Curriculum Design Technical Journeys – Part 2

Continuing from my last post, the next part of the programme technical journey focuses on Cluster B projects: T-Sparc, PALET, UG-Flex and PREDICT who all had a broad common theme of organizational change.

In many ways this cluster represents the ‘business end’ of the programme. With Cardiff, Greenwich and City Universities all having pretty robust institutional system integrations in place before the programme started. The programme was a way to develop these existing systems to allow more effective and pedagogically driven processes to be developed and incorporated.

*Project Prod Entry

Unlike the other 3 projects in this cluster, T-Sparc didn’t have as robust an infrastructural starting point, however providing a means for organizational change around curriculum design was a key driver.

The project had four key aims;

“• To inform programme design activity through the improved provision of relevant information to those stakeholders engaged in curriculum design.
• To redesign the ICT infrastructure which supports the workflow of curriculum design and programme approval processes.
• To develop and pilot mechanisms for supporting, through electronic means, course team discussion during their programme design activity.
• To develop and pilot the electronic representation of programmes and underpinning evidence for the purposes of approval.”

One of the key findings from previous technical conversations with the programme was the number of instances of Sharepoint, and its central role for a number of projects. As I commented then, that probably wasn’t that surprising given the that over 90% of UK universities have an installation. The T-SPARC project initially were looking towards utilizing Sharepoint as a definitive document repository and take advantage of its document version control abilities. However as the project has progressed, it has evolved to become the central part of their curriculum design system. A number of workflows were created from their stakeholder enagement and baselining processes using combination of modeling techniques including experiments with BPMN, UML and Visio as outlined in these blog posts.

The team were also able to negotiate dedicated time from an specialist Sharepoint developer in the institution to work with them using an agile development process. A dedicated area in the project blog documents their experiences in working with Sharepoint, and agile project methodology. The posts in this area are particularly useful in sharing real experiences of a project working with agile methods, as well as with corporate IT services – worth a look if you are new or going to be working with others new to this type of approach. Their prototype PADS (programme design and approval system) system is now being trialed by eight programme teams. A key challenge in terms of sustainability and embedding is how to ensure that the system is integrated into wider institutional initiatives such as the recent implementation of SITS. However, as with many other projects, cultural interoperability is perhaps more of a challenge than its technical counterpart.

Perhaps the leading light in terms the use of video narratives, the T-Sparc team have invested time and money into capturing the stories and experiences of their key stakeholders (staff and students) included a very innovative video baseline report. The team have used a mix of video caputure methods including flipcams and the ipad based MiiTuu sytesm. The later is a relatively new development which the team have been using with students and employers. The allows exporting and sharing of questionnaires across devices and allow for time reductions in the setting up and gathering of data. The system utilizes i-Tunes, BCU has an institutional wide itunes provision, so again sharing is simplified. The use of video for personal reflection is fairly mainstream within the institution now too. The team have made extensive use of free editions of video editing/compression packages (Handbrake, Microsoft Expression), however they are still searching for a real time video compressor. Ideally one which would compress on the fly and have an automagic deposit to repository feature to suit their needs – and budget. Again storage for video is an issue (as highlighted in this post) – is this where cloud storage could play a useful institutional role?

The team are also developing a Rough Guide to Curriculum Design which is outlined in this post which will synthesis all aspects of the project.

*Project Prod Entry

In contrast to T-Sparc, the PALET project was working within the context of a fairly robust internal technical infrastructure based largely on IBM websphere and Lotus tools. Institutionally, the Lean methodology was also being widely supported. Cardiff also had previous experience of Enterprise Architeture and, as the project developed, through other institutional projects, links to the JISC FSD programme.

