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13th CETIS Enterprise SIG Meeting: XCRI Showcase

The 13th SIG Meeting was held in the new Isis Room at Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS), hosted by Adam Marshall and staff at OUCS.

Intro: About the XCRI Project

The meeting showcased the work of the XCRI (eXchanging Course Information) Project, which arose due to a need identified by members of the Enterprise SIG (which focuses on transferring learner data between college systems and between institutions), to develop a standardised way of transferring prospectus or course information.
In January 2005, a group of people from the SIG, plus members of UCAS (the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which processes applications to study undergraduate courses), and a representative from JISC, met in Manchester to discuss how to proceed with tackling this issue. As chance would have it, JISC were looking for bids for their Reference Models call, and encouraged the group to submit a bid by the call closing date the following week!
Under the leadership of Project Manager Mark Stubbs (from Manchester Metropolitan University), a bid was submitted and accepted, and the XCRI Project got underway.
Julie Hardman (XCRI Research Assistant) surveyed 161 institutions throughout the UK, to identify common course elements needed by the proposed XCRI schema, and Mark and other interested parties met together to begin developing the schema. Mark also developed a highly commended project website, featuring dozens of document links and a blog outlining the project's progress.
The earliest version of the schema was released just before Christmas 2005, and by early 2006, several different individuals had already began to use the schema. In March 2006, the first funded phase of the project came to an end, and it was decided to hold an XCRI showcase meeting to enable Mark to report back on the project, and hear the experiences of the early implementors of the schema.


Vashti Zarach: Introduction & Introductions (Powerpoint)

Vashti Zarach, CETIS Enterprise SIG Coordinator, opened the meeting, welcoming new faces and Enterprise SIG regulars. She apologised for the packed agenda, which was a reflection of the large amount of work done with XCRI, and explained the aims of the day: namely to present and disseminate the work of the project. Meeting attendees then gave their names and reasons for attending: many of the delegates were attending to give presentations on their involvement with the project, and the others wanted to learn more about XCRI. Bill Olivier from JISC was attending to assess the effectiveness of Reference Models as a way of enabling community development.

One delegate's reason for attending: "I've been waiting a long time for something like this to come along."

Mark Stubbs: The XCRI Project (Powerpoint)

Mark explained the purpose of XCRI: to provide a standardized format for course data used for marketing courses to prospective students, to ensure that the courses delivered by institutions matched the courses advertised to students, to populate MLEs with course information for students enrolled on courses, and to supply data for funding and course awards.
Mark explained the roots of the project in discussions at Enterprise SIG Meetings, and the progress of the project via "summits" (meals out in restaurants after meetings!) and huge amounts of community collaboration.
Finally, he outlined the project outputs: a very active website and blog, the first version of the XCRI schema, and a number of XCRI deployments by different people. Mark explained that the project team had looked closely at the Norwegian course schema, CDM, but had decided in the end to develop their own schema as there were some issues which they wanted to tackle differently. Mark concluded by explaining that the rest of the day would focus on various deployments of XCRI. The deployments map on his Powerpoint shows just how far across England and Scotland XCRI has spread in just two and a half months.

Quote from delegate on Mark's decision to put a project blog on the XCRI website: "A very good decision!"

Selwyn Lloyd: ioMorph & XCRI (Powerpoint)

Selwyn, Phosphorix developer, gave a presentation on the newly released ioMorph, which he described as a "transformation service". In essence, this means that you can input course information data into ioMorph, and it will return the data in XCRI XML format. For example, data can be sent from a Student Record System through a plug-in into the ioMorph web service, and be returned as XCRI XML.
Liverpool Hope University has developed an ioMorph plugin as part of the Learning Matrix project. Selwyn demonstrated how he could select a course from the list at Liverpool Hope, send the data to ioMorph as a long string, and have XCRI format data come back.
ioMorph can handle both student and course information. More on the ioMorph toolkit here and here

Ben Ryan: Curriculum Documents - Creation & Storage (Powerpoint)

