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Written by jennifermdenton

July 22, 2016 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Privacy vs Data

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I recently read OUseful’s post “Participatory Surveillance: Who’s been tracking you today?” (really want a Trackr or five now…) and then happened to read Tribal’s post “Without data student information is nothing” and the juxtaposition of the two really got to me.

There’s a lot these days (I hate that phrase…) about how we’re losing privacy left, right and centre and how we must protect it at all costs or be outraged that companies like Google and Facebook don’t have the right privacy policies that work for absolutely everyone.  Don’t get me wrong: privacy is important for a great many things (banking is the one that really comes to mind), but the perfect privacy ship sailed a long long time ago.  Any notion that we can somehow go back to a point where all and sundry don’t know at least our shopping habits is ridiculous and not actually necessarily desirable.

Because then we have the flip side of the coin: data.  Wonderful, glorious data!  Data that we could never have conceived of having let alone thought up the uses for even 5 years ago.  On just our phones most of us now have health data, shopping data, banking data, location data, contacts, browser history, game data…the list goes on and on.  And when we start mixing some of those datasets together (either with more of your own data or other people’s data) magic can happen.

Take the Tribal article linked to above.  It has this picture of some of the data University’s probably already have about their students.


Picture from TribalGroup

And this is by no means exhaustive.  Imagine the support that could be provided for students with the right ways of analysing this data.  Provide the right summaries to student tutors and you could have a truly individually tailored learning experience, where your tutor understands that you prefer to work off campus and can’t always attend all your lectures, but have every book on the subject out from the library and spent crazy amounts of time on the VLE catching up on notes and being an active member of discussions there.  Or that you come to every lecture, but mostly to sleep and have never cracked a book or been on the VLE except at induction, and judging from your previous academic history barely even scraped a place.  Or even that you’ve really intended to join in the discussions on the VLE, but you have 5 calls in to support right now and maybe you need a bit of help chasing those up.  The possibilities are mind-boggling.

But this would mean that someone is (gasp!) tracking your data.  Logging it even.  Maybe even storing it so that it can follow you throughout your academic career from the very start.  The question is whether we are prepared to give up our privacy for the benefits.

I, for one, welcome our new data overlords.  So much is done with our data already from commercial reasons, I say let’s at least exploit it as much as we can for useful reasons as well.

What do you think?  Where would you draw the line between privacy and data?

Written by jennifermdenton

July 1, 2016 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Happy International Service Design Day! Service Design in Higher Education Enrolment

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That’s a heading I never thought I’d write – but why not?  Service Design methods make services that work for everybody, and in an increasingly service oriented culture it’s something we desperately need more of.

A couple of years ago we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do some Service Design work with a University in the North around student enrolment.  The standard enrolment period in September/October is a busy time for students, many of whom are leaving home and working out life stuff for themselves for the first time.  This University was finding low student satisfaction with the enrolment process, and we were brought in to look at it from the students’ points of view specifically to see what changes could be made.

Here is some of the advice we were able to give on enrolment:

Make it a celebration!

Yay! You made it!  Welcome to University!  Here are all the wonderful things you’re going to be able to see and do and learn now that you have your student card!

So often Universities see enrolment as a series of necessary admin tasks to drag these poor students through and get over and done with.  Students are often left worn out, confused, saddened and a little lost in all the drudgery.  The key point we wanted to make was that this may be a peak of annoying work for staff, but for each individual student this is a huge event, which colours their entire view of the University, and the choices they’ve made to get there.  At every stage it should be treated as a celebration – they’ve done well, they’ve arrived at something they’ve been striving for, and, yes, the next couple of months are going to be tricky while they find their feet, but the message at every turn needs to be that this tricky spot is going to be worth it, and they are going to be supported.

