Accreditation and version control

In the first phase of our Online Programme Managment System project we are building web-based screens for our Corporate Information System (CIS) which will help with the management of data about professional accreditation of our programmes.  This was chosen as a starting point for this much larger system (all to be built in-house) because it is a relatively discrete piece of work; access to accurate data of this type is necessary for the KIS and the HEAR; and it was felt that it could have clear benefits for academic departments, Marketing and others.

At present, data about accreditated programmes is collected annually from academic departments on a spreadsheet managed by Learning and Teaching Services. Last year this was expanded to cover details required for the KIS and the HEAR, and this data was manually entered into the CIS.  In order to ensure that this data remains current, a better process is needed as soon as possible.  It was decided that departments would ideally manage the information themselves and be able to enter this directly into the system, saving on time and multiple requests for similar data from other sources, e.g. the prospectus team.

Through consulations with staff in academic departments we established early on that the documentation required to secure and renew accreditation with a professional body (PRSB) is complex and highly variable between PRSBs. Therefore, we are not aiming for the system to hold all of this information. However, departmental users felt that having a record of relevant milestones to remind them to take necessary actions (e.g. send proof of departmental improvements to PRSBs) would be useful.

Version control is a key issue for course data and especially for the implementation of the HEAR – it must be clear which accreditation applies to any given cohort of students if an arrangement is initiated, terminated (very rare) or there is a major change to the programme or the form of accreditation that a student can expect – in some cases different arrangements could apply to different cohorts of students currently enrolled. We are currently exploring how this will work. As this will apply to much of the larger dataset for the OPMS, getting this right for accreditation will support the expansion of the system and help us to demonstrate our vision to stakeholders.  The JISC Show & Tell event featured a useful discussion about this version control issue, and we’d also be keen to hear from any institutions who would like to discuss possible solutions and best practice.

Poster for JISC ‘Show and Tell’ event

On 29th January, JISC are hosting a ‘Show and Tell’ event in Birmingham for projects on the Course Data programme and interested parties, including UCAS, HESA, HEFCE, UCISA, Graduate Prospects and many others.  We were asked to create a poster which depicted our progress in one of four key areas (themes).  We chose theme 2, which is all to do with getting institutions ready for better data integration and implementing cross-institutional change.

Our poster is available to view in JISCInfonet’s online collection here, along with those from other participating institutions.  Our thanks go to the University’s Print & Design unit who helped us with the design!

The project manager and I will be attending the Show & Tell event.  We’re looking forward to seeing everyone else’s posters, and will be pleased to answer questions about ours. We’re also hoping to gather some ideas about what others in the sector see as the key achievements of the programme as a whole, which could well be useful in guiding our recommendations in the final report.

Hope to see you there!

How many ways can you describe a course?

During the early stages of our OPMS project, it became apparent that most courses have not just one or two but many published freeform text descriptions of their content.  Currently, these are mostly created in Word documents, distributed internally and published via various web and paper routes.  In order to scope this information set, it was decided that I would undertake an audit by approaching the academic departments responsible for five specified programmes, on in each of our Faculties.

This work is still ongoing, but I am beginning to analyse the findings.  When visiting departments, I have tried to gather copies of all of the available programme descriptions, to determine responsibility for their creation and maintenance and ask for details of the processes involved.  Back in the office with the various descriptions in front of me, I have firstly mapped the links between descriptions available online using Visio, and secondly copied the descriptions into a spreadsheet and used a colour coding system to analyse their content (for example, blue indicates a mention of the learning aims of the programme, while brown indicates text about the department’s reputation, facilities etc.).

My findings so far include:

  • Each programme I’ve studied has between 5 and 8 descriptions, some of which do have significant overlaps
  • The descriptions include course marketing texts on the prospectus, departmental websites and external aggregator sites; student handbooks; formal programme specifications and drafts of HEAR 4.2 texts
  • Audiences include prospective students, current students, accrediting bodies, internal quality assurance staff and graduate employers
  • Different programmes focus on different aspects of the programme, e.g. knowledge gained or the employability of its graduates.  This is mostly done with consistency across programme descriptions published in different locations.
  • Shorter texts, such as the prospectus entry, are more likely to have broad coverage e.g. a sentence covering each of the programme aspects I identified, while longer descriptions such as those on departmental websites are likely to closely tailor this to a particular portrayal, e.g. repeatedly highlighting the flexibility of the programme.
  • Responsibilities for creation and maintenance of these descriptions varies widely between departments.  In many cases, responsibility for updates is not well-defined – perhaps the Head of Department will decide that updates are required across the board when a significant change occurs in a programme, or sometimes someone will spot that something needs updating and direct it to the programme leader, or a member of support staff.

