Courses are the core business of universities and colleges but the systems and processes that support the creation, advertisement and delivery of courses have grown organically over the years and this has often led to a number of inefficient work around solutions to support various parts of the course life cycle.
Managing your course information is part of the bigger end-to-end process of the course lifecycle and getting it right is key to success in developing new courses, recruiting students and meeting your funding requirements.
Accurate and transparent course information is vital for students who need to choose the right course for them, it is also essential for learning providers who need reliable course information to manage their course portfolio and to share with funding partners, recruitment websites and other external agencies.
When we talk about course information we are referring to all the information involved in the creation, quality control, marketing and subsequent management of your ‘course’ products.
"Although just about everybody uses it, there is no standard definition of the word ‘course’ in UK higher education. Higher education providers use a variety of words to describe the broad concept of ‘what a student studies’ and, although many of the sector-level data systems use the word, there can be subtle yet significant differences in what it means."
HESA, ‘What is a Course?’
Course information lies at the heart of learning providers’ business processes and there are few core activities that do not rely on this information.
Course related information is used in many ways – course advertisement and recruitment, curriculum design, quality assurance, business planning and reporting to funders.
Sharing course information involves the management and transfer of data between a number of systems and administrative processes such as student records, financial records and marketing within the organisation as well as externally with funders and partners.
As part of our work to improve curriculum design and delivery many universities and colleges involved described 'excessive bureaucracy', and 'unnecessary duplication and repetition', with course-related documents such as student handbooks, website entries, and virtual learning environment module shells being produced quite separately, and often from separate information databases.
Students, potential students, administrators, external validators, teaching staff and heads of department all need very different views of 'the course', in different formats and media, to support their actions and decisions.
"The lack of campus-wide agreement on how data is originated, disseminated and kept up to date and by whom means that the success of the operation, in this case course advertising, is over reliant on the skills, experience and determination of a few key members of staff."
University of Kent
As a result of this work many universities and colleges are now addressing the issue of course-related information in a more integrated way. They are working to rationalise the information flows around curriculum design and delivery, and to support innovative means of communicating course-related information to different stakeholders. The ideal is that 'information is readily shareable across stakeholders, processes and systems'. As well as saving time and simplifying systems for staff, this has also provided cost savings for institutional managers, and enhanced the experience of students who have better access to information about courses.
This guide and our comprehensive advice on managing course information, aim to provide reassurance that the problems faced in your organisation are neither unique nor insurmountable. There are course information management issues that are endemic in the sector but, as a result of considerable recent activity in this field, there is now a wealth of experience and good practice on which to draw in solving them.
Improving course information management supports improvement in student recruitment and retention but there are other benefits for universities and colleges in terms of improving the business case for a course, more accurate data throughout the streamlined processes, reducing rekeying of information, accessible business information and simplifying reporting to funders and partners.
Improving your course information improves the student experience
Improving the way we collect, store and share course information is essential to ensure that prospective students have a clear overview of all the courses we offer and that data we provide to funders, UCAS and other course websites is transparent, accurate and up to date. Better course design and information also provides a more rewarding learning experience and subsequent student satisfaction.
There is an increasing demand for more, easier to find, accurate comparative course data to enable potential students to make an informed choice as identified in the Government whitepaper - students at the heart of the system.
Improved management and presentation of course data will help students identify the course they want to study, which will improve student satisfaction levels and enhance the reputation of your college or university. Better informed students are more likely to choose a course that they will complete and be motivated to achieve better results. Overall this can help with student retention and achievement.
"Only with better information can prospective students find what they want, judge value for money and make more accurate decisions about where and how to study. Better information will give institutions competitive edge"
Report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force January 2011
The rise in tuition fees has further underlined the importance of making available clear, easily comparable information about courses, universities and colleges. As more of the cost of higher and further education is met by students, they are increasingly focused on getting the best value for money when applying to courses.
Universities and colleges need to respond by providing clear course information to students in places where they can easily access and compare it, such as aggregator sites like UCAS, Unistats and Hot Courses.
Improving the management and sharing of course information saves you time and money
Improving your course management system and implementing a standard to share course information will bring significant internal benefits, helping you streamline your information management processes and improve communication between academic departments and professional services, admissions, marketing and web teams.
In general cost savings arise from the following types of improvement:
- capturing information electronically in a structured format, rather than having to input from paper documents
- automated data validation reducing errors throughout the end-to-end process
- data exchange rather than rekeying the same information into multiple systems
- automated workflows replacing email exchanges, paper chasing and disconnected systems which each hold different important course information
- course data feed reducing web development time
Cardiff University estimated savings of over £55k per annum arising from having a single source of module information rather than entering the same data into five separate systems although it notes
"It is not the cost benefit that is the greatest outcome here, it is establishing a system where only one source of programme information ever needs to be updated no matter how it is to be published, ensuring consistency in the information we are communicating to our students. This enhancement to the student experience is priceless"
Improved course information management allows you to exploit new markets and improve your recruitment
If you are marketing short or online learning courses then it is essential that learners and employers can quickly find key information about course content, price and assessment methods. Using a standard way of sharing this information helps employers and employees to compare courses and select the right course easily. Clearer course information will give you a competitive edge.
Sharing course information with external partners and funders is quicker and easier
A standard feed of course information helps you share key information quickly and easily with funders and other organisations. Improving transparency and making it easier for university or college to meet its obligation under initiatives such as Key Information Sets (KIS) and the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR).
Our detailed guide on course information offers advice on the change processes needed to improve your course information management and also links to other relevant advice and guidance around curriculum design and process review.
