Using Project-Based Learning in an Online Project Management Course at Brock University, Ontario, Canada
Dr. David Hutchison, a professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, developed a second-year course in the Foundations of Project Management, which is available online to students in any program. Dr. Hutchison is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). In the Spring 2017 class, more than 100 students from the Faculties of Applied Health Sciences, Education, Business, Mathematics and Science, Humanities, and Social Sciences enrolled in the course. The online course is also offered in the fall semester.
With reference to the project management standards maintained by the Project Management Institute (pmi.org), Dr. Hutchison defines project management as a collection of standards, tools, and best practices, which help collaborative teams achieve their project goals, with a focus on communications, human resources, and quality, as well as risk, scope, stakeholder, and time management. Project-based learning involves the application of this same knowledge base and skill set to university coursework as students use a collaborative inquiry approach to plan and execute a course-based project.
Combining a project-based learning approach with project management content and practices offers an effective learning-by-doing challenge as students acquire and apply newfound project management and group work skills in an experiential learning environment.
For the Foundations of Project Management course, a detailed course outline on Sakai, an open source learning management system, describes the course structure, expectations, assessment plans and each week’s content and activities. Every week of the 12-week course (the spring version of the course runs over 5 weeks) is constructed to respond to what Professor Hutchison calls a “driving question”. For example, in Week 5, the driving question is: “How can I build a realistic schedule for all the work that needs to be accomplished on a project?”.
For each driving question, students are guided through the relevant textbook chapters by a list of “key learning” points. Other readings, videos and resources, available in the LMS or on the Web, are described, stressing their essential content. Some weeks also feature software useful for various stages of project management that can be viewed, assessed, and applied to course assignments.
The core assignment for the course is the preparation of a Project Management Proposal Brief, a cumulative assignment with each weekly driving question tied to components of the final proposal. Drafts for parts of the proposal brief are prepared as weekly assignments, such as the development of a project timeline (i.e., Gantt chart) which is submitted to the online course forum for comments by other students as well as the instructor and/or teaching assistants. An assessment rubric for the final assignment is distributed, stating clear expectations for “realistic, plausible, clear, and professionally articulated” content. A template for completing the assignment is provided which scaffolds student learning.
Contributions to the online course forum are significant components of student learning and the final grades. Each week, students are asked to respond to topic-related questions and read the submissions from other students; they may also be expected to respond to the ideas and input of others. Up to four grade points can be earned each week for these submissions.
Some of the course work is collaborative, with students assigned to small groups of six. For example, in the week with the driving question “How can I use organizers to effectively manage a project’s progress and quality?”, the small groups work together to design a checklist of factors essential for monitoring a project’s progress. To facilitate this, they search the web for links to online checklists. Each group creates a master list – using their project management skills to complete the list to course quality standards – which is then submitted to the course forum for public viewing.
The course has a flow-through design in that activities and input build on each other over the weeks. In this case, the process of working as a group to prepare the checklist is rated by students in response to an anonymous poll question asking when (if ever) during the development process they thought their group’s checklist would be successful. The results of this poll then form the basis of the next week’s forum online discussion question, which focuses on the challenges of completing an online collaborative task with students who have never met in person. In another example, the questions on managing risks asked one week lead into the next week’s content on leadership qualities.
In addition to this course, Dr. Hutchison is extensively involved in other aspects of digital learning. The Centre for Digital Humanities, which he heads, offers an Interactive Arts and Science degree program focusing on the intersection of interactive technologies and the humanities. Students develop digital media creation skills, explore questions related to technology, knowledge, and digital lives in the future, and work collaboratively face-to-face and online. In addition, degree and advanced diploma programs in game studies and design are offered in collaboration with Niagara College and Brock University’s Computer Science department.
EduProject.org is a website Professor Hutchison developed. It focuses on project-based learning at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. Among the many resources at this site is the detailed course outline for the 2016 offering of the Foundations of Project Management course. As well, EduProject publications such as Online Tools for Problem-based Learning and Communities of Inquiry in Online University Courses can be downloaded.
Outcomes and Benefits
Feedback from students, gathered in a post-course survey in Spring 2017, clearly demonstrate that the project-based approach is appreciated, as well as the course organization, interaction and instructor. The following figures capture the percentage of students who ‘strong agreed’ and ‘agreed’ with each statement:
- 94% found the topics appropriate to the subject matter;
- 87% thought the course was well-organized and clear;
- 90% agreed there were opportunities for students to contribute to the direction of course discussion and activities;
- 82% thought the weekly activities and discussion stimulated their learning;
- 86% reported meaningful engagement with other students;
- 96% would recommend the course to other students; and
- 98% found the instructor respectful, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Several students added comments on the applicability of the content to their personal lives and their enjoyment of the online connections and learning with other students.
Challenges and Enhancements
Teaching project management using a project-based, experiential-learning approach in an online environment presents particular challenges. Learning in the course requires not only an understanding of skills and practices, but also ways to leverage their immediate application. Students learn by doing, supported by reflection, drawing on information from print and visual resources, feedback from peers and faculty, all the while demonstrating an openness to revision and improvement. Some students function well with these expectations, but most need guidance to succeed with project planning and execution.
Dr. Hutchison stresses that feedback is critical to student success and it must be well articulated. His strongest recommendation concerning online learning is the essential nature of extensive and attentive instructor presence.
One component that Professor Hutchison would like to develop is a more comprehensive project management inventory tool (which is also available at EduProject.org). On the current form, students indicate their agreement with statements concerning individual skills and competencies related to four project management knowledge areas: communications, human resources, risk, and scope. Examples of the statements to which students indicate their level of agreement include “When starting something new, I plan before I act” and “When working in a group, peers would describe me as a reliable group member”. Dr. Hutchison would like to augment this questionnaire with a second questionnaire, which focuses on additional project management knowledge areas, including time management and quality management.
For Further Information
Professor and Director
Centre for Digital Humanities
St. Catharines, Ontario
Hutchison, D. (In press). Scaffolding project management best practices through experiential learning in a large enrolment online course. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal.
Hutchison, D. (2017). Project-Based Learning: A Project Management Approach. St. Catharines, Ontario: EduProject.org.
David Hutchison. (2015). Project-based Learning: Drawing on Best Practices in Project Management. What Works? Research into Practice. Research Monograph #60. Ontario Ministry of Education.