|Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]|
School of Information Systems
Queensland University of Technology
Department of Education
Curtin University of Technology
The Faculty of Information Technology of one university is using an integrated virtual case method approach in an attempt to link theoretical constructs of IT project management with a real world, practical implementation example. The idea of using a single virtual case study approach was based on the need to provide students about to graduate, who may never have had experience of real projects, the opportunity to 'feel' some of the emotions that they would soon experience in real life. This approach attempted to provide an experience of the frustrations and elations that are part of most project environments, an appreciation of the real difficulties faced by project team members, and an understanding of the real purposes for applying the theoretical constructs covered in the unit. In turn this approach created deep learning opportunities to managing complex interactions. Over five offerings of the unit, the teaching team has attempted to identify the involvement of students in the case study, in order to determine firstly how the level of involvement might be increased, and secondly whether this involvement actually relates to better learning outcomes.
To help educate potential IT project managers, it was therefore believed important to develop an ITPM unit, carefully structured to provide students with what were believed to be the most appropriate skills and relevant knowledge to take them into the workforce; one that specifically provided an understanding of factors likely to contribute to project success and factors likely to contribute to project failure.
The initial issue facing the unit designers was to create a pedagogy that would best provide students with the skills necessary to contribute efficiently and effectively in the environments in which they were soon likely to be working. The structural design of the unit also needed to match the faculty's desired graduate capabilities with expectations from industry, obtained from a survey of the latest published literature and from industry practitioners.
The case method approach considered here as a virtual environment, appeared to contribute to an appropriate pedagogy that could embed each of the topics to be covered into a single and understandable outcome, enabling students to develop realistic solutions by 'pulling apart complex situations' and 'keeping class discussion grounded upon stubborn facts faced in real life situations', in order to understand the 'crucial nature of accurate diagnosis both specifically and generally', (Lawrence, cited in Erskine, Leenders, & Mauffette-Leenders, 1981, p11). In project management based research conducted in the mid 90's, Hicks, (1996) citing Kolb, (1984) & Zuber-Skerritt, (1990) had claimed that,
...experiential learning, action learning and action research are built on the recognition that learning by experiencing and reflecting on that experience can be most effective in helping students and practitioners acquire professional knowledge and skills (p28).Using this approach, Hicks believes helps individuals become reflective practitioners who take responsibility for their own learning and performance over a lifetime. The validity of cases used in this way is confirmed by Barnes, Christensen, & Hansen, (1994) who suggest that:
"Effective cases portray real people in moments of decision, faced with a need to take action and accept its consequences" (p285), " ... as a 'second-best' alternative to apprenticeship, good cases permit a 'long look over the shoulder of a practitioner at work'", (p287).Cases describe real-world problems that Mostert & Sudzina, (1996) suggest can be too complex to approach experimentally listing a number of arguments for their use, including the fact that they:
In following a process that requires students to not only fully understand but also to apply the principles behind the various concepts being taught, the case study is introduced as a form of 'virtual environment' in which students are able to embed themselves. Although still not equivalent to physically being a member of a team in a real project, this 'deep immersion' into an actual case, attempts to provide an experience of the frustrations and elations that are part of most project environments, an appreciation of the real difficulties faced by project team members, and an understanding of the real purposes for using the theoretical constructs covered in the unit.
As a project manager, you are determined to succeed and to bring your project to a successful conclusion - on time, within budget and to the customer's satisfaction ( p356).It is suggested by Mulally, (2002) that distinguishing the particular skills of a project manager typically revolves around some variation of: 'excellent communication skills,' 'ability to connect with people at all levels of the organization' and '[ability] to collaborate to develop effective solutions'. The so called 'hard' skills such as methodologies, processes and tools, that Mulally believes to be the emphasis of many project management training approaches today, do not contribute to success as significantly as the so called 'soft skills'.
