Cornell University Electronic Student Records Systems Project Report

return to index

5 Preservation Approaches and Strategies

Section 2 introduced preservation strategies. The preservation strategy must insure that the best preservation approach for the records and for the organization is identified and implemented. A preservation approach stipulates the activities that will be performed to insure that the records are preserved. For long-term access, it is possible, even likely, that successive preservation approaches will be needed over time as the technology evolved. The archives should document the selection and application of the preservation approach. To select the preservation approach for student records, a university must have compiled current information on the student records system implementation including the process for producing and maintaining transcripts, the file formats in which student records and transcripts are stored, 30 and the mechanism for supporting degree audit. A preservation approach can only be selected within the context of a preservation strategy as defined and developed by an organization and in relation to a particular set of records and circumstances. The self-assessment in Appendix G may assist with the preservation strategy.

The dominant preservation approaches are discussed in the following sections with recommendations on how the approaches might apply to student records. Sections 5.1 to 5.3 present possible preservation approaches for electronic student records. There are distinct requirements for transcripts and student record databases, and yet it is difficult to completely separate them. A transcript is generally a specified view of the information captured in the database. Each option includes some pros and cons. It may be that, particularly for transcripts, more than one option might be needed to insure preservation. For example, COM and PDF might both be used. The university's size, resources, need, current functionality, will determine the appropriate combination. Universities that use PeopleSoft and other packages may collaborate to develop suitable preservation approaches to share expertise and resources. Section 5.4 discusses some considerations for course descriptions and syllabi. Appendix F, Relevant Research Projects, provides information on and citations to digital preservation research projects. 31

5.1 Transcript Options

Transcripts are the most requested document that universities create and maintain. Transcript content and control mechanisms must conform to AACRAO guidelines. It must be possible to produce transcripts for the life of the student and sometimes even after that to meet legal and historical requirements. Once transcripts cease to be vital records of the Registrar's Office, the documents should be treated as permanent records of the university. With electronic systems, transcripts may be produced upon demand and not stored as a fixed document. This should be considered when producing retention schedules.

Hard copy, microforms, and Computer Output Microfilm (COM)

Many universities may already produce security copies of transcripts in one of these formats. Transcripts have a defined content and presentation format which makes these documents an excellent candidate for one of these formats. Any of these formats may insure that the content is fixed and preserved using known preservation management techniques.

Pros:

Cons:

Portable Document Format (PDF )

PDF is a widely used file format that is present a document on a variety of computer platforms as it originally appeared. 34 PDF may also be used to fix the content of transcripts in a familiar format. 35 The resulting electronic files can be stored on accepted media and managed as part of a preservation program. 36 The PDF files will have to be migrated as successive versions of the PDF software are introduced. See the discussion of migration below.

Pros:

Cons:

Considerations

Universities should consider the existing process for making transcripts available, the current format in which transcripts are stored, and the requirements for and the resources available to support current and future access. Other possibilities for managing transcripts may include digital imaging projects for current records and retrospective conversions, 37 or the definition by AACRAO or a consortium of universities of standard XML format for transcripts. 38 Image files would also have to be migrated to stay current with versions of the image software and staying current with the XML standard may also require periodic migration. See the discussion of the migration approach below.

5.2 Database Options

The content of student record systems is primarily retained for informational purposes, both administrative and historical. There are two important exceptions to this. First, if the system also supports the degree audit function, it should be possible to reproduce that function for as long as necessary. Degree requirements evolve over time and all changes in requirements must be documented and applied when performing a degree audit. Second, if the system is used to track compliance to FERPA regulations. The university must be able to produce evidence of compliance for as long as required. The electronic student records systems should be carefully scheduled to make sure that all of the components are comprehensively defined and to clearly indicate the records and documentation that should be retained and how. This is especially true when these systems are integrated into online access systems.

Traditional Approach

The content of student record databases can be captured as flat files or as tables from a relational system, with the associated documentation and metadata. The relationships between the tables in the system can be documented and reactivated as needed. This approach has been successfully used and developed for decades, beginning with the introduction of databases in the 1960s. For older systems in particular, the documentation may not all be in electronic format. It should be possible to capture metadata directly from the system.

This approach might be more appropriate for basic student records systems than for complex PeopleSoft implementations. The more complex the system, the more work is required to document and preserve the system. In conjunction with explicit and implemented preservation management procedures, this approach can be used to capture records. 39 Careful consideration should be given to the degree audit and FERPA compliance exceptions and how these exceptions will be addressed in applying the approach.

