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UCAS Postgraduate Launch

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The new UCAS Postgraduate system is up and running, replacing the old Data Collection system (at least for PG).

We’ve been looking forward to having a look at this new system for a number of reasons, not least of which is that UCAS has put some substantial effort into keeping institutions apprised of progress as it was being developed with regular webinars.  Even more: they seem to have taken on board a lot of what people have been asking for, so, in theory, this should be a more straightforward system to use.  I’ve already spotted (and used) the feedback button on the course editing side – we can only hope that people will give feedback and it will be taken into account.  If so, this system could end up being one of the better ones to use.

What’s really got us excited though is that UCAS confirmed all the way through the process that this system will be taking XCRI-CAP feeds!  Anyone who’s worked with us will know that we’ve been working with XCRI-CAP right from helping to write it all the way through so many projects, the Course Data Programme and now we’re working with Prospects to get it rolled out for PG courses.  It’s fantastic to have another aggregator on board.  As the British Standard for communicating course marketing information it is just what is needed to get consistency and accuracy across all aggregators.

We were warned that XCRI-CAP functionality would not be up and running straight away, but we have hopes that in the next couple of months there will be an update to include it.  Looking at the course editing area it certainly looks well structured for XCRI-CAP and I can’t wait to try setting up a feed.  As course marketing distributors for Birkbeck, University of London and The OU this will save us, and them, a lot of time once it’s ready as no keying will be needed for Prospects or UCAS PG.

To find out more about XCRI-CAP take a look at the XCRI website.  For free support creating your own XCRI-CAP feed contact me at jennifer@alanpaull.co.uk.


Written by jennifermdenton

June 17, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Posted in coursedata-tech, UCAS, XCRI

A slice of Salami: integrating course and job profile searching

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The Salami Layer

We’ve been developing a prototype of the ‘Salami Layer’ idea first mooted a while back as a result of the University of Nottingham’s Salami project. This is all about linking data together to make useful services for people, and to provide more nodes in a growing network of interoperable data.

Salami focused on labour market information. We’ve been taking it forward in the MUSAPI (MUSKET-SALAMI Pilots) project with a view to producing a hybrid service (or services) that use both the MUSKET text description comparison technology and the SALAMI layer material to link together courses and job profiles.

Salami HTML Demo

Thanks to the skill of our newest member of staff at APS (Jennifer Denton), we now have a demonstrator here: It uses recently published XCRI-CAP feeds from The Open University, Courtauld Institute and the University of Leicester as the source of its courses information (noting that these are not necessarily comprehensive feeds). Job Profile information has come from Graduate Prospects, from the National Careers Service and Target Jobs.

The purpose of the demonstrator is to show how we can link together subject concepts that are used to find courses with occupation concepts used to find job profiles. It relies on classifying courses with appropriate terms, in this case JACS3, for the discovery of relevant courses, mapping subject concepts to occupation concepts and then linking in the job profiles. This last task was done by attaching them to the occupation terms (in this case CRCI – Connexions Resource Centre Index – terms), rather than by searching – that will come later. All of these bits were wrapped up in a thesaurus. We then made it all go via a MySQL database, some Java code and a web page. There are some sharp edges still as we haven’t finished cleaning up the thesaurus, but I think it shows the principles.

We haven’t used random keywords, but well known classification systems instead, so that we can develop a discovery service that produces relevant and ranked results (eventually), not just a Go0gle-style million hits listing.

The way the demonstrator works is as follows:

  • Select a term from the drop-down list at the top. This list consists of our thesaurus terms of a mixture of academic subjects for searching for courses and occupation terms for searching job profiles. You can start typing, and it will go to that place on the list. For example try “History of Art”.
  • Then click Select. This will bring up a list of Related Terms (broader, narrower and related terms with respect to your selection), Subject/Occupation Terms (if you’ve picked a subject, it will show related Occupation Terms; if you picked an occupation, it will show related Subject Terms); and Links to Further Information.
Salami Demo 1
Salami Demo 2
  • You can navigate around the search terms we use by clicking on the Refine button next to the entries in the Related Terms and Subject/Occupation Terms lists. For example, if you click on Refine ‘history by topic’, this changes your focus to the ‘history by topic’ subject, and you can then navigate the subject hierarchy from there. If you click on Refine ‘heritage manager’, this changes your focus to that occupation and you can further navigate around jobs about information services or various subjects.
Salami Demo 3
  • At the bottom of the page we have a list of links to further information. These will be either links to relevant courses or to job profiles. The former are drawn from XCRI-CAP feeds, the latter are currently hard-wired into our thesaurus – we’re currently developing a method of using live searches for both types of link. For example, for “heritage manager” we have links to Graduate Prospects and Target Jobs profiles for Heritage Manager.

The upshot of the demonstrator is that we can show how to integrate the discovery of both courses and job profiles (and later on, job opportunities) using a single search term.

Oh-So Thesaurus

The technological underpinning of this is our thesaurus, which has the following broad components.

  • A ‘master’ table of thesaurus terms with attached classifications (in particular JACS3 for subjects and CRCI for job profiles).
  • A table of occupation-subject term links (O>S)
  • A table of subject-occupation term links (S>O)
  • A table of occupation-profile links, currently for implementation of the job profile URLs.

Inclusion of JACS3 codes on the course records and occupation codes on the job profiles is key to the discovery process, so that we can focus on concepts, not string searching. This means, for example, that a search for ‘history of art’ will find courses such as ‘MA in Conservation of Wall Painting’ or ‘MA in Art History’ (Courtauld Institute and Open University respectively), even though neither of the records or web pages for these courses contains the string ‘history of art’.