The PALET project’s aims were to:

“Utilising the Lean Thinking methodology for process improvements, the PALET project will develop revised procedures for the approval of new programmes to create a more agile, efficient and flexible approach to the design of new curricula and the subsequent programme approval process. In the context of the University’s Modern IT Working Environment (MWE) project, a service-oriented approach will be utilised to develop a toolset to support academic and support staff through each stage of the new programme approval process, which will also ensure that the resulting programme and module information is clearly defined and can be seamlessly utilised by other business applications.”

Key to the project has been the creation of a single data source which contains all relevant curriculum design and approval information which can be easily re-purposed and accessed by various stakeholders. Interestingly the project has ended up taking a scaled down approach and building their own webservices and not using IBM tools.

They have moved away from using websphere as their main data source and SITS is now core for the storage of course related information. This has allowed the team to write their own webservices using Grails, and taking restful approaches and the Groovy programming language. This was quite a sea change for all involved as outlined in this blog post. As highlighted in the post, the team have found this experience very useful, and this generic web services approach/architecture is now being rolled out in other parts of data provision in the University. This should help with sustainability and the embedding of more data services/ provision as and when needed. Again the successful managing of change during the lifecycle of the project has been key for everyone. Sometimes a simple approach is best.

Parts of the their larger infrastructure remain and there are now better connections with for example Lotusnotes and bringing feeds and topics into one overarching portal for end users. However, the team have developed a dedicated portlet for course information which links to the main websphere portal. Details of which are outlined in their portlet technical specification. The work done on the underlying technical infrastructure ensures that the progress in terms of redesigning course and module templates can be fully utilised.

Like T-Sparc, the team are still analyzing the need for XCRI, and are confident that they could easily create a feed if need, however there still aren’t key internal drivers for this as yet.

A full technical specification for the project is also available.

*Project Prod Entry

Like PALET, UG-Flex also had a robust infrastructure (based largely on SunGard Banner ) in place which they planned to build on.

“We envisage that our technical outputs will be of use to other institutions using SunGard’s Banner system and we plan to feed these outputs into the European and international Banner community. The project also intends to share the lessons learned about the challenges of working with a proprietoriaml product based applications with the wider education community.”

Although the institution did have dedicated business analysts the experience of the project has had an impact on approaches to business processes in general and the use of and techniques applied for modelling. For example although their Business Analyst were conversant with various visual modeling techniques and languages (BPMM, BPEL, UML) to illustrate and developed technical infrastructures, having resource dedicated to the project allowed them to work at a far greater level of detail. This experience has allowed the for the processes used in the project be incorporated into day to day techniques in other large scale projects throughout the University. Exploration of TOGAF methodologies is ongoing and staff are undertaking accreditation training..

In previous conversations with the team, they had expressed an interest in XCRI. Greenwich has been successful in gaining one of the JISC Course Data projects and it is now embarking on their xcri-cap production stage. A nice example a synergistic relationship with the outcomes and findings of UG-Flex, and future institutional planning e.g. KIS returns.

Through Banner, there is use of IMS enterprise compliant tools, but there has never been a plan to develop anything at the enterprise level. However, in terms of future developments there are some major changes for the IT team. The new versions of Banner are now component based as opposed to Oracle based. Whilst on the one hand this does allow for greater flexibility and more agile approaches, as well as an improved UI; on the other this is a major change for some more traditional database developers, and so an issue for staff skills and development.

Again we had talked about Sharepoint in previous discussions, and concerns had been raised about its suitability for managing data as opposed to documents which it has undoubted strengths in. Now there is a fully supported installation in their Business School. Preparatory work is been undertaken around implementing some automated workflows, in particular around QA processes which have been developed through UG-Flex. As an adjunct to this work, and UG-Flex, a personalized timetabling service is being developed and trialled in the Business School. The team have also kindly agreed to write this up as a guest post in the CETIS other voices blog.

During the project lifecycle the institution has also migrated to Moodle (more details of some of their approaches and the lesson learnt about stakeholder involvement and process mapping have been included in this summary post from Lou McGill )

Overall the team have found that the UG-Flex project has been exemplary in terms of academic needs driving developments, and not the IT department. Particularly with the VLE migration, there is a strong sense of ownership from the academic community as they feel they have been fully part of the decision and migration process.

