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Colleges' New Computer Receives Failing Grade

Education: North O.C. district's $5.3-million system is blamed for registration, aid problems.


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 mishaps have hit students, instructors, administrators and even office employees.

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

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 that the computer system has made them more difficult.

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

Professors said they worry 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 College. "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 itself, Jack Raubolt, 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," 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. That sum is about $200,000 more than he'd expected to spend on problem-solving. The district already pays SCT $320,000 a year for training and upgrades on the Banner system.

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

District trustee Barry Wishart said people are slowly adjusting to the system. "Some people are more patient than others," he said.

North Orange County's Banner system replaced an obsolete Unisys 2200 mainframe system bought in 1990. Banner runs nearly every administrative computer application in the 33,000-student district, Raubolt said.

Any time a large organization replaces a computer system--one its employees have been using for years and have become comfortable with--people resist or fear the change. Also, normal bugs crop up as the system's parts work with one another.

But professors and administrators say the problems in North Orange County have surpassed the usual grumbling.

Tim Harrison, chairman 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. On 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, the district estimated 40% to 60% of transcripts sent to four-year colleges or certification agencies contained incorrect information, Fong said. Those mistakes could keep a student from being accepted to a four-year college or receiving a certificate required for a job. Fong said it's too early in the application process to know if any student has been rejected because of faulty transcripts.

Fong said he's advising students to check their transcripts on the district Web site to ensure that what went out is correct.

Clerks are checking to make sure cumulative grade-point averages on the transcripts the computer spits out are the same as on other school records, an arduous task considering 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 mid-call. By the time they got back into the system, they found that it hadn't registered their earlier requests and some classes they wanted were filled, Fong said.

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