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Archive for January 2013

Posters and Presentations

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No, this isn’t a weird Dungeons and Dragons clone, it’s about the Jisc Course Data Programme ‘Show and Tell’ on 29 Jan at Aston University. This day-long conference was for projects to share what they’d done before the funding for the Course Data Programme runs out (March 2013). And there was multitudinous sharing! We had a keynote from Professor Mark Stubbs (the grandaddy of XCRI-CAP), excellent synthesizing from Gill Ferrell, sizzling lightning talks from projects and demonstration services, discussions galore across the themes of institutional course management, getting ready for better data integration, techies’ corner, and XCRI-CAP enabled services, as well as over fifty beautiful project posters. The day was rounded off with a Q&A panel of experts (and me!), during which both Graduate Prospects and UCAS were able to re-iterate their support for XCRI-CAP aggregation – always a good sign to get national approvals.

My own involvement was primarily as a member of the XCRI Support Team, together with my colleagues Kirstie Coolin, Geoff Ramshaw, Roger Clark and Craig Hawker. I gave a lightning talk – less than 5 minutes, but rather longer in prep time – on the demonstrator that APS has produced alongside Ingenius Solutions: Advanced XCRI-CAP Search Widget. This little piece of code for websites gives ‘best of breed’ subject searching using synchronised XCRI-CAP data, a specially designed thesaurus, and a cunning algorithm. We’re now hoping that many others will want to re-use our method – and we have interest from the Creative Assembly already, so let the collaborations continue… they’ve already begun.

Each of the demonstrator projects gave succinct and stimulating lightning talks, topped off at the end by George from Middlesex University in pirate’s hat and pistol to demo the MUSKET tools – you certainly couldn’t miss his team. MUSKET and its sister project MUSAPI are providing interoperable data services for sophisticated course content comparison, and for linking up academic subjects with job profiles and job opportunities. Fortunately for me, Rob Englebright is looking at the demonstrators in some detail on the JISC eLearning Blog, so I don’t need to go through them here.

The Creative Assembly – Arts UC Bournemouth, Courtauld Institute, Falmouth Uni and Plymouth College of Art – was probably the highlight of the show for me, epitomizing so much of what we’re trying to achieve: They’ve not only improved their own processes for producing course marketing information, but also collaborated on a range of common solutions to common problems (Drupal modules for example), they aggregate their marketing information and are building a brand new web portal for learners in their niche market. Elaine Garcia and the team did an excellent job, and Falmouth placed first in the poster competition too.

I also chaired the discussions in the afternoon session for Theme 1: institutional course information management, for which we had an excellent turnout. After 45 minutes or so of lightning talks, the floor was open for questions and issues. Topics of particular interest included:

  • how granular is the information?
  • can we write Plain English or must we use Academese?
  • there’s a problem with versioning that’s pretty hard.
  • how can we identify CPD courses?
  • managing this stuff is difficult, and some of our problems are the same across institutions.
  • cultural change is also hard.

However, the situation is not impossible. As Gill Ferrell said in her synthesis comments: “Opening Pandora’s Box also released Hope”, and part of that hope is XCRI.

Though we’ve still got a long way to go to embed XCRI-CAP into the HE landscape, the Show and Tell generated a huge amount of enthusiasm, and it’s obvious that many more people now ‘get it’.


Written by benthamfish

January 31, 2013 at 6:22 pm

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AX-S Widget Demonstrator – Complete!

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The demonstrator is now live at: http://igsl.co.uk/xxp/ax-s/ou.html.  This demonstrator provides the AX-S search for Open University XCRI-CAP 1.2 data on a mock-up of the look-and-feel of the Open University website.

As explained in an earlier post the AX-S search facility provides concept-based subject search functionality that retrieves records not only matching the user’s selected subject search term itself, but also matching broader and narrower linked concepts. Records were classified with JACS3 codes, which were used to link the courses to a specially constructed thesaurus of terms. When searching, each retrieved record is ranked in the search results list in accordance with how close its JACS3 subject is to the user’s search term within the thesaurus. This functionality can be provided via the AX-S Widget to any institution with an XCRI-CAP 1.2 feed classified with a recognised subject coding scheme (such as JACS3, LDCS, SSA and so on) for use on their website and has the potential to be developed further with additional filters taken from the XCRI-CAP data such as studyMode or attendancePattern.

There were three main work strands in the project: development of the widget itself, development of back-end functions, such as data loading and search functionality, and construction of our bespoke thesaurus of subject terms, on which the searching is based. Software development by InGenius Solutions was key to the success of the project. It was also dependent on classification of the data with JACS3 codes, handled by APS (who also converted the OU data to XCRI-CAP 1.2), and of course, supply of courses data and the website look-and-feel by The Open University.

The project involved more updating of our original thesaurus of terms than was initially expected, but this has now been largely finalised. Some small improvements can still be made by tidying up the detailed formatting of the thesaurus and these are in progress. The demonstrator has been systematically user tested and refined and the code and documentation is available on GitHub.

The AX-S Widget Demonstrator shows how standardised data and small modular software components can be combined to provide a new service that would be very expensive for a single institution to develop, but cost-effective when developed centrally for use across a larger number of institutions. We are pleased to say that there is already interest from several Universities to include this widget on their websites, and we hope to see it in live use soon.