It shares the experience of over 90 universities and colleges and although solutions are individual they share the same stages on the journey to improved course information.
Put together the right project team
Course information is created, managed and used by a wide range of stakeholders both internal and external to the learning providers’ organisation. Virtually every department in the university has some interest in the curriculum management processes, and they have different interests and perspectives on what really matters.
You may find that this is the first time the groups of staff concerned had worked together on a project. This will bring its own challenges but the diverse perspectives offered are necessary if learning providers are to deliver efficiencies by streamlining business processes and creating a single source of data (or sufficiently fewer sources) that can be reused for many different purposes.
Many of the learning providers who have undertaken course information-related projects have found that working with cross-functional focus groups and working groups has proven an effective means of driving change.
The University of Cambridge found that bringing a cross section of stakeholders together to take a holistic view of processes had the following impacts:
- Realisation of how bad the processes were, and wanting to improve them
- a willingness to engage in cross-departmental collaboration to improve processes
- realisation of the wider impact that each person’s seemingly small request for information has on departments and the number of requests departments receive for the same information in different formats.
"Developing the process maps involved numerous meetings with and collaboration across departments within the University and helped to build relationships across groups, who might not normally communicate with each other, or even know about each other. … This has been a highly valuable outcome from the project and one that will lead to long-term benefits."
University of Cambridge
Start with a self assessment to determine how ready you are
Before deciding to undertake a large project to improve the management of your course information it is useful to undertake a self-assessment exercise to determine how ready you are for change.
A self-assessment framework is available for you to use via the XCRI Knowledge Base.
The self-assessment framework identifies four main areas of readiness:
- institutional strategic policy
- planning the output
- management implementation
- technical implementation.
Your response to a detailed set of questions will highlight a red, amber or green status for each of these areas. The results are helpful to your project team in terms of identifying areas of risk and showing where additional effort may need to be targeted.
In late 2011 the SAF was completed by 87 HE providers (64 [74%] were HEIs and 23 [26%] HE in FE providers). The majority of institutions fell into the amber category under each of the headings. This was relatively unsurprising suggesting that the programme was being conducted at an appropriate point in time i.e. that institutions had done some of the necessary ground work but that there was still a significant need for additional support.
Repeating the SAF at intervals during your project can also aid in evaluating project progress and simple visualisations of the SAF status served as useful tools for conveying information about project progress and organisational maturity as regards course information management to steering groups and other stakeholders.
"Tools and Maturity Models are helpful so long as you realise that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know… Initial results from the SAF Evaluation were flavoured by our incomplete understanding of what we were about to embark upon. Re-evaluation using the SAF highlighted that learning was taking place as the project progressed and it was felt important to keep ‘understanding’ under review during the lifetime of the project."
Review current course information systems and processes
Improving the management of course information touches on so many stakeholders and processes that it is best thought of as an enterprise-wide undertaking. You will need to have top level commitment to leading the change.
Our detailed guides on process improvement, change management and enterprise architecture offer advice on finding the right approach for your organisation and step-by-step methods for getting started with the various tools and techniques.
The University of Sheffield realised that 'course data is a much bigger area than it first appears'. It undertook a comprehensive process review that brought to light issues in many sub-processes e.g. the lack of central data on accreditation bodies, and data surrounding collaboration and ATAS arrangements1. The university found enterprise architecture approaches useful although long term commitment to enterprise architecture would require considerable resource. Reviewing course information management has helped with KIS and HEAR.
New College Durham also used an enterprise architecture approach. The college realised the need to develop an information management strategy and establish a framework for managing changes to information systems and now has an information asset register and an information projects register. The college learned much about change management and stakeholder communications and is applying the XCRI-CAP standard to all of its mainstream further education offer as well as higher education, continuous professional development and management and professional programmes.
Get your course data right
Universities and colleges are realising that managing their course data effectively is key to managing course information. No amount of investment in business process change or system change will make your organisation efficient and effective if there are fundamental problems with the underlying data.
Understanding your data by means of a clear model and a set of definitions, applying recognised standards wherever possible and having a sound data management policy are the key factors driving real organisational efficiency.
"Historically as an organisation we have been application driven, however we have now recognised the need to be more focused on the underlying data. This has been the main learning point for us from this project."
Your data is a valuable asset that will survive many changes of information systems and, most probably, organisational structure as well.
Our detailed guide on managing course information explains the main issues with data management, data models, data definition and data standards. It also gives an introduction to the UK standard for sharing course information, XCRI-CAP (eXchanging Course related Information– Course Advertising Profile).
The XCRI-CAP standard has its roots in course providers need to share information in a standard way. This began as a small reference project, then grew into a larger initiative, which involved universities and colleges from across the further and higher education sectors.
"Data is data – ignore the systems… once the project team stopped concentrating on the system and started looking at the data it was a, relatively, simple matter to take two data streams from separate databases and combine in a manner that was required."
City College Norwich
Select an appropriate course management system
Selecting a course management system is never going to be a simple task and as a team you will need to define your requirements and plan a means of evaluating different options before making any final decisions about what type of system (commercial, in-house, open source etc) would be most suitable for you.
Working through a tried and tested decision making model before selecting a new technology is essential. You may also find it useful to explore the experiences of other universities and colleges and look at the types of tools they used to work with stakeholders throughout this process.
- 1 The Academic Technology Approval Scheme is designed to ensure that those applying for postgraduate study in certain sensitive subjects do not acquire knowledge that could potentially be used in weapons of mass destruction programmes.