*Project Prod Entry

PREDICT was again a project with a pretty robust architecture and like UG-Flex, they have noticed a perceptible change in attitude during the lifecycle of the programme. The use, and understanding of the term, Curriculum Design is now far more commonplace in conversations within the IT department, and the core business of the University – teaching and learning – is being considered more at the start of discussions about new IT developments.

“The project focus is to develop a new curriculum design process that is efficient, flexible, focuses on enhancing educational development and the student experience and, is supported with responsive technology to accommodate our curriculum models. It is essential that the design process takes account of our diverse stakeholders – whether learners, staff or employers.”

In terms of use and standards, the project haven’t really deviated from their original plans. One of the few institutions to be have an implementation of xcri before the programme started, they actually haven’t done much more. They have looked at xcri-cap but, largely due to the current lack of vendor buy-in and wider external drivers, they haven’t felt the need to implement it.

In light of the KIS requirements they are reviewing their current data provision and in particular their local course information database (Prism). They are considering some re-engineering and simplification of the UI, taking a more component/SOA approach. They have also been in discussions with other institutions about building similar tools in SITS. SITS and in particular StuTalk has proved to be central for developing more business processes, and they have “service enabled” their installation for wider business processes. Like Cardiff they use IBM Websphere and it provides their key middleware stack. In conjunction with these back-end developments, the project has also made progress in the redesign of their course and module documentation for staff.

The PREDICT project, and other internal projects relating to blended learning have been useful in terms of developments in their Moodle deployment, and getting people to engage more about using it, and not just using it as a defacto course notes repository.

One area the PREDICT project has highlighted is a gap in up to date information on staff in the HR system. There is basic employment/payroll information but not an awful lot on what they actually do day to day. Creating more personalised timetables is something they (and many others) are currently investigating. The potential for joining up curriculum information, student information with staff information so, for example, a student would see which lecturer was taking each class, and have links to the staff members research interests; publications etc is very attractive. But again, requires more work on the sharing of the appropriate information between systems.

Overall the project has shown that it is worthwhile to allow staff and students and the IT department time to think through their IT service provision together. Enhancing business processes alone can’t make a poorly designed course better (the supporting pedagogically guidance the project has produced will help with that!), but they can make some tasks easier/less time consuming. Like UG-Flex there is now more IT provision planning being done in conjunction with educational development staff which wouldn’t have happened before the project.

So from this cluster, agility and greater communication between central IT provision has been key. Agile approaches can allow for more rapid development of light-weight, but effective web services as highlighted by PALET. However, this change of approach can bring with it issues of staff skills and development. Effective communication is always central to the success of any change process, and maintaining the links fostered through these projects will be key for future sustainability and embedding.

Technologies update from the Curriculum Design Programme

We recently completed another round of PROD calls with the current JISC Curriculum Design projects. So, what developments are we seeing this time around?

Wordle of techs & standards used in Curriculum Design Prog, April 11
Wordle of techs & standards used in Curriculum Design Prog, April 11

Well, in terms of baseline technologies, integrations and approaches the majority of projects haven’t made any major deviations from what they originally planned. The range of technologies in use has grown slighty, mainly due to in parts to the addition of software being used for video capture (see my previous post on the use of video for capturing evidence and reflection).

The bubblegram below gives a view of the number of projects using a particular standard and/or technology.

XCRI is our front runner, with all 12 projects looking at it to a greater or lesser extent. But, we are still some way off all 12 projects actually implementing the specification. From our discussions with the projects, there isn’t really a specific reason for them not implementing XCRI, it’s more that it isn’t a priority for them at the moment. Whilst for others (SRC, Predict, Co-educate) it is firmly embedded in their processes. Some projects would like the spec to be more extensive than it stands which we have know for a while and the XCRI team are making inroads into further development particularly with its inclusion into the European MLO (Metadata for Learning Opportunities) developments. As with many education specific standards/specifications, unless there is a very big carrot (or stick) widespread adoption and uptake is sporadic however logical the argument for using the spec/standard is. On the plus side, most are confident that they could implement the spec, and we know from the XCRI mini-projects that there are no major technical difficulties in implementation.

