Why is University paperwork – and its computerised equivalent – so often a profitless burden?
We all understand the need for organization, and we have a pretty good idea who it is that keeps our groups in good shape, ready for its vital tasks: the overworked departmental administrator; the dedicated committee chair; the ingenious laboratory technician. How rarely central administration and institutional IT seem to feature in that list! So how can the University hope to genuinely reduce the workload of these vital departmental staff?
A few years ago, the orthodox solution would be to embark upon an investigative exercise of questionnaires and interviews, followed by feverish tool making, and culminating in the presentation of a finished artefact to the University. An enlightened project manager may have repeated this process a few times, hoping that the tool will improve with each iteration.
At CARET we have started to explore an innovative approach to solving these age-old problems. We noticed that, from time-to-time, some departmental organisers with the appropriate skills find some time to work on administrative tools of their own. These tools, where they exist, usually meet the needs of their department much more closely than anything brought in from outside. Where such home-grown tools exist, could they be of use to another department? Is it possible that with just a few simple changes we could widen the application of these tools without reducing their precision? That’s what we set out to discover.
A while ago, Richard Prager at Cambridge University Engineering Department addressed the thorny issue of the fair allocation of teaching with a custom tool. Through the use of weightings, Richard uses this tool to compare each academic’s teaching activity.
With the increase of modular courses, allocating students to appropriate exams consumes ever more effort. With Rachael Padman, we have worked on creating a tool for the Cavendish Laboratory which helps students register for exams.
CARET, Engineering, and the Cavendish Laboratory have taken these two hand-crafted tools, and experimented with ways to broaden their usefulness. At the Cavendish, our work has initiated a review and possible extension of CamSIS by MISD to provide new exam entry options for the whole University. The Judge Business School, Veterinary Medicine, Divinity, Mineral and Materials Science, Chemistry, Biochemistry, English and other departments have all trialled an individually-customised system for administering teaching allocations. Their reaction and enthusiasm has been overwhelmingly positive.
The project is now complete but CARET will continue to assess whether this federated approach could develop into a genuinely grass-roots approach to University administration, and whether it could be used again for future IT projects. We have also found that the prototype systems created by academics can be interpreted as powerful specifications for the systems they really need.
The final report of the project will shortly be available from the JISC project website.
As well as various articles on the project blog, we have produced two white papers detailing the principles of an innovative ‘trunkless’ model of software development
The Trunkless Development Model
Principles of Simple Software Development