Welcome to the 21st Century

Many Universities are notorious for an unwillingness to let go of paper processes.  While some have embraced the online revolution, I think it’s safe to say that most are a bit behind the curve.  For every bit of paper a new student has to remember to bring to the right place at the right time, there is a chance for the system to break down.  So let go of paper – wherever possible, let students provide information electronically. Preferably get them to do it in advance, so that you can let them know exactly what’s outstanding, before they make a potentially very long journey to get to you.  Some things will still need to be done in person and will need to involve paper, but the less paper you require, the better it will be for everyone.

The Space-Time Continuum

A timetable that requires a student to be in two places at once is about as helpful as one that requires them to travel to campus from their job/childcare arrangements/home two buses away for 5 mins before leaving again.

The enrolment timetable may be the trickiest part of the whole enrolment experience, but arguably the one that will make it go smoothest.  No one wins when students are pulled in every direction at once.  Universities have mastered this (to an extent) when it comes to timetabling teaching time, but enrolment activities tend to be organised in a separate process that can leave students with decisions about whether to go to their very first lectures or induction events or get their finances sorted.  But the geography of these things also needs to be considered: making students run half a mile across an unfamiliar campus because of appointments that almost, but don’t quite, overlap, is stressful and isn’t likely to result in the enrolment processes running on time either.

Although staffing large chunks of time is obviously a problem, any flexibility that can be given to students will ease their constraints and make them more likely to be physically capable of making it to their appointments…whether they actually turn up of course depends on the student.

It’s the little things

As anyone familiar with Service Design will probably be aware, most people actually don’t mind queuing (and we’re not just talking about the British).  Give them some space, a nice environment, some idea of how long it’s likely to be and a chance to sit down, and people aren’t generally too fussed.  It’s a bonus if you can provide some form of entertainment, even if that’s just information about the next stages of enrolment, or doctor’s surgery magazines.  This should not need to be said but: kettling is never pleasant.

Signage was the other big problem we found at this particular University: having a sign on a door that they need to go into say “Authorised personnel only” because that’s true for the rest of the year, isn’t terribly helpful.  Walk through the spaces you want your students to walk through – it’s the biggest boost you can give to your process.

On doing a bit extra for your students: this is a stressful time for most of them, and there will be those who have extra needs in order to manage this.  If you can provide a well signposted quiet space for students to take a breather before diving back into the melee, it can make their lives a little easier.  And this doesn’t just have to be for students who have medically diagnosed needs: plenty of other students value a chance to have somewhere to collect themselves.


These are just some of our headline points on Service Design in enrolment, and we’d love to hear about your experiences – leave us a comment if you’ve been through this process in your University.

If you would like more information about our findings on enrolment processes, or help with Service Design in your University, please get in touch at jennifer@alanpaull.co.uk.

Written by jennifermdenton

June 1, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Consuming XCRI-CAP II: XCRI eXchange Platform (XXP)

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XXP experiences

Since I helped to specify the XCRI eXchange Platform, and I’m currently seeking more institutions to use it, I do have an interest. However, I don’t do the very techie, database development or systems development work on it, so I’m more a very experienced user and partially designer.


The purpose of XXP is to provide an XCRI-CAP service platform, so it has facilities for loading XCRI-CAP data, though not yet fully automatic ones. The platform has been designed specifically for XCRI-CAP, so its main functions are to provide input and output services that are likely to be relevant to the community. For example, it has CPD and Part Time course data entry facilities, enabling providers to key and maintain these types of course very easily, with vocabularies optimised for the purpose. There is also a CSV loader for those who can output CSV but not XCRI-CAP – this effectively provides a conversion from CSV to XCRI-CAP 1.2, because like all the XXP services, loading in the data enables creation of output XCRI-CAP feeds (both SOAP and RESTful).

Importantly XXP has a feed register (discovered by our Cottage Labs colleagues for their Course Data Programme demonstrator project), so that you can discover where the feed is, who’s responsible for it, what it covers and so on.

