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Brain power

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals’ specialist courses are world-renowned. With formidable alumni including the CEOs of Saudi Aramco and Saudi Electricity Company, the University depends on the first-class delivery of education services, with mobility now at the core of that aim.

King Fahd
Dr. Hosam Rowaihy, KFUPM

“A university is like a small city,” says Dr. Hosam Rowaihy, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals’ (KFUPM) Director of Information Technology. “Education is going through an interesting time. Lectures used to be tutor-centred, where 400 students would listen to a professor at a time, but that trend is gradually declining. We’re also now talking about flipped classroom learning, where students watch lectures at home, then discuss materials in class. Education is becoming more student-centred.”

KFUPM’s impressive track record is evident. Although it is perhaps unsurprising given Saudi Arabia’s position as the largest supplier of oil in the world, the University nonetheless boasts Saudi Aramco and Saudi Electricity Company CEOs Amin H. Nasser and Ziyad bin Mohammed Al-Shiha among its formidable alumni.

Around 80 percent of KFUPM’s students are undergraduates, with the remainder undertaking postgraduate courses in a variety of research fields. As its name suggests, its research leans heavily towards investigations in petroleum engineering and geosciences, as well as offering courses in general engineering and computer science.

Aside from being an educational facility, the University has also made its mark within the oil and gas industry itself, having recently established an R&D park for some of the world’s major oil and gas players to deepen their understanding of the industry.

On campus, however, students are now more demanding than ever when it comes to the ways they can access educational services. “Today, students are very well connected, and want to see everything on their mobile device,” Rowaihy says. “Learning management systems, where students can collaborate for assignments, are also transforming the education process. All these services have to be delivered quickly, and to any device.”

As well as depending on IT to run basic systems like HR, finance and KFUPM’s supply chain, Rowaihy is tasked with ensuring technology can also drive educational operations. “Most of our faculty and students live on campus, so we need to run things like the medical centre system and our own security and residential departments,” he says. “We also have to run our own satellite systems. On top of this, new demand always comes from the students; it’s a dynamic environment where new ideas and programmes are created.”

Driven by the need to support these operational demands, KFUPM had been a long-serving customer of Ellucian. Formerly known as SunGard Higher Education, KFUPM used the firm’s SIS solution for a range of education technology services, before a 2012 rebrand.

“We moved to SunGard Banner in 2007,” Rowaihy says. The SIS solution had run on mainframe computing, which was high in OPEX. The move to Banner, however, instilled fresh confidence at KFUPM.

Nonetheless, a few years down the line, it became apparent that KFUPM was in serious need of an upgrade to its Banner solution, which had otherwise served it well until that point. With KFUPM receiving 30,000 annual applications for the 3,000 places on its specialist courses, Rowaihy spotted clear patterns in KFUPM’s applicants’ behaviour that was eye-opening for the IT team.

“More than 60 percent of our applicants were applying for our courses using a mobile device,” he says. He confesses that these figures remained a shock even in the age of mobility. “As a technologist, even I was surprised at that number. Given the importance of a university application course that’s something I’d never do.”

In addition, KFUPM had also received reports of students facing difficulties in registering for classes, and in a number of other administrative areas. “Students want to register for courses at certain times, and if they don’t match the availability, this can be frustrating,” Rowaihy says. In 2013, after a period of consideration, he decided that an upgrade to the Ellucian package would be necessary to support demand for mobile education services. After consulting with his staff, he opted for an upgrade to the Ellucian Banner 8.5 suite.

Delivering a seamless transition would require great attention to detail from Rowaihy’s IT staff. “There were lots of challenges in the change,” he says. “The team spent days and nights working on the migration process, testing over 120 scenarios to ensure the application ran seamlessly. We are very detail-oriented, so are very averse to seeing a system go live and realise it has any flaws.”

Across the board, the upgrade has provided enhanced performance to KFUPM’s IT department, making them more responsive. “Students can now register for courses in a matter of seconds, which is a major boost for our operations,” Rowaihy says. “Higher education organisations have to undertake a lot of reporting, in terms of statistics, admissions and registrations, and this has all since been made smoother, as well as checking grades and accessing work portfolios.”

The ability to incorporate other services into KFUPM’s portal has also proven a useful value-add. “We’ve been able to build many other services in the portal, like issuing printing credits and car parking permits, which provides greater ease of access and satisfaction to our students,” Rowaihy says. He has also overseen the integration of KFUPM’s learning management and registration systems, meaning students’ schedules are automatically synced, allowing ease of access to course materials.

In the process of upgrading the application version, Rowaihy and KFUPM also took the opportunity to enhance the University’s hardware, and is now experiencing the benefits of more powerful servers running the app.

Beyond the confines of KFUPM, the project has served as a fantastic PR exercise in terms of generating further interest around the University. The IT department has received fantastic feedback on social media sites regarding the upgrade, and with higher education organisations offering more competitive courses in the Kingdom, the service has added extra gloss to an already sought-after institution. “Although most students already know whether they want to enroll at KFUPM as we are quite specialised, the upgrade has certainly done us no harm in conveying as a student-friendly organisation,” Rowaihy says.

Looking forward, Rowaihy is keen to continue partnering with Ellucian to continue delivering timely services to KFUPM’s students and staff. The IT team are now working – in partnership with students – to move KFUPM towards implementing the latest version of Ellucian Banner in 2016.

The main purpose of the upgrade is to ensure that KFUPM’s mobility mandate is fulfilled; that students can access all their services seamlessly through mobile devices.

“I believe that the future will be centred around open technologies that allow integration,” he says. “The time of silos is passing, and everything should now talk together. Services like interacting with faculty members have to be considered under the umbrella of education services, and Ellucian has opened their applications so that they can be easily built upon.” Rowaihy is also mindful that the opportunities brought by mobility could be counterbalanced by corresponding threats. “We have no choice but to support BYOD, so security concerns will be a crucial and unavoidable consideration for us in the coming months and years,” he says.

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