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Student management systems! What to look for when purchasing one.

RTO, AQTF, AVETMISS, ASQA, CRICOS, NVR, Training, Student, Management, System, Software, Data, Compliance

Do you have a Student Management System (SMS) that you don’t use or don’t know how to use? Did you purchase an SMS to then realise it doesn’t ‘fit’ your business needs or it’s too hard to use?

For many RTOs a Student Management System (SMS) was not always an important thing. They built their own excels, access databases and so on that seemed to “do the job”. When the AQTF Standards were released in 2010, the statement in Condition 6 that “The applicant must have a student records management system that has the capacity to provide the registering body with AVETMISS compliant data” panicked many RTOs who didn’t have an SMS. With this statement then being added to the DPR (Data Provision Requirements 2011) it has become problematic for RTOs when sourcing a Student Management System that meets their needs.

Many RTOs just found the cheapest one; others just went with what was recommended to them by someone, and didn’t worry about the cost or purchased on impulse or in a hurry. No matter how you found yourself purchasing an SMS are you now in a position that you realise what your purchased is not ‘right’ for your business? Did you have to purchase multiple applications to satisfy the needs of different departments in your business? For an ever increasing number of RTOs unfortunately the answer to one or many of these questions the answer is yes.

Too many RTOs have fallen into the trap of not doing ‘due diligence’ while purchasing an SMS and it has cost them.

Many RTOs tell us that it’s very time consuming and confusing looking at the SMSs available in the market today and that is true. But why wouldn’t you want to take your time to purchase an SMS? Your business deserves the best product you can afford and that undoubtedly will take time to identify ‘the one’. Purchasing an SMS for your business is a process and if you follow that process we’ve no doubt that the SMS you chose will ‘shine’ for you & your business 10 fold to what you have now.

So what’s the process?

There are a number of steps in the process that include:

Step 1 – Business Requirements

Don’t think of a SMS as being just to produce your AVETMISS compliant data. Look at it as a way to overhaul and improve on how you currently do things in each of the departments of your business.

Have each of the heads of your departments or your IT administrator (they must liaise with staff in the department, don’t let them just assume anything) identify the following:

a) What applications (software installed on computers or web based applications) do you currently use in the department to complete each task? And for those applications what are their strengths and weaknesses?

b) In each department what tasks do staff do manually with spreadsheets, documents, files on servers etc that they can’t do in any of the applications that are used in their department? This must include what letters/reports etc do they produce manually and repetitiously?

Things to remember while doing this analysis:

  1. How easy is it for staff to use the existing applications?
  2. How thoroughly do you use the existing applications?
  3. What ‘knowledge/IP’ is retained in your business for these applications when/if staff using them leaves?

Step 2 – Analysis Review meeting

Once the analysis in step 1 is completed you should have a meeting with all heads of department to review the list.

From the analysis you need to answer the following questions:

  1. For each department what are the mandatory things a new system should be able to do?
  2. For each department what would be a ‘wish list’ of extras that a new system hopefully does or could be developed to do?
  3. How critical are the ‘mandatory’ requirements for each department when considering a system?

For instance it was discovered as part of the analysis completed in step 1 that your marketing department is struggling to manage large volumes of Offer Letters/Enrolment Applications because they do it all manually. But then in your finance department managing students financials is easily done and managing overdue payments is easy, even if there is a large volume, because you have a system in place for this.

Managing large volumes of Offer Letters/Enrolment Applications then needs to be looked at, it is ‘new business’ and hence should be considered ‘critical’ that a new student management system could manage this. Maybe a new student management system, if it has everything else you want, won’t have an accounting system as part of it but as you have something in place already then it isn’t mandatory that a new system ‘manages’ students financials.