XXP is defined by the input and output requirements that APS and Ingenius Solutions have currently provided in response to their perception of market demand. This necessarily changes as more institutions get their data sorted out. While the focus in XXP is on acting as an agent for a provider (a university or college), XXP is effectively an interface between the provider and other aggregating organisations. It enables the creation of ‘value-added’ feeds enhanced by extra data (such as addition of vocabularies, like those for course type, or subject) and by transformation of data (typically concatenating or splitting text fields, or mapping from one classification system or vocabulary to another).

Getting XCRI-CAP data into XXP is at the moment not completely automatic. The main routines are through a manual load – which is fairly time consuming – or through an automatic CSV load (data2XCRI service), requiring a CSV file. In fact (and somewhat bizarrely) it’s not difficult to produce the CSV file from an existing XCRI-CAP file, then load it in. This is a stopgap measure till XXP has a fully functioning XCRI-CAP loader.

My use of the XXP consumption of XCRI-CAP at the moment has been using a push method – I stay in control of the operation and can make sure it all works as expected. XXP has a straightforward read-only View function so you can see the data in the system when loaded. If changes need to be made, then you make them at source (upstream); if there was an edit function for the XXP-loaded data, you would wipe out changes when you next loaded the data in.

As the data content going into XXP is controlled directly by the provider, XXP imports whole data sets, not updates. This simplifies the process considerably on both sides, which can focus entirely on live complete data sets. Maybe this needs a bit more explanation. I figure that if the provider controls the data, then the current data in XXP won’t have been ‘enhanced’ by manual edits or upgraded data. Therefore, it’s safe to completely overwrite all the data for the provider – that won’t wipe out anything useful that we’re not going to add back in. This is in contrast to ‘delta update’ methods that compare old and new data sets and just pump in the changed material. It’s much simpler, which has some merit.

Some of the difficulties that had to be overcome in the XXP aggregation:

  • Use of URLs as internal identifiers (ie inside XXP) for linking courses and presentations – this is overcome either by using a new-minted internal identifier or by re-constructing it (keeping the unique right-hand part).
  • On-the-fly refinements using xsi:type – this is a technical problem as many tools don’t like (read: tolerate) xsi:type constructions, or indeed any type of redefinitions, extensions or restrictions. This requires workarounds for or at least careful handling of extended <description> types.
  • Non-normalised material in XCRI-CAP structures. For example, <venue> is nested in presentations, therefore repeated. As the XCRI-CAP is parsed, you may find new venues or repeated venues that need to be processed. Ideally all venues should be processed prior to course>presentation structures, so it may be best to pass once through the file to discover all the venues, then a second time to populate the rest.
  • Incomplete bits. For example, the venues referred to in the previous bullet may simply have a title and postcode. XXP has a facility for adding missing data to venues, so that the output XCRI-CAP feed can be more complete.
  • Matching of vocabularies. Some feeds may use JACS, others may use LDCS, others simply keywords, and yet all the data goes into a subject field – this requires a method to store the name of classification and version number (JACS 1.7, 2 and 3 are substantially different).

A substantial advantage of XXP is that once you’ve put the data in (in whatever format), you can get it out very easily – currently as XCRI-CAP SOAP and RESTful getCourses, but there’s no reason why other APIs couldn’t be added for JSON, HTML, RDF and so on. This effectively means that XXP can have mapping and transformation services into and out of XCRI-CAP, adding value for particular ‘flavours’ or for new versions.

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

Written by benthamfish

February 25, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

In the Fishbowl

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Very interesting tweet chat on Uni of Nottingham’s Fishbowl, lunchtime business chat about the extra bits of work that are done for clients out of a sense of goodwill, professionalism or just not estimating the time and effort required. 

Written by benthamfish

February 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Typing woes

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Getting the right courses: slicing and dicing courses in #coursedata #xcri feeds. New blog post at: http://www.xcri.co.uk/h2-mm2-xcriblog.html.

Written by benthamfish

February 4, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized