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Course Data - Aston University

Funded by the: Jisc e-Learning programme.

Lead Institution: Aston University.

Learner Provider Type: Higher Education

Project Duration: January 2012 - March 2013

Key Words: Course Data

Case study tags: course data, process improvement, kis, course information, change management, project management, aston university

Note: This is an abridged version of this project's final report.  The full version is available here.

 

 

Making the Most of Course Information – XCRI-CAP

Aston University

Project Summary

The project created a repository of course information to address issues in Aston’s current course data processes:

  • Varying data sources in central departments and Academic Schools
  • A long, manual and resource-intensive process for gathering and verifying course information driven by the production cycles of the printed undergraduate and postgraduate prospectuses
  • Limited access to data once it has been collated
  • The manual transfer of data from the printed prospectus to the University website
  • Limited version control of the collated data

The funded bid sought to solve these shortcomings using a centralised database. With course data stored in a standard structured format it would be possible to repurpose the information for the website, the prospectus and Xcri-Cap.

Staffing changes delayed the project start by several months. Careful rescheduling allowed existing resources to be utilised to complete the project, but over an extended timescale to allow for other project commitments.

The repository was built on a strong research foundation. A process of discovery involved staff from a variety of roles across the University. Twenty two interviews were analysed for patterns, distilled into a series of process models and then turned into user stories to drive the development of the system.

The course information database was developed in a series of iterations using an agile methodology. Each development cycle added a set of working functionality to the system.  For the first time the course database provides the University with the means to create and maintain a definitive list of its courses across undergraduate, postgraduate taught and professional development offerings. An Xcri-cap feed is generated from the data in the system and published on the University website. The feed is to be re-used to populate some of the course data on the course pages. For producing the 2015 prospectuses, the ability to query course data directly will replace a manual, e-mail-driven stage of information collation, reducing workloads and (hopefully) errors.

The process of building the database and collecting data has raised the profile of course information at Aston University. We now have a much better understanding of internal course-related processes and stakeholders and the system is to become the default holding place for other short course-related information. In the wake of the course data project, the University has committed funds to additional course-related developments. As this project comes to an end it has provided a valuable first step on a journey within the University to improve the quality of our course data and course-related systems.

 

What did we learn?

Interviewing 22 key University staff gave us an insight into the course design, approval and production process. The abandoned workshop (see final report) might have provided greater interaction and synergy, but given the available timescales it was just not possible. We had an opportunity to map a number of key processes which can be held and re-used in future process reviews and organisational changes.

 

The audit of course material allowed us to produce a consolidated list of the core data we would need to hold to use our course data effectively for multiple purposes, with the potential of extending this data set to include new additional material as required.

 

We now have a much better understanding of where current course information is held and by whom. This has been particularly helpful in the case of non-traditional course material. Forging these links with course information gatekeepers is one of the factors that has contributed to the raised awareness of course data across the institution.

 

Our engineers have gained additional skills in developing solutions using Sits and e-Vision. Although the learning process has been difficult, sharing responsibilities across teams has improved collaboration and peer learning.

 

Our participation at the Assembly events, the Developers days and in our communication with others in the community over the course of the project taught us a lot about the context of the project call and the collaborative benefits of being part of a much bigger endeavour. It was very helpful having the online meetings as it encouraged us to maintain a focus throughout the life of the project and gave a great opportunity to hear how others were progressing.

 

Senior management support and engagement is vital. It has been useful that given our size we have benefited greatly from being able to engage with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors and other senior staff to get their input.

 

We learnt to not underestimate the challenges around scheduling the engagement with staff in the University and that it is particularly vital to schedule activity at time when staff can be available to engage, so for example, avoiding trying to schedule meetings/interviews with Academics during periods when they are heavily involved in marking, or research, or holiday.

 

Factors external to the project can have significant impact, internal re-organisations can result in you having to revisit staff in areas where responsibility and staffing change, and factors external to the organisation can have a similar impact.  Trying to schedule multiple developments all critically based around our student records has been a real challenge, managing internal resources when there is very little opportunity to get external resources to help.

 

Immediate Impact

Probably the most immediate impact, though difficult to measure effectively, has been the raised awareness of the importance of course data within the institution. [Beneficiaries: Aston University, data owners]

 

We have created the initial version of repository for course information based upon a core University system that will be used by staff in the academic Schools and central support services. [Beneficiaries: central IT, academics, administrators, Registry]

 

We have improved (and continue to improve) the quality of course data available internally and externally. For example, the Jacs3 coding updated in Sits for the project is now being used by our planning department. [Beneficiaries: Aston University, potential applicants, data owners, Registry]

 

We have created a valid Xcri feed which is published on the website and will be reused to populate course data on the University’s course pages. [Beneficiaries: web editors, external aggregators, prospective students]

 

‘Improving the ease with which potential learners can discover what is on offer at the University is important. With non-traditional and Executive and Professional Development courses it’s especially important. This implementation of Xcri-Cap has enabled us to pull together a range of courses and to reduce the hassle for the individual of finding what we can offer. We are very happy that the data can be used by others to create tailored options for learning that may well stimulate people to try a course that they might never have otherwise.’

