Friday, 15 August 2014

Modern Language Module Madness

Some time ago the University decided it would be a good idea to offer every student the chance of studying a language, in order to improve their employability and general life chances. Great idea - but as with so many ideas, implementation was not thought about in any detail, with the result that those providing the service - the Modern Languages Teaching Centre and others - have had to do the best they could with limited resources and a tangled skein of spreadsheets to manage the tracking and processing of students and classes. To these problems are added the complexity of module code structure and the differences in fees for different types of students.

Last year the MLTC came to us to ask for help with fixing some of these problems. Unfortunately, owing to pressure of work on the MLTC team we were unable to hold an improvement event until July this year - meaning that changes for the new year would have an extremely small window.
As part of the scoping and planning meetings, we identified that a successful outcome would likely mean simplification of the module codes and fee structures , and the ability to track students’ progress more easily.

At our improvement event we examined the reasons for the fee structure and decided that the stated objective, which was to give incentives not to take the exam when not necessary for the student’s main course of study, and to accrue extra income from external students, did not really work as planned, and caused a great deal of extra work in processing payments, refunds and so on (around 100 hours staff time each year). The decision was made to unify the fee, and after consulting experts from our Strategy and Planning Office we found that there were no hurdles - encouraging as the existing fees had just been re-confirmed for the new year.

Next for consideration was the question of the module codes. This was complicated. Each language course, say, Italian has not one but for module codes - as follows:
IT101C, IT101I, IT101H, and IT101M. Students are assigned to one of these module codes depending on their year of study on their degree course. IT101C is year 1, IT101I is year 2, IT101H is third year, and IT101M is masters level. Externals (staff and others) are put on IT101C. The logic of this is that students must study modules at the same level as their degree course. But in fact students on all four different codes are studying at the same time, with the same teacher in the same classroom, and taking the same exam at the end of the module. The ramifications of this setup are: four times the amount of exams to set and timetable, four times the amount of class lists, four times the amount of setup work to create each module and so on; and perhaps more importantly, confusion and chaos for the student, and a great deal of work fixing problems when students are assigned to the wrong code - as often happens. The team calculated that 184 hours staff time each year are devoted to this activity.

Again consultation with experts was undertaken to see if removal of the ‘level’ suffixes would cause a problem anywhere within the University’s processes. Nobody could see that they would, everyone was supportive - but equally, nobody felt they could actually authorise the change.

Given the short window for change, the result was that the new year will use the same course codes as previous years. Already this has meant that some 60 students, allocated to the wrong module code, will have to be moved to the correct code, and this will continue through the start of the new academic year.

What is our learning from this project?

  1. Make sure that approval for changes has really been given, so that team members are not disappointed.
  2. Make sure that consultation with stakeholders is genuine and that they understand the purpose of the improvement event.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Doctoral Training Centres

In April 2013 we facilitated a problem definition workshop, for staff involved in the administrative processes of the Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs). This was an area where many people had tried to fix problems, but there had been limited success, there was a great deal of frustration in the room. Outputs from the workshop defined seven main themes which needed to be addressed. Following on from the workshop we were asked to look at running a process improvement project focusing on some of the process problems identified at the workshop.


What was the problem? The DTCs provide a cohort approach to postgraduate research education, often industry focused and offering training options not available to traditional PhD students: each DTC was structured differently and the steer from the university was to grow this area of business.

The main process problem was around data, the courses were structured very differently on the student management system, and there was confusion where DTCs should sit in the hierarchy of both the university and within the data tables. Although our focus was on data, our project sponsor was very clear that the outcomes of the project should focus on student experience as well as process efficiency and effectiveness.

We were asked to run the project as a series of workshops, to ensure that staff were able to attend. We ran three full day workshops in November which focused on looking at the high level process, where the current data problems occur and where are the gaps and then agreeing how the data should be coded in the system. All very important, but how did this help the student experience? We found that every time the process required a manual intervention it delayed students from registering, receiving stipends, getting the correct comms from their department, progressing to the next year of study as well as physical access to rooms and resources. The doctoral training centre managers did not always know who was able to help, so they were spending a lot of time locating the right person to fix things for students on an individual basis.

The two main outputs of the project were a revised coding structure and we also found time to draft a manual for all doctoral training centre managers to use, which gives them a clear guide to a student’s administrative journey. The benefits of the project were:
  • Student Experience - a smoother process, which is right first time, with less reliance on manual intervention. This will ensure that students are linked to the correct academic department, they will receive departmental communications, and have access to the correct labs, library and computing facilities. The improved process will ensure that stipends and bursaries are attributed quickly. Of equal importance it will free up the time of the doctoral training manager, so that they spend less time dealing with problems and have more time to focus on value added activities.
  • Administrative efficiencies and effectiveness - It is estimated that the changes will save the university approximately 630 hours per annum in staff time, and perhaps more create an environment where increased student numbers can be accommodated.

Following the workshops there was still further work required: minor systems development work to amend the online application form and some of fields in the database. Each new DTC needed to be given a programme code, but also each of the existing DTC needed to be re-coded and it all needed to be tested to make sure that the assumptions of the team worked in practice. A task and finish group was set up to ensure that the work was completed by 31 July 2014, in time for HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) reporting to happen. 

To date it’s our first project where one of the outputs enables students to receive the correct communications, and more importantly for them, they will now be invited to the departmental postgraduate ball.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Sharing Good Practice

On 29 July 2014.The University of Bedfordshire hosted the UCISA sub group Project and Change Management (PCMG) committee meeting The group is comprised of HIgher Education IT project managers, programme managers, business analysts and other people who are involved with change management activities.

The group was interested to hear about how some of the process improvement projects here at Sheffield  have then resulted in IT project work and also how we work with our Programme and Projects Unit to deliver problem definition workshops and process mapping activities to support larger projects.

For my part I was interested in learning from other universities about the projects they are working on; sharing of good practice and experiences good and bad is invaluable. One of the pieces of work which the group is working on is about how to brief and support project sponsors, this should be really beneficial.

The group also started planning for its first event, which will be next year, further details to follow. We hope to run it in June 2015 , and ensure that the agenda offers something for project managers and change agents alike.