City Colleges of Chicago: Building Technology Bridges

City Colleges of Chicago is an 185,000 student, eight-college complex, located in 15 campuses throughout the city of Chicago. The college system is huge, twice as large as all the rest of the Illinois community college system combined. It provides college-level courses, vocational and remedial training, individualized and basic skills training, and contract training for local businesses and other organizations.

As might be expected, the collegesí leadership faces enormous challenges in servicing the educational needs of such a huge and diverse student population. Their strategy for dealing with this diversity of skills and requirements involves the development of flexible and versatile systems to manage it all. The leadership recognized the critical need to more closely link the tools of modern technology with the process of education at virtually every level.

The Mission

In 1995, the institution decided to make a major investment in technology. The objective was to create an infrastructure to more effectively prepare students for the employment challenges of the 21st century and enable faculty and administration to provide more services, more efficiently, more rapidly, and hence, more effectively. To manage what eventually became a $20 million technology investment, City Colleges conducted a nationwide search and appointed Dr. George B. Pidot as chief information officer (CIO). Pidot, a Harvard-educated economist, with over 20 years experience in managing technology, was given the charter to oversee a variety of technology projects that involved virtually every aspect of life in the City Colleges community.

"Our mission was to completely re-engineer computing to provide a far higher level of support for all operations," says Pidot. "We recognized that students must be educated with as much technology exposure as possible to participate effectively in the labor force."

Consequently, a critical part of the institutions' mission was to introduce up-to-date technology and integrate its use into the entire education process. That means accessing information and communicating through the Internet and Web; utilizing administrative systems over local networks to provide better support; and most importantly, enhancing the student learning experience by providing access to all available information and learning resources both internally and externally.

For example, most of the student labs on campus have stand-alone PCs. Maintaining a software library for each of these labs is expensive and difficult. As a result, the variety of software programs and the flexibility of the students to use them are limited.

City Colleges is an extensive user of the Plato educational system (from TRO Learning), a versatile educational tool that is especially useful for remedial education. Now any student can sit in any lab anywhere in the system, sign on and use the Plato programs. With e-mail and Internet access, local network access and one set of software (Plato) available to all students, learning resources significantly increase as d'es the ability to deliver better instruction.

Administrative Side

On the administrative side, a networked architecture, with universal access, allows the administrative community to function more efficiently, able to both receive and provide information in a more timely fashion. A simple example is the orientation manual for new faculty and staff. City Colleges, with a population equivalent to a mid-size city, has a very busy human resources (HR) department, supporting a substantial employee base. New members of this community need information, information previously provided through a cumbersome document in printed form, printed at substantial cost and out-of-date almost immediately.

Creation of HR Web pages, tailored to specific job functions, gives employees access to the information they need and only information they need. In addition, HR can instantly update their electronic manual as changes occur, and they occur frequently. Finally, expensive printing costs are eliminated.

With more timely information, administrators and faculty become more service-oriented. In fact, the advantages of e-mail, electronic scheduling and even electronic faxing are changing how people perform their jobs. For example, it is no longer necessary to hunt for the right manual or brochure.

But, even more importantly, the rate at which information is provided increases. Information on policy changes, schedule changes, new programs, new classes, new procedures and other important issues are available almost instantly. That facilitates reaching better decisions for everyone, both individually and for departments. "We came to understand," comments Pidot, "that when we gave people better tools and connected them electronically, they were able to be more creative and more responsive."

The Environment

Establishing the base technical environment was straightforward. The wide spectrum of programs and organizations required a computer infrastructure that offered extensive computing power, high capacity, high functionality, good communications and the flexibility to accommodate the changing needs of the institution, all within in a fixed budget. The Alpha system from Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) using UNIX in advanced client/server configurations was chosen. Oracle Corp. provided the database technology.

Currently, we have implemented the Oracle Government Financial (OGF) system. There are approximately 100 users distributed among the central office and the seven colleges. The application is running on a 40+ gigabyte DEC Alpha with a second machine as a mirror-image backup.

Student needs alone demanded massive computing power. "Imagine the requirements to efficiently register 185,000 students at registration time," observes Pidot. "Thatís a pretty serious undertaking and it calls for serious technology."

Software applications for each of the specific functions are now being evaluated, selected and installed. These applications cover a wide variety of tasks, from financial aid and student registration to recruitment, faculty management, planning and scheduling, reporting, and a host of other needs.

What About the Future?

Community economic development and establishing a strong school-to-work initiative to support this development are very high priorities. One-stop training and support centers in conjunction with other state and local agencies provide support services, counseling, and other help in addition to education.

"Piece by piece, we are building the infrastructure," concludes Pidot. "With strong support services and quality education facilitated through technology, we believe that the opportunity for changing the lives of our students is really very substantial."

 City Colleges of Chicago Web site:

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.