2.1.1. Needs Assessment
Government Policies on Sending and Receiving Institutions
According to a report published by the University Grants Committee in 2010 
, following an increase in the number of sub-degree programmes (i.e., associate degree and higher diploma) and hence of vertical transfer students in Hong Kong, a robust system should be adopted to make clear the pathways for student progression in post-secondary education. In the Code of Good Practices on Governance and Quality Assurance for self-financing post-secondary institutions (e.g., community colleges), it is also recommended that students should be provided with clear information for their application and admission to degree programmes, including but not limited to credit policies and articulation pathways 
. In July 2014, the EDB announced the set-up of policies, principles, and operational guidelines for CAT in post-secondary education 
. Similarly, there have been scholarly recommendations about the development of a CAT system for tertiary institutions in Hong Kong 
Recall of Experience from Current Transfer Students
The availability of and access to credit transfer information are pre-requisites for transfer students’ pre-transfer (e.g., choice of degree programmes) and post-transfer (e.g., workload) decision making 
. In-depth focus group interviews with transfer students were conducted from February 2018 to December 2019 to gauge their information needs in the four participating universities. In total, 296 transfer students, representing most disciplines and years of study, joined the interviews. Since the main target users of this system are community college students and transfer entrants to university, we asked the interviewees to recall their transfer experiences. They recounted several challenges in their experiences of acquiring information related to articulation and credit transfer. They addressed the importance of having more information to enable them to make better study plans at both the pre-transfer and post-transfer stages. However, according to the students, there was a paucity of accessible information and guidelines relating to articulation and credit transfer available from an official, centralised channel.
First, the students reported difficulties in obtaining information about the pre-transfer (e.g., articulation pathways, study patterns, and credit transfer arrangements) and post-transfer stages (e.g., graduation requirement) through formal channels such as institutional websites and instructors, where the latter were not well informed of credit/course transferability. Alternative, informal sources of this information were their peers, seniors, and social media, in spite of the limited credibility of such informal channels. As a last resort, the students said they had approached individual departments in universities to obtain guidelines and verify information about graduation requirements in relation to credit transfer. It was, nonetheless, a time-consuming process. Even with the needed information, they noted that they were overloaded and confused with the massive amount of both relevant and irrelevant information, and the transferability of some courses still remained uncertain.
Second, the transfer students who had looked for credit transfer information suggested that the transferability of credits between sub-degree and degree programmes and requirements regarding course grades should be made transparent to them during their sub-degree studies. This information could have facilitated study planning in that they could strategically take courses that were transferable to universities during sub-degree studies and hence reduce their study loads after articulating to degree studies. Since, as mentioned, this information was limited, the students relied on the alternative sources of information, which might have been outdated or even inaccurate. Particularly for credit transfer practice, unofficial information (e.g., requirements and minimum GPA) affected their decision making significantly. They reported that it was not uncommon for transfer students to mistakenly register for courses based on inaccurate information. The credibility of such information was a concern.
At a later stage of the project, when being introduced to the idea of a credit transfer and articulation information system, the students expressed welcoming attitudes and perceived this as a platform for increasing the visibility and accessibility of verified, up-to-date, and consistent information regarding articulation and credit transfer. In particular, they requested the availability of a list of courses that are transferrable between sub-degree and degree programmes in Hong Kong, and also a searching facility for matching their potential articulation-friendly universities and degree programmes with their current sub-degree programmes. They also suggested having instructions about applying for credit transfer in various universities as well as reminders of important dates and deadlines. Compared to their existing sources of credit transfer information, this proposed system was regarded as a trustworthy repository that would save their time in obtaining and organising the information.
