XCRI-CAP – now is the time

In her third post on Curriculum Design, Lou McGill reflects on the challenges and opportunities surrounding the effective use of course data in institutions.

JISC have recently released a call entitled ‘Course Data: Making the most of Course Information’. This is a different style of call which offers funding for a review and planning stage, during which institutions will develop an implementation plan to improve course data flows within the institution as well as producing feeds for external agencies. The second phase will see some of those institutions funded to take the implementation plan forward. JISC are hoping to fund a range of examples using different kinds of courses – online, postgraduate, distance and CPD courses so we should learn a lot from programme activities. A national XCRI showcase was held in June 2011 and highlighted some really useful exemplars. These are detailed on the JISC Benefits Realisation blog post which also documents some interesting discussions.

The call nicely reflects an increased interest in the role of course information across institutional processes and systems as the post 16 education sector prepares for increasing demands on course data from both students and from government agencies requiring increased transparency from publicly funded bodies. As I mentioned in my last post HEFCE requirements for institutions to provide KIS (Key Information Sets) for all courses from September 2012 and to feed into the HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) recording student achievement means that institutions need to collate, manage and provide consistent and complete data. These drivers provide the impetus for institutions to finally embrace and take forward the XCRI specification (Exchanging Course Related Information), which, up to now, has not been taken up widely in institution-wide contexts. This new impetus and the results of ground building work done by pioneer individuals and institutions means that there is now an excellent infrastructure of supporting information and knowledge to move forward.

Lisa Corley from CETIS has written an informative overview blog post which charts the development of XCRI, recognises the work of these pioneers and provides a very useful description of what it is and what benefits it offers to institutions. This, coupled with the excellent XCRI Knowledge Base should provide anyone interested in the call with the basic information to take this forward. Scott Wilson from CETIS has also written a more technically focussed blog post entitled XCRI – the end of the beginning.

One of the most useful things for those about to embark in this process is what they can learn from people and institutions which have already been through it – as they can highlight challenges, pitfalls, good practice and also illustrate benefits. The latter is particularly useful to use with reluctant stakeholders who may need convincing. This post focuses on the work of projects involved in the Institutional approaches to Curriculum Design Programme. Two earlier posts describe the business process approaches adopted by projects and looked in detail at course information.

Sheila McNeill, from CETIS has been working closely with these projects and produced a blog post in April 2011 which provided some excellent visual representations of the technologies being used by them. This wordle, reproduced from that post, illustrates just how significant XCRI is to these projects.



Wordle of techs & standards used in Curriculum Design Prog, April 11

However as Sheila points out ‘ we are still some way off all 12 projects actually implementing the specification. From our discussions with the projects, there isn’t really a specific reason for them not implementing XCRI, it’s more that it isn’t a priority for them at the moment.’

This reflects what I was saying above although some notable exceptions are the Supporting Responsive Curricula (SRC), Predict, and Co-educate projects which have engaged significantly with XCRI implementation and development. Early conversations among projects highlighted some shortcomings in the specification, which also reflected a wider community concern that the XCRI-CAP (Course Advertising Profile) profile concentrated on marketing elements and did not support pedagogical information. The recognition of the CAP profile in the European Metadata for Learning Opportunities (MLO) standard in 2011 is a major step towards consolidating XCRIs place in the wider course information landscape. Publishing course information in the standard format means that it can be found and aggregated by services such as UCAS and offers potential for collation in a range of ways.

Although appearing to focus on a fairly narrow aspect of course information (advertising and marketing) the elements that make up XCRI-CAP are central to a much wider range of institutional processes and systems that require accurate and up-to-date course data. This links to wider course information, inputs into institutional systems such as VLEs, and can be connected to student data. The notion of having one accurate definitive source of data should be appealing to many stakeholders in an institution: fundamental for administrators and marketing staff, supporting decision making for senior managers, easing the burden for teaching staff and better informed students – but also for people outside the institution: clarity for prospective students, employers and other interested agencies as well as fulfilling requirements from funders. The implementation process should highlight the different elements of course information and how they connect. It should also help institutions articulate which information is relevant for which stakeholder.

Implementing XCRI-CAP
We learned from the JISC XCRI mini projects (2007-2009) that there are no major technical difficulties in implementing the specification, but as Sheila says in her blog post ‘As with many education specific standards/specifications, unless there is a very big carrot (or stick) widespread adoption and uptake is sporadic however logical the argument for using the spec/standard is.’

