Academic Programme Management System

Posted on March 9th, 2012 by Allister Homes

I’ll try to keep this as much to the point as I can whilst giving you a good overview of the APMS project so far.

The University indicated that a project for an academic programme management system (which I’ll shorten to APMS) should begin. A Sponsor for the project, a senior University manager with a vested interest, was found (the University Registrar) and a Project Manager appointed (me!). Draft Business Case and Project Initiation Documents were written and a project board formed to steer the project.

I spent time with various parts of Registry to better understand and document the processes behind managing curricula and a team of us spent quite some time working out what was needed from a system and compiled a requirements specification. An Invitation to Tender (ITT) was written that included the requirements specification, and published so that potential suppliers could tender for the system.  The team reviewed the tenders received, but found that the costs exceeded the EU threshold for public sector procurement. This meant the Invitation to Tender must follow the EU tender process and be advertised through the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU).

The ITT was revised and submitted through the OJEU, and the documentation is available to download at the bottom of this post.  Several companies submitted tenders, and an evaluation panel reviewed tenders, saw demonstrations and after scoring each solution made a recommendation to select a particular supplier, which was accepted by the project board. There was a gateway review by the SMT to give the final go-ahead. After a period of contract negotiation, the contracts were signed.

The contract has been awarded to Worktribe Ltd, and work on delivering the system started in earnest in January.

In the meantime, the University undertook the first stage of the JISC project about making the most of course information, and was successful in its bid for stage two. The work will build on what we are putting in place in the APMS project to create examples of how the data can be used in other ways, including generating feeds for using curriculum data elsewhere.

The first workshop with the University project team and Worktribe was held in January, and was the first chance for both sides to get stuck in to the work together. A small group of us then spent another day with Worktribe in early February, going through the progress they’ve made so far on the system and talking through some more of the detail. It’s encouraging being able to see the software in action so early, though we have to remember there is a long way to go yet and a lot of work to be done.

We had some debate, both internally and with Worktribe, over the best approach to take for collating all the information that needs to go into the system ahead of the system being finished. The main data/information stores currently are:

  • The student management system, Agresso Students (formerly known as QLS), which holds programme and module structures at static (not related to year or session) and sessional level.
  • Definitive programme and module specifications, held in PDF/Word documents.

The information from Agresso Students, although in a database structure, only contains a small proportion of what needs to go into the APMS. The definitive documents hold a lot more information (but not necessarily all that is in the student management) but are obviously not in a format that can be imported into a database.

We need to start compiling and preparing all the data ready to go into the APMS now because it will take quite some time to do, and there simply isn’t enough time to wait until the system is finished and then start populating it manually. One idea was building a spreadsheet and gradually populating it with everything needed. This approach presents a number of difficulties though:

  • The data is more complex than a simple spreadsheet allows for.
  • Some fields contain large quantities of text; this is not easy to view or manipulate in a spreadsheet.
  • There would be a lot of columns and a lot of rows, making the spreadsheet difficult to manage.

Another option was to enter (type, copy/paste etc) the information directly into an unfinished implementation of the system.  The system could then be upgraded to eventually become the final version, or the information ported to a different version at the end. This approach means not having to worry about the format of the data or how to import it, and also gives valuable experience to those doing the work about how the system works (as well as potentially flagging any bugs early). It presents some challenges, though, too, including the need to make the system as ready as possible for real data; making sure it is not used as a test system, and real date being changed; how to cope with late changes in design once data has been input.

Ultimately, we all agreed that as soon as all the fields for information we think we need to capture are set up in the system, and the structure is reasonably stable, Worktribe will create an instance especially for us to start populating with real data. This will be carefully controlled to avoid being used as a test system! Although we all accept that we might need to make some more changes yet, and some extra information might be needed, it should be a reasonably final system in term of data.

Most recently, our small group met with Worktribe again late February to review the work that has been done for the first development round and prepare for the next. The progress so far is very positive. We have also been making ample use of the issue tracker, used to report bugs, ask questions or request changes to Worktribe.

We’re approaching some of the more challenging aspects at the moment – at least for Worktribe who have to develop it! In particular, the next phase includes:

  • Working out how to create new versions of programmes and modules when making modifications, rolling over to a new academic year or revalidating.
  • Making sure permissions are set so that people can access what they need to, but not change anything they shouldn’t. In parallel with this is making sure that throughout the approval and validation process for a programme (managed with a ‘workflow’ in the system), information can be changed at the appropriate time but also locked once certain stages.

Work is also taking place on the integration between Agresso Students and the Worktribe APMS. Following a day that Matt, Worktribe’s technical director, spent with us a couple of weeks ago, Worktribe are now working on how to extract the student, enrolment and assessment information from Agresso Students needed to generate diploma supplements.  Experimentation with a utility called Data Translation Centre (DTC) built into Agresso Students has also revealed a supported method of importing curriculum information into it.  DTC is a tool for importing data from third-party sources into Agresso Students without need to know the structures of the database and with checks in place to ensure the data is valid for the system and will not cause any problems.

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  1. [...] my last post I gave an overview of the APMS project so far, and how the work with Worktribe is going.  This [...]