Dr Philip Extance, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Business Partnerships & Knowledge Transfer .

 

We will have a system that is sustainable because it runs within a core University system. It will be able to be used (and re-used if needed) by staff across the University, using existing skills and expertise. [Beneficiaries: central IT, course administrators]

 

Our discussions with Tribal contributed to the early development of their generic solution. [Beneficiaries: Tribal, Tribal Xcri solution customers]

 

We have identified uploading and date handling issues in the official Xcri-Cap validator which have improved the quality of the validator. [Beneficiaries: Jisc, course data community]

 

As a result of the project we have clearly identified the need to put in place a module database to support a range of activities across the University. This system should be based on our core technologies, and be rapidly developed as our reporting requirements change. [Beneficiaries: prospective students, existing students, course administrators, academics, Registry]

 

We have developed a system that can be used as the basis of our reporting to the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey. [Beneficiaries: Business Partnerships Unit]

 

Staff within the project team have developed skills in support of a core University system, Sits. Project team developers have also gained experience and valuable lessons in the use of Agile software development. These skills are transferrable across the department to other projects and support systems [Beneficiaries: central IT, central IT customers]

 

Future Impact

The rescheduled project dates meant that the course database would not be ready in time for the production cycle of the University’s 2014 prospectuses. However, we have worked closely with Marketing and Communications’ Publications Officer, to ensure that the system will meet her needs for creating the 2015 undergraduate and postgraduate prospectuses.

 

‘Having information in a centralised location will help enormously towards the accurate production of the 2015 prospectus. Utilising data from a single point should save time and help to reduce the risk of error and duplication, which can happen when information comes from a range of sources.’ Dawn Lander, Publications Officer.

 

We will have a system that will reduce the opportunity for errors in data, that will be up to date and will assist us in providing data to third parties, such as Hebci.

 

By linking Xcri, Kis and other activities we will be developing a sustainable system that will provide the staff responsible easy and understandable mechanisms for the creation and maintenance of this data.

 

We have had brief and initial discussions with the Chair of the UK Intellectual Property Rights Teachers Network about the potential use of Xcri as a mechanism for the dissemination of information about courses relating to the teaching of IPR across the UK and based on a web-site operated from Aston and supported and developed here.

We will use website analytics to monitor the ongoing effectiveness of the Xcri-Cap feed by tracking use of the shortened URLs (see earlier) and referrals from aggregators  

 

Conclusions

With the help of Jisc, we have been able to develop a key system that will be used by staff across the University. For the first time the institution will have a readily-available, centrally-maintained and definitive list of its products.

The system is based on a core set of technologies that is supported and maintained within the University and for which we have internal expertise to further develop. In this respect it is future-proofed and sustainable, as evidenced by its use for the Hebci and (potentially) the UK IPRTN project.

 

During the course of the project we have raised the importance of course data within the institution. Through collaborations begun as a result of the course data initiative we have started the process of linking it to other related initiatives internally. Key stakeholders are now referring to ‘a managed data environment’ that will combine and expose information from various systems.

 

The project has provided a valuable first step on a journey within the University to improve course data quality and course-related systems.

 

Recommendations

As is oft repeated it helps to have Senior Management involved and participating as it fosters wider engagement and speeds up decision making.  We encountered many of the issues common to project planning: resource constraints, scheduling, and changes both internal and external to the project. Standard project methodologies like Prince2 and DSDM Atern help to mitigate these risks when they occur.  Use of an Agile methodology helped us develop a flexible approach to the application development phase and made our engagement on a one-to-one basis with staff and key stakeholders easier and more sustainable. It meant that once we started development, a continually evolving product was at the heart of our project. Stakeholders could monitor, comment on and engage with the development of the system at any point during the project. It wasn’t just a case of delivering a product at the end of the project

 

Funding agencies like Jisc need to be mindful of the impact of sector-wide initiatives when scheduling projects. We suspect many HEI’s have struggled to implement new fee structures and processes alongside Xcri, Kis, Hear etc.

 

Further details:

Project Director: Professor Helen Higson, OBE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Project Manager: Jeremy Batt, Associate IT Director – Applications

Contact email: j.p.batt@aston.ac.uk

Project URL: http://www.aston.ac.uk/about/projects/xcri-cap