Category Archives: Technology

‘Rough Guide to Curriculum Design’ Undergoing Internal & External Peer-Review

Following on from previous posts relating to the development of the Birmingham City University (BCU) ‘Rough Guide to Curriculum Design’, we’ve now shared a first draft of the document both internally for review by  local experts/stakeholders, and externally for review by colleagues at other institutions.

Sonia Hendy-Isaac (Senior Lecturer at BCU in Curriculum Design for Employer Engagement) from the project team presented at the ALT-C Conference on September 11th 2012, and showcased the draft document with the JISC and colleagues from other projects to the wider sector for the first time.

After the session, Sonia commented:

“There was some really good interest – it was well received by the group”.

Professor Paul Bartholomew (T-SPARC Project Manager) spoke about the emergence of the Rough Guide:

“It has been designed in response to curriculum design support needs that have emerged as a consequence of the pilots undertaken during the T-SPARC project at Birmingham City University.

Once the final content has been established the guide will be offered to staff in both a document and  multimedia format (with supplementary video elements) and embedded directly into the new SharePoint based Design and Approval of Programmes System (DAPS).”

It is envisaged that after the second phase of pilots using the technology supported processes for programme design and approval are completed by summer 2013, the Rough Guide will form an integral part of the new process and systems.

For more information, or to download a review copy of the Rough Guide, please contact


Reflections on Project Management Methodologies

In previous posts you will have heard how our approach to project management and business analysis has changed over the past 18 months. This post aims to give an update to readers about current T-SPARC project management methodologies.

When I initially started with T-SPARC I felt that it was important to make process mapping work for the relevant stakeholders groups. At the time that meant internal staff that we were consulting with on their views of current process, the hurdles they face through the lived experience of curriculum design any their opinions on how processes could be improved. Convoluting university processes with complex system diagrams didn’t seem appropriate, so we opted for a softer, user-friendly approach with relatively simple swim-lane diagrams. These were purposely designed to be easily interpreted by members of staff being consulted. It was during this process that we realised the process maps weren’t there just to communicate processes, but to encourage dialogue between stakeholders.

The next stage was defining the business requirements for the proposed new processes. From the information gathered during the stakeholder engagement events (including the multimedia review that was conducted during 2009), a vision of the new processes was developed that detailed how Microsoft SharePoint would be used to augment the new course design and approval processes.

The project then employed a SharePoint software developer as a contractor to work on the project alongside existing university staff to add capacity. At this point we had used PRINCE2 as a project management methodology with varying levels of success. Things such as the management structure, risk register, issue log and work package protocol were defined to PRINCE2 standards, but our CICT department felt that this project management style would not suit the [rapid] development of the new SharePoint infrastructure. Collectively, CICT and T-SPARC felt that a new approach should be sought to allow the iterative and ongoing development of the workflows. Agile (Scrum) methodology had been looked at by our CICT department in the past and used by members of their team and a decision was made to manage the T-SPARC SharePoint development using Agile methodology.

Agile allows for regular ‘Sprint’ meetings where developers, business analysts and project manager(s) evaluate previous Sprints, and define the next ones. A Sprint is a series of objectives that must be achieved to produce the next iteration of the software (or product). This approach allows a series of prototypes to be designed and tested on an ongoing basis, this in turn allows functionality to be defined iteratively and gives project teams the ability to test each iteration of the software with users and feed back to developers to add to the next Sprint for implementation and then further testing.

In addition to the regular Sprint meetings, Agile allows for daily ‘Scrum’ meetings where developers and BA’s (business analysts) meet to discuss the previous days progress, and targets for the current day. This approach has led to the rapid development and rapid integration of new features into the system.