Perhaps more importantly we can find out that, if we’re interested in the history of art, there are several job areas that might well be relevant, not simply work in museums and galleries, but also heritage manager – and if we browse only one step from there, we can find occupation areas in the whole world of information services, from archaeologist to social researcher, from translator to patent attorney. And all of these possibilities can be discovered without going from this service to any form of separate ‘careers search’ website.

Further extensions

Our Salami demonstrator suggests that this approach could be extensible to other areas. Perhaps we can link in standard information about qualifications, just a short hop from courses. Maybe we can classify competencies or competence frameworks and link these to courses via vocabularies for learning outcomes / competence / curriculum topics.

The other strand in MUSAPI is the textual description comparison work using the MUSKET technology. Even via our Salami demonstrator, your lists are bald undifferentiated lists. If we can capture a range of search concepts from the user – parameters from their current circumstances, past skills, experience, formal and informal education and training, and aspirations – then we could use the MUSKET tools against the Salami results to help to put the results in to some form of rank order. The user would then be able to refine this to produce higher quality results in relation to that individual’s needs, and our slice of salami will have stretched a long way.

Written by benthamfish

March 18, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Consuming XCRI-CAP III: Skills Development Scotland

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Skills Development Scotland has operated a data collection system called PROMT for many years. PROMT is a client application (not browser-based) that sits on your computer and presents you with a series of screens for each course you want to maintain. Each course may have many ‘opportunities’ (these are the same as XCRI-CAP presentations) with different start dates, visibility windows and other characteristics. Many fields in PROMT have specific requirements for content that make the experience of keying not particularly enjoyable (though it has been improved since first launch).

With OU course marketing information consisting of several hundred courses and over 1,000 opportunities, it was with some relief that we at APS (running 3rd party course marketing information dissemination for The OU) turned to the SDS’ Bulk Update facility, using XCRI-CAP 1.1. We had been nervous of using this facility initially, because PROMT data is used not only for the SDS’ course search service, but also has a direct link to a student registration and tracking service for ILAs (Independent Learning Accounts; for non-Scottish readers, ILAs continued in Scotland even though they were discontinued for a while south of the border). Students can get ILA funding only for specific types of course, so each course/opportunity has to be approved by Skills Development Scotland. Changes to the course marketing information can result in ILA approval being automatically rescinded (albeit temporarily), which can mean the provider losing student tracking details, and therefore being at risk of losing the student entirely. So naturally we decided to do some careful testing in conjunction with both SDS and our colleagues at The OU’s Scottish office.

Fortunately we discovered that when we uploaded opportunities the system added them on to existing records, rather than replacing them, so student tracking was unaffected. In addition, individual fields of course records for existing courses was over-written but the records remained active and opportunities were unchanged. These features meant that data integrity was maintained for the opportunity records, and we could always revert to the existing version and delete the new, if necessary.

We were able to load new courses with new opportunities, and also existing courses with new opportunities with no significant problems. The potential ILA difficulty was somewhat reduced, because The OU’s information for an individual opportunity does not need to be updated once it has been approved for ILA; our main reason for updating opportunities themselves was to add in fees information, but cost information has to be present before an opportunity can gain ILA approval, so this type of update would not interrupt ILA approval or student tracking.

Owing to requirements for some proprietary data, for example numerical fees information and separate VAT, not everything could be captured through XCRI-CAP. However, using the PROMT interface for checking the data, adding in very small extras and deleting duplicated opportunities was comparatively light work, as the mass of it was handled by the XCRI-CAP import.

Strikingly good parts of our Bulk Update process (apart from the obvious vast reduction in keying time):

  • Use of a vocabulary for qualification type in PROMT. This made it easy to use various rules to map from The OU data to the required qualification grouping. These rules included a close examination of the content of the qualification title in the XCRI-CAP data to make sure we mapped to the correct values.
  • For some elements, use of standardised boilerplate text in specific circumstances, again identified by business rules.
  • Good reporting back from the SDS Bulk Update system on the status (and errors) from the import. This included an online status report showing how many records of each type had been successfully uploaded, with date and time, after a few minutes from the time of loading.
  • The system permits us to download the whole data set (well, technically as much as could be mapped) in XCRI-CAP 1.1 format, so we were able to compare the whole new set of records with what we expected to have.
  • The ability to review the new data in the PROMT client interface within minutes of the Bulk Upload. This gives a great reassurance that nothing’s gone wrong, and it permits rapid checking and small tweaks if necessary.

I see this combination of bulk upload with a client or web-based edit and review interface as an excellent solution to course marketing information collection. This push method of data synchronisation has the advantage of maintaining the provider’s control of the supply, and it still permits fine-tuning, checking and manual editing if that is necessary. In contrast a fully automatic ‘pull’ version might leave the provider out of the loop – not knowing either whether the data has been updated, or whether any mistakes have been made. This is particularly important in cases where the collector is unfamiliar with the provider’s data.

XCRI-CAP: turn 12 days of keying into 3 hours of checking.

Written by benthamfish

March 6, 2013 at 2:50 pm

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

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

AX-S Widget Demonstrator – Update

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There has been a slight delay due to a technical issue in loading the XCRI-CAP data, but user testing is now underway on the AX-S widget demonstrator.  As part of the deliverables of the proejct there will be a full mock up of how the widget would look on a University site (in this case the OU) and also a site with the widget code.  While user testing is going on the documentation will be written for the sample code.

Written by jennifermdenton

November 23, 2012 at 10:23 am