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Collectible Course Information: A Quick Look at UCAS’ Course Collect

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We’ve been working recently with a couple of our university clients on the brand spanking new UCAS Course Collect system. This is a data entry service, or if you prefer, a part of the UCAS website where you can key in courses information. It captures information for course marketing purposes and relevant stuff for the UCAS admissions system. It replaces the old netupdate / web-link for courses.

Course Collect Screen Shot

Course Collect Screen Shot

Like all new systems, Course Collect has had a few teething troubles from a university or college perspective. Getting used to a new system for keying is always a bit of a trial, and Course Collect gathers more data within a more structured information model, so it’s almost bound to be complex. We now have Programme > Subject Option >Course > Stage as the structure instead of the very flat one in netupdate. So there’s more flexibility in how the data is represented, but a greater demand for data on universities and colleges.

Data was migrated in May from the old netupdate service, so our early summer has been taken up with checking the data, amending errors on migration, and adding in new courses to be ready for Clearing and then the new season. And of course, we’re managing both 2013 and 2014 entry data.

Particular problematic areas were:

  • Some slight glitches in approving migrated data, especially where the migrated data was too large for the new field size. This took a few weeks to resolve.
  • Paging of lists limited to 15
  • Establishing how to get entry requirements information to appear in the right place in the new course finder tool on the UCAS website, which uses Course Collect data.
  • Complications around showing admissions tests and esoteric prerequisites
  • An annoying lack of Help in the Help system
  • A rather messy mess in the Entry Profiles area, which won’t be settled until early September
  • And at the moment it doesn’t want to work on my Chrome setup.

As we’re really XCRI-CAP people at heart, we continue to encourage UCAS to dispense with this old-fashioned ‘key everything in’ method of data collection and to adopt the XCRI-CAP information standard for bulk updating. To that end I’ve [ed: Alan that is] been doing some mapping of XCRI-CAP to UCAS Course Collect, and also having some thoughts about how a process of getting XCRI-CAP data into the UCAS system might be made to work.

Course Collect Bulk Update Process

Draft Course Collect Bulk Update Process

Our conclusion on Course Collect is ‘the jury’s still out’. Now that we’re down to maintaining the data and only adding in new courses occasionally, it might represent an improvement on the old services. However, my personal view is that we need some good quality management and reporting facilities, and a better workflow sub-system to bring this service up to ‘good’.


Written by benthamfish

July 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm

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

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