Penn poised to roll out more modern data-management systems

In 1979, Penn administrators began deploying a series of systems that would digitally manage a triad of University arteries—Student Billing & Receivables, Academic Records & Registration, and Financial Aid.

For more than 35 years, these data management systems have helped deliver critical services to the University’s faculty, staff, and students, ranging from tuition billing and payment, to course registration, enrollment verification, and diploma certification.

As the rotary dial telephone transformed into the handheld, multifunctional smartphone, administrators at Penn updated the virtual façade to these systems. But at their core, these systems continued to use their original mainframe technology—considered bulky and slow by today’s standards.

Now, due to a University-wide initiative dubbed the Next Generation Student Systems (NGSS) project, Penn is poised to roll out new, faster, more flexible technology that will replace the antiquated systems currently used to manage these vital functions. The new systems will be branded as the “Pennant” suite—Pennant Accounts, Pennant Records, and Pennant Aid.

“There are many limitations in our current systems. As a result, many workarounds were developed to keep us productive and keep our systems functioning. Ultimately, this creates more time to serve our students,” says Michelle Brown-Nevers, associate vice president for Student Registration and Financial Services (SRFS). “The new system will allow us to be more productive and efficient on a day-to-day basis and ultimately serve our students better.”

Led by three executive sponsors—including Brown-Nevers, Andrew Binns, vice provost for education, and Tom Murphy, vice president for Information Technology and the University’s chief information officer—Penn launched the project in 2009, surveying a diverse range of focus groups, including broad representation from University academic and business centers, as well as students and peer institutions.

To accommodate the evolving needs of the Penn community and provide a technical roadmap for the project, administrators and the Trustees approved a third-party vendor to supply the core programs for the NGSS project—Ellucian’s Banner suite of products.

Michael Kearney, an IT technical director and technical program manager for the NGSS project, says that the new Pennant systems will usher in three core changes.

One change is simply the way the data will be stored, from the outdated mainframe technology to a more modern Oracle relational database.

Another improvement will involve more flexible, web-based user interfaces for the staff who maintain these systems—a big change from the text-based, green screen applications currently used.

Lastly, Kearney says the Pennant systems will be more easily integrated and accessed by other systems and departments, as opposed to the current silo-like systems.

“Part of our process from a technical standpoint is to upgrade the infrastructure to lower barriers for suitably authorized users and other organizations so that they can get to the data and use it more effectively,” Kearney says. “If something changes in one of our core systems, it can be reflected in other systems when needed in real time.”

Students will also reap the benefits of real-time data access, says Michael Merritt, executive director for SRFS and one of three project owners responsible for the NGSS project’s implementation and ongoing integration.

To ensure future flexibility while lowering the risk of implementing too much change at one time, the NGSS team decided to roll out the project in phases, with the first big change—the Pennant Account system—launching in the fall of 2015.

In the meantime, NGSS project administrators say feedback, comments, and concerns from the Penn community are crucial to implementing systems that accommodate a diverse user population.

“Really, this is a service project,” Brown-Nevers says. “It is about systems, it is about technology, but at its core, it supports what we do for our students, for our faculty, and for the University community.”

For more information about NGSS, visit the project’s website.

Data Management