Written by jennifermdenton

January 25, 2013 at 1:44 pm

AX-S (Advanced XCRI-CAP Search) Widget Demonstrator: Introduction

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The AX-S Widget is a small chunk of code which can be embedded on any institution’s website. It provides ‘best of breed’ subject searching using a specially designed search algorithm to provide more accurate and more relevant results than can be obtained through other methods, for example UCAS’ Course Search or the National Careers Service’s course search service.

It uses a university or college XCRI-CAP 1.2 feed to populate its data source. The use of the XCRI-CAP standard enables the search data source to be kept synchronised with the live courses information on the institution’s website.

To try the AX-S search, go to the Demonstrator web page at http://igsl.co.uk/xxp/ax-s/ou.html and start typing your topic into the ‘Search for:’ box and select one of the search terms that presents itself. The system automatically matches your text with its search terms as you type. You can also optionally select an Education Level from the drop-down list. When you hit the ‘Search’ button, the widget sends your choices off to the search engine held on the XXP (XCRI eXchange Platform) server, which carries out the search. It returns a list of courses matched conceptually to your choice of search term. As well as courses that match exactly with the topic you’ve chosen, the results will include courses in topics that are broader or narrower than your topic, sorted by their relevance to your choice.

For example, using the term “software engineering” will give you results not only in Software Engineering itself at the top of the list, but also lower down the list courses in more general Computing, then in development using specific techniques, such as object-oriented approaches and Java. These results are all widening out from Software Engineering, or narrowing in to topics within the field.

The Widget Demonstrator uses sample data from, and the look-and-feel of, the Open University website (with their permission), but is not currently a live search on their website. For the above example the Demonstrator in its current version brings back over 30 results. The current Open University website keyword-based search brings back 5 specific courses at its top level, plus Software Engineering as a subject of research, and a link to general Computing and IT. However, it does not include conceptual matches, such as management of software projects or computing for commerce and industry, but is limited to results with the words “software” and “engineering” in them. The advanced search functionality of the AX-S demonstrator has also been tested successfully against leading web search services, such as UCAS Course Search and the National Careers Services’ search facilities.

Written by benthamfish

January 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Are you SITSing comfortably?

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I’ve been musing for some while now on the SITS Module and Course Collaboration meeting in November, arranged by colleagues at Cranfield University and the University of Wolverhampton. The latter has implemented a Module Approval system using SITS Process Manager, and their approach had several particularly interesting characteristics:

  • An insistence that academics must deliver what’s been validated and what students have been told about, rather than permitting on-the-fly variations.
  • Academics are asked to write information for the student audience (not for validation processes) – this required some training.
  • A primary purpose of writing information was to enable it to be re-used.
  • Everyone has access to everything; nothing is filtered out so it can’t be seen.
  • It isn’t a ‘fits all needs’ solution, but it ‘does most’.

I think this highlights some particular issues for different circumstances in different institutional cultures.

‘Deliver what’s validated and what the students have been told about’ might seem like a no-brainer. However, practice varies across institutions and even within institutions, and the process of course design (rather than delivery) can be seen as a continuous one with no particular end point. As a board game designer and board game player, I see a parallel here. Game design is also an ongoing process that never finishes, as improvements to the game can always be made. But when playing an instance of the game, it’s essential that the players know the rules are fixed, or the game loses its credibility and the players’ experience is undermined. Similarly, even if you *want* to improve the instance of a course, changing aspects of the advertised and expected course arrangements or curriculum can undermine the student experience. Sitting on your hands and waiting till the next iteration might be a better approach, but does the academic culture or common practice support this approach?

‘Writing for the student audience’ and re-use of information are key aspects of maximising the advantage of process improvement and standardisation using XCRI-CAP, I feel. Implementation of this type of change may be difficult, especially in a heavily decentralised institution, because it entails engagement of the whole academic community and perhaps a change in the culture not only of how to write courses information, but also in the freedom that individuals perceive they ought to have in creating the materials. This is a good example of how an information management process can have a potentially far-reaching impact on culture.

‘Everyone has access to everything’. Everyone knows that access to information is a power-based concept. This may be a particularly high hurdle for some institutions, but if visibility is poor, then process inefficiencies and potentially quality-destroying workarounds or breaches of regulations and guidelines, can be concealed. In many revisions of validation and approval processes, there is a tension between the perceived flexibility of ‘free form’ manual processes (even though they may take a long time) and the perceived inflexibility of digital ones (even though they may be quicker). However, these perceptions often hide the complexity of existing manual methods and cloud the ‘business rules’ that are supposed to be applied. Cultural change may be necessary, so that staff actually adhere to methods, time scales, and detailed procedures that have been formally promulgated in the past, but not necessarily fully  adhered to in the present. Processes supported by digital technologies should model the agreed business rules, such that flexibility and inflexibility are reflections of the agreed processes. I suspect that this is the core technical challenge of process improvement here.

The final bullet is also important. It’s unlikely that the nirvana of a perfect solution will be reached by process improvement and associated cultural change. Expectations have to be managed. Change must be an improvement on existing methods, but each person has to be sufficiently involved in and engaged with the proposed changes that their understanding of the change process itself enables that individual to realise the limitations of the changes. And oft-times the new processes must be able to cope with, or support, valid exceptions and complexity.

Written by benthamfish

January 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm