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Otterbein University enables content creators and experience builders with user-friendly platform

Otterbein University is a private university in central Ohio that enrolls approximately 2,600 undergraduate and 400 graduate students.

As Otterbein made advances in educational offerings, the IT staff worked to significantly improve our services infrastructure and leverage SaaS and cloud-based applications. Beginning in 2015, they offered students, staff, and faculty cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 to meet business objectives, ensure compliance, improve team collaboration, and lower costs. Microsoft apps provided an opportunity to overhaul the campus intranet portal which utilized an outdated application that was no longer supported by the vendor.


A new, modern intranet platform.

With the addition of Office 365 to the network infrastructure, Otterbein University began in earnest to develop a new in-house intranet portal using SharePoint Online, one of the primary apps in Office 365 and an integral part in the app launcher icon. SharePoint Online was selected to meet our goals of enhanced security, better business compliance, and data management without the added expense of hosting SharePoint on local servers.

They discovered that while it was a robust, feature-rich, and secure platform, deploying SharePoint Online campus-wide as an intranet with a small team and limited resources posed challenges. This included laborious amounts of time to learn and manage the training of content editors and to tailor best practices to utilize its cloud-based file repository potential.

Otterbein first created a unique university-branded SharePoint template to use as a base model for expansion across multiple departments, divisions, and campus-governed bodies. Developing a versatile and well-formatted site collection to meet business needs, plus the needs of all campus constituents, became both time-consuming and not cost-effective. SharePoint development process eventually required an outside contractor/consultant to help overcome these challenges.

Otterbein then came across Akumina as a solution to their challenges. The Akumina platform was able to help Otterbein overcome the obstacles experienced when trying to build their own intranet.

Akumina provided a series of templates and widgets that allowed the Otterbein team to replace its outdated system with a modern image-driven environment.

Akumina uses a framework including AppManager, dashboards, and a tray widget, all of which create a structured environment for working in SharePoint. A site creator widget has helped the organization take the guesswork out of site creation and setup with its ability to select options and build the site accordingly.

A built-in calendar allows for integration with Outlook calendars in the application. Similarly, a form builder widget can be used in place of other form apps, including Microsoft Forms.

Along with Office 365 integration, Akumina is able to bridge the Azure Active Directory, which Otterbein had previously deployed campus-wide. Akumina allowed the organization to immediately become more productive in the setup and construction of its campus intranet. Time previously spent trying to troubleshoot SharePoint was now being spent building and fine-tuning the campus portal. Otterbein was able to get the Akumina platform migrated from its previous, outdated intranet to the new Office 365-integrated portal in less than eight months. Training was provided by Akumina staff to learn and customize the new system. Akumina’s technical support staff also worked with Otterbein to integrate Ellucian’s Self Service Banner, the campus information system, into their app.

Q&A with Otterbein University

Tim Walsh, web system information manager and Tahsha Harmon, director of technical support and training | Otterbein University

Otterbein didn’t have a central and manageable site for staff, faculty, and students to communicate, collaborate, get the information they needed, and perform the tasks needed to do their jobs or get the most out of the world-class education offered at the university.

“What we found was it wasn’t modern, our students or faculty were becoming a more mobile client. They wanted a web-responsive type of communication, and this was not fitting the bill at all,” said Tahsha Harmon, director of technical support and training at Otterbein.

After deploying SharePoint Online, which had many of the features, security, and the back end data management Otterbein required, the team found that customizing the site and adding enhancements was complicated, and non-technical editors had a steep learning curve to create and edit content.

Akumina helped simplify things for Otterbein, alleviating the burden of design and deployment and the enterprise-level security provided by Microsoft Office 365 gave the team the data security it needed, said Tim Walsh, web system information manager. The team was then able to focus on creating engaging digital experiences for faculty, staff, and students. “I can take existing Microsoft technology and deploy it, and use it in a way where I’m more effective in everything that I do as someone that maintains the university intranet,” Walsh said. “I’m not bogged down in working with a lot of the finer points that you need to know in SharePoint in order to get it to work the way that you want it to.”

With a variety of instructors who travel and students who participate from remote locations and don’t even come to campus for every class, Otterbein needed a platform that would provide easy access to resources, content, and all the things they need.

“(Before Akumina) they would have to do a difficult connection, maybe FTP or try to deal with browsers or computer environments that weren’t quite conducive to get to our systems here on campus,” Harmon said. “So by using this portal, knowing that they can use it and access it from any remote device or computer or on the go, they were able to get to the same resources that they would have here on campus with a lot of ease and convenience.”

The new platform and its integration with Office 365 pretty much eliminates the need to sit at a desk, be in the office or be chained to a particular device, Walsh said. “With your mobile device, with your tablet, with your PC – wherever you happen to be – you can accomplish the work that you need to get accomplished … You could be on the other side of the world and be just as productive as if you were at your home office working,” Walsh said.

“Within the Akumina system, we’ve actually set up a series of organizational units within Active Directory where we can distinguish faculty, staff, and students into unique groups so that only faculty have access to their content, and only employees have access to their content, and of course, only students will have access to theirs,” Walsh said.

Managing the day-to-day content for distinct and personalized audiences is easy for content providers across campus, he said. “Within the Akumina platform, managing content is simplified to the point where I can’t think of any other product where it’s easier to assemble content and deploy it,” Walsh said. “There’s a short learning curve to the process, where typically training never goes more than half an hour for most admins.”

Communication turned out to be the key for all audiences when it came to getting them invested in their site and engaging with the content the university values to the most. Harmon said that by providing current information and sharing it in a format they (students especially) are used to like other digital experiences or customer experiences in the digital age, Otterbein found that a much higher percentage of users were interacting and paying attention.

“When you have a good communications product, what you have is an ability to effectively share information, be current, be on the same page,” Harmon said. Getting information to students on the go was paramount, Walsh said. “Today, what most higher-education campuses realize, from an information technology standpoint, is that students are always on the go, and they expect instant access to information,” he said.

Key achievements of the project

  • A mobile-first experience for students, faculty, and staff.
  • Increased adoption of Microsoft Office 365.
  • Admins and end users are empowered to do more, freeing up IT resources.
  • Seamless content management in any language
  • Build process flows like onboarding and relocation
  • Define and manage users, permissions and personas

Faculty, staff, and students were quick to adopt the new technology and have fully embraced it and incorporated it into their everyday lives because of the site’s clean design, easy access and integration with the content, communication, and tools they need to conduct their business.

“We were looking for a product that users would use and find as helpful as possible, and Akumina met that need,” Harmon. 

“The biggest advantage for students and us deploying the Akumina application, is that finally, for the first time in the history of Otterbein University, they can access all of their information from this device right here (a smartphone),” Walsh said. “They don’t need a tablet, they don’t need a desktop, they don’t need a laptop. They can do it all from their phone and have a very good experience,” Walsh said.

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