Beatrice Ollerenshaw: University of Sunderland

Interview with Beatrice Ollerenshaw, Director of Academic Services, University of Sunderland

Most satisfying aspect of the project?

I think seeing something that I have wanted to do since I arrived at Sunderland nearly 6 years ago actually now starting to happen.  To bring a whole lot of things together and streamline the way in which we maintain programme and module data.

What has been the biggest benefit of running the project for your institution?

Well at the moment it is still very much work in progress, there’s no doubt about that.  I think at the moment the biggest benefit is having a team of people from faculties; academic services, which is, if you like the quality assurance and enhancement side of the house; student records; and management information, the SITS team as I call them, and IT all working together and I think that’s been very positive.  Ultimately, I think the benefit will be to a lot of… (background noise stopped the interview here)

Ultimately I think the biggest benefit will probably be for academic staff and students because they will have access, at all times, to up to date information about programmes. And the workload on academics when they’re modifying the programme will be significantly reduced because instead of having to fill in forms where, for example, the first thing you do is to type the name of the programme, type the name of the department, type the name of the faculty, all of that will be in the database, you won’t have to retype it.  You just go in, make the changes you want to make and then it will send it on a route until the change gets approved.  So, at the moment, I think for academic staff, at the moment, there’s quite a lot of work to do but I think the benefits will be as much for them as for anybody else at the end.  It’s persuading them of that… that’s the challenge.

What’s been the biggest challenge with the project?

Working with Tribal.  The people who own SITS.  Getting the development time and actually getting them to do what we’re asking them to do in a timely way and to follow the instructions that we’ve given them.  And that is an ongoing struggle – just getting them to reply to emails for a start.  We’re getting somewhere, but it’s not as fast as I’d like and it’s not as responsive as I’d like.  I think that’s very disappointing because to me it’s a golden opportunity for Tribal because if they can crack this they can not only roll it out to other users of SITS, of whom there are plenty, but they might even persuade people who are thinking of changing their student record system that this is something worth buying into because they’ve got this functionality.  I know every institution’s slightly different, it’s got to be redeveloped in a bespoke way, but with us we’re the first one they’re working with on this and their clearly cracking some of the technical behind the scenes stuff.  That stuff that’s outside my personal area of competence, so please don’t ask me about that!  But it’s clear that that is the case and once they’ve got some of those principles sorted it’s going to make it easier when they do it with other people and it is very disappointing. 

What would you like to see happening in your institution post March 2013?

When it finishes in March we’re definitely only half way through.  We will still be editing, the academics, the programme leaders, will be editing programme specifications into a database-friendly and student-friendly style and we’ll be putting module information into a database-friendly format.  Once we’ve done that, that’s happening in parallel with the ongoing SITS ‘build’ if I can call it that.  Once we’re at that stage, hopefully in June, we can put the database information and the system build together.  At that point we then have to clarify the exact procedures for approval and review, now most of that will be built into the system but we still have to make sure that people understand it, we’ve got to document it.  We’ve then got to make sure people are trained up on it.  We’ll then have a lot of ongoing work to make sure that we iron out glitches, because there are bound to be some, and even when we’ve done that the next stage after that will be to develop the same thing for other programme areas that we haven’t yet tackled.  What we’re doing at the moment is the standard undergraduate provision but obviously we’d want to do it for Masters level.  That’s fairly straightforward because it’s the same, it’s just one stage instead of 3 or 4.  But also combine subjects where we have an overarching programme specification, that’s OK, but then we have subject specifications within that.  Now they’re slightly different and that’s going to require some further build and we’ve also got to think about how we join any two subject combinations together to form a student’s menu and how we make that work.  So there’s quite a lot further to go in terms of development if we’re really going to get the most out of it. 

So March is just when the money runs out!

What’s been the most interesting part of the project?

I think for me it’s pulling different parts of the University together that don’t normally talk to each other, and certainly if they do talk to each other talk to each other on something very detailed, very specific, not in an overall project, and actually worked towards something that everyone can have an input into and which will benefit the institution as a whole.