As educators teaching in professional studies programs, our aim is to create classroom experiences where our students can work with professional partners, developing projects that have impact in the real world. We believe implementation is a salient part of the professional studies experience. We also know that this is easier said than done, and something that we learned firsthand when we invited Artists Alliance Inc. (AAI), a contemporary artist’s space located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to be a real-world partner in a masters-level course we were teaching, Application Architecture Design and Development.
Jodi Waynberg, director of AAI, presented the following problem to our students: the organization’s website was in disarray and desperate need of an update. The solution seemed easy enough, design and launch a new website, however, this turned out to be more complicated than we anticipated. While the students presented effective responses to the problem, none of the solutions they developed were implemented. The gap between conception and implementation perplexed us, so we partnered with Jodi after the course ended to understand why.
In our article, Is Your Real-World Experience Real Enough? (Faculty Focus, March 2020), we concluded that if real-world interaction is to happen, faculty need to involve their partners in the learning experience and prepare them for the potential implementation of a product produced by their students. We used our findings to look at how we could better guide real-world projects and provide AAI with the website they had been seeking. What crystallized through this effort was a series of stages that faculty can follow to foster a partner’s investment in the students’ projects. These subsequent stages, we believe, are necessary for achieving successful student project implementation from beginning to end.
Stage 1: Prepare the partner for what’s real
We found that our previous attempts to implement a real-world project in this course were hindered because our partner also needed to learn a lot of the concepts and skills the students were learning. As Jodi said, “For me, it took a fair amount of acute understanding and experience to know what was realistic.”
To begin our research, we met with Jodi and her team and introduced to them the design concepts, expert language, and technical solutions needed to redesign a website. We provided Jodi and her team with web development resources and tools so they could be more involved in the production of informed project deliverables that everyone could review, respond to, and agree on.AAI found this helpful, as Jodi explained, “We needed somebody to walk us through and say, ‘Okay, so you want X, here’s how you get to X’ because we were operating on a visual basis. We want it to look like this and we have absolutely no idea how something gets to look like that. And so, it was helpful to go through that process.”
Stage 2: Set project scope
We discovered that if you provide your partner with the knowledge and skills outlined in the first stage, then they should have enough understanding to effectively outline the project scope. With our support, Jodi was now able to effectively do this, which she appreciated, noting that, “When I started with you, the process of web development was incredibly abstract. I now have the language needed for this work.”
In giving the AAI team the tools necessary to design a website, they gained a working understanding of their project needs and what it might take to implement them within the constraints of the classroom. Jodi’s comments put this into perspective:
I felt like the classes never quite got there because there couldn’t possibly have been enough time for the students to learn the organization and for us to think through precisely what we needed. If all that conceptual work had already been done by our organization, and we delivered at the start a content inventory, examples of sites that we already liked–essentially a precise structure for what we’re looking for–then maybe the classroom experience could have been successful.
This was a critical insight for us. In a standard 15-week course, there is a need to accelerate the project development process. Thus, the more the client is prepared to define and contribute to the project, and lighten the student’s cognitive load, the more feasible it is for the teacher to shepherd the project through to completion.
Stage 3: Decide on project tasks
From our research, we believe that if stages one and two are achieved with the partner, that the students, with support from the faculty, should have the necessary skills to determine whether the goals of the scope can be realistically implemented. All parties should be able to decide on the project tasks needed to deliver an implementable result, or to borrow a concept from project management, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We define MVP for the students as a functional version of a project that meets the partners expressed needs and can be further developed over time. If the students and the partner cannot agree on the MVP, then the project is likely to remain a classroom exercise.
Assuming said agreement is reached, a shift in responsibilities for everyone involved should follow. The responsibility of the partner, as Jodi describes, should become “more high-level.” This transition, she says, “was really helpful, because it allowed me to think more broadly about how the website represents the organization publicly, rather than getting mired in the functionality.” In this stage, the students, who are now confident that the enumerated tasks are reasonable enough and that a satisfactory and usable project can be delivered, should be able to take on the responsibility of realizing the tasks that will result in an MVP.
Stage 4: Implement the project
In the final stage, the students should be executing tasks, enforcing deadlines, and acknowledging milestones; the partner is providing continual feedback and support; the teacher assists by helping the students and the partner to recognize when the MVP has been achieved; and finally, the partner is provided the support necessary to bring the project into the real world.
The measure of success for implementation is not just that the project is in the real world but that it also has some impact on the needs of the partner. If the project has in some way helped the partner better understand their needs and they obtain a solution that resolves their problem, then the students will see that the skills they have acquired can truly extend beyond academic space. Jodi validated this idea at the completion of our work together:
We now have a site that is a better reflection of the work that we do. As a visual arts organization, having a visual presence that’s purposeful and intentional is incredibly meaningful for us. It communicates something to our peers, to our funders, and to our potential funders. I’m getting emails from people I haven’t talked to in a long time who have noticed the changes to the website and are complimenting us, which is an added bonus. I think we have something that we can be proud of, that aligns with how we do our work, and what it looks like to work with Artists Alliance.
In conclusion, working with AAI to redesign and launch their new website turned out to be a great learning experience for us. We better understand the stages needed to prepare our partners and students for the development and management of a project that can have a tangible impact in the real world. Our next step is to transform these stages into a curriculum and see whether we can achieve real-world implementation in a classroom setting.
Dr. Paul Acquaro is a lecturer with FOM University of Applied Science for Economics and Management in Berlin and an adjunct assistant professor teaching online with New York University’s School of Professional Studies. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in database development, web technologies, IT management, business communication, and project development. Acquaro has over 20 years experience in information technology, communications, and curriculum development and teaching, and earned a doctorate in Education, focusing on instructional technology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Among his many interests is exploring how to combine the possibilities of online learning and the power of problem-based pedagogy.
Dr. Steven Goss is the dean of the School of Professional Studies at Manhattan College. He joined Manhattan College after serving as the vice provost of digital learning at Teachers College, Columbia University where he helped to facilitate the institutional mission for online education. Prior to Teachers College, Goss lead several successful online initiatives at Bank Street College of Education and New York University. He has received awards from The Association for the Advancement of Education in Computing (AACE) and Online Learning Consortium (OLC) for his research on learner-centered online education.