Modelling course approval processes has been central to the programme and unsurprisingly there has been much interest and use of formal modelling languages such as BPMN and Archimate. Indeed nearly all the projects commented on how useful having models, however complex, has been to engage stakeholders at all levels within institutions. The “myth busting” power of models i.e. this shows what actually what happens and it’s not necessarily how you believe things happen, was one anecdote that made me smile and I’m sure resonates in many institutions/projects. There is also a growing use of the Archi tool for modelling and growing sharing of experience between a number of projects and the EA (Enterprise Architecture) group. As Gill has written, there are a number of parallels between EA and Curriculum Design.

Unsurprisingly for projects of this length (4 years) and perhaps heightened by “the current climate”, a number of the projects have (or are still) in the process of fairly major institutional senior staff changes. This has had some impact relating to purchasing decisions re potential institution wide systems, which are generally out of the control of the projects. There is also the issue of loss of academic champions for projects. This is generally manifesting itself in the projects by working on other areas, and lots of juggling by project managers. In this respect the programme clusters have also been effective with representatives from projects presenting to senior management teams in other institutions. Some of the more agile development processes teams have been using has also helped to allow teams to be more flexible in their approaches to development work.

One very practical development which is starting to emerge from work on rationalizing course databases is the automatic creation of course instances in VLEs. A common issue in many institutions is that there are no version controls for course within VLEs and it’s very common for staff to just create a new instance of a course every year and not delete older instances which apart from anything else can add up to quite a bit of server space. Projects such as SRC are now at the stage where there new (and approved) course templates are populating the course database which then triggers an automatic creation of a course in the VLE. Predict, and UG-Flex have similar systems. The UG-Flex team have also done some additional integration with their admissions systems so that students can only register for courses which are actually running during their enrollment dates.

Sharepoint is continuing to show a presence. Again there are a number of different approaches to using it. For example in the T-Spark project, their major work flow developments will be facilitated through Sharepoint. They now have a part time Sharepoint developer in place who is working with the team and central IT support. You can find out more at their development blog. Sharepoint also plays a significant role in the PiP project, however the team are also looking at integrations with “bigger” systems such as Oracle, and are developing a number of UI interfaces and forms which integrate with Sharepoint (and potentially Oracle). As most institutions in the UK have some flavour of Sharepoint deployed, there is significant interest in approaches to utilising it most effectively. There are some justifiable concerns relating to its use for document and data management, the later being seen as not one of its strengths.

As ever it is difficult to give a concise and comprehensive view from such a complex set of projects, who are all taking a slightly different approach to their use of technology and the methods they use for system integration. However many projects have said that the umbrella of course design has allowed them to discuss, develop the use of institutional administration and teaching and learning systems far more effectively than they have been able to previously. A growing number of resources from the projects is available from The Design Studio and you can view all the information we have gathered from the projects from our PROD database.

Subverting and integrating at cetis10

“Subverting and integration corporate systems for educational purposes” was the title of the session I facilitated at the CETIS 2010 conference earlier this week.

There’s some blurb on the website about the session, but my underlying thinking around the session was to bring together people to discuss the many ways that institutions have to not just subvert and integrate corporate systems to fit educational needs, but also, and perhaps more importantly how to subvert and integrate users and data to meet a range of needs and stakeholders. My primary thoughts around this stemmed very much from the JISC Curriculum Design programme where we have seen a range of solutions from completely corporate (e.g IBM, SunBanner) to more ad-hoc integrations of a range of systems including Sharepoint. Almost half of the Design projects are using Sharepoint to some extent. At the same time the work in the JISC DVLE programme is looking much more at integration of systems and not providing flexibility to add-in to VLEs etc without having to install major upgrades.