Ben Ryan began work as one of the team on the Pathways for Progression (Mapping Curricula to Facilitate Student Progression) project around the same as time as Mark began XCRI, and Balbir Barn began the COVARM (Course Validation Reference Model) project. Recognising they had common ground, the three projects made contact and engaged in some collaborative work. Ben has been involved with XCRI from the early stages of the project.
Ben talked about curriculum documents: the process of creating records describing courses. He explained that the process of developing curriculum documents had begun with an analysis of a wide variety of documents about courses created by colleges (web pages, word docs, etc). From this, they had moved on to working on two versions of curriculum documents, one web based and one word style document. He demonstrated the web based documents, which displayed details of intended course outcomes and course assessments. It is possible to use this information to create one page reports showing learners' assessment results and completion of course outcomes.
Ben then demonstrated how he has enabled XCRI course information in XML format to be converted into a word document using Word ML. I don't know exactly how this works, so you'd have to contact Ben for more info, but the conversion worked at a click, changing a string of XML into a word document with paragraphs of info about a course. The audience was audibly impressed at the conversion! Ben explained that this process could be easily used to create customized course documents, presenting different information to different people.

Quote from SIG developer: "I dream of having freely available open source software for creating authority tools for courses."

Anthony Beal: The Learning Matrix Project (Powerpoint)

Anthony discussed the Learning Matrix Project, which offers taster packages of Higher Education courses to encourage non-traditional HE learners to enter Higher Education. The courses begin with a face to face session in local colleges or universities, then learners spend some time online, and some time back at the college again, as many of them can initially feel nervous about the electronic component of the course and value the opportunity to meet tutors and ask questions face to face.
The presentation then took us through the process. Firstly, course information details are added to the Learning Matrix by an institution. Learners log into the Learning Matrix portal and view courses. PDP services built into the portal encourage students to explore their learning needs and existing skills. They apply for the course from the portal, and, if accepted, are enrolled at the institution. Once the course is finished, the tutor confirms course completion, they are sent a completion certificate, and details of the completed course are added to their Learner Record.
The Learning Matrix project has been using XCRI to format course information for the portal, so that courses from different institutions can be described in a standardised way. Anthony made the important point that we need to consider who XCRI course descriptions are for, e.g. course information for academic purposes can be quite dry, but to market courses to students, the information needs to be presented in a more interesting and enticing way.
Finally, Anthony raised a few issues for consideration: namely the need to be consistent about XCRI field entries, the need for an authorised vocabulary to use when filling course information fields, and the need to consider a way to describe items which aren't simply courses, such as Open Days. Mark was very grateful for the feedback, and explained that Specific Vocabularies was one of the workpackages proposed in the current bid for further funding for XCRI.

Afternoon presentations: Case studies from people using XCRI

Alys Morgan & Keith Lewis, Oxford University: Alys Morgan: Skills Training Information (Powerpoint) / Keith Lewis: XCRI at Oxford

Alys Morgan gave the first half of the presentation, explaining that her job involves producing a central information database about skills training courses at Oxford, which typically tend to be short courses and workshops. Using a diagram, she demonstrated how the information she received to compile the data about these courses came from a wide variety of different sources, in a variety of formats. Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS) had decided to start formatting and sending their information in XCRI format, and it was hoped that XCRI could potentially be used to unify the existing system by encouraging other sources to send data in this format.
We then heard from Keith Lewis at OUCS, who had been using XCRI to encode course information about short IT skills courses, in order to transfer information from their courses database. Keith very helpfully gave the XCRI Project team a list of implementation issues which he had encountered. As the project has only been running for a year, the team were very pleased to be getting critical feedback so quickly!
Keith singled out the lack of documentation as a particular problem for early implementors, and Mark and Ben explained that there had been some documentation with the draft version of XCRI, and that lack of documentation was partly due to the schema having only just been released. Mark made a note of the issue for future work. The lack of a heading for "cost" or "charge" in the schema was also mentioned, as was the need for an XML editor which could distinguish between required and optional elements when filling in course details in the schema.
Keith concluded that the schema does succeed in its mission, but is complex to use, and needs more model examples, documentation and development. He also encouraged the team to promote XCRI in e-Government circles and try to get DFES to take up the schema.

Quote from team member Ben: "All of your comments are valid - it's been adopted stupidly quickly!"

