OUseful.Info, the blog…

Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

TSO OpenUP Competition – Opening Up UCAS Data

Here’s the presentation I gave to the judging panel at the TSO OpenUp competition final yesterday. As ever, it doesn’t make sense with[out] (doh!) me talking, though I did add some notes in to the Powerpoint deck: Opening up UCAS Course Code Data

(I had hoped Slideshare would be able to use the notes as a transcript, bit it doesn’t seem to do that, and I can’t see how to cut and paste the notes in by hand?:-(

A quick summary:

The “Big Idea” behind my entry to the TSO competition was a simple one – make UCAS course data (course code, title and institution) avaliable as data. By opening up the data we make it possible for third parties to construct services and applications based around complete data skeleton of all the courses offered for undergraduate entry through clearing in a particular year across UK higher education.
The data acts as scaffolding that can be used to develop consumer facing applications across HE (e.g. improved course choice applications) as well as support internal “vertical” activities within HEIs that may also be transferable across HEIs.
Primary value is generated from taking the course code scaffolding and annotating it with related data. Access to this dataset may be sold on in a B2B context via data platform services. Consumer facing applications with their own revenue streams may also be built on top of the data platform.
This idea makes data available that can potentially disrupt the currently discovery model for course choice and selection (but in its current form, not in university application or enrollment), in Higher Education in the UK.

Here are the notes I doodled to myself in preparation for the pitch. Now the idea has been picked up, it will need tightening up and may change significantly! ;-) Which is to say – in this form, it is just my original personal opinion on the idea, and all ‘facts’ need checking…

  1. I thought the competition was as much about opening up the data as anything… So the original idea was simply that it would be really handy to have machine readable access to course code and course name information for UK HE courses from UCAS – which is presumably the closest thing we have to a national catalogue of higher education courses.

    But when selected to pitch the idea, it became clear that an application or two were also required, or at least some good business reasons for opening up this data…

    So here we go…

  2. UCAS is the clearing house for applying to university in the UK. It maintains a comprehensive directory of HE courses available in the UK.

    Postgraduate students and Open University students do not go through UCAS. Other direct entry routes to higher education courses may also be available.

    According to UCAS, in 2010, there were 697,351 applicants with 487,329 acceptances, compared with 639,860 applications and 481,854 acceptances in 2009. [ Slightly different figures in end of cycle report 2009/10? ]

    For convenience, hold in mind the thought that course codes could be to course marketing, what postcodes are for geo related applications… They provide a natural identifier that other things can be associated with.

    Associated with each degree course is a course code. UCAS course codes are also associated with JACS codes – Joint Academic Coding System identifiers – that relate to particular topics of study. “The UCAS course codes have no meaning other than “this course is offered by this institution for this application cycle”.” link]

    “UCAS course code is 4 character reference which can be any combination of letters and numbers.

    Each course is also assigned up to three JACS (Joint Academic Coding System) codes in order to classify the course for *J purposes. The JACS system was introduced for 2002 entry, and replaced UCAS Standard Classification of Academic Subjects (SCAS). Each JACS code consists of a single letter followed by 3 numbers. JACS is divided into subject areas, with a related initial letter for each. JACS codes are allocated to courses for the *J return.

    The JACS system is used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and is the result of a joint UCAS-HESA subject code harmonization project.

    JACS is also used by UK institutions to identify the subject matter of programmes and modules. These institutions include the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Home Office and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).”

    Keywords: up to 10 keywords per course are allocated to each course from a restricted list of just over 4,500 valid keywords.
    “Main keyword: This is generally a broad subject category, usually expressed as a single word, for example ‘Business’.
    Suggested keyword (SUG): Where a search on a main keyword identifies more than 200 courses, the Course Search user is prompted to select from a set of secondary keywords or phrases. These are the more specific ‘Suggested keywords’ attached to the courses identified. For example, ‘Business Administration’ is one of a range of ‘Suggested keywords’ which could be attached to a Business course (there are more than 60 others to choose from). A course in Business Administration would typically have this as the ‘Suggested keyword’, with ‘Business’ as the main keyword.
    However, if a course only has a ‘Suggested keyword’ and not a related ‘Main keyword’, the course will not be displayed in any search under the ‘Main keyword’ alone.

    Single subject: Main keywords can be ticked as ‘Single subject’. This means that the course will be displayed by a keyword search on the subject, when the user chooses the ‘single subject’ option below. You may have a maximum of two keywords indicated as single subjects per course.”