To give a range of scenarios I had four speakers give an overview of their institutional landscape – Hugh Davies, University of Southampton; Jim Everett, University of Strathclyde; Sam Rowley, Staffordshire University and Mark Stubbs, MMU.

Although all quite different, there were some key consensus points. It’s not the data collection and storage that is the issue – it would seem that most institutions actually do have most of the data they need. The key issue is the sharing of the data in ways that are useful to others. The benchmarking process that the curriculum design projects undertook has been instrumental in highlighting the lack of communication between key stakeholders, and the at times unnecessary duplication of effort which takes place. Each speaker highlighted that creating models and opportunities for discussion around underlying infrastructure has provides means for subversion and integration which go much deeper than the technology itself.

As Hugh Davies highlighted, for Southampton is has allowed them to have a debate about the wider educational experience the institution wants to provide – how can the infrastructure support and encourage digital literacies for example? The are also challenging some long held assumptions around openness of data. In Southampton they are now going to make all data open unless there is a very good reason not to. Which is the direct opposite of the current situation where you have to have a good reason to make data open.

Jim Everett described the usefulness of having a being able to produce a process model of the key information decision points in the course approval process. Although not an easy task it has now allowed the team to have structured discussions around possible innovations as they can see the whole process. Jim also observed how creating the model highlighted the lack of contact between the people involved. The real interoperability issues lie between human communications not system ones. They are now proposing a data management system to facilitate workflows, and provide access to the data to all stakeholders as and when they need it. Jim also advocated strongly the using of BPMN.

Sam Rowley took us on an entertaining “ramble” through the the experiences of the Staffordshire development team in recent years. They are now trying to take a more coherent EA based view of their overall system requirements. Like many institutions Staffs has a number of data silos which have been wired together on a pretty ad-hoc basis as and when needed. In terms of business intelligence, there key system is actually a lady called Sheila, and to quote Sam “if Sheila doesn’t know it, then it’s not worth knowing” ( oh how I wish that were true in my life 🙂 ). By taking an EA approach Sam also hopes to help alleviate the tension between innovation and operation between his small team using agile development processes and the wider more traditional corporate IT services. Having a larger EA based model should help to reduce some of the tensions between potential lock-in to larger systems and more flexible solutions.

Mark Stubbs highlighted how the work of the Curriculum Design projects has help to surface the lack of a some key institutional infrastructure around course information and approval processes. Currently MMU is restructuring the whole of its first year provision for rollout in September 2011. Mark’s team are involved in both the Curriculum Design and DVLE programmes but these projects are part of this much larger, radical change within the institution. Mark used a really nice analogy of Japanese willow pattern as a way to describe understanding the islands and bridges that need to be integrated.

Willow pattern islands and bridges in institutional systems
Willow pattern islands and bridges in institutional systems

Echoing Jim’s point about communication Mark also highlighted the need to sell change to people and to carry stakeholders with you on the journey and involve them in all stages of the process. By introducing a new front end to their sharepoint installation the team increased pressure on their corporate systems to provide feeds to other information sources. Student feedback clearly indicated the types of things students wanted e.g. timetabling and assessment information. In terms of subversion, by producing a new model form (linking to new curriculum database) they have introduced commonality across the institution. Each module will have 5 (and only 5) learning outcomes, which need to be linked to an assessment strategy. There can be no vagueness when filling in the form.

After the presentations we broke into groups with the task of describing a “fantasy curriculum management system”. Links to video clips of the feedback from each group is available here. Again a lot of consensus was coming through from the groups – particularly around views to information for different stakeholders such as students, staff etc and the need for data to be able to be re-used in a variety of ways.

Copies of the presentations and podscasts of each of the speakers presentations are available on the session webpage.