled Praveen Panchal, chief information officer at John Jay. “Now there is a buzz,” he said. “It’s a win-win for all campuses.”

Some campuses have long been quiet leaders in creating applications that can be used by other institutions. Brooklyn, for example, has “invented a number of tools and apps that have been borrowed by our peers,” said Mark Gold, assistant vice president for information technology services and chief technology officer. “Rather than leave these innovations at the local college level, why not share these tools?”

In the last few months, IT officials at individual campuses have been doing just that, engaging in a wave of productive collaborations. Discussions are very open, honest, enlightening,” said Brian Cohen, associate vice chancellor and University chief information officer. “We are looking for commonality, for more opportunities to share technologies.”

Launched five years ago, CUNY First faced the unprecedented task of replacing the patchwork of aging computer systems at the campuses with a new generation of information technology that would establish more uniform and cost-effective procedures University-wide. The first implementations are up and running at Queens College and Queensborough Community College. Full implementation across the University is expected to be completed within the next several years.

“CUNY First is a great and long-needed solution,” said Varun Sehgal, assistant vice president of information technology and chief information officer at Hostos. “Does it meet every need? No. But no single system can.”

Sehgal and others stress that “there is no need so unique at individual colleges that it can’t be adapted” from other systems. “If there were more collaboration it would eliminate duplication of efforts,” he says. “The key driver is, why waste time and resources if we can share?”

Colleges will be sharing through an IT “skills bank” aimed at assembling a database of IT personnel with an array of specialized skills, said Asif Hussain, chief information officer at Kingsborough Community College. “We’re surveying IT departments on all campuses,” Hussain said. “We want to identify resources that we can use inside CUNY, instead of going out and hiring consultants.” So far, more than 630 areas of expertise have been identified, he said.

Meanwhile, the colleges have begun offering other campuses a selection of innovative services created for their own students.

Hostos’ “Student Reward Points Program” encourages students to better manage activities such as early registration, workshop participation and faculty evaluations. Each activity has a number of points associated with it and for every 1,000 points, students get a chance to win prizes ranging from MetroCards to big-screen TVs. (In four years, early registration and bursar payments went from about 1,800 to more than 4,200, with the student population ranging from 6,500 to 6,700.)

Hostos also created a self-service system to help computer users reset their passwords, and a Class Exception Management System (CEMS), which enables faculty and staff to notify students about unexpected changes in class schedules before they trek to campus. These systems can be easily shared with other colleges, and offer applications not provided by CUNY First, Sehgal says.

At John Jay, IT experts devised the Bridgewave wireless system, which provides a secure link between buildings without using expensive fiber optic wiring, says Chief Information Officer Praveen Panchal. “We pioneered this at CUNY,” Panchal said. “It’s very reliable and offers tremendous cost savings,” he said, adding that a similar system is being installed at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Brooklyn has created versions of a transferable advisement appointment scheduling system for several functions, including admissions, registrar, financial aid and SEEK, (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge). Students can set up appointments online, so that they’re expected and can avoid long lines. Since advisers know who’s coming in, if there’s a problem such as bad weather they can email to change appointments. “It’s almost a sea change” in campus operations, Gold said.