By answering these questions you can then create a ‘first checklist’ that shows each department and what elements/features that department requires to have in a new system. The checklist should then identify for each of the elements/features whether it is mandatory or wish list. You should also have an overall rating to the importance of the department having its elements/features available in a new system. This will help to refresh your memory when reviewing systems and making a decision. You should also add a column for each Student Management System you wish to review, so that you can tick/cross what they do or don’t have for each department’s elements/features. You may need to have a second column for each system for ‘Comments’ so you can add them as you are reviewing. Don’t worry you may find yourself creating more checklists as you go, this ‘first checklist’ will give
you a foundation to work with though.

You will also need to decide in this meeting or in a different meeting, but most definitely before you commence your review of systems, what is your budget for this purchase? Typically you need to consider that there will be different costs involved with
the purchase and it could vary dramatically from one provider to another. Typical costs include:

Licence Fee/s – could be per user, per campus/location and could be annually or a once off.

Ongoing Fee/s – could be per enrolment, support & maintenance and could be monthly or annually.

You need to be aware that you may also be charged for costs such as implementation work (we’ll get to this shortly), training, consultation or training etc. You need to be very prepared and to really make sure for each system you understand what costs are involved and make sure there are no ‘hidden’ costs.

Step 3 – Choosing Systems to review

Everyone will choose to create the list of student management systems to review in different ways. Some may just do a Google search on the word Student Management System and other industry specific words such as CRICOS, RTO, AVETMISS, AQTF or ASQA and so on. There is nothing wrong with this approach but you should consider people you know in this industry, do they have advice on a good system or systems they have reviewed recently? Speak to staff that you have who may have worked at other RTOs, what systems did they use there? Don’t just go for 1 or 2 systems to begin with though, you need to get a view of what is really out there and what can help your business? For each system you wish to review add their systems name to the checklist (as previously mentioned) and keep their company name, contact details and system name in a separate list.

You will find systems both from Australia and from other countries as well as from very small companies to very big companies. Two very important things to take into account when reviewing companies and their student management systems are:

  1. It is ok to look at systems from companies in other countries but make sure if you do this that you are confident they have an Australian based presence/office, that they absolutely know the compliance requirements for RTOs and that they keep on top of them. That they have Australian based clients as you will want references to contact them as part of your review if you are choosing to go ahead with a specific system. How do you contact them and are they going to be contactable in Australian business hours etc?
  2. Where you are looking at systems from smaller companies you have to consider is the company established? Are they a small business that has just a student management system (hence their only means of income) or are they a software development company with multiple products (their income streams are varied and potentially larger than where a company has just one stream)?

Step 4 – Reviewing Systems & deciding on a system

With this step it could be quiet in-depth based on how big your checklist is, especially if you have chosen more than 5 systems to review. No matter how many you have chosen to review it is recommended you break down the review into the following steps:

Review 1 – you first want to weed out, from your list of systems to review, what is not viable for your business. Consider getting a representative for your RTO, a 3rd party consultant or just use a junior staff member (never use senior staff who have more productive things to do for this step) to contact each of the companies with your first checklist.

When you approach a company make sure you set the tone from the beginning. Explain that you have put a formal review process in place to purchase a Student Management Systems. Explain that this is review 1 of x number of reviews that will happen over x number of weeks/months. Don’t let them take control and hurry you along, you set the tone from the start of the conversation as to how long your business will take to make a decision.

Ask them to identify what elements for each department that their system can do and does their system have extra features that are not listed that it can do and how could it help your business? You should also have a set list of questions to be asked as well so
that you have a total overview of the company and their system.

This review can be done either via email or over the phone. It is recommended to be done on the phone as you can pick up so many extra things in a phone conversation that you can’t via email. Things such as:

  • Is the person you are talking to polite and helpful?
  • Do they talk as though they know the industry or do they seem to be reading from a script/prepared speech?
  • Were they able to answer your questions easily or do they have to ‘check with someone’ before answering?

Once you have all the information you require and your checklist is completed for that system explain to them what the next steps are? That you have other systems to review and then you will go onto review 2 and you will notify them if their system has made it to that review etc.

