What does a University Competence Center (UCC) do? Stefan Weidner from the UCC location at the University of Magdeburg explains how SAP software is being incorporated into teaching at universities and vocational colleges, what role cloud solutions play, and why you sometimes have to find creative ways to stop students from copying each other’s work in virtual learning environments.
University Competence Center at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, is one of five UCCs that host SAP software for more than 2,000 educational institutions across the world – from universities and vocational colleges to high schools.
“We basically do three things,” says Stefan Weidner, executive director of the UCC location in Magdeburg. “We host the SAP solutions that are used in teaching environments; we provide technical support for universities and lecturers; and we develop the environments in which the students work and learn to use the latest SAP software.”
Founded in 2001 specifically for Germany’s eastern federal states, the UCC in Magdeburg today supports around 650 universities in more than 70 different countries. Weidner, himself a graduate in information systems from the university, has been working as a research assistant there since 2003, helping professors and lecturers understand SAP solutions and incorporate them into their teaching programs.
He and his colleagues develop standard global learning environments for each SAP product and target audience.
“Universities have different requirements than, say, vocational colleges,” explains Weidner. “But the principle is the same. The educational establishment receives access to one or more teaching and learning environments. They can then either use them according to the recommendations or develop assignments of their own for their students and pupils to complete and submit for assessment.”
Pilot Project with SAP Data Warehouse Cloud
Until the end of 2019, the UCC location in Magdeburg only offered on-premise solutions. “But demand for cloud solutions from SAP is growing,” says Weidner, “both from companies where today’s students will one day work and from universities and students themselves. We therefore agreed with the SAP Executive Board at the end of last year that we would make cloud solutions from SAP available to universities through the UCC. Currently, that’s SAP Data Warehouse Cloud, SAP Analytics Cloud, and SAP Integrated Business Planning.”
SAP Data Warehouse Cloud is a new SAP solution designed for both enterprise IT and line-of-business users that allows them to work in a single innovative environment with the same data warehousing tools.
Lothar Henkes, product manager for SAP Data Warehouse Cloud, explains: “This gives the lines of business greater independence. IT provides so-called ‘spaces’ – decoupled areas with defined authorizations – where a line of business has flexible options for data modeling, but where governance is handled entirely by IT. That way, we avoid shadow IT.”
Innovative Identity Management at the UCC in Magdeburg
The pilot project was mapped out at a workshop held in early January 2020 with the SAP Data Warehouse Cloud solution team. A six-month evaluation phase that ended in July was then followed by two months of intensive curriculum development.
“We entered the pilot phase with 20 universities in October,” says Weidner, “all the time maintaining regular contact with the SAP Executive Board, SAP’s sponsor for the project.”
There were two potential showstoppers to overcome. “Firstly, the hosting costs, which would have been too high for state-funded educational establishments if we’d had to provision a separate landscape, or ‘tenant,’ for each university separately” says Weidner. “It very soon became clear that we needed a solution that would allow a large number of universities to work on the same tenant, but independently of each other.”
And this was where another issue became apparent: “Data protection,” Weidner shares. “The situation at the start of the project was that when lecturers and students at different universities used the same tenant, users from one university could see the names and email addresses of users at another. Also, anyone could have copied from anyone else, which defeats the whole purpose of students working individually or in small groups.”
To overcome both issues, the UCC in Magdeburg and SAP came up with an intricate identity and authorization concept. “We set up spaces in the tenant that the universities use jointly – one for each teaching event or for each learning group at a university. In addition, each learner receives an anonymous account on the identity management server at the UCC in Magdeburg,” says Weidner.
“This approach allowed us to put in place a setup that meets the educational and technical requirements – and solves the cost issue, too,” explains Henkes. “During this pilot, we want to gather experience by provisioning software to a limited number of universities for a defined period. We hope that we’ll also receive feedback about the product itself, about everything that the students noticed when they worked with it.”
Benefits for Students, Their Future Employers, and SAP
The pilot project has been met with a great response from the German-Speaking SAP User Group (DSAG). DSAG Co-Chairman Otto Schell thinks it will bring huge benefits for SAP customers and partners. “We at the DSAG advocated very early on for making cloud solutions available for teaching via UCCs,” he says. “We want students to not only learn about the latest developments, but to take that combination of knowledge and new technologies and possibilities with them into businesses.”
“Professionals who have worked with SAP products during their training bring with them expertise about what those products can do, and they can therefore make more informed decisions on the job,” agrees Henkes. “For SAP, that’s obviously a competitive advantage.”
Schell sees great opportunities for joint research projects, too. “If a DSAG member company has a new requirement, and students work on it via the UCC and help develop a solution that covers an entire industry or market, then it’s a win-win-win situation for everyone involved.”
Interest from universities in the university competence centers continues to be strong. “In the last few years, more and more educational institutions have become aware of the digital services the UCC in Magdeburg offers,” Weidner confirms. The UCC in Magdeburg is also working very closely with the regional managers of the SAP University Alliances program, for which the UCCs are key partners in provisioning SAP systems for teaching and training.
“Thanks to the new cloud offerings, we expect to see an increased interest in our services,” says Weidner, “particularly as it’s already clear that, for the most part, classroom teaching won’t be possible again until early 2021.”
Demand for the UCC’s offerings has risen during the coronavirus pandemic. “The usage time per user and the volume of requests for support from lecturers have increased significantly,” says Weidner. “But we can handle it.”