... while communication and people skills are acknowledged as being important, they are typically written off as 'too fuzzy', 'too hard to teach for' or 'something that can't be developed; people have them or they don't.'" (Mulally, 2002, p1).Although it would have been considerably easier to have focussed on teaching the individual components, it was ultimately decided that the objective of the unit was to teach students how to increase the likelihood of IT project management success by providing an understanding of
The case study, herein termed Dag-Brücken ASRS or DB-ASRS, is an account of a robotic high rise storage warehouse project, which is made 'real' by showing videos of the project at various stages of completion, by demonstrating the application software using a real-time simulator, and by employing as a guest lecturer one of the engineer's who worked on the project. Using a systems approach based pedagogy, this integrated virtual case study method provides a rich and contextually appropriate environment in which students can better understand how combinations of project management issues, applied holistically, can influence project success.
Two different types of student case study are described by Summers & Smith, (2003, p61).
People within projects: The Dag-Brücken ASRS case study provides the background to this tutorial. In chapter 2 of the DB ASRS case study, people involved in the project are described. The managing director (MD), described by one developer as a 'truly brilliant electrical engineering designer' had, together with his management team, already made some fundamental decisions regarding the direction that the IT development was going to take eg FoxPro, C++, Windows NT. 1. Without discussing the appropriateness of the choice made, why do you believe a decision was taken to select a development platform and environment prior to involving any specialist IT personnel? 2. What do you believe was the rationale behind the decision to segregate the PC team from the PLC team? 3. Based on the ASRS case study explain the statement by Maslow, (1965), "For a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail".
The use of such case incidents was a specific attempt to make complex problems manageable by students, by concentrating on only one issue at a time, yet involving predominantly divergent rather than convergent problems, (Schumacher, 1977). It concomitantly extended the deep learning approach by requiring students to 'dig' around in the divergent problem and thus construct their own conception of the possible problems and solutions. A selection of the same tutorial questions was duplicated in the final exam, though here with an expectation that the answers would not be specific to one particular topic but synthesised with other relevant topics covered in the unit. Ultimately, this example of the application of multiple concepts to solve divergent problems was believed to offer a better way of determining learning outcomes than the original approach of simply attempting to decide whether students had engaged in deep or surface learning approaches.
The final tutorial questions take the following form:
This week's tutorial is based around the ITPM unit that you have been studying this semester. Treating the last 13 weeks as a project which you are now reviewing, answer the following evaluation questions using the techniques and processes explained in the PIR lecture. 1. Describe what this subject has been about. 2. What have you learnt about project management? 3. In what way did the Dag-Brücken case study contribute to your understanding of this subject?
Using the responses to the first two questions, students are classified as having taken a deep, surface, or strategic (mixed) approach to learning. Students are classified as taking a deep approach if they refer to issues of taking responsibility for a project or the role of the project manager in achieving project success. Students are classified as taking a surface approach if they make only specific references to individual processes and classified as taking a strategic approach if they make reference to both types of issue while also identifying how the systems approach is demonstrated in the case study.
The ITPM unit is concurrently offered to undergraduates as part of the Bachelor of Information Technology and to postgraduates as part of the Master of Information Technology. Both cohorts include full and part time students and, aligned with the university's IT offerings in general, there is a higher male enrolment.
A high incidence of strategic learning did however prompt the teaching team to consider whether the 'deep learners' were being sufficiently rewarded for their involvement in the case. Though two of the four assessment items reflected student's embeddedness in the case, the overall assessment contained 45% of marks that might not be linked to embeddedness at all. It was generally agreed that a review of the characteristics of the unit assessment for future offerings be undertaken. An examination of the learning achieved through surface and deep approaches was to be undertaken to clarify better the role of assessment in the learning process and ensure all assessments converged as deep learning.
Students need to smell the pollution of Taoyuan, (the scene of the project), before fully understanding the environment in which project management decisions were taking place.There were however, in this particular offering, two entirely distinct points of view exhibited by students.
Engaging with the case enabled some students to see the totality of the project, for which they were being rewarded with higher marks for some assessments (as distinct from overall grades). What was not expected, though and perhaps it should have been, given the intention of the teaching team to expose students to the complexity of emotions when managing projects was that some students appeared to became so embedded in the case that they showed signs of sadness and even depression when they realized that they had just been involved in a project failure. Responses such as the following were common:
"[The] Dag-Brucken case study gave a good insight about a real time project. At some stage of the case study I could feel as if the project was actually happening and we were the project managers in it."It was necessary to remind students that they were not in any way personally responsible for the failure but that they could certainly learn from what had been someone else's mistakes. Yet the teaching team still remained concerned that their approach had resulted in extraordinary discomfort for some students.