    “Between January and March 2010, approximately 600,000 unique IP addresses access the UCAS course code search function. During the same time period, almost 5 million unique IP addresses accessed the UCAS subject search function.” [link]

    “New courses from 2012 will be given UCAS codes that should not be used for subject classification purposes. However, all courses will still be assigned up to three individual JACS3 codes based on the subject content of the course.

    An analysis of unique IP address activity on the UCAS Course Search has shown that very few searches are conducted using the course code, compared to the subject search function. UCAS Courses Data Team will be working to improve the subject search and course keywords over the coming year to enable potential applicants to accurately find suitable courses.” [link]

    Course code identifiers have an important role to play within a university administrations, for example in marshalling resources around a course, although they are not used by students. (On the other hand, students may have a familiarity with module codes.) Course codes identify courses that are the subject of quality assessment by the QAA. To a certain extent, a complete catalogue of course codes allows third parties to organise offerings based around UK higher education degrees in a comprehensive way and link in to the UCAS application procedure.

  3. If released as open data, and particularly as Linked Open Data, the course data can be used to support:
    - the release of horizontal data across the UK HE sector by HEIs, such as course catalogue information;
    - vertical scaffolding within an institution for elaboration by module codes, which in turn may be associated with module descriptions, reading lists, educational resources, etc.
    - the development across HE of services supporting student choice – for example “compare the uni” type services
  4. At the moment the data is siloed inside UCAS behind a search engine with unfriendly session based URLs and a poor results UI. Whilst it is possible to scrape or crowd-source course code information, such ad hoc collection mechanisms run the danger of being far from complete, which means that bias may be introduced into the collection as a side effect of the collection method.
  5. Making the data available via an API or Linked data store makes it easier for third parties to build course related services of whatever flavour – course comparison sites, badging services, resource recommendation services. The availability of the data also makes it easier for developers within an intsitution to develop services around course codes that might be directly transferable to, or scaleable across, other institutions.
  6. What happens if the API becomes writeable? An appropriately designed data store, and corresponding ingest routes, might encourage HEIs to start releasing the course data themselves in a more structured way.

    XCRI is JISC’s preferred way of doing this, and I think there has been some lobbying of HEFCE from various JISC projects, but I’m not sure how successful it’s been?

  7. Ultimately, we might be able to aggregate data from locally maintained local data stores. Course marketing becomes a feature of the Linked Data cloud.

    Also context of data burden on HEIs, reporting to Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies – PSURBS.

    Reconciliation with HESA Institution and campus identifiers, as well as the JISCMU API and Guardian Datablog Rosetta Stone spreadsheet

    By hosting course code data, and using it as scaffolding within a Linked Data cloud around HE courses, a valuable platform service can be made available to HEIs as well as commercial operations designed to support student choice when it comes to selecting an appropriate course and university.

  8. Several recent JISC project have started to explore the release of course related activity data on the one hand, and Linked Data approaches to enterprise wide data management on the other. What is currently lacking is national data-centric view over all HEI course offerings. UCAS has that data.

    Opening up the data facilitates rapid innovation projects within HEIs, and makes it possible for innovators within an HEI to make progress on projects that span across course offerings even if they don’t have easy access to that data from their own institution.

  9. Consumer services are also a possibility. As HEIs become more businesslike, treating students as customers, and paying customers at that, we might expect to see the appearance of university course comparison sites.

    CompareTheUni has had a holding page up for months – but will it ever launch? Uni&Books crowd sources module codes and associated reading links. Talis Aspire is a commercial reading list system that associates resources with module codes.

  10. Last year, I pulled together a few separate published datasets and through them into Google Fusion Tables, then plotted the results. The idea was that you could chart research ratings against student satisfaction, or drop out rates against the academic pay. [link ]

    Guardian datablog picked up the post, and I still get traffic from there on a daily basis… [link ]

  11. The JISC MOSAIC Library data challenge saw Huddersfield University open up book loans data associated with course codes – so you could map between courses and books, and vice versa (“People who studied this course borrowed this book”, “this book was referred to by students on this course”)

    One demonstrator I built used a bookmarklet to annotate UCAS course pages with a link to a resource page showing what books had been borrowed by students on that course at Huddersfiled University. [Link ]

  12. Enter something like compare the uni, but data driven, and providing aggregated views over data from universities and courses.
  13. To set the scene, the site needs to be designed with a user in mind. I see a 16-17 year old, sloughing on the sofa, TV on with the most partial of attention being paid to it, laptop or tablet to hand and the main focus of attention. Facebook chat and a browser are grabbing attention on screen, with occasional distractions from the TV and mobile phone.
  14. The key is course data – this provides a natural set of identifiers that span the full range of clearing based HE course offerings in the UK and allows third parties to build servies on this basis.

