Preparing the online prospectus

Since December things have moved on incredibly fast with the Kent Xcri Project. Thanks to the dedication of the web development team (who are literally working all hours on the project even when off-sprint), we now have a fully-fledged ‘superuser’ version of our new content management system and have started entering all the course data for our new undergraduate prospectus. The system is a pleasure to use and flexible enough to deal with forgotten fields and last-minute changes. In the next sprint we are continuing to look at the front-end, final backend issues and the xcri cap feed.

Within Enrolment Management Services, we are continuing to review the best way to present our course pages (editorially-speaking) which is challenging given the timeframe and the sheer amount of programme data to enter.

However, a great benefit of the system is that we can eventually allow editors within academic schools to contribute to these pages directly within the CMS. This will be a great step forward – after all, Schools know the most about their subject and their students. It’s definitely a very busy time for all involved but it feels like we are making excellent progress.


When projects collide

I am sure many institutions working on the XCRI project will sympathise with how tricky it can be juggling work on both XCRI and KIS (and trying to maintain service as usual!).

Last week my colleagues and I found ourselves spinning our KIS plates (providing a list of 400+ URLs for the data submission; gathering up KISCOURSEIDs and working out just what to do with that widget…) with our XCRI plates (trying to suss out the data definitions, testing the new CMS and providing feedback to the developers).

We’re also working on the postgraduate online prospectus and then there’s that small matter of Clearing…

But if there is one thing that’s cheered me through the last week, it has been reading the JISC progress report summary and reading about the experiences of other universities working on the project.

I am amazed at how similar everyone’s experiences are to each other, and to our own. The recurring themes were the undocumented and haphazard ways in which course information is generated, used, passed on and dispensed with. Not to mention the sheer complexity of the whole operation and the potential difficulties with trying to systematise such vast and sprawling processes.

Reading the report, I felt reassured that we were not alone and a little inspired by the common recognition of how important this project is for our institutions. Working on these multiple projects  is a bit of a juggling act for all involved but it helps us to see how things connect and feed into each other which I hope will benefit our work on the project as a whole.


User testing our UG online prospectus

Recently my colleague Fritha Hassell and I conducted a user testing study on our undergraduate online prospectus pages.

We wanted to know how effective the current layout of our course pages are and whether there are any areas of the online prospectus causing setbacks for our users.

This is to help inform the improvements we make to our online prospectus and in particular to  the 2014 UG online prospectus, which we hope will be the first prospectus outputted using the new CMS.

The study was conducted with year 12 students in a number of schools – with six participants in total. Users were asked to conduct a series of tasks such as researching  information about a programme of study; finding out how to apply for it and looking up information about fees and funding.

We couldn’t have asked for better participants and the insights they gave us were invaluable. We learned a lot – such as that a colour we were using for callouts made users think they were ‘greyed out’ and unimportant (we swiftly changed that colour!)

We also discovered a few blindspots on our course pages and that some information isn’t as clear as it could be. However, we were pleased to find that  the layout of our programme pages generally works well – so they’ll just need a few tweaks and of course we’ll need to figure out how to house a KIS widget on each of them.

For those interested in user testing, I can thoroughly recommend the training given by the Neilsen Norman Group and the book Rocket Science Made Easy by Steve Krug which gives sample scripts and helps you plan a study from start to finish.

We have also purchased the user testing software Morae which we trialled on this study. We’ve had a few glitches so far with the observer software but have managed to record the user testing with the screen recorder, which is great for capturing the usability issues in action.

All in all a successful study and it was really interesting to hear what the school pupils thought about going to university and how they went about researching and choosing a course for them.


IWMW: Xcri-cap files workshop

At this year’s IWMW (Institutional Web Management Workshop) I attended a workshop session on xcri-cap facilitated by Rob Englebright, from JISC and Claire Gibbons, Web and Marketing Manager at the University of Bradford.

A few attendees at the workshop came from one of the 63 institutions involved in the JISC course data programme (the xcri-cap project). Others were not involved but keen to find out how xcri-cap might benefit their institutions.

It was really interesting to hear Claire Gibbons talk about how Bradford are using the project to refine their course information handling processes, with the full backing of senior management. Having worked on Kent’s corporate website for five years, I saw many parallels between their experiences and ours at Kent.

Like Kent, updates to Bradford’s online prospectuses have historically been driven by the annual publication of print prospectuses, with the prospectus text then being cut and pasted online. Of course, this is not ideal because it doesn’t make the most of the online medium.

Print prospectuses tend to group programmes of study into broader subject areas – there just isn’t space to give a detailed description of each and every course.

Online there is the potential to produce course catalogues containing detailed information about each programme. At Kent, our course catalogues contain programme pages but many of them would benefit from more detailed, programme-specific content.

Producing an effective online course catalogue is a chief goal of our work on the xcri-cap project. For us, the steps to achieving this are:

  • Developing a CMS with workflow – to store, manage and output course data online
  • Collating the necessary information about each programme, and
  • Establishing a suitable process for keeping online course information up-to-date throughout the year

These are undoubtedly steps worth taking when you consider that an aim of the xcri-cap project is to allow prospective students to compare courses from a range of institutions. More pressingly, from September 2012 all universities will be required to carry a KIS ‘widget’ (a sidebar) on each of their undergraduate programme web pages.

The widget will display course-specific data aimed at helping students to decide whether the course is right for them and will represent value for money.  Producing more bespoke programme pages will help us contextualise the KIS data and help inform the decision-making of prospective students. The better suited a student is to a course, the more likely they are to graduate with a well-earned degree.

So there’s everything to gain from providing accurate and bespoke course information online.   The question for is: how do we best achieve this? As readers of this blog will know, we are already developing a new course content management system. However, as many of us at the workshop agreed, it’s important  to keep sight of understanding, developing and refining the people-based processes which must lie at the heart of an efficient course information management system.