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Bolton launches a new XCRI-CAP enabled course catalogue

Christina Smart
Last modified 01 Apr, 2009
Published 01 Apr, 2009
Yesterday the University of Bolton launched a new Course Catalogue that can export data in the exchanging Course related information (XCRI) CAP (Course Advertising Profile) specification format, one of the first institutions in the country to do so. We interviewed Patrick O'Reilly Bolton’s Head of Information Systems and Technology to find out more.

Using XCRI-CAP [1] means that descriptions of Bolton courses have the potential to be more easily shared with UCAS and HotCourses databases therefore providing the most up to date course information to prospective students. Patrick O’Reilly spoke to us about the new catalogue and the benefits it will offer.

Christina Smart: Can you tell us a bit about why you’ve undertaken this overhaul of the Course Catalogue and search facility?

Patrick O’Reilly: The course catalogue we had in 2006 had a very flat structure consisting of about 60 flat html files on a web server. Unsurprisingly there were a number of problems with that structure. Firstly, the files were edited by different people so there was a lack of consistency in the format and content of the information we held on courses and variable accuracy of the data. Also the course information across the University wasn’t synchronised.

In addition, there were frequent issues around updating information. For example, the titles of courses change over time and students would enrol on a course only to find when they started the course that its title had changed. Another frequent issue occurred when course information included the name of individual tutors because when that tutor left their name would still be associated with a course. A third issue we had was the search facility was unsophisticated.

The lack of synchronisation of the database also led to a duplication of processes. For example, Marketing and Recruitment would spend a significant amount of time each year producing the course prospectus, collecting and maintaining the data separately from the old course database. Another example of process duplication was occurring in schools and departments which were providing course information handouts for students. Again these were being produced independently of the course database.

Another factor in taking the decision to rebuild our course database was a change in University Strategy. Back in 2006 the University started to focus on developing the professional university brand. It wanted to be able to rapidly develop and market Continual Professional Development (CPD) courses. The idea was to take existing modules and represent those as short credit bearing courses. It was clear we needed a course database that could support these new marketing processes.

So in 2007 we set out to create a new course catalogue which could be used both for standard full time courses and modules as well as CPD courses. Our aim was that this database would be the single source of course information across the institution, so that data would be entered once and then be used in all the course description processes across the institution.

We also aimed to improve the search facility, so that prospective students could discover primary information about the course itself as well as useful secondary information such as employability prospects.

CS: Bolton is one of the first universities to use the XCRI specification to standardise course information. What are the advantages of using XCRI?

PO’R: Although this was an internal project we also applied for and received some funding from the JISC to run an XCRI mini project, (BoXCRIP) to trial the XCRI-CAP specification [2]. As it turned out implementing the XCRI schema was the easiest bit of the whole project. However, what it forced us to do was to look closely at the database schema for the new catalogue to ensure that we could generate an XML feed in XCRI-CAP format. The project also linked us with the GMSA (Greater Manchester Strategic Alliance) who were trying to aggregate CPD offerings from across the whole the Greater Manchester area using XCRI-CAP.

At the moment we are one of the first institutions to have implemented XCRI so we haven’t yet felt the full benefits. UCAS aren’t requiring institutions to provide data in XCRI-CAP format, but as a critical mass of institutions using the specification is achieved UCAS will be able to aggregate course data in this way. But we can transform XCRI-CAP into other XML formats, which we are hoping to do for other services such as Hot Courses, Learn Direct and the Student Loan company and this will eliminate the overhead of rekeying data into their required formats .

CS: Did the project lead to any other changes at the University of Bolton?

PO’R: As I said implementing the technology was the easy bit, the hardest part has been working across all the schools and departments to ensure the course data is current and correct. This part has taken Marketing and Recruitment over a year to complete.

However with the new course catalogue we are able to make some real efficiency gains because we have rationalised all those course description processes across the University. Whereas in the past Marketing and Recruitment spent a huge amount of time creating the prospectus from scratch, now more effort is now going into ensuring that the database is correct, and the prospectus can be generated from this information.

Also departments can now print their own course leaflets directly from the database using templates. This means departments can print course information as and when they need it and no longer have to stockpile preprinted leaflets

We have also improved course search facilities and the results also link to secondary or “value added” course information provided by the departments such as employability trends or examples of student work, which may influence their decision to study at Bolton. We are hoping to develop the search further so that prospective students can, for example, find a CPD module and then work back from that to the full course that the module is part of.

CS: Are there any other course catalogue developments in the pipeline?

PO’R: Our aim is that eventually Schools will have direct access to the database to be able to do their own course data entry, modification and updating. Also the non–credit bearing short courses descriptions will go in to the database soon so that there is a unified search.

One thing we will be doing in the future is making a link to course validation processes across the University. Often when new courses are proposed a key part of the early process is to provide evidence of the need for a course and to do some early marketing. We should be able to do this with the new database.

We have also discussed developing a course fee calculator for prospective students, so that they can work out how much a courses is likely to cost them.

The approach we took with the course catalogue was to go back to the beginning and restructure the data from the bottom up, now we are starting to see the efficiency gains and the potential for being able to be able to provide functionality that would have been impossible before.

Further information on the BoXCRIP project and the other XCRI pilot projects is available from the JISC and XCRI web sites [2][1]. The XCRI site has one page briefing papers for managers and one for developer describing how XCRI-CAP works and can be implemented[3][4]. The XCRI specification has also formed part of the Metadata for Learning Opportunities specification which is being taken through CEN to become a European standard for describing courses [5].

References and Resources

[1] The eXchanging Course Related Information (XCRI) web site

[2] The Bolton XCRI project (BoXCRIp)

[3] A briefing paper on the XCRI CAP - The XCRI Course Advertising Profile is an open specification for producing and aggregating collections of courses offered by providers

[4]An XCRI CAP developers guide

[5]CEN endorses European Metadata for Learning Opportunities, Scott Wilson, October 2008

 

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