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PiP and EQAL; some reflections on the approaches taken by Strathclyde and Manchester Metropolitan Universities

On 12 May, the day before the the UCISA SharePoint Seminar, I took the opportunity to drop in on Mark Stubbs at Manchester Metropolitan to talk about how our technical developments around course approval had been progressing. As expected it was a very useful and informative meeting.

In some ways the developments have been very similar, but it is the differences that were the most interesting. I am very conscious that these reflections are based on my recollection of our conversation, so it may be that I have misunderstood some of what Mark and his colleagues have been working on, but if so I hope they will correct me.

We looked at the MMU Unit Collector, the central/original purpose of which was to provide the foundation for the curriculum database. In the PiP project we have had a number of discussion about how the data collected through our system would be used, and one strand has been around reuse for curriculum management however our focus has been very much on supporting the approval process. This has made the workflow, with multiple points where a proposal may be returned for revision, a key are to achieve agreement with clients.

It was a source of great encouragement to see how MMU staff were using the Unit Collector to support their approval processes, more or less subverting the original intention of the system. The use of simple status indicators allows MMU staff to share “drafts” so the online system becomes the system of record. These are exactly the features that our staff have identified as being most valuable, and it is good to see this being reflected in actual practice. We have been looking at more complex workflows, but at its core the system is based on a series of status indicators the in turn lock and unlock features on the forms.

One area that evoke a level of jealousy was the comprehensiveness of the data collected through the Unit Collector. While Strathclyde has also gone through an institution-wide rewriting of units to match new credit requirements the timing did not match the PiP development, so we just missed this window of opportunity. Instead we have been engaged in recurring discussions around the need to “backfill” the PiP system with the existing approved specifications either from the Student Records System (where the data held only partially overlaps that data held for approval purposes) or from faculties and departments' own records (where the data would need to be transcribed from Word documents). The pragmatic solution has been to

  • focus on “new” courses and classes coming through for approval
  • provide a read-only link into the Student Record system where it is necessary to lookup details of current provision

The options for “backfilling” remain, and may be revisited once people start to use the system in earnest.

The other area that struck a chord, and a somewhat dissonant one, was the structure of the forms in the Unit Collector. It is probably a reflection of the different goals of the systems that the Unit Collector captures what is one view of the PiP Class Form. This data is required by the student records system. The other views capture are broader range of data on the nature and conduct of the class that are designed to assist those making approval decisions. Mark tells of the process by which MMU settled on the core set of data, but there has not been a similar winnowing at Strathclyde, indeed the call has been for more “relevant” information to be captured to assist decision makers. However, PiP's discussions have been primarily with staff who process and assess the data collected rather than those whose job it is to complete the forms. This is quite different from MMU where all were acutely aware that all the Unit Descriptors needed to be entered so perhaps had a greater empathy with those who had to complete the form than at Strathclyde. It remains to be seen if the richness of the data sought in the PiP system will be a barrier for those completing the form or a boon for those working with them.

Another aspect of the tension between the a form that captures everything that everyone is interested in and one that focuses on core detail, is the extent to which the online record becomes the single point of truth. One of the strategic goals in Strathclyde is to reduce the number of local systems that augment (and sometimes duplicate) corporate data sources. The concern is that if the online course and class approval system does not capture the information that is required within the department or faculty then local systems will need to augment the central system and hold that data. Experience has shown that in this environment it is the local systems that are privileged above the incomplete central systems, and staff tend to put the bare minimum of data into central systems because it is seen as an administrative drudge of little value. However, at least in the context of course and class approval local systems are poorly developed so this danger is diminished.

We had little opportunity to explore the MMU experience but it seems that, at least from the perspective of central services, there is little concern that local systems might be developed around the core Unit Database. As in Strathclyde there seems to be little evidence of competing local systems. One facet of this discussion was of particular interest, that of units that are also externally accredited or part of programmes that externally accredited, for example by professional bodies. At Strathclyde there is anecdotal evidence of academics citing the requirements of external agencies as the reason for deviating from the institutional guidelines and timescales on curriculum design and approval. At MMU, even with the highly prescriptive requirements for the number of learning outcomes and assessments, there have apparently been no concerns raised over the requirements of external accreditation, even though MMU delivers a range of professionally accredited programmes. There is a suspicion that any discrepancies between, for example, the required assessment regimes might be finessed by combining assessment activities into one “assessment” in the Unit Collector, however it is clear that external accreditation is by no means a barrier to this sort of development.

Sadly time was too short to explore more in more detail, but I am very grateful to mark for sharing his time. In the future I hope we can return the favour and perhaps include more colleagues from our respective teams. But in the meantime there has been plenty of food for thought.

posted on 21 September 2011 by

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