Once Review 1 is completed the representative for your company needs to come back to your management team or the team you have identified to be the decision making team. You need to review the results of the review and identify which systems move onto review 2. It is always worthwhile notifying the companies via email as to which ones made it to review 2 and which ones didn’t and thanking them for their time. In this industry you never know who you will meet in the future and from experience everyone has very long memories in this industry.

Review 2 – this is where you need to organise for ‘demonstrations’ of the system. Every company will do demonstrations of their systems in different ways from onsite visits with one of their representatives to online demonstrations over the phone.

No matter how the demonstration will be given from review 1 you should have a better idea what each system is capable of and you should be able to create a list of more in depth things you wish to see the system do in practice or questions you may have
around the company etc.

Again at the demonstration you need to make sure you take the lead and control the pace of the demonstration. It is always recommended that you ask the person giving the demonstration what their actual job title is so you can identify if you are speaking with a sales/marketing person or a developer/support style person. Generally it is one or the other that you will
see, typically a sales person. If you can’t identify from their job title then ask them what their experience in the RTO industry is? This usually helps you know what their ‘real’ experience is based on how they answer (look at their body language when they answer this). Sales people will always show you the ‘whiz bang’ of the system, even if you aren’t asking them about that
feature/element, and they will do it very quickly.

Who should attend this review from your RTO?

Always have the representative/s who did review 1 in the demonstration (they will have the most knowledge of the systems and will remember the conversations had with the company) but have other representatives this time in the demonstration. It is recommended that you have representatives from each of the major departments that will use the system. Don’t just use
managers from the departments, use staff who will use the system on a day to day basis. You can have management as well for the ‘big picture/future growth’ angle and will the system manage their expectations style questions.

The outcomes of this review are that you should have narrowed it down to at least 2 systems based on all the knowledge that you have gained from both reviews. Maybe you are lucky that you will have narrowed it down to 1 system, in any case the 3rd review is the most critical.

Review 3 – at this point you should have a very short list of say 2 systems. From here on you need to consider the following:

  1. Implementation – what is the process from purchasing the system to your staff using the system? How will the new system be implemented into your business? What are their recommendations? What about archived/historical data? Who does the implementation (them or you or a mix), who will setup the system to meet your needs? Are there any preliminary workshops to identify your processes & procedures and mapping them to the new system? Again who does this, you or them? If they are assisting with implementation how much time will they spend on this? Is there any cost involved with the implementation work they do for you? Do they have a data check process in place etc?
  2. Training – What is the process to go from implementing to using the system? How will you and your staff be trained in how to use the system? Is there a cost involved with this training or future training? What resources/ongoing support do they have in place for your staff & your business?
  3. References – it is expected that you will ask for references, unfortunately not everyone does this. Be aware of a vendor providing you with ‘case studies’ or ‘white papers’ detailing with big words how implementation was on time and on budget. Generally these are marketing copy and should be ignored. Ask for contacts at current clients (past clients would be good but they may not refer you to any).
  4. Cease of Trade – you need to consider and ask what happens if your cease business or you wish to cease business with them, will the vendor provide you your data. What format is the data provided in and how soon after you notify them of you closing your business will they provide you your data? What if the vendor goes out of business, then what happens to your system and your data?
  5. Data backups, privacy & security – how will the vendor (where it is online) protect your data, do they have data security policies? What are the backup policies and procedures in place and if the backed up data goes offsite where is it housed? Do they have a privacy policy?

Once you have all the answers to all your questions and all your experiences with the demonstrations of the product and also your experiences with the vendor, this should be enough for you to make a decision on what system is best for your business. Make sure you keep all communication with the vendor in one location for future reference and this should include a signed licence agreement and any documents that they have provided you. These documents would include privacy, security, backup data policies etc as you may be asked for them at audit time.

Reference: RTO Success Magazine

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