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Course Data - Bradford College

Funded by the: Jisc e-Learning programme.

Lead Institution: Bradford College.

Learner Provider Type: Further Education

Project Duration: January 2012 - April 2013

Key Words: Course Data

Case study tags: course data, process improvement, course information, bradford college

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

 

Bradford College Exchange of Course Data

 

Bradford College

 

Project Summary

In the context of national policy changes the following drivers require us to review our current course database: prospective fee-paying students need to know more about our courses, a growing appreciation that better informed students are likely to be more motivated to achieve better results and an increased scrutiny of publicly funded bodies requires greater levels of transparency.

 

In response to these policy shifts we have assessed our course information systems. This exercise has indicated that our management of the course information lifecycle and the marketing aspect of our course information lifecycle require a change. This project set out to transform processes and systems to accommodate new datasets and to integrate these systems into a wider enterprise architecture, in a large further education college.

 

The project has had two main outputs: the first was the provision of an XCRI-CAP (XCRI-1.2 compliant) feed to aggregators; the second a long-term transformational impact on the way course information supports a range of business functions within our college.

 

The project needed to address key issues and concerns faced not just by HE and FE providers but also those unique issues faced by providers of HE within FE institutions. An example of one such issue is the validation process which is carried out with an external validating university this presents additional complexity to the course management lifecycle.

 

Through consideration of business processes, techniques and procedures we have been able to initially develop, and then embed, appropriate technologies to manage the course information lifecycle.

 

A further aspect of our project was to explore opportunities to integrate course data with KIS data, specifically the related technical and business process challenges that this required.

 

Our project successfully produced the XCRI-CAP feed and in addition to this was used to generate our 2012 KIS return. The more ambitious challenge, that of transforming our business processes, has been only partially successful with some key issues yet to be resolved. 

 

 

What did we learn?

All course information is complex, HE course information management is more complex than that for FE and the processes are less easily understood. The complexities of HE and FE course information administration are compounded within an organisation similar to ours that offers both HE and FE.

 

This project was particularly challenging because it was difficult to gain a complete and accurate picture of the current status of course information management. Without this it was difficult to convince stakeholders that there were problems. In a sense the XCRI project provided a solution to a problem that many staff were unaware existed.

 

As with all projects staff issues such as; leavers, periods of prolonged absence, new recruits, temporary replacements etc. contributed to difficulties in sustaining the pace of the project. In addition the wider economic climate continues to put pressure on a range of senior managers responsible for managing dwindling resources. 

 

Identities, both in terms of individuals’ perceived job roles, and senior management’s perception of departmental functions, can be seen as barriers to a truly lean and efficient business process. For example the marketing function in the college sits separate from the HE Registry function and while individuals work across these functions the actual systems rarely do so effectively. A wider and deeper understanding of business processes is required to ensure more collaborative approaches.

 

The term quality was often difficult to define in our context. It is applied more obviously to the quality of the course and its learning content rather than to the quality of the information describing the learning opportunity. Anecdotal evidence which revealed itself in the course of the project would suggest that “marketing” terminology is at odds with the  terminology used by academic staff  to describe learning opportunities.

 

Some of the technical aspects of the project presented problems for key institutional stakeholders and this required a certain level of effort to gain buy-in in some quarters.

 

While there are certainly staff capable of and enthusiastic to understand and deliver a project of this scale across the college there are issues around the college’s capacity to allocate staff resource away from other tasks. The high numbers of teaching hours undertaken by staff and the pressures on support and professional staff prevent full-scale involvement in projects which in any small way deviate from their original resource plan. The notion (or luxury) of spare or indeed contingency capacity is very alien to a further education college in current times. 

 

... Our XCRI project did dovetail with the website development project. This was slightly messy because it (the website project) was project-managed by an external agency and as such encountered a number of significant delays and changes of focus. In the final analysis it is fair to say that we gained well by associating our project with the website development project however we needed to be absolutely clear about what our expectations were.

 

Our project’s accommodation of the KIS area of work was innovative in its conception but would appear not to be fully sustainable in future years. In other words our KIS data collection process needs further resource and more crucially needs to be embedded within our wider processes e.g. those undertaken by HE Registry.  

 

One of the early objectives in our initial project plan was to re-design our enterprise architecture however this must now be regarded as a missed opportunity to engage with the Enterprise Architecture agenda despite availability of Jisc expertise. This was due in the main to our own IT department being unreceptive to the idea. The change in terms of enterprise architecture was too big to contemplate and the risks to the day-to-day operational business were too high to push this. In addition the resource within the XCRI project did not stretch to fix any problems that might be the outcome of the new enterprise architecture. At the highest level there is an appreciation of the benefits but in order to realise such benefits a major re-engineering of IT processes would be required. Having said this one key positive is that many of the business processes are now being analysed with a view to digitisation of the associated documentation.

 

Immediate Impact

There has been a positive impact on our use of technology for the management of course information – more opportunities to use the course database have been realised. In terms of process improvement the anticipated impact has not been as good as expected, there are still many aspects of the process that could benefit from a full review. There has been an increased appreciation and understanding of the issues associated with management of course related information; there has not been a recognisable development of skills. Those who have been involved in the project have developed some skills but have perhaps not had the opportunity to reflect on this adequately.

