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The Project of College Instruction

Classroom Recently, my good friend and colleague, Delaney Kirk of Drake University, asked me to write a post on project management as it applies to college instruction.  (For those who don't know, she is a pioneer in the field of college classroom management and I strongly recommend her book, Taking Back The Classroom.)  I appreciate her out-of-the-box thinking, as she recently asked Mike Wagner to write a post on branding in the college classroom.

I've been teaching college classes for twelve years (part time).  Half of those years have been at the graduate level.  Tonight is the first session of my summer semester class, Management of Organizations, so the topic of delivering a class is at the forefront of my radar.  Preparing a class to teach it the first time is a monstrous project, and any instructor at high school or college who has a "new prep" has my admiration and sympathy.

Trianglesmall The core of any project is the triple constraint, which represents the tension and balance among three things:

  • performance (AKA scope - how much are you going to do)
  • time (AKA schedule - how much time do you have to do it)
  • cost (AKA resources - what do you have at your disposal to make it happen)

In projects, you cannot impact any one of these things without affecting the other two.  Often, one of these constraints becomes a "lead constraint" (i.e., one that cannot budge); when this happens, it is critical to look at the other two to negotiate the needed "wiggle room" to make your class execute effectively.  When looking at class planning as a project, each of these comes into play.

Performance/Scope:  The first thing any great instructor does is to determine the goals of the class.  Since I teach MBA classes filled with non-traditional students who have "day jobs" I try to view these goals from their perspective.  What skills and knowledge do they need to possess at the end of the semester that will add value to their careers?  When they fill out their class surveys at the end of the semester, how will they complete the sentence, "This class was successful because...."?  Still, there are some parts of the curriculum that they may not realize they need to know, and that's where my experience as an instructor comes into play.  If I let the curriculum be driven totally by the students, the classes would be 15 minutes long, there would be no exams, and everybody would get an A.

Cost/Resources:  What exercises, stories, guest speakers, individual/team projects, exams, and lecture content do I need to include in order to achieve the goals defined in the scope?  If I don't have the resources available, can I obtain them or do I need to modify my scope accordingly?  Each semester, regardless of the class I teach, I attempt to bring in at least one guest speaker to provide outside perspective.  For every class, exercises are assessed to determine which ones my class will enjoy and find valuable.  When I taught the class on Creativity in Business, I actually "dressed the part" for certain creative roles.  The point here is to procure the right resources needed to make the class relevant and meaningful for the learning environment you are trying to create.

Time/Schedule:  There are only so many class meetings in a semester.  This requires the instructor to prioritize the scope and resources accordingly.  When will exams occur?  How much contingency time is needed to build into the schedule for the unexpected?  What topics build on other topics and need to be scheduled in a specific order?  How do topics need to be sequenced effectively?  How is the class structured?  (NOTE:  This is becoming a big topic, as the typical 15-week semester is being replaced by weekend classes, fast-track programs, and virtual classrooms).  This fall, the project management class I've taught for five years as a one-night-a-week class is being offered as a weekend course over three weekends.  I'll be looking at collaborative tools such as a class blog to maximize learning opportunities.

The classroom as a project is a topic many instructors could stand to explore more.  I know many instructors who have taught the same class the same way since 1972, not realizing that students, technology, and information available have changed dramatically.  Being an adjunct forces me to combine real world seamlessly with the theoretical.  As I start to teach my class tonight, it should be another simple project execution, but I'll be prepared for the new and unexpected all the same.

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Michael Wagner

Great post Timothy!

"I know many instructors who have taught the same class the same way since 1972" yes, I know what you mean.

I remember one professor throwing out the old chestnut, "I've taught it this way for so long it MUST be true."

Glad to have you back in Des Moines - keep creating, Mike


Timothy, I've been an educator for many years, but I really learned a whole new concept here by reading your excellent and informative post. I thought your remarks were quite enlightening and showed a real grasp of the meaning of effective teaching.

Timothy Johnson

Michael - that's the challenge... we always have to keep it fresh

Bill - thank you so much for you kind words. My goal is met if I've provided somebody a new way of thinking about things. I appreciate your stopping by.

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