So if the KIS and HEAR requirements represent the stick then I think the outcomes and outputs from the Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design illustrate the carrot – the rewards for taking on this challenge. I describe it as a challenge, not for technical reasons, but because it relates back to issues discussed in my first two posts – the challenge and the benefits that come from having institution-wide conversations. It is time consuming and demanding for institutions to take a ‘big picture’ view of the many processes that link together, to rethink some of these processes and to articulate where they all connect and which data is central to this. However the benefit of this approach has been strongly emphasised by all of the project staff that I have spoken to. In early stages projects typically found a lack of articulation between course review, approval, advertising and enrolment/reporting, and between quality assurance, marketing and student records.

Whilst these projects have a focus on curriculum design processes all have had to take a broad view of whole institutional processes involving course information and student data. Many of the projects worked in parallel with other institution-wide initiatives (such as the University of Bolton Co-Educate project which linked to the development of a module database) reflecting the breadth of scale of their activities. It is hard to tease out the benefits of implementing XCRI-CAP from the benefits of those wider scale activities, because they naturally augment each other. Benefits include:

  • Increased understanding across the institution of how processes connect and how the data and systems facilitate or hinder these processes.
  • Improved efficiencies – such as less duplication of data, time savings, one accurate source of data that feeds into several systems, less paperwork.
  • Transparency of information for registered students, prospective students, and external agencies (e.g. government bodies and employers) has the potential to increase student intake and enhance the experience of students once they register with the course/s.
  • Automatic feeds to comply with funder requirements.


There is a consensus that implementing XCRI-CAP is fairly straightforward – once the data is in a database it is fairly uncomplicated to maintain – but when institutions try to broaden this to develop a definitive set of course information, linked to key processes such as quality control or curriculum design activities, then it becomes much more challenging. The Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design projects have been documenting their experiences and producing some really useful outputs that should be of interest to the wider community. There is a particularly well written report from the University of Bolton Module database project which describes how they took experience from a JISC mini XCRI project and the Co-Educate curriculum design project to redesign and implement their module database.

‘The resulting system supports the capture of information from course inception, the development of modules, through the validation process, to approved and published status. A database application has been implemented with the functionality to support collaborative development of courses and manage the version control for module specifications subjected to minor modification. The system provides the capability to assemble pre-validated modules into new courses using the University’s pre-validated IDIBL course framework. The use of XCRi CAP 1.1 to render module specification in standards based XML, enables module details to be accessed and reused without having to use the database application. This opens up new possibilities for the reuse of module information. The University’s JISC funded Co-educate curriculum design project will be developing further tools for collaborative curriculum specification and design that will now use the XCRI capability.’

The report is really worth reading and they describe their approach and highlight the lessons learned.

The SRC project at Manchester Metropolitan University ran alongside an institutional initiative to Enhance the Quality of Assessment for Learning (EQAL) which is introducing a new curriculum framework, new administrative systems and processes, revised quality assurance processes and new learning systems to transform the student experience. The SRC project has been led by Professor Mark Stubbs, Managed Learning Environment Project Director who has been affectionately described as ‘The Godfather of XCRI’. Mark talks eloquently in a recent presentation on the origins of XCRI. In the video Mark re-iterates the fact that the technology behind the standard is not complex and describes how the Curriculum Delivery and Design programmes have highlighted the business process challenges that need to be worked through to ensure that it is possible on an institution-wide scale.

The project has produced some excellent resources which map and describe their journey and some of these have recently been added to the JISC Design Studio. One of these is a game called Accreditation! which is a training resource for those trying to encourage stakeholder engagement when embarking on a major change process involving program design and approval.

Screen shot of Accreditation board game

They have also produced a case study outlining academic database stakeholder requirements which includes some useful visual representations of their processes.

So the consensus is that ‘now is the time to embrace XCRI’. The JISC call presents a really great opportunity to get started on this. The first phase simply requires a Letter of Commitment from eligible institutions which provides evidence of support from Senior Managers responsible for Teaching and Learning, Marketing, Management Information Systems/IT and the institutional course web sites by12:00 noon UK time on Wednesday 7 September 2011. There is an Elluminate recording of the live briefing session in case you missed it and lots of information described here to convince these various stakeholders of the benefits.

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