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EAC’s Computer Services Department blazing new trails

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EAC’s Computer Services Department blazing new trails

By Todd Haynie

THATCHER, AZ—In 2002, EAC’s Computer Services Department had few options. Their then current student information system, COMPASS, was 15 years old and written in a computer language that was quickly becoming obsolete (COBOL). Colleges across the country were seeing the need for updated technology with advanced applications to help streamline everything from paying the bills to allowing students to register for classes on the Web.

“COMPASS was working fine,” explained EAC Director of Information Resources, Paula Asbury. “We were afraid to let it continue, however, because of aging hardware and software concerns.” The software, including the source programs, was purchased from The Educational Data Center. The hardware, upgraded four times since 1987, was initially purchased from Digital Equipment Corporation , a computer company that has since been gobbled up two different times and now exists under the much larger umbrella of Hewlett Packard. With rapid changes in technology, systems that were cutting edge one year can become old and unsupportable the next. The decision was either to purchase an “out-of-the-box” system from an existing company that could cost in the millions of dollars just to start up and millions more to maintain, or create a system in-house that was not only less expensive, but completely customizable to adjust to the College’s ever-changing needs.

“We got spoiled,” said Asbury. “With COMPASS, we could change it as much as we wanted. Whenever a department needed a change to how information was generated, we could easily modify the system. These ‘canned’ systems do not allow for timely nor inexpensive customization.”

“But COMPASS was all text-based,” explained Associate Director of Information Resources, Tom Thompson. “We wanted to provide end-users with a much richer, more flexible user interface.”

In the end, the decision was made to create a completely customizable, fully-integrated student information system in-house. The system would include not only student records, but also web-based registration (this eventually became Gila Hank Online), budgeting systems, a searchable and real-time, web-based class schedule, and all the financial applications for the College’s Fiscal Control Office, including payroll, accounts receivable, and accounts payable.

“The project is simple in concept,” said Dennis Griffin, an EAC computer applications analyst. “We would take our current system, which has been a great solution for the College, and from it create new applications that would continue accomplishing the same tasks with new technology. Along the way, we look for ways to improve and simplify the processes that current departments use to get their information stored and utilized in a more efficient manner.”

New requirements have been added to the still “under-construction” project such as an automated course evaluation system, an added ability for students to submit general and overload petitions within Gila Hank Online, a facilities scheduling system, and an application to track help-desk requests, among others.

The result? After three years and just over $56,000 (compare that to $20-plus million spent by other colleges for off-the-shelf systems), Eastern is well on its way to completing the project, having already implemented about one-third of the applications to rave reviews from both internal and external users.

“We’ve learned a lot during this process,” said Asbury. “But we’re not finished. We still have a lot to do.”

But with only three full-time programmers and many other concurrent responsibilities, EAC’s Computer Services department is accomplishing a daunting task few other colleges would want to attempt, saving millions of dollars in the process.