APS Updates

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.

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Written by benthamfish

January 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm

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