What is a course?

In 2011 the HE sector was gearing up for the implementation of the latest big idea in the better-informed-students strategy: The Key Information Set.

The KIS – as it was known – was supposed to herald a new era of information for applicants and unlock a whole new market in advice-and-guidance apps/services based on this new open-access dataset.

The proposition was both simple and elegant; a set of standard information about each Course so that prospective students could make like-for-like comparisons on factors such as student satisfaction and average salary after graduation.

While much of the debate around KIS was focussed on the metrics that were to be included in the dataset, there was a bigger issue lurking at a more fundemental level in the data specification – what actually is a Course and do we have genuinely meaningful and comparable data on this?

I launched a small project with colleages from HESA, UCAS, HEFCE, SLC and a number of institutions. We researched, reviewed and then drafted a report.

On one level it’s an interesting exploration of the challenges involved in defining and analysing data about courses in higher education. At a broader level it’s an interesting case study on the challenges of data standardisation; specifically the problem of trying to standardise data in a world that is anything but standard! [There’s more about data standardisation here.]

The report was published in December 2011 and was generally well-received. It prompted a lot of debate and hopefully moved the conversation about data standards on a bit. The title of the report – What is a course? – has followed me around social media ever since and more than one commentator has suggested that it might end up on my gravestone.

Further reading

You can download the report here. It is mercifully brief and contains plenty of pictures.

I reflected on the issue a decade later on Wonkhe when the policy debate was all about ‘low quality courses’; I didn’t feel we’d come that far in ten years.