Archive for February, 2012

Training Material

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Due to the continual development of iPaMS, we felt training sessions with the iPaMS users would become outdated rather quickly. It was therefore decided that documentation and videos would be the best type of training material as these would be easier to update whilst iPaMS developed. I first began with creating a word document that would enable users to learn how to

• Browse modules and search for specific modules
• Copy forward modules from a previous year to the new academic year
• Add new modules to iPaMS
• Edit and enter data into iPaMS

With limited functionality in iPaMS the document wasn’t too long and consisted of print screens and written instructions. It was also decided that a set of training videos would be made to coincide with the training document; these videos were made using Camtasia Studio. Using Camtasia allowed me to record a step by step guide, with narration, to further instruct people how to use iPaMS. I thoroughly recommend Camtasia Studio, it was easy to use and contained good editing functions.

For the time being, users are only able work with modules but as iPaMS develops functionality it will move to programmes too. Once Humanities have had the chance to work through the training material I will be sending out a questionnaire asking for their feedback on the document and videos. This will help to improve the future training material.

Here is a quick overview of iPaMS so far

Select module staff function

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a way to connect staff to their modules in a more structured way than the current free text field.

This should improve ease of use for people using iPaMS – the system integrates with the University’s Ldap system to retrieve a list of Academic staff for the Humanities college, which can then be picked and assigned to roles such as Convenor or Lecturer.

It will also improve the ‘front end’ of iPaMS. For example colleges may want to link modules to (and from) staff profiles on their website or intranet. The staff username is used as the unique identifier, so this could potentially integrate with other systems too.

Below is a screenshot of the new feature in action.

Screenshot of staff chooser feature

This change is due to be released to the live iPaMS system this week.

Quality Assurance

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My name is Ruth O’Neale and I’m a IT Progamme Manager here at the University of Exeter, responsible for a number of projects of which CRIATE is one.  My role in the project is quality assurance, giving Sam and his project team day to day support but also acting as a critical friend and ensuring that the project is managed in the most effective way possible and in line with our University project governance and that of JISC.  I am keen that however possible project documentation is streamlined so no long onerous reports are produced and that we can easily keep JISC and internal stakeholders up to date on our progress  by using the same information but presented in the different templates required.

The project team are making good use of basecamp, an online collaboration website where we can share project information/documentation and this is a much more efficient way of sharing and maintaining project logs (risks, issues) etc rather than these being shared via email or on shared drives, especially as the project team is made up of individuals from various services (IT, Marketing, Faculty Office, Colleges).  It also alerts our basecamp members when updates are made so they are prompted to go and check the latest information.

A key success factor for our project is effective engagement with staff in the Colleges who have been maintaining their own separate databases up until now. Ensuring we communicate with them appropriately and in a timely way will be really important for our project.  As I’m delivering several projects across the University I may be aware of other factors outside of CRIATE which may impact on it and I see a role for myself in recognising these and in working with Sam  to mitigate any impact.  From a personal point of view like Sam I am relatively new to the University and to working in HE and I’m really enjoying working on the project and engaging with other institutions on the wider programme.

Zend Framework

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Whilst Sam and Ian have been blogging about the the project itself, I guess it’s time I wrote something about the technical side of CRIATE…


As you may know, we are using the Zend Framework (ZF) to build the system. The modular nature of ZF makes it quite easy to start in a simple way and extend functionality as the project progresses.

ZF uses a Model-view-controller (MVC) architecture which separates out the business logic and data (model) from the user interface (view) and the controller provides the link between these two. E.g. the user presses a button (view) which gets (controller) a table of data (model) from the database.

The database structure in CRIATE is quite normalised and flexible, in practice this means that rather than one or two large tables with hard coded fields there are numerous smaller ones with flexible options and lookup lists. This structure allows templates to be created with customisable fields. So if we need to add new fields say for the KIS data, an administrator could do this without the developer having to amend the database structure.

In ZF each database table has a corresponding model and mapper. If as we’re developing we need to add extra fields to a database table, it is easy to update the models and mappers too, without affecting the rest of the code.

Some of the mappers include calls to ‘parent’ and child’ tables too, which are related tables (for example a programme is related to a yearly programme description, via a common programmeId in both tables). Aside from the benefits of this structure there will be challenges too with tables with many thousands of rows, and the need to not attempt to fetch them all at one time!

ZF has inbuilt functionality for forms although this has somewhat of a reputation of having quite a steep learning curve, especially with getting the forms to display as you wish, and with valid HTML. However, once you have cracked this, forms are quite powerful and not that hard to use. I would be happy to help anyone else who is struggling with this.

ZF’s modular nature also helps when two (or more) developers need to work on same project simultaneously, as we can each work on different parts of the system. We are also using Subversion, which is the University’s version control system, to help us avoid overwriting each other’s work!

For more information on ZF, please visit the official website

A different perspective on our project #2

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As Sam notes, in his recent post about our attendance at the recent JISC Programme Meeting, it has been interesting to see just how many ways there were of approaching a similar goal.  This, surprisingly, was still the case even when the delegates grouped together by system or approach, during the afternoon discussions.

As two of us were attending the event, I took the liberty of joining the discussion centred around a particular student record system, that we also use, as I was interested to learn about the projects in that area.  It quickly became evident that there was no definitive approach, even though we were all using the same SRS, in part due to internal processes, but also due to the availability and use, or not, of various system modules by each institution.

However, there was much commonality in other areas, for instance in the intention to work together more closely to co-ordinate the submission of development requests to the SRS supplier, such that the product better addresses the management of course data.  It was also suggested that an SRS specific sub-group, within the programme, would also contribute to the broader efforts around the projects and this particular system.

It’s early days but the contacts made, allied with the shared vision, should help us to move forward in cooperative partnership with our supplier.  More on this, I hope, in future posts!

Ian Tilsed
Project Director

A different perspective on our project

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Last week Ian Tilsed and I attended the first face-to-face JISC programme meeting in London. It was interesting to see just how many ways there were of approaching a similar goal. Many institutions already have a course information database and just need to produce a XCRI-CAP feed. Others, like us, were using the project as an opportunity to produce an entirely new system to consolidate existing sources. And quite a few were asking the providers of their student records systems to step up and produce the feed.

However many of the challenges facing the projects were the same. Engagement from the wider institution seemed to be one of the largest problems for most projects, but I was delighted to report that we are doing really well here. This might be because such a database at Exeter is well overdue, so everyone is really keen to see it implemented, but it’s a good sign nevertheless. The good news is that once we do have iPaMS in place, producing the XCRI-CAP feed should be easy as we have designed iPaMS to hold the data in the right structure to do this.

Now we need to put some thought into what the XCRI-CAP feed will actually be used for. Our course data is a valuable asset and we might want to consider who has access to this…

Humanities Update

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We have been working with Humanities, our pilot College, for some time now. We first started collecting their 10/11 module data when the original stage 1 course data project took place. We have carried on working with them for stage 2 and in October last year we started collecting their 11/12 module data. The main reasons behind collecting module data first over programme data were due to module selection in March and the KIS return. The majority of Humanities’ data was held in a database known as Dwai, the rest of the modules were held in pdf. With 161 modules held in pdf the initial stage was to copy the data out into an excel spreadsheet; this took around 4 days to complete. Next we looked at moving the data from Dwai into iPaMS. Our initial problem with this data was iPaMS would be using the new 12/13 module template, which faculty office had not asked the Colleges to move onto until May. There was quite a large difference between the format of data held in Dwai (free text boxes) to the new module descriptor (structured tables). Graham Fereday (Computing Development Officer and Team Leader for Humanities) felt it was best to build a new temporary database whilst iPaMS was still being developed; this is how DwaiPaMs was born. DwaiPaMs was formatted to the new module template, Graham imported data from Dwai and any fields that had the same field names were matched and pre-populated with the data. The data that didn’t transfer easily into the new fields of the module descriptor was left within the database for us to copy and paste into the correct fields. This took around a month to cleanse all the 600 modules. Once this had finished, at the end of December, Helen (our developer) was ready to start importing this data into iPaMS. So far, the data is in iPaMS ready for the Humanities’ administration staff to start using to revise and turn into 12/13 data. Here are the two important dates regarding Humanities and their modules.

• Basic functionality of iPaMS (view/edit/copy) revise 11/12 data into 12/13 data: 14th Feb
• Data for 12/13 then feed to their intranet pages: 1st March (For online module choice)

We are now working on collecting Humanties’ programme data. This is similar to the module data in regards to some being presented in pdf and the rest being held in Dwai. Although there is a new programme descriptor for 12/13, we have decided to keep the data in its standard 11/12 format (even if Dwai doesn’t fully comply to this format). Faculty office have asked for the transfer of 12/13 data to be in the new programme format by August time. By bringing the data in on the standard format it will allow administrators the choice to copy over their 11/12 programmes on the new template for 12/13 now or keep it in the 11/12 format and transfer to the new 12/13 format nearer the time. We are currently waiting for iPaMS to be up and running, this will allow me to copy in the pdf data straight into the database, rather than copying it into a spread sheet and then importing. From previous experience with importing spread sheets into iPaMS, Helen has found it causes problems with erroneous characters. For the rest of the programme data, we hope to import straight from Dwai into iPaMS. This will still need some cleansing and correcting as I mentioned before, Dwai doesn’t follow the current 11/12 and contains a lot of free text boxes.

For now, we are on track to meet the 14th of February deadline where we will allow basic functionality of iPaMS to be used by Humanities’ administrators. Before this happens we need to compile some training material and run some training sessions. This will allow the administrators get to grips with iPaMS and will also provide us with important feedback. iPaMS is still being developed, so any useful comments the administrators give us will help towards future improvements within iPaMS.

Postgraduate Study Site

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The Marketing Office is working with the web team to consider the presentation of postgraduate programme and module information on our website. Although not in scope of the CRIATE project itself we can see some real business benefits which will support student recruitment at the University of Exeter. We are conducting research which will help us to understand to what extent the current set up is meeting the requirements of the key audience – prospective students – and how we can improve the content and navigation of the current pages to better support postgraduate recruitment. This information will then be used to plan how we will pull through information from the CRIATE project to our website. A similar project will run in conjunction for undergraduate programmes.

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