Preparing for the next technical sprint

Autumn leaves on campus

Autumn has arrived

With the KIS Widget now configured, tested and implemented on the University of Kent course pages we are now doing some preparatory work for the next technical sprint at the beginning of November. One of the areas we will  turn our attention to is a proposed re-design of the way we present data to prospective students on-line. Staff in Enrolment Management Services have drafted enhanced and improved course pages and held discussions with other members of staff to fine tune these suggestions. Some of the changes are aesthetic or aimed at making the pages  more readable and accessible. Other changes present additional data or links to related data – such as student profiles and information about Open Days. The KIS Widget, of course, features too, under a Further Info tab. Angela Watson will bring these proposals to the next XCRI-CAP Implementation Group meeting on Monday so we can continue the discussion and make plans to implement the changes.

Although at times the amount of work needed to reach all our milestones has seemed daunting I think the project team has managed to remain positive and enthusiastic throughout. For me it seems like we are reaching a point of synergy between different strands of the project. All these strands are obviously concerned with getting essential information to prospective and existing students, whether through printed materials or through internal and external websites. We still have a way to go but I think it is fair to say that we have unravelled a rather confusing and convoluted ball of  information flows and now we are pulling them together in neat ordered lines towards our goal of an efficient and easy to use and re-use course data collection and publication suite.

However I do not want to sound complacent and previous experience has shown that until systems are released into the wild and used in earnest by experienced practicioners we will not be able to judge how succesful  we have been. There may still be one or two knots left from that ball of confusion.

On November 1st our team of developers will begin the next technical sprint. We have had a largish gap since the last chunk of development but will catch up with six 2 week sprints back to back. We have planned how we will use each of these sprints and aim to start with UI tweaks for the Programmes Plant and Load testing. Load testing is vital as we need to be confident that the application will retain good response times at those times of the year when the number of users which be much higher than normal. It is of course during these high pressure periods that the advantages the Programme Plant will bring will really prove their worth.

We will also use one of the upcoming sprints to create an inital XCRI feed and to test it against the validator. Now the Programmes Plant has reached its current stage we are reasonably confident that we can produce the XCRI feed without too much additional work but we don’t want to risk leaving this until the end of the project. Just in case.


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.


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.


K.I.S. and tell

Distant view of Canterbury Cathedral on bright but misty day

Morning mist over Kent campus

We have added an item to the work packages for Kent’s XCRI-CAP project – namely configuration and implementation of the KIS widget. Key Information Sets are comparable sets of standardised information about undergraduate courses. In an increasingly competitive market, and in an online world where customers are used to being able to make comparisons, HEIs need to make relevant information easily accessible to prospective students. People browsing the prospectus want to know about the experience of previous students and what their prospects might be after graduation  as well as details of the courses on offer. The information provided by KIS differs from the XCRI-CAP feeds in that it includes data from, amongst other sources,  the annual student survey. Crucially it is also  presented in context on the same page as the course information

Final details of the appearance and contents of the widget are not released until the end of this month (March 2012) but the widget will include data such as:

  • Student satisfaction
  • Percentage of graduates of the course in work after six months
  • Average salary of graduates of the course

The data will be aggregated in part from national data sets, such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. But data on learning and teaching, assessment methods, accommodation etc will need to be submitted by HEIs initially to HEFCE. In the future HESA will collect this data.

The KIS widget which will be embedded on each page of the online prospectus – much like one might embed a YouTube video – and will display data pulled direct from the aggregating HEFCE website which will be launched in the autumn of 2012.

Much of the data displayed in the KIS widget is currently available from the Unistats website but the widget will display the data with the programme to which it refers. The user will also be able to click through to the Unistats website (or more accurately its replacement) to see further information on the course, the institution and information about the local facilities, rental prices and etc

(Further information on KIS from HEFCE).