Malleable Musings

November 26, 2011


Filed under: Tools — Tags: , , — Brendan @ 1:16 am

Recently I’ve been working on Stage 1 of the Course Data Programme which was about determining whether we can implement XCRI-CAP, the eXchanging Course Related Information – Course Advertising Protocol.

As background JISC gave £10,000 each to 58 Universities, 35 Colleges and 2 Institutes to undertake a Self-Assessment Framework about their state of readiness to publish XCRI-CAP XML feeds. Their hope was that around 80 institutions will progress to Stage 2 (a further 15 month project to implement an XCRI-CAP feed) with each institution being funded to the tune of £40-80,000. (For a reference point, that’s the same amount of funding that a University will get in 2012-13 for 26-53 Band B students, e.g. first year medical students.)

I’ve been working on this with David, a fabulous TULIP intern, who has also been helping me with a bit of initial thinking and information dissemination about the Key Information Set (KIS).  Together, David and I have now read as much as we can about XCRI-CAP and have attended a number of online Eluminate sessions and a face-to-face session at Aston University.

My perception is that several universities signed up to explore XCRI-CAP as it was originally sold as being a helpful step in delivering the KIS.  However I think many universities might now see the connection.

Indeed, when we met with others in my institution to talk about the XCRI-CAP programme we found ourselves with more questions than answers:

1) Why are JISC really running this project?

We just couldn’t work out why JISC wanted to run the project in this way.  After all, as Tony Hirst has pointed out there must be a cheaper way of achieving the same results.

The explanation given at the Aston session was that JISC need to encourage as many institutions as possible to publish XCRI-CAP feeds in order to get the XCRI-CAP standard adopted.

2) Is now the right time to invest in XCRI-CAP? Especially when:

a) XCRI-CAP still needs to go through the standardisation process.  XCRI-CAP is the only part of the wider XCRI information model that is being pushed through a standardization process.

b) It is difficult to see that this standard has or will be adopted by external course aggregators, even though Allan and other members of the Course Data team have been talking to UCAS, Hotcourses and others.  Without this XCRI-CAP will remain a solution in search of a problem.

c) The recent White Paper had focused so intently on traditional undergraduate students and is going to cause a lot of extra work for staff in marketing, registry and planning functions.  These are the exact staff whose experience we would need to draw on in order to implement XCRI-CAP.

3) How exactly will implementing XCRI-CAP help us with the things we will have to do, like implement the KIS?  Like Bonnie Ferguson at Kent, David and I had fairly quickly identified that although both XCRI and the KIS are based on XML the overlap was probably not that great. Especially because the idea of what a course is, and the type of courses covered, will differ so much.  Within Stage 2, JISC would like us to focus on creating an XCRI-CAP feed for non-UCAS courses, especially online and distance learning courses (thanks to Dave White et al. for making point 4). Whilst my institution has plenty of these courses, I wouldn’t rate creating a course feed for these courses right now as the highest of priorities.  It’s not that it wouldn’t save us time and effort.  I know it would.  In a previous life I was the lucky so and so who had to fill in spreadsheet after spreadsheet of course information for various websites and course finder tools (at the time this included mainstream providers like Hotcourses, Studylink, FindAMasters, DegreeInfo, DLcoursefinder plus a range of more specialist websites that listed sector specific courses).

4) What’s the business benefit for our institution in moving to stage 2 other than JISC giving us some money?  Whilst at the face-to-face session Aston, I was fairly honest with people that I couldn’t see us progressing on to Stage 2.  I explained that I was struggling with the cost-benefit analysis and business benefits.

Despite my nay-saying attitude I found the day at Aston, really interesting and a welcome break from the usual routine of the office.  It’s the first time I’ve been to a JISC event in person and it was certainly an interesting experience, partly because of the sheer diversity of the participants.

I thought that Ruth the JISC Programme Manager did a sterling job in:

  1. skipping around the arguments around the commodification of HE;
  2. explaining the benefits of moving data to a standard more open format;
  3. pushing the idea that such formats should be perceived as an opportunity not a threat (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with her that it’s an opportunity for institutions to show their distinctiveness); and
  4. selling stage 2 of the programme.

I also enjoyed talking with other members of the programme team.  I was fortunate to have both Rob and Kirstie leading the discussion on my table in the morning session and had a good chat with Allan about external organisations just before home-time.

The discussions with staff from other institutions were also really helpful.  After lunch I joined a table who were all using SITS as their main student database. In a sense it was reassuring to hear a set of similar perspectives and issues. However it may not have been the best use of my time.  I’d already got doubts about using SITS as a sole system because I’d read the Bolton case study on the XCRI knowledge base which explained:

Within the existing SITS system, data structures are in line with HESA and HESES returns, but not linked to the data structure and content required for marketing. The IPP (Institution Programme Publishing) module of SITS was available but had not been implemented. Internal developers felt they could achieve a lot more if they had better control over the database structure and built their own schema mapping out all the connections.

Since the day at Aston my view has softened quite a bit.  I always thought that XCRI-CAP was  a good idea in principle, but it was only after the Aston session that I managed to identify a business benefit or two.   I am still a little concerned that XCRI-CAP could prove to be diversionary and the benefits may not be all that tangible.

I think what worries me most is that there’s no mention of XCRI or XCRI-CAP anywhere in the outcomes of the consultation and next steps document for the Provision of information about higher education which HEFCE published in June.

It will therefore be interesting to see whether or not JISC reach their target of 80 institutions implementing an XCRI-CAP feed.  From Twitter I’ve seen that several people (Bedfordshire and Edgehill included) have submitted bids to Stage 2 but last Friday I was in Bath at a 1994 Group event.  Several  people who had been involved in Stage 1 were there and I was left with the fairly clear conclusion that I was the only one (of that group*) who was going to be working on a project plan for Stage 2 over the weekend.

It’s certainly not the best project plan I’ve ever been involved in, but we did manage to submit something relatively coherent and we would have a good team working on this so you never know we might just get lucky…

* I’m sure that a number of 1994 Group institutions have put in a bid for Stage 2, however their bids weren’t being led by their Planning Offices.

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