Something thing that has been noted is that the Agile approach can lead to a lack of definitive project documentation! The nature of the rapid development means that rather than the product specification being designed and defined during the initiation of the project – post requirements gathering and analysis, the specification is defined with input from stakeholders on an ongoing basis. This leads to a Sprint log being developed, to be used as a set of Sprint deliverables, which can be updated at the end of each Sprint to define the next set of deliverables. However to counteract this lack of documentation, with Agile, you do get a series of prototypes that are developed and tested by stakeholders which ensures that the end product is fit for purpose.

We realised that two key aspects of Agile are communication between and commitment from developers and project staff. We started using the Sprint and Scrum meetings but then realised that ongoing and more responsive dialogue was needed and for this we decided to use Skype as it allows for ‘share screen’ functionality which has been extremely useful for answering quick queries without having to leave our desks.

Another observation that we have made; tightly constrained project management methodologies can restrain competent and confident members of staff. Certain staff need to be empowered with the freedom to make decisions, project teams need the need ability to be able to relax the constraints of the methodologies and be creative and to encourage the ‘doing’. Project managers need to be able to relax the constraints of particular project management methodologies to allow this, especially when using the more fluid and dynamic Agile methods. The flip side is that less competent and confident members of staff may rely on more tightly defined project management methodologies to define processes and work packages. You need buy-in from all members of a project team, and all involved need to be practiced in Agile methodologies for it to work properly.

For more information on Agile project management methodologies click here.


T-SPARC Technology Usage & Uptake

We’ve been piloting the use of various technologies for several months now, such as the Flip cameras, Voxur units and MP3 voice recorders in many projects here at Birmingham City University. These have mainly been curriculum design based projects but we have had interest from a number of diverse areas from within the institution and always keen not to miss an opportunity we have also been collaborating with these slightly off scope projects.

Collectively, these projects are helping us to establish usage patterns, usage and user preferences (voice Vs video), how projects influence course structure, how students experience feedback, the delivery of course / placement outcomes, how students with disabilities perceive their induction programmes and first year at university and a range of other interesting any worthwhile projects.

To give you an idea of uptake, we purchased 70 Flip cameras, 60 of which are currently being used by 13 unique projects. 2 of our 3 Voxur units are currently being used with the 3rd being used for 8 weeks from mid-March by our Library & Learning Resources Team. In the past 6 months the 3 Voxur units have been used to collect data for 11 different projects and have generated around 90 hours of footage collectively.

Interestingly, we purchased 30 MP3 voice recorders which we thought would be useful to certain projects where participants were uncomfortable with being videoed. However we have only loaned out 12 of these at the moment, and despite some reports of initial reticence from individuals to being videoed, it seems that many project organisers are still keen to push this means of data collection.

We’ve had a lot of interest in using the technologies from participants of our Student Academic Partners Scheme which is generating an increasing amount of feedback data (both written and video) that we are beginning to collate for the purpose of sharing with future users in the form of a ‘how to guide’.

If you’d like more information on these projects please post in the comments section below, alternatively you can visit our Student Academic Partners Scheme website and blog here.


Is Meaningful Engagement Without Risk?

Readers of this blog will be aware that we have been ardent advocates for meaningful stakeholder engagement in curriculum design. As we have progressed through the project we have become aware that although the benefits far outweigh the risk, it does exist.

If course designers do a really good job of getting stakeholders involved, it is very likely that those stakeholders will actually come to care about that in which they are investing their time. It is therefore very important that we carefully manage the expectations of those stakeholders we engage.

This is well illustrated through the reflections offered below from one of our pilot partners, Kate Chadwick:

A downside to using Survey Monkey/VOXUR?
One phenomenon I have experienced in the use of survey monkey and VOXUR in order to gain information from potential students for our proposed MSc Radiotherapy is that it has created a good deal of interest in the programme.  This would have been extremely useful if we hadn’t hit a stumbling block in the approval process and been forced to alter the proposed structure of the course.  Those potential students who expressed interest initially after the survey monkey/VOXUR use were eager to find out more information, yet we were unable to say at that point even which topic areas would be included in the final structure of the MSc programme or when it might actually be running.  This has led to some potential students becoming disheartened and frustrated and we may end up losing these students to our competitor institutions.  Fortunately, so far, these potential students have been placated through close and frequent communication but it has been a difficult situation to manage and one which, had we anticipated it, we might have been able to take steps to avoid when conducting our information gathering stage.

