The University of NSW Faculty of Medicine has developed an in-house student management system, dubbed eMed, which has remained cost competitive with commercial software for seven years and is now being extended into the Web 2.0 paradigm.
As the core internal undergraduate application for some 1500 students across six years, eMed has iterated through several major releases.
IT manager Luc Betbeder said there was nothing that “spoke our language” available in the market in 2003 to 2004 that supported the undergraduate capabilities the way the faculty needed and “those systems are just gaining credibility”.
With the application designed to be service-oriented from the start, the faculty has been able to extend its functionality by integrating it with other internal and public systems.
eMed ties into the university’s authentication system for single sign-on, and the general practitioner placement app is tied to Google Earth, so students can choose placement based on selection criteria and location.
“We build tools as they are needed, including specialist teaching and research apps,” Betbeder said. “Users submit features they want and we will assign development time to the ideas with the most merit.”
The application is developed with Lotus Domino and consists of individual databases with specific requirements all “loosely tied together”.
Betbeder says the Notes development environment has been good for mixing open source and commercial products, which add to the flexibility of the application.
“Open source is great and we use it aggressively in the development space, but the app server needs to run flawlessly. We are very pleased with the mix of open and licensed software,” he said.
“We can version our timetable system this year while leaving the rest untouched. The flexibility been successful for us as we can do point releases as users need them.”
With the equivalent of one full-time developer working on it, Betbeder says the cost to maintain it is minimal and: “Part of our toolbox of skills is Lotus development skills and Notes admin skills.”
eMed is hosted on a clustered domino environment running across both the university’s data centres.
To migrate eMed to a commercial application, Betbeder says it would have to be business cased “in a big way” because it is used for timetabling, submitting and assignments and houses every activity for the past six years inside its database.
“The content is well understood. We can snapshot what we have and compare it with things in the market, but it's actually cheap to maintain,” he said “It would take something cool and awesome to convert it across to something from a shop.”
Could an app like eMed be hosted in the cloud? Betbeder says that since the apps are entirely Web-based, the faculty has already been doing cloud computing since 2002.
“Would we host them somewhere else? The uni has good infrastructure and UNSW IT manages the servers and I manage the apps,” he said. “It doesn't matter to me if I cut it across to IBM in the cloud, but it might be an extra network traffic cost that I would have to bear.”
Being a core student app and knowledge base, eMed may also tie into social media services and the students are “incredible collaborators and they use modern tools aggressively”.
Will the university ever commercialise eMed? The faculty has spoken to other institutions about sharing the tool, but hasn't progressed it.
“We have been generous with sharing our meta knowledge about the program and because we are a university we are happy to share,” Betbeder said.