Skills Development Scotland has operated a data collection system called PROMT for many years. PROMT is a client application (not browser-based) that sits on your computer and presents you with a series of screens for each course you want to maintain. Each course may have many 'opportunities' (these are the same as XCRI-CAP presentations) with different start dates, visibility windows and other characteristics. Many fields in PROMT have specific requirements for content that make the experience of keying not particularly enjoyable (though it has been improved since first launch).
With OU course marketing information consisting of several hundred courses and over 1,000 opportunities, it was with some relief that we at APS (running 3rd party course marketing information dissemination for The OU) turned to the SDS' Bulk Update facility, using XCRI-CAP 1.1. We had been nervous of using this facility initially, because PROMT data is used not only for the SDS' course search service, but also has a direct link to a student registration and tracking service for ILAs (Independent Learning Accounts; for non-Scottish readers, ILAs continued in Scotland even though they were discontinued for a while south of the border). Students can get ILA funding only for specific types of course, so each course/opportunity has to be approved by Skills Development Scotland. Changes to the course marketing information can result in ILA approval being automatically rescinded (albeit temporarily), which can mean the provider losing student tracking details, and therefore being at risk of losing the student entirely. So naturally we decided to do some careful testing in conjunction with both SDS and our colleagues at The OU's Scottish office.
Fortunately we discovered that when we uploaded opportunities the system added them on to existing records, rather than replacing them, so student tracking was unaffected. In addition, individual fields of course records for existing courses was over-written but the records remained active and opportunities were unchanged. These features meant that data integrity was maintained for the opportunity records, and we could always revert to the existing version and delete the new, if necessary.
We were able to load new courses with new opportunities, and also existing courses with new opportunities with no significant problems. The potential ILA difficulty was somewhat reduced, because The OU's information for an individual opportunity does not need to be updated once it has been approved for ILA; our main reason for updating opportunities themselves was to add in fees information, but cost information has to be present before an opportunity can gain ILA approval, so this type of update would not interrupt ILA approval or student tracking.
Owing to requirements for some proprietary data, for example numerical fees information and separate VAT, not everything could be captured through XCRI-CAP. However, using the PROMT interface for checking the data, adding in very small extras and deleting duplicated opportunities was comparatively light work, as the mass of it was handled by the XCRI-CAP import.
Strikingly good parts of our Bulk Update process (apart from the obvious vast reduction in keying time):
- Use of a vocabulary for qualification type in PROMT. This made it easy to use various rules to map from The OU data to the required qualification grouping. These rules included a close examination of the content of the qualification title in the XCRI-CAP data to make sure we mapped to the correct values.
- For some elements, use of standardised boilerplate text in specific circumstances, again identified by business rules.
- Good reporting back from the SDS Bulk Update system on the status (and errors) from the import. This included an online status report showing how many records of each type had been successfully uploaded, with date and time, after a few minutes from the time of loading.
- The system permits us to download the whole data set (well, technically as much as could be mapped) in XCRI-CAP 1.1 format, so we were able to compare the whole new set of records with what we expected to have.
- The ability to review the new data in the PROMT client interface within minutes of the Bulk Upload. This gives a great reassurance that nothing's gone wrong, and it permits rapid checking and small tweaks if necessary.
I see this combination of bulk upload with a client or web-based edit and review interface as an excellent solution to course marketing information collection. This push method of data synchronisation has the advantage of maintaining the provider's control of the supply, and it still permits fine-tuning, checking and manual editing if that is necessary. In contrast a fully automatic 'pull' version might leave the provider out of the loop - not knowing either whether the data has been updated, or whether any mistakes have been made. This is particularly important in cases where the collector is unfamiliar with the provider's data.
XCRI-CAP: turn 12 days of keying into 3 hours of checking.