Last week Angela Watson and I gave a presentation to the Academic Division on the Kent XCRI project. We explained the overall aims of the national XCRI-CAP initiative and how that would bring benefits for propsective students and others but most of our presentation concentrated on introducing the fortyor so people present to the prototype Programmes Plant – the course administration system we are developing. The Programmes Plant – affectionately known as Audrey for reasons which I will leave you to work out – aggregates the data we need for the XCRI feed but it also does much more. It is a multi-user PHP application which next year we will roll out to administration staff in schools and departments – many of those in our audience will be directly affected by the work we are doing. Faculty staff will enter information on programmes, learning outcomes, entry requirements etc directly into the application. After moderation by the Publishing Office to make sure entries conform to our Style guide and other rules, the data can be published direct to the course pages on the web. We are confident that the benefits of the Programme Plant will rapidly become apparent to all users – though of course we can’t deny there will be some disruption whilst we retire old systems and get users up to speed.
Although not a stranger to speaking to groups small and large this particular presentation was making me nervous – I know Angela was having similar thoughts. We decided on a live demonstration of the prototype despite the misgivings of some of our developers. They didn’t want to be left with egg on their faces if the prototype threw up an error. Angela and I perhaps had more confidence in them than they had in themselves. Or maybe we were just foolhardy? Anyway, as we had expected Audrey behaved impeccably. I think a successful live demo in real time can really boost the audience’s faith in a team’s ability to deliver. Much more effective than a few screen shots of ‘how we think it is going to look’. It makes the transition from some ethereal future vision to something – well, ‘concrete’ is probably not the right term, but I think you get my meaning. But it wasn’t that that was making us nervous anyway.
I think it is always difficult to ‘announce’ to a group of staff that ‘this is what you are going to be working with’. No matter how much consultation you carry out beforehand, there will always be those who think you have got it wrong or didn’t take their advice or that the old method was better. And sometimes they are right. But not this time we hope! Audrey Version 1.0 will not be perfect – like any other software it will be tweaked as the users start to use it for real work. Users will feed suggestions back to the developers so we can continue to improve it and fix any bugs. Even so, we have worked very closely with the product owner throughout the whole project and so we are confident that users will see benefits immediately.
I think what really made us nervous was that in preparing for the unveiling of Audrey we came face-to-face with the realisation of just how important the work of this project is. Not just to the project team, not just to the Publishing Office, not just to Schools and Departments – but actually to the whole future of the University and to all our staff and students – prospective and current. Does that sound over dramatic? I don’t actually think it is. Now I am not saying that we weren’t somehow aware of this anyway but when you have to explain what you are working on to someone not directly involved you do have to step back and put things into the context of the bigger picture. Within the project team it is easy to concentrate on whatever particular facet of the project is current and lose sight temporarily of the whole.
To put things in simple terms, we are building an application that gathers data which will form the bulk of our public-facing output. The Programme Plant will aggregate data for the XCRI-CAP feed but will also manage all the data for Kent’s on-line prospectus pages. It will also be the basis for much of the data that we will provide to Unistats (KIS), HEFCE,UCAS, third party websites such as prospects.ac.uk and other websites which may not even exist yet. All these things are important but without on-line course pages we would struggle to attract students. This is a project we have to get right.
I am pleased to say our presentation went very well and the work of the project was received with (almost) universal enthusiasm and approval. As I have already said it is not as if we didn’t know this work was important but it is worth sometimes taking a few moments to remind ourselves.