Improved processes are not an end in themselves but they are the means of delivering organisational efficiencies and allowing organisations to do their core business better. It is abundantly clear from a range of Jisc programmes that poor design of business processes inhibits good learning, teaching and research. A guide in the core good practice series provides a starting point with process improvement based on tried and tested good practice.
This section looks at some examples of the benefits delivered through improving processes related to the management of course information.
A number of Jisc programmes eg institutional approaches to curriculum design (2008-2012) and assessment and feedback (2011-2014) required participating institutions to undertake baseline reviews so that they could measure the extent of process improvements undertaken and reports on those baseline reviews have been published. Along with the section on culture and process in this infoKit they provide a reference source against which to compare the revised processes:
Although process change, and the associated systems developments, are still very much work in progress in many places, many organisations have already taken some very significant steps and tangible benefits have been realised. These include:
- a ‘single source of truth’ in terms of centralised databases of information
- improved version control
- improved workflows
- automation of manual processes
- some centralisation of data input
The course ecosystem
Although we state that poor design of business processes inhibits good learning, teaching and research, there is often a somewhat ambiguous relationship between administration and pedagogy that threads its way through many course-related processes. A good example is the process of course design and approval.
Many have debated whether the formal administrative processes and learning design are separate parallel activities or whether they should/can be integrated. A strong message from the curriculum design programme is that improved approval and review processes aid rather than inhibit good educational design. In particular a ‘single source of truth’ permits:
- transparency that engenders confidence and hence eliminates duplication
- automation that frees time for creativity
- support for a more collaborative development approach
- contextual information, advice and guidance
- support for continuous improvement rather than ‘high stakes’ periodic review
We can now think of the component parts less as parallel processes and more as an ecosystem.
"There is a better understanding now of the connection between basic aspects of the curriculum and the student experience… it doesn’t matter how good teaching and learning is, it will be dragged down if the basics aren’t in place, like knowing where you are supposed to be, what assignments will be set and when the submission dates are."
Manchester Metropolitan University: In the throes of change
Most of these topics are discussed further in the sections that cover their actual outcomes ie efficiency savings and academic benefit but here we highlight a few examples of significant process improvement. More can also be found in the section on experiences of managing course information and in the organisational experiences resource where individual case studies provide more information on techniques and technologies used.
Birmingham City University
BCU found that its course approval process was bureaucratic and geared towards ‘set-piece’ approval events. The outcome of this was that staff tended to focus more on producing the artefacts needed to jump the administrative hurdles than they did on good learning design.
Through the T-SPARC project (Technology Supported Processes for Agile and Responsive Curricula) BCU developed and piloted a radically different process for curriculum design and approval based firmly on the philosophy that better processes result in better courses. The new process dispenses with the conventional end-point focus on documentation and instead has the expectation that programmes will be designed iteratively with input from a variety of stakeholders, including those tasked with conferring approval. The process is supported by a SharePoint infrastructure that allows the combination of a rich variety of resources to form an audit trail of activity that reflects the ‘lived experience’ of course design and which is verified as part of the, entirely online, approval process.
Find out more:
Outputs from the T-SPARC project include an institutional story, an evaluation report, a model for stakeholder engagement and many other resources including a Rough Guide to Curriculum Design and a SharePoint blog detailed the technical journey.
The University was spending significant sums on developing curricula with little in the way of a business case and many of the courses never reached the stage of recruiting students. Processes were complex and course information was held in five separate systems.
The PALET project (Programme Approval Lean Electronic Toolset) project took a Lean approach to process improvement streamlining all programme approval and management processes and introducing a more formalised approach to business planning. Although its initial focus was the approval of entirely new programmes, the scope of the project was extended to include the development of new programmes, changes to existing programmes and the ongoing, yearly management of programme and module information. It has developed a single source of course information and has created a new, holistic context for how Cardiff University approaches the design, management and communication of its educational provision.
Find out more:
Outputs from the PALET project include an institutional story, an evaluation report, the full technical specification for their academic database based around the SITS student record system and many other resources including details of their Lean approach to process improvement.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU)
MMU is a very large higher education institution (HEI) and differing practice across organisation increased costs and had a detrimental effect on the student experience. Professor Mark Stubbs, noted that ‘We reach uncomfortable agreement over sub optimal processes’ and suggested one of the main reasons for this is that the sheer number of interdependencies between processes makes it very hard to actually change anything. He suggests that whilst it is often relatively easy to identify problems with an existing process it is less easy to think through a totally joined up alternative. In his analysis ‘Institutional processes survive by rolling over what we did last year and fiddling it a bit.’
MMU undertook a radical approach to improving the way it manages its course portfolio. The MMU response to the problem stated above was to change everything! MMU decided that things had grown too convoluted over time and an overhaul of the entire undergraduate curriculum and associated processes was required. A rewrite of the undergraduate curriculum, linking learning outcomes to employability outcomes, revising the programme approval process, developing an online curriculum database and introducing many new systems for students including a new VLE, personalised timetabling and online assessment submission was accomplished within a year.
Find out more:
There are some rich information sources for the sector in the form of an institutional story, an evaluation report and other resourcesincluding a series of stakeholder interviews presented as a publication entitled ‘In the throes of change.
University of Strathclyde
The University set out to address the fact that its curriculum design and approval process was ‘largely undocumented and typified by difficulties in process and document management, low adherence to acknowledged best practice within curriculum design, poor alignment with institutional policies, and disparate institutional curriculum design practices‘.
The PiP project (Principles in Patterns) developed a single online curriculum design and approval system, capable of managing and facilitating the curriculum approval process whilst simultaneously supporting academics in the process of curriculum design. Achievements include:
- Simplification of the curriculum drafting process
- Demonstrable improvements to process efficacy
- Improvements to process transparency, visibility and control
- Enhanced management of curriculum designs during the approval lifecycle
- Improved curriculum reviewing mechanisms
- Improved support for academic quality processes
- Creation of a central repository of curriculum designs as ‘knowledge assets’