Kate Chadwick
Joint Postgraduate Lead for Radiotherapy

As can be seen, the radiotherapy team had done enough to involve people to such an extent that they created a situation in which potential students felt they had a vested interest in the developing course. This is an excellent indicator of effective engagement; but there is certainly food for thought here in relation to our need to manage expectations of stakeholders and to alert them to the potential for positive and less positive progress in relation to course design.


VOXUR, Uni of Greenwich, T-SPARC Pilots and an example VOXUR clip from one of our pilot teams!

voxurApologies that this post is a little delayed!

In early December I had a trip down to meet the UG-Flex project team and colleagues at the University of Greenwich to give them a tech-demo with one of T-SPARCs VOXUR units. UG-Flex wanted to showcase the equipment to a group of colleagues to generate interest in the use of video based technologies such as the VOXURs that T-SPARC are advocating the use of during stakeholder engagement activities in the course design and approval process at BCU. UG-Flex borrowed the unit for several weeks over the Christmas period, hopefully long enough for it to have made an impact on potential users and highlighted the benefits to them that are achievable through the effective use of this type of technology.

A link to the Greenwich blog can be found here.

To give you an example of the types of rich response you can expect to gather from this type of stakeholder engagement activity, I’ve hyper-linked (bottom of page) to a video edit produced in collaboration with our pilot course team, the Psychology Graduate Diploma that is being developed here at BCU.

During this particular exercise, 20 students responded to a series of 15 questions (on curriculum design related issues) on the VOXUR units over a 5 day period when it was convenient for them to take 15 minutes or so out of their day. The results speak for themselves and will be an invaluable source of data to the course team whilst they progress through the course design process. Although these responses may not be surprising in their content, the ease of capture is hard to replicate and the transparent authenticity of student opinion is represented in a way that is difficult to achieve by other means such as a questionnaires. The videos will be shared back to the students at some point in the near future (using view profiles on our e-portfolio Mahara) to show them how their input was used in the shaping of the new course. This will demonstrate to students what it means to have their voices represented authentically.

In this example video edit, students were asked for their opinions on:

‘How can assessment feedback mechanisms be improved on your programme?’

Click here for a link to the .wmv file

Click here for a link to the .mp4 file

All comments welcomed.


Post from Kate Chadwick, Joint PG Lead for Radiotherapy – Experiences so far

As a pilot for the T-SPARC project, myself and my colleague Clair Brackstone have been implementing some of the new technologies in the approval process for our proposed MSc in Radiotherapy.  We used a flip camera to record a meeting with clinical Radiotherapy colleagues from across the Midlands to document their views on which proposed modules would be viable, what content they would like to see in the modules and any areas we haven’t covered which could become new modules.  We gave the clinical staff members the opportunity to refuse to be videoed but no-one did.  We did experience some teething problems, such as our suboptimal placement of the camera due to our concerns over the sound quality, but we found that we could place the camera at the opposite end of the room and still capture voices in good enough quality to be heard once transferred to the computer.

We have also found the free website Survey Monkey to be an invaluable tool to collect similar information from our clinical colleagues nationwide and this has given a far better response rate than the back-up paper copies we also distributed.  This website also has the facility to analyse data (for a small fee) which will drastically reduce the time we will spend converting the information into a more useable format.

Currently we are in the process of sending a VOXUR unit out to our local clinical departments to gain feedback from radiographers so watch this space for an update on their usefulness…!

Kate Chadwick

Progress Update – Consultation Events

Well – A lot has happened here with the T-SPARC project at Birmingham City University in recent weeks.

