If you have not discovered the effect computers have on your daily life, you soon will. A computerized system is part of almost every environment. Consider telephones, bank machines, computerized controls in automobiles, grocery check-out counters, and microwave ovens. Electronic data processing is used in most bank transactions and billing systems. Why not use the computer for the record keeping, management, and data analysis for your continuing education operation?
In the past, all continuing nursing education records were maintained manually, which meant pulling out individual course files to check on data. The secretary had to alphabetize the course registrants and type up a course roster for each course. If a nurse called to request a transcript of courses taken for the past two years, additional clerical time was required to verify each individual course record. A considerable amount of staff time was expended in compiling statistics for annual reports, such as the number of yearly registrants, their geographical origin, and their composite educational level.
In 1982 the University of Washington School of Nursing purchased a Datapoint system for word processing. A Datapoint 3800 terminal was purchased for $7,000 by the Continuing Nursing Education office in order to access this system. Each staff member went through an in-house training session on the use of the Datapoint terminal for word processing. Initially, we used the Datapoint system to produce and print brochures, confirmation letters to speakers, course handouts, and thank you letters. However, the software available on the Datapoint system was not suitable to the department's needs and we decided to exploit the resources of the local time-sharing system in the Health Sciences. This time-sharing system contains systems of software capable of creating a customized file management system. We had an adaptor added to our Datapoint terminal so that we were able to hook up to the time-sharing system on the Health Sciences mainframe computer.
A computer programmer was hired to develop a computerized office management system. An overall plan of all desired services was discussed with the programmer. An important role of the user in working with a programmer is to identify the basic files which must be maintained to meet the needs of the office. Continuing Nursing Education identified four files which have subsequently been developed. These are: 1) a registrant file, 2) a course file, 3) a faculty file, and 4) a planning committee file (Figure 1).
The registrant file contains the following demographic information: name, address, city, state, zip code, social security number, telephone, highest degree, position, and agency.
The course file includes the following attributes: course number, course title, beginning/ending dates, course location, contact hours, multidisciplinary course, full fee, reduced fee, late fee, cosponsors, clinical/non-clinical offering, mailing tabs, number of brochures ordered, and color of brochure.
The faculty file includes: name, address, city, state, zip code, telephone, degree, social security number, employee number, student evaluation of performance, topic, course in which the faculty participated, honorarium received, department, and agency.
The planning committee file consists of name, department, and agency.
CERTIFICATE OF ATTENDANCE
The computer is programmed such that information in the course file can supplement information in the registration file to allow the creation of reports such as a certificate of attendance (Figure 2). This arrangement keeps data entry to a minimum. Other outputs, such as receipts for payments, attendance rosters, mailing labels, and name tags can be obtained as well.
In addition to generating certificates of attendance for specific courses, the computer (by using the registrant and course files) can generate a summary transcript (Figure 3).
There are three basic approaches to the development of software. The first is to design and program the system from scratch. The second is to locate another institution that is using a program that will meet departmental needs, and to implement that system. The third approach is to find a software package from another field and modify it to continuing education needs.
The first approach may prove to be expensive and time consuming. Software costs are now likely to equal or exceed hardware costs. It could cost as much as $25,000 to $50,000 to develop a complete software package.
The second approach may be more attractive. The University of Washington main office for Continuing Education did this and purchased a software package from the University of California - Irvine campus for $15,000. Originally, the School of Nursing was to have access to this program. On closer examination of the software, however, the program was not compatible with the needs of non-credit continuing education courses. The software focused on credit registration for extension courses. We would have had to hire the computer programmer from California to modify the software package. Also, the University of Washington's (UW) Continuing Education Datapoint software is not compatible with the Datapoint model in the School of Nursing. The School of Nursing plans to purchase a similar system at some later date. However, using the UW Continuing Education system would have required two reprogrammings: one to adapt to the Datapoint system currently used in the School of Nursing, and a second to adapt to the RMS system the School of Nursing plans to purchase at some point in the future.
Leasing or purchasing software from a vendor and modifying it to continuing education needs may be a more favorable and less costly route. However, I was unable to find the ideal software. I reviewed the software programs in use at the University of Washington Continuing Medical Education office and the Continuing Dental Education office. Both of these programs are very impressive, but are too large and complex for the Continuing Nursing Education office's needs.
After talking to several computer resource people on campus, I hired a computer programmer who was familiar with the overall operation of a continuing education system. He used the knowledge and experience gained from programming the Continuing Dental Education software to modify and create programs that would serve Continuing Nursing Education's needs.
The programmer was hired on an hourly basis for $9 per hour. In the first year of computerized operation, the programming cost was $2,119. This includes the major costs for the software development. We are charged a fee for on-line computer time when data are added or retrieved. The average monthly charge is $250. Costs can be higher or lower, depending on how large the continuing education program is and on the amount of data, record keeping, and reporting required by the operation.
The computer, when properly programmed, is a useful management tool. Initially, it can be an expensive process to change from a manual to a computerized system, but accuracy and efficiency can be increased considerably in the long run. The computer has eliminated the necessity of hiring a part-time secretary. The staff at UW is enthusiastic about the computerized system and would never consider returning to the manual method.