    The course codes also provide hooks against which it may be possible to deploy mappings across skills frameworks, e.g. SFIA in IT world. The course codes will also have associated JACS subject code mappings and UCAS search terms, which in turn may provide weak links into other domains, such as the world of books using vocabularies such as the Library of Congress Subject headings and Dewey classification codes.

  15. Further down the line, if we can start to associate module codes with course codes, we can start to develop services to support current students, or informal learners, by hooking in educational resources at the module level.
  16. Marketing can go several ways. For the data platform, evangelism into the HE developer community may spark innovation from within HEIs, most likely under the auspices of JISC projects. Platform data services may also be marketed to third party developers and innovators/entrepeneurs.

    Marketing of services built on top of the data platform will need to be marketed to the target audience using appropriate channels. Specialist marketers such as Campus Group may be appropriate partners here.

  17. The idea pitched is disruptive in that one of the major competitors is at first UCAS. However, if UCAS retains it’s unique role in university application and clearing, then UCAS will still play an essential, and heavily trafficked, role in undergraduate student applications to university. Course discovery and selection will, however, move away from the UCAS site towards services that better meet the needs of potential applicants. One then might imagine UCAS becoming a B2B service that acts as intermediary between student choice websites and universities, or even entertain a scenario in which UCAS is disintermediated and some other clearing mechanism instituted between universities and potential-student facing course choice portals.
  18. According to UCAS, between January and March 2010 “almost 5 million unique IP addresses accessed the UCAS subject search function” [link] In each of the last couple of years, the annual application/acceptance numbers have been of the order approx 500,000 students intake per year, on 600,000 applicants. If 10% of applicants and generate £5 per applicant, that’s £300k pa. £10 from 20% of intake, that’s £1M pa. £50 each from 40% is £10M. I haven’t managed to find out what the acquisition cost of a successful applicant is, or the advertising budget allocated to an undergraduate recruitment marketing campaign, but there are 200 or so HE institutions (going by the number of allocated HESA institution codes).

    For platform business – e.g. business model based around selling queries on linked/aggregated/mapped datasets. If you imagine a query returning results with several attributes, each result is a row and each attribute is a column, If you allow free access to x thousand query cells returned a day, and then charge for cells above that limit, you:
    Encourage wider innovation around your platform; let people run narrow queries or broad queries. License on use of data for folk to use on their own datastores/augmented with their own triples.
    Generate revenue that scales on a metered basis according to usage;
    - offer additional analytics that get your tracking script in third party web pages, helping train your learning classifiers, which makes platform more valuable.

    For a consumer facing application – eg a course choice site for potential appications is the easiest to imagine:
    - Short term model would be advertising (e.g. course/uni ads), affiliate fees on booksales for first year books? Seond hand books market eg via Facebook marketplace?
    - Medium term – affiliate for for prospectus application/fulfilment
    Long term – affiliate fee for course registration

  19. At the end of the day, if the data describing all the HE courses available in the UK is available as data, folk will be able to start to build interesting things around it…

Written by Tony Hirst

March 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. [...] in open education BlogAboutSearch « eSTEeM Project: Custom Course Search Engines TSO OpenUP Competition – Opening Up UCAS Data [...]

  2. [...] can also see the slides and explanation for the winning entry, Opening Up UCAS Data, on the OUseful.Info blog. Just promise you'll come back here [...]

  3. [...] A lot of this data is already available as public data from original sources, or via curated datastores such as the Guardian Datablog. What is lacking at the current time is the scaffolding that lets us create resources capabale of spanning the sector at qualification level. Some time ago, I described a simple visual application for comparing summary statistics relating to satisfaction, fees, salary levels and so on across UK universities (Does Funding Equal Happiness in Higher Education?). That was a first step. The second step was to try to start building up information from the course level and using that as the focus for comparisons. Which was in part why I entered the TSO OpenUp coompetition… [...]

  4. [...] that provides a basis around which normalisation can occur. In the education sector, getting a normalised catalogue of course codes is one example, although this is something that UCAS still appears unwilling to release as open [...]

Comments are closed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 725 other followers

%d bloggers like this: