Higher Ed Software

Transparency is coming.

February 24, 2014

Last month I organized a review community and forum focused on software for higher education. SoftwarePhD.com is exclusively for professionals at colleges and universities and just might be the tool that spares you from making your next software mis-purchase.

Long, long ago at a university campus not so far away the landscape of third-party software was all but barren. Well, actually, it was likely only 10 years ago (the equivalent of 1.25 millennia in technology years).

There was a time when institutions maintained one SIS and had very few, if any, other applications running alongside of (and trying to integrate with) this digital monolith. These massive applications serviced all the major needs of the campus, though in many cases left plenty of functionality to be desired.  And, capitalizing on this opportunity a number of task-specific software vendors began to appear.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of niche software solutions for almost every foreseeable task a college or university might undertake: room scheduling, student retention, athletic recruiting and compliance, library archives, data reporting, online learning management, facilities maintenance, e-textbooks, student housing, document imaging, electronic catalogs, and the list goes on and on and on...

While many of these specialized software solutions come with very hefty price tags there is an undeniable lack of unbiased information available to assist an institution in making an informed purchasing decision.  Viewing polished sales presentations, participating in 30,000 foot view webinars, reading glowing customer reviews and calling current software references (provided by the vendors of course) are among the most common tasks a school typically performs when comparing vendors.

And, having gone through this process myself multiple times, I can assure you that it is a very tedious and frustrating endeavor. A decision that might figure in the tens of thousands of dollars and that could be based largely on sales promises has all the ingredients for disappointment and disaster, both for the customer and the vendor. It is a situation that leaves much to be desired and an environment where a higher level of transparency would benefit everyone.

Most software salespeople I have interacted with are exceedingly likeable, passionate about the product they are demonstrating and quite knowledgeable. They do an outstanding job at waving the banner for their company and products and pointing out all that their solution can do (or at least has the potential to do). Similarly, seeing brochures with lists of features and webinars that buzz through a few carefully crafted scenarios are helpful in getting a general feel for a software.

A handful of phone conversations with current customers can be one of the most informative endeavors to pursue, however finding these references is difficult and time-consuming.  Some schools resort to blasting out mass emails to hundreds or thousands of peer institutions hoping to find a few needles in the haystack.

Others never get the conversation beyond the walls of their own institution. In short, the unbiased information that a college or university seeks is often difficult to secure and much of the information that is ultimately used to make a purchasing decision is biased and unverifiable.

The innovation and efficiency these software companies bring to higher education is  wonderful and will no doubt continue to transform everything from pedagogy to the behind-the-scenes administration of a campus.  We shouldn't miss the irony though that such a pioneering industry is in many ways stuck in the dark ages of collaboration and informational transparency.

Clearly there is a need for increased partnership and cooperation amongst higher ed institutions related to the software acquisition process. Anyone who has participated on a committee or team tasked with purchasing a software solution feels the necessity.

And, the feedback I have received thus far from the 300+ members institutions of SoftwarePhD.com has overwhelmingly confirmed this.  There is an appetite for greater transparency and increased collaboration. Ultimately, this will lead to better software products, more realistic customer expectations and greatly reduced inefficiency in the software selection process.

One can only guess at what the software (and broader higher ed) landscape will look like in another 1.25 millenia.

Increased communication in both the school-to-school and school-to-vendor relationships will certainly be a key factor in ensuring the future is one that we are all satisfied with.

Mark Baker, Associate Registrar at Whitworth University is the founder and site moderator of SoftwarePhD.com. The community is open to all higher education professionals and currently membership is free for all software vendors.

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