Although this approach appeared to engage more students, there were still some students who refused to become too involved in its content and process. The role of the IT project manager demands multiple views of a project environment, balancing often conflicting demands and constraints of both internal and external stakeholders. The requirement for project management students to address problems from this system perspective rather than as a series of separate issues, required a significant commitment and break from traditional learning methods for the many who may, up to this point in their courses, have only been involved in solving uni-dimensional problems. This discomfort manifested itself in a formal complaint being lodged by a group of students relating to the methods of assessment being applied in the unit. It was obvious that even though the popularity of the unit overall continued to grow and formal SET and SEU feedback were the highest recorded for this unit, the teaching approach being applied was certainly not being readily accepted by everyone. Figure 1: Enrollments over five offerings No conclusions could be drawn as to whether any assessment will be received well by all students in any unit, given the differences in learning styles, and approaches to learning such as mastery or performance motivation, (Woolfolk, 2003), but it was deemed important that for the next iteration an even closer investigation of our assessment methods should be undertaken. It was somewhat fortuitous that the teaching team was offered the opportunity to formally engage in a pilot project for criterion referenced assessment (CRA) over the following two semesters.
Many students elected to answer the whole assignment based on these suggestions, ignoring the intent of the assignment, which was to explain why it was necessary for project managers to have more than technical skills. It appeared students took these suggestions as the criterion from which they would be judged and focussed on only answering these aspects. The second, more comprehensive assignment did not provide students in advance with a marking criteria (or any further suggestions), but the markers did use a marking criteria sheet which was returned to students with their assignments. There was however an increase in the number of students requesting either an explanation for their marks or simply for assignment remarks. The team was left to consider whether the approach in assessment one created an expectation in line with CRA and a possible decrease in deep learning. For the fourth iteration there was again widespread satisfaction with the unit with typical comments such as
...this case study contributed a lot in the understanding of this subject. I understood the basic theory which was taught in the lecture well because this was all practically visible in the case study...Such views were formally confirmed by even higher SET and SEU responses, but there was, much to the disappointment of the teaching team, still no increase in the number of students who had exhibited deep learning characteristics. It was concluded that a balance between the guidelines of CRA and deep learning was possible and so was implemented in the fifth offering.
The responses from the fifth offering based on the integration of CRA and deep learning have not be received and the second assignment not marked, yet for the first assignment in which a marking guide was provided in advance, the standard of work appeared to be generally lower than for previous offerings. Although a full marking matrix was provided for assignment two there was a marked increase in the numbers of students requiring further explanations of precisely what was required in the assignment. It does appear that providing students with specific marking criteria may not have resulted in any noticeable increase in the numbers of incidents of identified deep or strategic learning. In fact it may be a decrease - an outcome to be investigated by the teaching team.
The unit is still a popular choice for students even though it is, in the main, only an elective in most courses. There has, as yet, never been a tutor who has willingly given up their tutorial allocation, as there is agreement that the unit is "fun" to teach. The repeatability of the case ensures that tutors are increasingly discovering nuances in the case, allowing them to adopt and share different approaches in their tutorial sessions and providing deeper meanings to issues as they become ever more familiar with the case.
The transition between the learning institution and the workforce is of particular importance for IS professionals as even though graduates may enter the workforce with up to date knowledge of the various components that they will be using, their value to employers will initially depend on how appropriately they are able to manage the complex interactions between technical, human and socio-political issues. Units of this type are designed to facilitate this transition and it is hoped that the effort involved will ultimately be justified by providing graduates that are able to more quickly adapt to the immediate demands of an IT workforce.
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|Authors: Tony Jewels, School of Information Systems, Queensland University of Technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rozz Albon, Department of Education, Curtin University of Technology. Email: R.Albon@curtin.edu.au
Please cite as: Jewels, T. and Albon, R. (2005). Outcomes for learning from the implementation of a virtual case study in information technology. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/jewels.html
Copyright 2005 Tony Jewels and Rozz Albon. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.