The next step after completing this analysis is to decide what it means for the OPMS project, and I will post about this at a later date.


OPMS is underway!

Our Online Programme Management System project is now officially underway, since the first meeting of the Project Board last week.  Although a lot of background work has been completed before this point, including mapping the ‘as-is’ state and beginning to collect user requirements, this formal initiation hands responsibility for strategic guidance to key stakeholders from a wide range of academic departments and professional services.

The ‘vision’ is beginning to look quite ambitious: for a newly-designed system and related processes which will manage “all programme-level information”, and link seamlessly to systems which hold module data and regulations while providing a single intuitive interface for users to manage their own course data.  The system is expected to cover the entire programme lifecycle: from an initial idea through development and approval stages, supporting the effective management of changes and updates to information while the programme is running, and handling discontinuations.  The system will provide a single, definitive source of programme information for internal and external purposes, including the HEAR, KIS, XCRI-CAP, the prospectus, PBS, ATAS and others.

We hope to learn from the experiences of others who have taken similar routes now or in the past – if this is your institution we’d be very grateful to hear from you how you went about it, what worked and what you might do differently!

Enterprise Architecture modelling bash

Just a notice that we are holding an Enterprise Architecture ‘modelling bash’ here at Sheffield on 3rd September 2012 (one of a pair, the other to be held at UC Falmouth on 30th-31st August).  A registration form is below. We hope that this will be a great opportunity for those who have been working with the Archi tool to work on their models with support, share their output and discuss how they might use them in their institutions – the day will be centred around hands-on modelling experiences.  There will also be a chance to hear a couple of short presentations from institutions who have used EA, and to ask questions. Wilbert Kraan, who was involved in the creation and development of the Archi tool, will be joining us too.

Registration link for participants

Representing all interests in a large project

It has long been a goal at the University of Sheffield to create some form of Online Programme Management System, to transform the paper-based programme approvals and specifications processes and to hold programme information in an easily accessible and re-useable format.  Thanks in large part to the JISC course data funding, this is on the way to becoming a reality.

One of the most challenging issues we’re facing at this early project-defining stage is to decide which departments must be involved in the project, and crucially which individuals should participate in decision-making as part of the Project Board or working groups. This is complicated by the following factors:

  • The project has a relatively broad scope, and it will affect many central professional services and all of our academic Faculties and departments
  • It has two closely linked dimensions – business process change and development of an IT solution
  • It is also part of a complex web of dependencies which encompasses other course data projects, for example the project to bring programme regulations online – the process and technical outcomes of these two projects must fit together
  • The time of many key people is already being taken up with work on the many other course data projects – this is acting as a constraint on our project even while it is helping us to promote awareness of the issues with course data management

We were considering holding a Lean event, but given the staff time constraint mentioned above, this is unlikely to be possible.  As the project assistant I have been consulting with staff across professional services in order to map their business processes, and this work is being used to identify stakeholders.  We also have a fortnightly programme data ‘catch-up’ meeting which includes some operational staff.

I was wondering how any similar projects have gone about identifying stakeholders and ensuring that no key interests go unrepresented, without allowing the Project Board and similar groups to grow too large (as nearly everyone uses course data in some way!)?  If you have multiple course data projects, are you involving the same operational representatives in each?


Enterprise Architecture (for a beginner)

A review of the recent JISC event ‘Doing Enterprise Architecture’

Along with many others involved in the course data programme, I recently attended the Enterprise Architecture workshop run by JISC’s Emerging Practices unit, and I’d like to use this post to evaluate that experience.  Thanks to all involved in running the workshop for a very informative and well-organised session.


A webinar run the previous week had introduced the concept, laying the groundwork so that the workshop day could get off to a swift start.  I thought this was an excellent idea, although I didn’t find that the content of the introduction was entirely suited to my role.  There was a great deal of focus on how best to sell EA to high level staff in your institution with the authority to lend support to its implementation.  This was approached from several different angles, using varied definitions and metaphors, and including a slide on “what not to say to your VC”.  For me as a complete beginner to EA, it felt slightly the wrong way around – demonstrating how to re-sell something that I had not yet fully bought.  However, for those in management positions or who are further ahead with EA, it may have been more valuable.  I was pleased that the workshop itself was designed to be more practice-focussed, and we were shown many concrete examples of how using EA could provide benefits to an institution.

