Universities turning to low code to help bring back students amid COVID-19

Schools at all levels are using low-code platforms to easily build websites that can help manage the health concerns of students.

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Despite continued concern over COVID-19, schools at every level are just weeks away from reopening their doors to students of all ages, introducing a litany of problems that have yet to be solved by teachers or administrators. 

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Last week, the White House and CDC Director Robert Redfield released guidance strongly urging schools to reopen. With the pressure to bring students back ramping up, dozens of colleges, universities and grade schools are now turning to low-code platforms to help guide staff and students through the safety process of reopening. 

Low-code companies like Appian and Claris are seeing increased interest in their platforms as schools try to quickly cobble together informational websites or platforms to deal with the healthcare ramifications of students infected with COVID-19. 

The University of South Florida worked with Appian to create its “CampusPass” site that manages and centralizes the health and safety of the entire USF community. 

SEE: Low-code platforms: An insider’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“We have to return to campus and return to campus safely. We were asked to solve the problem of how we return our students safely to campus. What we’re trying to do with CampusPass is figure out who is coming back to campus and how they’re doing when they come back,” said Sidney Fernandes, vice president and chief information officer at USF.

“We have three campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, and also a medical school. There are over 50,000 students and over 15,000 faculty and staff, and all of them are envisioned to be using the solution.”

Alice Wei, the director of digital transformation and innovations at USF, explained that the school has been using Appain for about six years for a variety of projects and that they had to create the CampusPass site to aid in the school’s reopening process. 

The school decided to purchase the Appian solution and configure it to its needs despite the fact that they already have in-house developers that could theoretically build similar websites. 

Wei said it would have taken too long to build the solution from scratch and Appian already had templates built that were close to what the school needed.

Part of what makes the situation even more difficult is that each college or school within the university has its own reopening policy and some courses are more able to be held digitally. 

According to Wei, the initial intent of the solution is to send out a survey asking the USF population if they intend to come back to campus. If a person is not, then the process ends there. But if a person is returning to campus, they have to answer a series of questions to be cleared for coming back to campus.

With Florida’s coronavirus infection numbers spiking in recent weeks, the school wants to make sure returning students are symptom-free and have a recent COVID-19 test that came back negative.

Using Appian, Wei said her team was able to create the CampusPass site in just one month after starting at the beginning of June. They’ve now been beta testing the site for weeks as the school prepares to restart classes by August. 

Fernandes and Wei added that their use of Appian extends far beyond the CampusPass site. For six years they have been digitizing many of the school’s most onerous paper-based systems using Appian’s easy-to-use templates. 

“Our technology was dated and also the way we were providing service to our customer base was also dated in the fact that we had 16 programmers that were supporting about 175 custom developer apps. We had a 100-item-deep backlog of wants from our stakeholders and they were not able to keep up with this demand,” Wei said. 

“I looked over what the portfolio consisted of and it looked a lot like most of the work was just simple-to-fancy complex forms and a lot of workflows. So my question was what’s the point of building everything from scratch when it looks like it is all very similar things, over and over again, with a few custom fields. There were a lot of reusable components that could be used rather than trying to build each and every piece over again for every new solution.”

The first project they used Appian for six years ago involved digitizing the process of changing advisers. Wei said it was taking students three months to change advisers because they had to chase down professors and get signatures on paper.

Using Appian, they were able to create a digital version of this in less than six weeks and brought the process time down to just one week. The new site became beloved by students, validating their decision to use Appian, Wei said. 

“All universities need are a student information system, an HR system and a financial system. Everything else is a niche product but they’re very similar in their needs, like needing to schedule appointments with an adviser or needing to make sure a student is on track to graduate,” Wei said. “There’s a lot of reusability.”

Fernandes said low code is not a solution for replacing an underlying information system but it allows IT teams to declutter the system and very quickly provide solutions. The Appian platform already had an app built for this exact functionality and he said it “clicked nicely” into the school’s existing infrastructure. 

Wei added that most universities these days are facing the costly problem of updating systems that are decades old and in need of massive overhauls. 

The process of replacing a school’s entire student information system will cost most universities millions of dollars, so Wei said low-code platforms are a good way to meet in the middle, creating innovative tools on top of archaic systems. 

Low-code platforms are also helpful because they allow IT teams to work with specific department stakeholders who can be involved in the process. This deep collaboration translates into investment in the platforms from people outside of IT who take ownership of the process and feel more invested in its success, Wei said. 

Brad Freitag, chief executive officer of Claris, said the company has received a deluge of interest from educational institutions eager to build quick low-code websites that provide COVID-19 information and help to students, parents, staff and administrators.

Most schools, he noted, are working on tight budgets and generally do not have the funds to hire costly software developers to build sites, forcing them to turn to low-code options like those from Claris or Appian.

“Of our 50,000-plus customers, education represents about 8,000 of them. We’re in 45 or 50 different verticals, and education is one of the biggest for us. We are regularly hearing about the challenges they face and how they’re responding to it. Low-code solutions offer some solutions to these pandemic-created problems,” Freitag said. 

“Schools we’re talking to generally fall into one of a few categories. One is building applications around student engagement. The second is around safety and security. And the third is the broad category of paper replacement.”

Like Wei at USF, Freitag said dozens of schools are looking to rid themselves of cumbersome paper-based processes using low-code platforms while others need to build websites to create safety protocols related to COVID-19. 

Some schools need low-code platforms to manage the complex process of cleaning school buildings. As schools figure out how to create socially-distanced school days, they also have to figure out when cleaners can come to classrooms for deep cleans each day, Freitag added. 

He mentioned one school outside of Chicago that used the Claris platform to create a site that asks students about potential symptoms for COVID-19, recent contact with people who may be infected, and daily temperature checks before they enter school buildings.

The school has even made the app they built available for any school to use for free. 

Another school in Southern California is using Appian-made solutions to help teachers know which student is attending class virtually that day. Teachers got tired of using cluttered Google Sheets documents and decided to build an app that allows students to respond with an emoji that not just says whether they are attending class that day but indicates their mood. 

“Low code addresses the fundamental problem that there are not enough computer scientists who can help programmatically build all the solutions everyone needs affordably,” Freitag said. “Most schools are not aware that low-code platforms are available and affordable.”
 
Wei said their platform has been great for students because it handles contact tracing and surveying all in one central place. With the information gleaned from student responses, Wei added that the university will be able to figure out whether health officials need to do sample testing, lottery systems or pool testing to see how many kids on campus are sick. 

Within the solution, staff members can figure out how to help infected students, how to isolate them and what they can do in case staff members fall ill as well. 

“All those things can be viewed and managed in the system in terms of the communication within the university,” Wei said. 
 
“We’re all flying by the seat of our pants as things change, especially here in Florida. So this has helped provide us with a holistic solution to help students and track the numbers.”

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