Personalised access to financial information - Manchester Metropolitan University
“You need to have coordinated engagement which looks at curriculum, business process, technology, pedagogy and cultural change.” Professor Mark Stubbs, Head of the Department of Learning and Research Technologies
When Manchester Metropolitan University reviewed its learning technologies it made a significant investment in a new integrated VLE and repository. This was part of a strategic drive to modernise the way students interact with the university.
Deputy Vice Chancellor Kevin Bonnett explains: “We are a very large university with a diverse curriculum offer; some 38,000 students study here in eight faculties and, in 2008, we had a dispersed campus with devolved administrative and academic structures. In a digital age, there was a pressing need to move beyond fragmentation towards something more centralised which can offer a more coherent, efficient and professional experience for students.”
Extensive focus groups revealed that what students wanted above all was a one-stop shop for everything they needed: timetables, deadlines, recorded marks, course and financial information. All of these live in different corporate systems, as in the case of financial information. Students wanted an easy to understand, informative web application to allow them direct contact with Finance and alert them to financial information each time they log in to check email or access the student portal.
The question was how to increase the flow of financial information between Financial and Legal Services and individual students. As part of the JISC-funded W2C (Widgets, Web-Cloud Services) project, the Department of Learning and Research Technology worked with the University’s Financial and Legal Services department to developed a new web application that allows students to see an overview of their financial information whenever they log in to the myMMU SharePoint portal.
Handling sensitive data
All financial information is held within the University’s SAP finance system. Part of the challenge was to ensure complete security and privacy around personal financial data. The two teams quickly agreed on a service-oriented approach in which nightly reports inside the SAP system would feed through summarised fee status information for each student in a database table. This table was visible to a web service written by the Financial and Legal Services team. A second web service would allow students to request a full financial statement be emailed to their registered email address. To accelerate development and testing, the Learning and Research Technology team decided to create proxy web services that would eventually call the financial web services but could return test data in the interim.
To meet security and privacy requirements
- A process within SAP summarised sensitive financial data and exported them to a table as student id and fee status indicators only, no value data was visible.
- A database user with read-only access to the summarised table was set up to make queries for the finance web service
- A token-based protocol, using a one-way hash of parameters with a timestamp and shared secret, was agreed to enable the financial web services to confirm they had been called by a legitimate user before responding
- Firewall settings ensured that only trusted machines could access the financial web services
The token-based protocol was also used for the proxy web services, which forwarded calling parameters and tokens to the financial web services and returned responses received.
Green light for up-to-date financial information
The new application gives students access to a personalised traffic light summary of their financial standing across three categories: tuition, accommodation and other fees [see figure 1]. It highlights urgent messages about overdue fees, provide an easy-to-understand breakdown of which fees are due, and allow students to request a detailed financial statement to be emailed to them.
Figure 1, My MMU system
By displaying this information on the front page of the portal, students are immediately made aware of any urgent financial issues. This, along with current credit control procedures including telephone, texts, letters and emails, provides the student with up to date information.
The application consists of a front-end implemented in SharePoint Web Parts, and a web services backend
“We demonstrated that we were able to deliver personalised content from corporate systems with suitable security and privacy. The fees web service is generally regarded as an exemplar of collaborative development within the institution.” Mark Stubbs
After intensive testing, the new fee status application was released via the myMMU portal to all first year students in November 2010.
Initial feedback from students has been very positive. The successful collaboration between the two departments to develop a service-oriented approach with up-to-date information while ensuring complete security and privacy around personal financial data. Credit Control Manager Paul Sheil comments: “We are now working on Phase Three which, when completed, will allow us to feed through student-specific messages and provide them with important information that will further enhance their time here.”
The Learning and Research Technologies team feel they have only just begun the work by addressing what they call key hygiene factors. Next steps include the development of a new mobile strategy for 2013 – working with students on what they want to see on their mobiles. Mark Stubbs concludes: “Our work so far has been about being consistent, putting web services on top of our corporate systems, as essential foundation work for making an engaging mobile experience for our students.“
Since the service was launched to students in November 2010:
- The web service that retrieves financial traffic lights has been accessed over 2.5 million times.
- Over 4,700 students have followed up on the traffic light indicators to request a detailed a detailed financial statement.
Easy access financial information
Understanding how our fees web-services are being used