Student Information Systems: Setting up your course codes


When you’re setting up course codes in your student information system, should you include information about the specific course, or simply use a unique identifier with no wider significance? Here, Matt Butson, Tribal’s Reporting and Funding Advisor, explains why he thinks meaningless course codes are best.

Anyone who has seen our Tribal College webinar on Curriculum will know that Tribal recommends meaningless course codes over meaningful course codes. I wanted to give you my opinion on this from my experience with the Data Management Services team at Tribal. A meaningful course code is a course code that contains additional information about the course it identifies. Take the made-up example of ABC1234.

  • A = Arts and Craft
  • B = Bakery Team 
  • C = Main College Campus 

I’m not sure many colleges have a bakery team, but you get the point. Having the faculty and department somewhere in the code is quite common but I have also seen venue, tutor and sometimes even day of the week in there too. The learner management system I am most familiar with is Tribal’s ebs, but what I have to say should be relevant to any provider where the curriculum is typically organised by courses.

The question is whether the course code itself needs to describe some relevant information about the course to which it refers, or whether it should simply be a unique identifier with no wider significance. I would argue it is cleaner, more accurate and more efficient to treat course codes as mere identifiers. ebs customers in particular, should be interested in this question as using meaningless course codes allows you to use some nifty features that could save your curriculum staff untold hours in manual processing time.

Here are three reasons for using meaningless course codes:
  1. The course details may change. In ebs, for example, course codes cannot be changed once they are saved (as they are referenced in so many places throughout the system). Therefore, you don’t want to lock in any information into the course code that could be subject to change, as then it becomes actively misleading if the code signifies one thing and the truth is something else.

  2. It duplicates work. Information that providers typically store in the course code is also stored elsewhere for ILR or reporting purposes so effectively it is stored twice. 

  3. It saves time as the curriculum codes and structure can be reused. ebs allows customers to ‘roll over’ the curriculum from year to year, meaning that courses do not need to be set up from scratch each year. When you consider a college may have 1000 + courses, this time mounts up which could be better spent on other tasks, whereas using meaningless course codes allows you to reuse course codes year on year without being tied to what the course was used for last year.

 "using meaningless course codes allows you to use some nifty features that could save your curriculum staff untold hours in manual processing time."

But, not everyone agrees with me. One customer told me meaningful course codes saves their admin team a lot of time when they are talking to learners on the phone. They can glean vital bits of information just from the course code and not have to spend precious time - while the customer is on the phone - going into additional screens unnecessarily. 

These are things I hadn’t properly considered, and so I am reminded of George Orwell’s comment about the metric system that, whilst it was great for science and mathematics, it does have some limitations when applied to human experience. For example, the metric system has no unit of measurement between the centimetre and the metre and for many practical purposes the former is too small and the metre too large. Are those that argue for meaningless course codes similarly overplaying the virtues and ignoring the benefits of the other approach?

I would be really interested in your opinions on how your organisation codes its curriculum particularly if you have changed from one to the other. If you could tweet using the hashtag #tbc to my twitter account: @MatthewButson1 that would be great.

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