Quote from Mark: "It's superb feedback and you've done a remarkable job considering the lack of documents!"

Michael Aherne: Producing XCRI for an FE College (Powerpoint to be added)

Michael Aherne was the first person to attend a SIG meeting and raise the issue of prospectus information standards, back in SIG meeting 6 in North Wales. He has been involved with the XCRI project from the start, and as soon as the first schema was released, set out to test and prove his goal of having a course information standard which could be used by an FE college with limited personnel and resources.
Michael's experience bore out his theory. Reid Kerr, like many FE colleges, has just one web developer - Michael, who mapped their existing Access course database to XCRI. He found the mapping process pretty straightforward, as the existing database mapped easily to XCRI, and it was fairly obvious which information to put in the XCRI fields. Michael demonstrated some online course information in html format, which was then changed into xml and gathered together in XCRI tags.
Issues identified by Michael included a lack of vocabularies, and problems with institutions using different names for the same course, to which Mark replied that vocabularies was one of the workpackages mentioned in the application for funding for the second phase of XCRI. Michael also highlighted the need to involve the Scottish Qualifications Authority for XCRI to be adopted successfully in Scotland. Overall, however, he believed that XCRI could be implemented quickly and easily by a single web developer in an FE college.

Quote from Michael: "The whole process (apart from reading and understanding the schema) took about two hours."

Alan Paull: Using XCRI to transfer entry requirements to UCAS (Powerpoint)

Alan Paull, currently a consultant, has worked with course information since 1979, and was involved in the XCRI Project from the beginning as a Programme Manager at UCAS. UCAS is a UK organization which processes undergraduate applications to universities and colleges, and therefore deals with an enormous amount of course information from across the UK.
Alan's presentation focused on his work mapping course information on entry requirements at Plymouth University to XCRI, and then mapping XCRI to the UCAS courses database, to enable information to be transferred from Plymouth to UCAS. Mapping the information between Plymouth and XCRI was relatively straightforward, but mapping data from XCRI to UCAS was more complex, and took about 3 days. Alan again stressed the importance of specific vocabularies for XCRI in speeding up this process.
The mapping was undertaken using the tools XML Spy and MapForce (for visual mapping), and Alan showed us a screenshot of the mapping process in action with MapForce.
Overall, Alan concluded that the work proved it was possible to map from the Plymouth course information to XCRI, and from XCRI to UCAS, showing that the schema seems to be flexible enough to cope with a variety of HE course information formats. However, he stressed that the schema was currently complex to use, and more focus on documentation and training was needed.

Quote from Alan's slides: Suffered from the "early pioneer syndrome".

Paul Walk: XCRI Query Web Service Demonstrator (PDF)

Paul Walk is a longstanding Enterprise SIG member and web developer who has also been involved in the discussions about standardising course information from the very beginning. Paul decided to create an XCRI demonstrator, demonstrating XCRI query services, which other developers could use and explore. Just a couple of hours after releasing the demonstrator, Scott Wilson had consumed services from the demonstator using the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) Reference Model demonstrator: i.e gathered course information from Paul's demonstrator in response to queries from the PLE demonstrator and displayed them in the PLE. More info on the demonstrator, and consumption of services by PLE on the XCRI blog.
Paul gave a live demonstration of the XCRI demonstrator carrying out queries such as "return information about course outcomes from all modules", and "return details about all modules".
The XCRI Query Web Service is online here.

Mark Stubbs: Summary (Powerpoint)

At the end of the day's presentations, Mark took the stand again, and concluded that the XCRI project had come a long way in 12 months, but that there was still a long way to go to achieve sustainability. He proposed that the next stage of development needed to move up a gear, and that this could hopefully be done if the bid for extension work on XCRI was successful. He outlined his commitment to tackling some of the issues raised during the day, such as defining clearer vocabularies, and thanked everyone for the community participation which had enabled the project to achieve so much so quickly.

XCRI Project Website


Address: Vashti Zarach, CETIS Enterprise SIG Coordinator, Research Institute for Enhancing Learning, Padarn, School of Education, University of Wales Bangor, Normal Site, Bangor, Gwynedd, LL57 2PX. Tel: 01248 388384. Email: