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New Computer Fouling Up Community Colleges

Education: The costly system makes the simplest transaction a nightmare, students and teachers say.

November 30, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glitches in an Orange County community college district's new $5.3-million computer system have disrupted registration, caused widespread delays in financial aid checks and turned out faulty student transcripts, campus officials said this week.

The system, introduced in July, has caused problems throughout the North Orange County Community College District and its two campuses, Fullerton and Cypress colleges. The problems have affected students, instructors, administrators and office employees.

Faculty at Fullerton College are so angry that, on Nov. 15, the Academic Senate voted to demand that the chancellor conduct an investigation. Instead of simplifying tasks, teachers complain, the computer system has made them more difficult.

Fullerton students whose financial aid checks came 12 days late in early October verbally abused office employees so much that security was increased.

One campus official said retrieving campus records, which under the old system would take three to five minutes, now takes 20 minutes, plus 15 to 18 extra steps.

Professors said they are worried about the problems that could occur when they try to enter grades into the system.

"If you buy a Mercedes, you expect it to be a great car," said Peter Fong, dean of admissions and records at Fullerton.

"We bought something and had great expectations. It's been very stressful, and it's been very disappointing."

While faculty and administrators blame the system, the district's director of information services said the problem is that he tried to implement it too quickly.

"We tried to do it all in two years," Jack Raubolt said. "It's a three- to four-year process. [That] didn't give us enough time to do all the training and get all the system bugs out of it."

Jeff Pamponi, vice president for client operations in the western region for SCT Corp., which sold the district the Banner software, said the district moved very aggressively to install the system. "Probably in retrospect, [that] was too short a period."

To get the system working smoothly, Raubolt is asking the Board of Trustees for $360,000 over the next eight months to hire consultants to fix the glitches and train people, about $200,000 more than he had expected to spend on problem-solving. The district already pays the computer company $320,000 a year for training and upgrades.

Pamponi said the company has sold Banner to about 600 colleges in the country.

Tim Harrison, head of the department of construction technology at Fullerton, teaches computer aided design, so he is no neophyte when it comes to the machines.

He said it took 10 minutes to write a purchase order on the old system. Under the new one, he said, it can take hours.

"My feeling is that when you spend $5 million, this thing ought to wash your dishes too," Harrison said.

Some problems could be far more disastrous. After a small sampling, Fong said, 40% to 60% of transcripts sent to four-year colleges or certification agencies contained incorrect information. Those are mistakes that could keep a student from being accepted to a four-year college or receiving a certificate required for a job. Fong said it is too early in the application process to know whether any students have been rejected because of their transcripts.

Clerks are checking to make sure cumulative grade-point averages on the transcripts the computer provides are the same as other school records, an arduous task when Fullerton sends out about 200 transcripts a day.

"I think it's just nightmarish," Fong said. "What it does to our whole staff is inhumane."

The district began installing the system in October 1999, but it wasn't until registration began in July for this school year that it went into operation for most departments.

Some students had to wait three hours to get into the phone registration system, Fong said. Others would register for classes, and the system would hang up on them halfway through. By the time they got back into the system, they found that it hadn't registered their earlier requests and by then, some classes they wanted were filled, Fong said.

Bob Miranda, Fullerton's director of financial aid, said computer glitches have hit his office especially hard. Students directed much of their anger toward his crew. Some even made threats, Miranda said, prompting campus security officers to increase patrols.

The system couldn't process enrollment fee waivers for some students or reduced parking fees others are charged. And about 1,500 students received their financial aid checks nearly two weeks late in October. The checks averaged about $2,500. Many students depended on these checks to pay their rent and other bills.

Miranda said that his staff wrote letters to their creditors explaining that it was the college's fault, and that the money would be arriving soon.

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