Thought leader interview with Ed Kelty, CIO of Rio Salado College in Arizona, USA
Ed, who are Rio Salado College and what is your role?
Rio Salado College is the largest online public community college in the nation with nearly 47,000 students online with a total of nearly 70,000 students.
I’m the CIO and Vice President of Information Services at Rio Salado College. I oversee all aspects of technology in this institution.
What do you use SharePoint for?
We have three different installations of SharePoint.
One of these is Rio Learn, our distance learning application that we partnered with Microsoft to build back in 2004. This handles our 47,000 online students. We are currently working on version 8 of RioLearn, making substantial enhancements. That’s a large installation of SharePoint.
We also use SharePoint for our public facing website www.riosalado.edu and its CMS functions. If you go to the site, you probably wouldn’t realize that it is a SharePoint site, as our marketing department has heavily customized it. They let others in the college edit the content, and then validate it through workflows before publishing.
Lastly, we use SharePoint for an Employee Portal for our approximately 2,000 employees and faculty. This is the one installation of SharePoint which is most generic. It supports every department and every aspect of our college; not only for repositories and announcements and distribution of information, but we’ve also started building applications with workflows.
How is your hardware organized?
We have multiple databases running in the back end. We have front end web servers. We also have independent servers for the search feature. It’s a relatively large farm. The database servers are all physical devices, but the rest of the servers are mostly virtual, running on our very large VMware farm.
You’ve been a pretty early adopter of SharePoint. What are the main strengths of it?
When we rolled out SharePoint in 2003-2004, we told everyone that they would receive 30-60 minutes of training and a SharePoint book, and if you need help, give us a call.
I’ve been working in Education and technology for over 25 years and SharePoint is the application that is most widely adopted by our end-users: faster than any other application I’ve ever seen. Every department in the college has adopted it. They’ve developed anything from simple team sites for data storage and announcements, to tracking applications for content development for our courses.
That’s one of its major strengths. In simple terms, it’s very easy to use, but it’s got a lot of power for someone who wants to go deeper.
And what about weaknesses?
It’s not so much a weakness, but one of the issues we had with SharePoint is that we didn’t realize the level of flexibility and the power it had to develop different things … and we didn’t initially have a process in place to help govern what went where. And so our SharePoint sites, especially on our Employee Portal went crazy. There are team sites everywhere.
We didn’t realize how quickly it would be adopted and how widespread it would go. In the last few years, we’ve been more organized about things – navigation and database storage and that sort of thing, but in the beginning, we didn’t have a clue how to best configure the system.
What advice would you give to other colleges, universities and educational organizations if they are deploying SharePoint?
I’d do research on best practices, on both the front and the back end. There are some very clear best practices that Microsoft has put together to describe how you should design and build your databases depending on how big you perceive your environment will be. On the back end, just follow best practices like making sure your site collections don’t get too large and break your search server on a separate server, things like that.
On the front end, it’s really just common sense. For example, on our Employee Portal, we have a tab which says “Departments.” We didn’t control that. We just said that if you want something, let us know. It ended up that the “Departments” list didn’t align with the actual departments – some teams in departments created a site, some departments created a primary site and then sub-sites (which is what I would suggest is most appropriate), sometimes things were created not for a department but for a cross-functional team. So just trying to lay out your path or design from a user-interface is something I’d recommend.
There is a great deal of content on the web, and many institutions like our own have gone through it. Educators help other educators and there are plenty of people to sit down and talk to.
What are the business benefits of SharePoint?
Accessibility for our employees is a big issue. Our employees can access their content wherever they are. We have multiple locations throughout Maricopa County in Arizona – and this county is larger than some states in the U.S.! So having the ability to sit down at any desk or at your home to access files makes things a lot easier.
The other key issue is to put more power in the hands of our faculty and staff – so they can be more productive with their time. If they need to set up a workgroup for example, they can do that on the fly. We’ve turned our entire project management process into team sites; action items, minutes from meetings, to do lists, and project timelines are all integrated with SharePoint. You can look at all the projects going on at anytime and see where they are at. There are a lot of efficiencies to end-users from SharePoint.
In terms of assessments, how do you run them at Rio Salado?
We don’t use any of the in-built SharePoint assessment tools, for instance the survey tool. We built a custom web part that hooks into Questionmark, the software Rio Salado College uses for most of our assessments. One interface is an assignment list, where students can click on a link which signs them in seamlessly and see what assessments are part of the course, and depending on the course designer, they can see all or some of their assessments. Another is the web part which only shows the assessments that they are supposed to see at that point in time, more like a sequential list where you have to finish one before moving on to the next one. Building this web part was relatively straightforward.
On the back-end, we also take the results of assessments and populate a custom web part Grade Book we’ve created. This pushes the scores into RioLearn, where we display the grades.
We do use the “out of the box” SharePoint web parts for certain activities. We use document libraries for students to upload assignments into and also use threaded discussions for feedback and interaction with small group discussions which is graded.
Can students log in and see their scores?
Yes. Students can see their grades almost immediately unless it is something like an essay that needs to be graded by the instructor.
One of the things people sometimes worry about SharePoint is that they need a lot of developers to use it effectively. How large a team do you have?
Depending on your deployment, you may not need any developers. Our Employee Portal doesn’t have any. I have only one team member who’s learned SharePoint and SharePoint Designer, and he’s implemented several workflow processes, but he doesn’t do any programming. Our marketing team oversees our entire website with more than 1000 pages on it. Only on occasion do we need to pull in a developer to assist them with special initiatives.
RioLearn on the other hand is a fairly customized application, with many custom web parts. We have a team of .NET developers working on that. It really depends on what you plan on doing with SharePoint.
What are some of the new capabilities in SharePoint you are using?
We have moved some of our installations to SharePoint 2010 and are in the process of moving all of the others. We’re really excited about some of the new features in SharePoint 2010 – for instance the ability to cross site collections to share data is easier than in SharePoint 2007.
The integration with PerformancePoint (Microsoft’s Scorecard application) is having a big impact. We can pretty easily take SharePoint lists, Excel worksheets, SQL analytics and tie this all together to create score cards. We’re just starting to experiment with our data warehouse and we seem to be able to create score cards and dashboards pretty easily. So far I’m very impressed, and from an educational standpoint, it’s not that expensive.
Being able to build dashboards is a big win. In education we are all asked to show how we contribute to completion statistics, job performance after graduation and retention rates. Using a score card makes that very easy to see and drill into.
Last month, we deployed Microsoft Project Server 2010, which looks very promising. It takes us beyond our original project sites in SharePoint to where it’s actually integrated with project management software. We’re just experimenting with this right now.
In terms of the corporate decision to use SharePoint, how good a decision do you think that was?
Using SharePoint was an excellent decision. We wouldn’t be using it so much if it wasn’t! It’s been well-adopted, and supported the needs of our institution.
How do you see the future with SharePoint?
If it keeps going the way it is, not only can we start developing more complicated applications in SharePoint, but it is also likely to be the link or front-end interface to other systems, making it easier for our customers to access information. I see a lot of third party applications being integrated with SharePoint – social media integration is an example and more third party apps are being developed all the time. It seems that SharePoint can be used to aggregate data from different kinds of systems together and integrate them into a clean customer interface adapted specifically for their needs.