First up, the (academic) staff consultation events which have been held over the past few weeks, around 40 staff attended, distributed between 4 separate events. The events lasted for 5 hours and were structured with several different activities scheduled for attendees throughout the day. After some brief introductions from attendees and project staff, the Project Manager gave an Introduction to the T-SPARC project and a review of progress so far.

During other exercises, a range of data collection techniques were employed, including some exercises using Flip video cameras, which allowed us to gather a range of different types of data that will reflect the views of staff expressed at the events.

From these consultation events, the project team have identified 3 courses so far that will be taking part in the first phase of full pilot schemes (using all technologies and new processes available to them). There are also another 2 course teams that have volunteered to pilot specific aspects that that they feel would benefit the approval/re-approval of their courses.

More recently, members of the team have been coding the videos produced at the events and inputting quantitative data from some of the questionnaires into spreadsheets. The team are now beginning to analyse the results. Once collated, this rich source of information generated at the consultation events will inform documentation produced by Senate on new procedures and guidelines on programme design and approval/re-approval.

On a different note, the VOXUR units T-SPARC ordered have been delivered, if you haven’t heard of these before, click here for more info. JISC recommended these pieces of equipment to us as a way to collect video data efficiently and effectively. Watch this space for more feedback on the VOXUR units once we get the pilot schemes up and running.

In conclusion, we seem to be making very positive progress at the moment, the project continues to benefit from a high level of institutional support. This can be attributed to (amongst other things) members of the project team working across a number of different projects simultaneously and being able to develop synergies and encourage institutional buy-in to the T-SPARC project though their involvement in other areas. This beneficial environment has made some of the barriers we were looking to climb become more scalable in reality, a situation we hope we can continue to enjoy in the future.


Process Modelling Update – Pitfalls and Suggestions

We recently received a reply to our last post on ‘Adapting Process Models to work for your Project’ which has got me thinking again this afternoon…..

It was suggested that a good piece of software to get the process (excuse the pun) of process mapping started is MS Visio 2010 – something I’m looking to getting installed later this afternoon hopefully!

I’ve previously blogged about how we used a version of UML, that has elements of BPMN within it. We arranged it so as the swim lanes were coming down vertically from the top on the page, and the process moved down the page chronologically towards the bottom. This allowed us to integrate some sense timescales into the diagram.

I suppose this first facet of work we undertook was looking specifically at engaging with stakeholders involved in the approval/reapproval process. For this reason we actively looked at making the processes as transparent and easy to understand as possible, to try not to alienate people (looking at the diagram and thinking ‘what the heck is that!)

We held our first engagement day last Friday with members of staff from 2 faculties and found that the diagrams conveyed a manageable volume of information, without overwhelming people – allowing them to comment on where they think systems and processes could be streamlined and/or improved.

After another 3 engagement sessions in the coming weeks, we will be in a better position to gauge staff attitudes towards these processes, and to make informed suggestions about which directions and areas of programme design we should be seeking to develop and evolve in line with the T-SPARC rationale.

Another point you may like to take into consideration is that when you look at translating a business process model into a useable workflow diagram make sure that the you are designing it in a form that the end user will be able to understand. What I mean by this is that if you design a level 3 BPMN model, and pass this on to your CICT dept to translate into a MS SharePoint site, and they don’t have a clue what BPMN is, then it may become obsolete fairly quickly. This may not be an issue that you come across, and hopefully one we won’t encounter either, but give it some consideration early on in the process and it could save you some considerable effort later on down the line.

We will be uploading our V1.0 workflow models onto Circle at some point in the near future, so keep your eye on our blog for more info, it would be nice to hear your comments.

Also, please share any progress updates that you have in relation to process modelling, anything that you find that you think may be of use to share with us. I’m keen to look further into ‘upgrading’ our process models to BPMN in the near future, as long as that’s the best way of conveying the relevant information!