2.1.2. Pre-Prototyping Groundwork
The groundwork started back in August 2017. Our team took advantage of this gap and initiated the idea of a pioneering, local, cross-institutional credit transfer information system (CICIS) in the project team’s first internal meeting. The ONCAT database and later the ASSIST, as well as BCCAT, were taken as a reference to develop the CICIS. After studying their features and elements applicable to our design, a project assistant prepared a hand-drawn draft layout of the system (i.e., the wireframe) in February 2018 so that discussion could be supported by the visualised ideas. Figure 1 shows part of the initial wireframe that illustrated the searching interface. In addition to continuous major input of comments and suggestions from project team members, various external parties were invited to offer their opinions on the wireframe. During this design phase, a professor from another local university and another expert from overseas acted as the main external consultants. As the prospective content (i.e., credit transfer information) providers, academic staff, transfer students from six local universities, and community colleges were also involved in refining the wireframe design. Technical advice and support were given by the departmental Senior IT Officer and the central IT Services.
Figure 1. Searching interface in the initial wireframe of the system.
From September 2017 the project team started the on-going process of collecting institutional data including existing records of programme-to-programme articulation and credit transfer, from the four participating universities. Based on the users’ information needs, a preliminary list of information fields was generated. The information related to the community college or sub-degree (i.e., sending) institution included Name of Institution, Programme Title, Subject Code, Subject Title, and Minimum Grade Required for Credit Transfer, while that related to the university (i.e., receiving institution) included Year of Intake, Faculty, Department, Programme Title, and Subject Code. It also included Success, which indicated whether the credit transfer application was approved or not.
Due to the inevitable inertia in the administration policies and practices influenced by institutional cultures 
, the project team encountered considerable obstacles throughout the credit transfer data collection. At the beginning, the data collection process started from sending a request to the programme leaders of individual departments asking for articulation information and credit transfer records. However, the response rate was rather low due to the reluctance of individual programmes and/or departments to disclose such information. Furthermore, a large amount of time was spent by administrative staff in looking up and retrieving the transfer-specific information from admission records that were infrequently used by the departments. For instance, in University A, since credit transfer applications are handled at the departmental level on a case-by-case basis, the project team could only obtain a total of 337 first-hand records of subject-to-subject articulation and credit transfer from the programme leaders of the 24 bachelor’s degree programmes (i.e., 41% of all programmes) and administration staff in 12 academic departments (i.e., 45% of all departments), from late October 2019 to late January 2020. This bottom-up approach to data collection was thus not entirely effective.
The project team then switched to the top-down approach for collecting data from central bodies holding the student admission data. Obstacles were encountered here too due to the concerns of privacy, institutional data sharing, and even removal of relevant data. Following numerous negotiations, some provided subject-to-subject transfer data, while some provided programme-to-programme articulation data. For instance, in University B, as of June 2020, data were obtained from only one department. University C only provided aggregated data. University D could only provide programme-to-programme articulation information since transfer students had been pre-assigned to take a certain number of unit requirements for graduation. Besides the mode of transfer (subject-to-subject, programme-to-programme, or combination), challenges were also found in using different terminologies describing identical concepts (Table 1).
Table 1. Examples of the different terminology used in the four universities in Hong Kong for credit transfer practices.
||Direct entry to year 3 of undergraduate programmes (usually 4-year), mainly for graduates of local Associate Degree/Higher Diploma
||Advance standing II
|Measurement of academic load
||A measurement to quantify the amount of learning in a course or programme of study
|Unit of study
||A minimal unit of study
|Curriculum structure (category)
||The general education components that all undergraduate students are required to complete as a graduation requirement stipulated by the universities to enhance breadth of knowledge and skills
||General university requirement
||University core requirement
After gathering a certain amount of data from the four participating universities, the project team focused on the intricate and time-consuming tasks of organising and cleaning the data from each university. There were either inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the collected data from the academic registries and those from departments. This was mainly attributable to the unstandardised format of data, such as inconsistent programme titles and course codes, and incomplete data submission. Furthermore, the sources of data also had to be taken into consideration. For instance, in University A, the subject-to-subject credit transfers were entered (e.g., name of institution, programme title, and course code) by the applicants (i.e., transfer students) into their credit transfer applications that eventually became the institutional records. Therefore, the collected data were cautiously managed.