Institutional perspectives

The workshop included three short consecutive presentations from those who had (varying levels of) experience practising EA in the sector.  The first was from Nikki Rogers of Bristol University.  She has been working as an Enterprise Architect there for a year, and her very useful blog is here.  I was particularly interested in some of the reasons that she gave for using EA (it starts necessary conversations and encourages precision in describing processes) and in the innovative ways that she had adapted the methodology, for example in producing an Archi diagram of the student lifecycle, which ties in closely with work I am doing to map ‘programme lifecycles’ here at Sheffield.

Ian Anderson from Coventry University followed on by showing how they had implemented an EA approach surrounding a project for the introduction of smart cards on campus,  and how they had created a meta-model to specify which ArchiMate shapes would be used and to define their meaning in context.  He judged that XCRI-CAP “has EA written all over it” because this project is about pulling data from all areas of an institution.

The final presentation was from the University of Bradford, who have recently  started their journey towards full implementation of EA – after mapping various projects e.g. HEAR, KIS and timetabling, they recommended that EA should be used in every one of them.

Discussion and modelling session

Subsequently each table in the room had some time for discussion.  Ours focussed on the scope of EA: what it could replace, and what it could not replace.  As the day went on, it became apparent that one thing it should not replace is process mapping.  As this blog post from the Emerging Practices initiative explains “EA provides a vertical view of the organisation whilst process mapping gives you a more in-depth horizontal perspective. EA helps you to understand where data is coming from. You’ll probably realise that data isn’t great in which case you’ll probably review your process to help improve that data”.

In the afternoon, the room divided into two, with one group (including me) learning how to use the Archi tool to create models, while others focussed on management and governance that should surround the approach.  The modelling session was intense, and very useful, I would have really struggled to get started with Archi without it.


At Sheffield, we’re not yet sure whether and how we will implement Enterprise Architecture.  From this workshop, however, I gathered that at the mapping level EA can add a valuable dimension that is not usually covered by process maps, and that it can help to support and direct institutional strategy. I’d also welcome more EA events, e.g. regional assemblies or XCRI-CAP sessions, which were suggested by a few at the workshop.

All of the presentations from the day are available here.

Modelling course data schedules and deadlines

How do you model what your course data is used for and when, if there are multiple, over-lapping deadlines over the course of several years just for one cohort of students?

This is the challenge we faced when collecting this information to inform the design of a new system to hold programme data centrally.


During stage 1, programme approvals and the programme- and unit-level information created at this stage were identified as key areas for improvement.  Programme approval and review processes currently rely on the transfer of Word documents between academic departments and professional services, leaving information that could be usefully shared with prospective students trapped in an internal paper-based system.

JISC funding is also helping us to co-ordinate a collection of related course data projects, for example the KIS and the HEAR, which require information that is not consistently collected in a re-usable, electronic format.

The spirals

A group was set up to examine the potential for changing the relevant systems and processes.  We realised that while significant change was possible and desirable, we did not have the luxury of a ‘blank canvas’.   There are external key dates to work around, for example UCAS deadlines, and changes to internal deadlines should be co-ordinated to ensure that there are no unexpected knock-on effects.

During stage 1 I mapped key processes (e.g. reviews of module content, and the prospectus) using MS Visio.  However, these various linear maps did not clearly show the order in which course information must be gathered to recruit, admit and progress a particular cohort of students.

A participant in our meetings suggested that the process could be represented as concentric circles, and I worked with this idea to create a series of course data ‘spirals’, which referenced the experiences of different categories of students (UG full-time; UG part-time; PGT and so on) in terms of the deadlines by which course information is needed to move the process forward.  An example of my model, for UG FT students, is displayed below.

Schedule of UG course data events

Schedule of UG course data events


Welcome to SCRIBE!  This blog was set up to share the University of Sheffield’s experiences of participating in the JISC course data project.  We hope to be able to discuss our progress, gain feedback, and connect with staff at other institutions who are interested in course data processes, whether or not they are part of the JISC programme.