One of the complexities of managing course information is the fact that learning providers need to keep records of many different versions of the course. Courses undergo regular review and refreshing and this may result in a situation where students entering year one are studying a different version of the course to those in years two or three.
The overall course identifier and key information such as the title might not change but a full record of the different versions is required ie its past, present and future iterations. Examples of the use of each of these versions includes:
- Past – used to provide transcripts for alumni who may request this information many years after completing the course
- Present – needs to be accurate on a day to day basis to support processes such as assessment and timetabling
- Future – planned changes to the course must be accurately reflected in marketing material for prospective students to help align their expectations
Maintaining accurate records of an entity such as a course in its past, present and future versions is sufficiently challenging in digital information systems and the task becomes significantly more difficult when some of the key information sources are paper-based.
"… there are issues relating to the processing of data, particularly relating to version control. This has resulted in instances of multiple versions of programme information. The quality of course information data is variable. This is because the underlying course approval processes that produce programmes and modules, their modifications, suspensions and withdrawals (and as a consequence their information) are complex, engage many stakeholders and involve multiple pieces of information."
University of Bradford
This project has highlighted inefficient practices across several areas, with information held by individuals; different versions being circulated and confusion about which was the final version.
Arts University College at Bournemouth
"The existing process currently (and for the foreseeable short to medium term) relies heavily on multiple versions of single documents being created and passed to various committees – leaving potential room for error and silo methods of storage of this information."
"… other textual information (learning outcomes and content) held in the module catalogue (also in SITS) was not disaggregated and was not consistently kept up to date in its online form: the ‘source of truth’ was the paper version."
University of Sunderland
"Course data is held in 14 formal and semi-formal sources, and there are innumerable informal records. Existing sources of data are often found to be difficult to access, or hold data in a structure or format that is not suitable for a particular purpose. When this happens, new sources are created which adds to the problems of duplication. Moreover, it is not always clear which of the many sources of course data is the definitive master, which the other sources should be aligned to. Where there is agreement about the master source, it is not always the most accurate copy of the data."
London Metropolitan University
Configuration management was an issue throughout the process, with changes being managed via the distribution of minutes, chairs actions, sticky notes on hard copy prospectuses and future dated changes (>2 academic years) saved as minutes, the format of which can be confusing to the untrained eye and open to individual interpretation.
London School of Economics
It is inevitable, given the complexity and inconsistency of business processes and data sources, that many learning providers have unearthed considerable issues relating to the quality of course data.
"The term quality was often difficult to define in our context. It is applied more obviously to the quality of the course and its learning content rather than to the quality of the information describing the learning opportunity."
"We found that data was of a much poorer quality than expected, or not as consistently presented as the published regulations would have had us believe."
University of Exeter
"Immediately it became clear that the process was both very manual and not particularly well regulated and a ‘dummy’ run of an XML feed suggested that even for the meeting of the predefined statutory fields we couldn’t guarantee the quality of our data."
"Improving our system interoperability will not be sufficient on its own to reach our goal of data being knowledge. Indeed the quality of the data itself is key to ensure there is a trust in the information being reported. In order to improve data quality there is a need to address this issue by establishing data governance and associated processes."
For some institutions the examination of their current practice highlighted the absence of formal policies in relation to data management. In some cases this lack of policy resulted in inconsistent information across various sources such as the prospectus, institutional website and individual school web pages.
"… there was no formal process linking course approval to advertising a course or up loading it to UCAS. … The stage at which this occurred varied depending on the academics and often they would be liaising separately with admissions with regards to putting course up on UCAS. This often resulted in inconsistent information being shared."
University of Central Lancashire
"… currently there is no central oversight of the course finder descriptions and they are not subject to any approval process. The approved programme/module descriptions are also published online via the programmes and modules handbook, resulting in two conflicting publicly available descriptions."
University of Birmingham
"A franchised course will be advertised on the websites of both City of Bristol College and the partner higher education institution (HEI) … Where free text is used on the respective websites there is a potential for discrepancy, which could be apparent if the two course entries are next to each other in a comparison website."
City of Bristol College
The development and implementation of organisation-wide data management policies is one of the most important outcomes of the Jisc-supported work to improve the management of course information.
Eeny, meeny, miny moe…
The University of Strathclyde describes itself as having ‘chronic information management problems’ with course information prior to the PiP project. The situation resulted from the use of various MS Word templates used by faculties for curriculum proposals.
The lack of version control or unique identifiers meant that considerable effort had to be expended by key stakeholders in order to reconcile versions of proposed classes or courses, significant aspects of which may have changed during the approval process (eg change in class or course title, format of study, etc). Ultimately such version control problems often compromised quality assurance processes by making the review of curricula by multiple reviewers untenable.
The problem was resolved by the creation of a centralised process supported by a curriculum database see the section on improved processes.