 

The impact of the change agenda associated with, and necessary for, the XCRI project has been less than was anticipated. However some progress has been made and will continue relative to the immense size of the task which is fundamentally tied in to the overhaul of an outmoded systems architecture. The XCRI project has had the impact of focusing attention on the costs and efficiencies of processes associated with course data management – previously these had been pretty much invisible. It is too early to say whether this translates into a wider appreciation for the need for transformational change. 

 

The wider community, in particular those who provide HE in FE, may benefit from an awareness of the issues we faced. On a positive note our deployment of the LAMP technical solution seems to have been initially effective and we will reap rewards of having developed our own open source bespoke system.

 

One obvious lesson from our project which might be shared more widely is the need for strategic buy-in across a range of functions. This is extremely difficult to achieve where one can only offer the efficiencies of data management as a clear benefit. In essence the cost benefit of wider buy-in set against the benefits of improved data management and all that goes with this are difficult to communicate to all internal stakeholders.  The realisation that excellent data management forms the foundation stone for improved systems and strategies across the whole organisation has not yet taken a full hold. Moreover the building of new technologies on top of old ones creates many layers and workarounds that become difficult to understand, challenging to work with and almost impossible to dismantle.  

 

Some further lessons for similar institutions which may be considering reassessing their course information lifecycle would be that it is certainly worth doing. However besides the aforementioned need for strategic buy-in there are issues around resource allocation. Our experience from our project would indicate that there is a need to develop new systems in parallel with existing day-to-day work, i.e. it is not possible to stop mission-critical work or to be distracted from it. However because staff resources are extremely tight in an FE college it is challenging for the development to run alongside existing operational systems. Furthermore with the idiosyncrasies of mixed economy colleges there seems little opportunity to develop, (as has often been the case in the past) an off-the-shelf solution which might be the product of colleges collaborating.

 

Future Impact

In terms of change management, a fundamental question that needs to be asked is whether the change required for better course information management represents many minor changes to the processes or whether it amounts to the adoption of a whole new system architecture. If it is the latter then there are established approaches to embedding this. If it is the former then there are some significant new job roles that will need to be identified. One of the key impacts of our project moving forward will be the raised awareness of the importance of course data management. At the moment we are not planning to track this impact in any formal way but there is a working group within our college management team (CMT) with responsibility for digitising business processes and they will be fully briefed on the XCRI project and given a copy of this report for consideration.  

 

 

Conclusions

In conclusion, our project, in general terms, can be celebrated as a success. Primarily there is a more cohesive and consolidated approach to course data management. The database system is live and feeds our college website. We provided a successful KIS return based on the XCRI database work. We overcame a number of obstacles outlined above to deliver on our key objective which was to provide a consistent live feed in XCRI-CAP 1.2.

 

The challenges of aligning business processes required greater efforts than anticipated primarily because of the complex systems already in existence. The technical aspects for example the metadata, information management and database design were less challenging – perhaps because of some in-house experience in these areas.

 

Of significant benefit is the raised awareness of the importance of course data management which will ultimately result in better student recruitment via our website. There have been some further potential medium term benefits such as the development of on-the-fly printing of course information via our website  – providing cost savings through reductions in print, postage and carriage costs. As one of our international team noted with a certain relief; “No more suitcases of print prospectuses on long-haul flights to India and Pakistan”

 

It is anticipated that work will continue in order to gain more clarity of the course information lifecycle management process. The annual KIS return will allow further refinement to some of the systems introduced last year. In addition a feed has been created to generate a return to the SFA (Skills Funding Agency).

 

The fluid nature of education policy and the perceived lack of joined-up strategy across national agencies is an area of concern for the future. The consideration of “HE” policy separate from “FE” policy across tertiary education continues to present difficulties. The dichotomy is a false one in terms of course management information systems however the national funding and associated administrative structures work against open data systems by perpetuating this dichotomy. At its worst it requires organisations, such as our college, to resource duplicate functional areas that differ only in their “HE” or “FE” administrative labels.  

 

Recommendations

When project funding from Jisc finishes Bradford College should maintain its focus on course information for a number of reasons. First and foremost it is critical for sustaining student recruitment by providing accurate and complete information via the website. Secondly there remains some work to do in shaping the workflows so that they are more lean and efficient.  

 

We would recommend that there are issues for the wider community related to open licences and options on the use of data; (we currently are using an Open Government Licence). This also extends into issues around version control of data downstream of aggregators and the possible commercialisation of data. Obviously a unity of approach in terms of negotiations would add to the position of colleges and universities.

 

We would like to see Jisc continue to publicise and raise awareness of open data systems but in particular to explain the benefits to senior level staff. Furthermore a statistical analysis of aggregators’ use of XCRI-CAP feeds (something similar to Google Analytics i.e. real-time) would be useful. A further recommendation for Jisc would be to try to advocate closer working between national agencies e.g. HESA and UCAS. Very often the requirements of these agencies in relation to data collection have local impacts that need to be considered and accommodated as part of institutional strategy.  

 

For others undertaking similar work in the FE and HE landscape I believe that it is imperative to outline clearly, specifically to senior leaders, the benefits of a standards approach to data management.

 

Further details:

Project Director Ronan O’Beirne

Contact email r.o’beirne@bradfordcollege.ac.uk

Project Manager Margaret Naylor