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Perils of typing

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“With some trepidation” is how I started my recent email to the CourseDataStage1 mailing list, as I asked for comments on a suggestion about a vocabulary for course ‘type’. We have an ongoing robust discussion.

The type element in the course context is defined in our Data Definitions document (http://www.xcri.co.uk/KbLibrary/XCRI_CAP_Data_Definitions3.0.docx) as:

“A grouping of similar courses in terms of target audience”.

After receiving some enlightening comments from responses to my email, I’m beginning to question whether this is a useful course attribute.

The attempt at this task came from two main sources: (i) requests from demonstrator projects for a mechanism to filter out particular ‘types’, such as CPD courses from the K-INT aggregator, and (ii) requests for a mechanism for parameter driven filters on XCRI-CAP feeds. The intention was to cover things like Undergraduate, Postgraduate, CPD – from a course perspective, not qualification. From these requests, I manufactured a requirement as follows:

“The course type vocabulary should provide a means by which an XCRI-CAP data source can be filtered, so that a consuming system or search function can extract groups of similar courses in terms of target audience, without repeating the vocabularies covered elsewhere (in particular study mode, attendance mode, attendance pattern, education level, qualification type).”

My first very draft course type vocabulary for the Course Data Programme feeds is given below, bearing in mind the intention was not to make each term exclusive – you can have a course that’s both ‘type=Short Course’ and ‘type=Continuing Professional Development course’. The item to the left of the slash is the key (computer-readable code), while the item to the right is the value (human readable text):

  • UG/Undergraduate course
  • PG/Postgraduate course
  • FE/Further Education course
  • CPD/Continuing Professional Development course
  • SC/Short course
  • MD/Module
  • EM/Course for people in employment

I suspect that the last one may have been a bit too controversial, and I’d happily withdraw it, if we could get somewhere with the others.

A particular point I should perhaps have been clearer about is that course type isn’t intended to be a generic ‘every type of course grouping can go in here’ thing. We already have suitable elements for subject, cost, mode of study and such like. What we don’t have is a mechanism to enable aggregators to filter out major groupings, such as those detailed above. For example, it seems reasonable to me (and others) that filtering out courses defined by the provider as CPD courses ought to be possible, and we don’t currently have a way to do this. However, I would also accept that this is quite a subjective process, and the link to target audience may be tenuous and perhaps not all that helpful.

This kind of discussion raises some important issues, not just concerning whether someone can find a suitable course, but also concerning setting the agenda about, or putting boundaries around things, that perhaps shouldn’t be constrained in that way. This is a common issue with vocabularies (’cause of death’ on death certificates being probably one of the most famous / infamous). One of our thoughtful respondents mentioned that there is an ethical dimension to trying to define a target audience. Courses may be labelled as one thing may be entirely suitable for a learner not in that group, and it is preferable to let the learner decide on the suitability of the learning opportunity, because it is the learner that knows his or her specific needs.

While I can accept that argument, it still seems to me that we ought to be able to provide some facility that enables a service owner seeking to aggregate and display data about CPD courses to do so. At least we’re not describing courses as ‘vocational’ and ‘non-vocational’.


Written by benthamfish

November 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm

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