Alan Paull: Consultant

Alan Paull interview, Alan Paull Services

In the course data programme I’ve been mainly working with the XCRI support project.  I was one of the original designers of XCRI-CAP and I’ve been giving general support to projects, particularly on things like data definitions, vocabularies and other technical information and management issues but, for my sins, I’ve also been working on XCRI implementations with many of the projects as well, particularly University of Bradford, Middlesex University, Nottingham, Bishop Burton College, Bournemouth and Poole College and others.  We also have a major client in the Open University who, although they’re not in the Course Data programme, they’ve had the longest duration operating XCRI-CAP feed of any university in the country so I’ve got a reasonable background in XCRI and it’s implementation. 

What do you feel has been the biggest benefit of running this programme for the sector?

I think that the biggest benefit of this is the creation of an XCRI-CAP network, actually bringing into existence a network of feeds.  A network of many nodes and with lots and lots of nodes in the network we can start to produce more and more useful services using that data and these can include things like data gathering services through agencies such as UCAS and Graduate Prospects and other commercial providers and also completely new services that some of us have dreamt up and I think there’s going to be many more that very creative people can think of.  We have one which is our advanced subject search service which allows students to find courses on the basis of subject concepts rather than just string searching or key word searching but there will be other services such as dissemination services and smaller niche services as well that will be developed. 

Have any of the institutions that you’ve worked with got any plans for continuing the work post-March 2013?

Yes.  Institutions that I’ve been working with are primarily those that are looking at the big picture of course information, validation and approval work so most of those institutions are coming to us as an information management agency because they’ve recognised they’ve got difficulties, these are very often not quick fix problems.  They’re problems with course validation and approval systems, or linking those systems to marketing information and having recognised they’ve got those issues they’ve used their project in this programme to address those issues but it’s a long, long road for just a relatively short project.  So most of those institutions are looking at continuing this work for the future because it will often involve developing new systems, buying new software.  In fact in a lot of these cases cultural change is absolutely vital for making the best of XCRI-CAP. 

Are there any particular questions you’d like answered by the programme in order to take care of these future plans? 

I think that the most important question that the programme will answer will be, “Can we actually establish a working network?”  Prior to this we’ve had a range of pilot projects over the previous five years in fact but we haven’t managed to establish networks with that.  We were really experimenting with “does XCRI-CAP work?” to an extent in our selected institution.  But now we’ve reached the stage of having a large number of feeds, up to 63 feeds from institutions in the programme if we can establish a network we’ve got a much better proof of concept of the whole thing, rather than just one institution doing it.  That’s my main view on that. 

What do you feel is the importance of a Course Data programme for the sector?

Raising the issues, I think, and in some cases producing some solutions.  I think in particular promoting interoperable better services by which I really mean automatic movement of data around institutions and between organisations.  This has become a thing that will massively help learners and their advisers in the future, and I think there’s a realisation in the institutions too, in universities and colleges that courses information actually does matter.  It’s about what universities and actually offer and therefore it directly impacts on getting the right students on the right course.  That’s the key thing so it does actually boil down to student choice, getting students on the right courses. 

Where do you see this going in the future?

That’s quite a big question and when you set these things going it’s very difficult to work out exactly where they might go but I’m seeing at the moment the emergence of local, regional and, possibly, national networks, built really on small scale initiatives and agreements that might snowball.  A good example we’ve got already is the Arts Assembly consortium, which is a group of four institutions in that particular area who’ve come together to address a mutual concern.  They’re now producing useful services that are now meeting their own particular niche needs, if you like, for information about their own particular part of the sector.  I think that’s a model that has already started to work.  A lot of other institutions will use that and then over time you’ll get these relatively small networks and emerging and working on common areas of interest. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add about any continuation work?

Yes, I think we need to sustain central support for this whole XCRI-CAP initiative.  The problem that we’ve had with this kind of standardisation, that isn’t really built on a commercial model, it’s a non-commercial model, is that if the central support goes then there’s a danger that the whole initiative can die.  The difficulty here is that it’s not worthwhile for one higher education institution to implement XCRI-CAP but it is worth it if a whole bunch of us do it at the same time.  No single instiution will spend the money on its own to build this but we need support to build a community and for that community to grow we need to put in place mechanisms and resources that will enable us to overcome the problems as they come up.