The Anonymity Factor

Just because somebody’s thoughts are anonymous doesn’t meant that they don’t hold value. Take these other famous anonymous phrases for example:

  • “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Anon
  • “Don’t let yourself forget what it’s like to be sixteen.” Anon
  • “Encouraged people achieve the best; dominated people achieve second best; neglected people achieve the least.” Anon
  • “Failure is not the worst thing in the world. The very worst is not to try.” Anon

All of which could be considered to be relevant to working in the education sector.

When videoing our stakeholder interviews, one person requested not to have their videos put up on YouTube (which of course is their right). This stakeholder had some very interesting views regarding curriculum design so I didn’t feel that it was fair to discard them. If you have read our blog about you will see that here at T-SPARC we see barriers like this as more of a challenge and will do our best to avert them and try to be inclusive of everyone, after all we aim to be Agile and Responsive as our title suggests.

I found after following a link to ‘TAG’ by UCLan on Twitter. This link led me to find a rather humorous video on plagiarism, after which had an advert for Xtranormal. I decided to explore the site and found that it would be a great way to make anonymous stakeholder videos. 

Take a look at our anonymous stakeholder below, talking about holistic and distributed approaches to curriculum design. This is on YouTube, with the captions created in Overstream.


T-SPARC’s most useful websites of 2009

printed internetHappy new year to you all! As 2009 has now come to a close we thought it was appropriate to have a look back at all the wonderful technologies we have found throughout the last year. Below I have listed some of the Internet based tools and sites we have come across when exploring options for disseminating the activity of the T-SPARC project.

Random Useful websites

• Zamzar –
Free online file converter. A life saver when your ‘PDF’ really needs to be a ‘JPEG’ for your blog!

• Tiny url – and –
Both equally good for cutting down URLs for ‘no mess’ tweets and blogs. Although Tweetdeck has its own ‘URL shortener’

• TED –
‘Ideas worth spreading’ indeed! Some free lectures/ speeches/ talks from some truly inspiring and fascinating people on a variety of topics.

Video sites

• YouTube –
All T-SPARC’s stakeholder videos in one place (including xtranormal videos and captions)

• Xtranormal –
This is an excellent tool for anonymity of our stakeholders in interviews. Also great that it is compatible with ‘YouTube’ and ‘Overstream’.

• Overstream –
Overstream is a fantastic tool for captioning videos to create greater accessibility. To find out more about T-SPARC’s use of ‘Overstream’ read this blog:

Twitter and other sites

• Twitter –
Twitter is a new and innovative way to connect with like minded people and has proved invaluable in creating an online community here at Birmingham City University. It is a quick and easy way to communicate with only 140 characters available in a tweet  so your message must be quite concise. I feel that it is best used in a project management style to update stakeholders on the project’s progress and to also send out links to the project blog or other informative websites.

• TweepML –
A very useful way to keep lists of people from certain groups. The above link is a list of all the ‘tweeters/ twitterers/ tweeple’ in Design Cluster B, and here is a list from Birmingham City University

• Tweetdeck –
A superb way to manage more than one Twitter account, with quick and easy viewing of direct messages and mentions and a facility to search for words, phrases and hash tags, as well as a ‘URL shortener’.


Other T-SPARC sites

• Flickr –
A place to keep all of the project’s photos and pictures. We’re hoping to add a lot more to this over the coming months.

• Netvibes –
Netvibes has proved to be one of the most useful tools that I have found. Through this marvellous site I have built our own web page for T-SPARC which brings all the information and technologies we need together. I have created 3 tabs: ‘T-SPARC’,  which has the T-SPARC blog, our Flickr and YouTube accounts all easily accessible as well as education news websites and Birmingham City University website. There is also a ‘Twitter tab’ which has links to #dcb09 and #jisccdd aswell as the T-SPARC twitter account. I have also created a JISC tab where there are links via RSS feeds to various updates from the JISC.

• WordPress Blog –
This blog has also proved invaluable.  It is a space where we can document the trials and tribulations of the project and keep people up to date with the project with more than 140 characters!