"Data standards are essential to facilitate the exchange and reuse of data. Expressed in their simplest form standards enable, for example, a piece of data to be recognised as a name or a date/time stamp in a variety of circumstances. Data standards enable us to send messages to recipients around the globe simply by knowing the correct format of their telephone number or e-mail address with no need to consider what particular type of communications hardware and/or software they may be using."
Redesigning the HE data and information landscape: a pathway to reform – Interim Regulatory Partnership Group (2012)
- In web 1.0 the internet was used to publish information
- In web 2.0 a variety of communication tools (such as social networking sites, resource sharing sites and wikis) made the Internet a more interactive space and facilitated user-generated content
- In web 3.0 the application of technical standards could mean that the web effectively becomes one huge database where we can search across a huge range of data sources in order to generate new knowledge
The product analogy
In one sense courses are products like any other and a standards-based approach is aimed at helping users of course information compare those products or undertake reliable statistical analysis based upon them.
To take the product analogy further: in a supermarket there are a range of products from many different places, but you can pick something up and know where to look for the weight, the size, the dietary information etc. When you take a product to the cash register it doesn’t matter if you are in an international supermarket chain or your local shop, the equipment will be able to read the barcode and know what it is selling you. This form of fundamental data exchange and ‘interoperability’ is taken for granted in many areas of everyday life.
It is difficult to take the analogy much further because a learning experience cannot be readily understood in terms of size, weight and other readily comparable characteristics but this is not to say that it is not incumbent on providers of education to try and present information about their ‘products’ in ways that enable rather than inhibit learner choice.
This is indeed the driver behind a strong government agenda for improved public information about higher education resulting in the introduction in 2012 of a key information set (KIS) available to prospective students via the Unistats website.
Whilst there are many standards in use in the education sector (the field definitions specified for the statutory returns that HE providers send to HESA are one such example as is the JACS subject coding framework, their use is not currently co-ordinated either across learning providers or by the various agencies and regulatory bodies with whom they exchange data leading to a lot of rework and misunderstanding. Whilst there are good reasons why specific definitions may vary according to context, the case for better use of data standards to create a common data language that can be translated across datasets is a compelling one.
To return to the product analogy the point is that it is in nobody’s interest to have potential students struggling to find fundamental information about course location or mode of study. By making basic information easy to find learning providers can concentrate on promoting their own uniqueness and what makes the learning experience at that particular institution right for a particular student.
Using recognised data standards
Improvements to the management of course information can be greatly facilitated by the use of recognised data standards.
Learning providers are also finding that using established standards can take some of the pain out of IT development.
"Rather than the usual approach of consulting each and every potential user of the system and taking their view into consideration we took the less orthodox route of developing our database structure in close alignment with the XCRI standard. Our rationale was that the consultation process would have been too time consuming and whatever was eventually agreed by users would in fact have to be compromised against the XCRI standard anyway.
"We understood that it would have been difficult to align the (less well defined) business processes to the design of the database modules. Also we did not want to open a wider debate about the metadata standard which given the status of the standard would have been essentially a redundant debate. What we risked with this approach was depleted buy-in from potential users. Ultimately however we were confident that the flaws in the existing database system would be avoided in a new development and many of the new features of the new system would win-over the users."
"Developing the new external examiners system involved thinking about the problem and coming up with a model for how the process/system should work. Almost 50% of the information required to support the process was course-related information. The project team were keen not to reinvent the wheel so they adopted the existing XCRI-CAP course data model. Having applied the model they saw further benefits when QAA requirements changed and they found that XCRI-CAP is sufficiently flexible to make adapting to the new requirements relatively painless."
Keep up to date
Some institutions in the course data programme found that, even where recognised standards exist, look up tables in their student records systems did not always contain the most up to date information.
"As well as the core course data, there was significant work in creating and updating ‘satellite’ information used in support of the courses. For example, the JACS academic subject coding system embedded within SITS did not contain the latest definitions. We created a replacement set of JACS3 definitions for the course data project. We were contacted recently by the University’s planning department who are starting to use them for their internal and external reporting."
It isn’t always easy to agree…
"Vocabularies too have created issues. Standardisation of vocabularies is a difficult process and one that is not complete. It is only through the acceptance of a set of vocabularies that inter-institutional comparison is possible, which will greatly benefit potential students but acceptance of these vocabularies may prove difficult."
City College Norwich
Not all standards are open…
University of Oxford
"For others undertaking similar work in the FE and HE landscape I believe that it is imperative to outline clearly, specifically to senior leaders, the benefits of a standards approach to data management."