Pros:

Cons:

Migration Approach

The migration of software-dependent files from one format to another has been widely accepted by archivists, but there is no explicitly defined and fully implemented methodology for migration. The recent CLIR publication entitled: Risk Management of Digital Information: A File Format Investigation provides extensive information on the migration approach, undertaking a risk assessment when applying the approach, and some specific examples of migrating some file formats. 40 Identifying the factors that determine when to files should be migrated is an important stage in using the migration approach. Technology changes quickly. Migration should prevent files from becoming unreadable, but should not necessarily migrate with every version of the software.

The migration approach may work well for many student records systems. A plan for should be developed for implementing and documenting the application of the approach.

Pros:

Cons:

Emulation

Archivists have been very enthusiastic about the potential of emulation for preservation. As defined by Jeff Rothenberg, emulation requires capturing the original software, the records in their native format, detailed documentation of the original hardware and software environment and the specification of a viewer to enable the original environment of the records to be emulated in the future. The decision about which versions of the software need emulators must be carefully considered. For example, Microsoft Word can read documents created in previous versions of the software so every version may not need to have an emulator. While emulation has been used for business purposes, like migration, this approach has not been explicitly defined and emulated. While migration has been used for some time and with some success, emulation has not been used for archival preservation and to some extent, its success cannot be tested until an emulator is needed in the future. 42

Pros:

Cons:

5.3 Integrated Option

Object-oriented approach

An object-oriented preservation approach to student records could provide an integrated solution for transcripts; student records systems; and related records, such as curriculum documentation. A number of research projects are experimenting in this area, but there are few implemented solutions so far; for example:

Each student record could be preserved as an object. The associated transcript or a link to an image, XML format, or other version of the transcript could be stored in the object. Access to the objects could be documented for FERPA compliance and for general audit control. When necessary, it is possible to build a wrapper around a legacy system that would simulate the functionality of the system. A number of organizations have used this approach to integrate legacy systems into current operations. This would allow preservation options for transcripts and student records systems to be integrated into one approach.

Pros:

Cons:

Recommendation 17: Identify the appropriate preservation approach for the setting

After documenting the existing situation and planned changes, identify the preservation approach that is most suitable for the requirements and resources of the university. The best solution for transcripts and student record databases may require more than one approach, such as, retaining both a COM and PDF version of the transcript, or using emulation for the database and migration for the transcript files. It is most important to document the selection and application of the preservation approach and to document any changes to the records that occur during preservation.

5.4 Course Documentation Considerations

As mentioned in section 1, course documentation, such as course descriptions and syllabi, has both significant historical value and increasing evidential value, to verify the completion of degree requirements. Despite the wide recognition of their value, universities have not consistently and systematically captured these materials, even when the materials have been scheduled for retention. 43

In addition, the impact of new technologies on the nature and retention of course materials has not been evaluated. For example, instructors are actively using Web sites to store and deliver course materials and they are increasingly using purpose-built software packages to manage the development and maintenance of these Web sites. At Cornell, the academic technology support group has implemented CourseInfo for use by the faculty, but many instructors continue to build and maintain their own Web sites. The implementation of Internet-based technology has changed the location, content, use and retention of these materials. Depending on how the course documentation is managed and scheduled as a result of these new applications, it could be easier or more difficult to capture course materials. There may be more information captured, but because the software supports reuse of the materials, it may be difficult to associate the materials to a particular class that was taught.

There are some significant issues pertaining to course documentation. A course description is perhaps the minimum required documentation of a class. The content of course descriptions and the manner in which they are approved and captured probably varies from university to university. One course description describes at least one but possibly many instances of the course being taught, which means that the general course description may not accurately describe the a course as taught. The syllabus is the next most common and usually required component of course documentation, but it may difficult to identify the version of the syllabus that reflects the content of the course as taught, as the syllabus often evolves during a course. The syllabus is often reused and modified to suit iterations of the course. There may be no one version that captures the content and the point or points at which the syllabus should be captured may vary from course to course. Beyond the course description and the syllabus, materials such as lecture notes, assignments, listserv discussions that result from or are required by the course, and coursework itself are candidates for retention.

While it may be possible to capture content presented in a course through course documentation, that documentation may not adequately capture the course as an event. And the documentation can only capture what is presented, at best, not what is learned, which is a completely separate issue. Efforts to capture course documentation and the requirements imposed on instructors to create and capture documentation should not interfere with the spontaneous and intangible process of teaching and learning. However, the university must also be able to meet its long-term obligation to the student to be able to verify, as needed, the courses that the student took from whom on what topic(s) to meet what requirement(s).

Recommendation 18: Establish a policy on course documentation and retention

Universities should identify the best source of course descriptions, syllabi and other course documentation, the most effective method(s) of capture and mechanisms to insure that the materials are scheduled for retention and retained.