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Project Based Learning

The gap between the knowledge gained through the traditional classroom learning and the skills needed to function effectively in the modern workplace has been known about for many years. While the body of classroom learning focuses on preparing for standardized tests or doing simulated case studies, the dynamic and complex workplace requires applied skills that are impossible to distill simply from textbook knowledge. In years gone by the gap was less of a concern. Although it existed, employers were willing to hire, mentor and develop fresh graduates. As the global economy has become ever more competitive fewer organizations are willing to make such investments.

That shift leaves graduates entering the workforce for the first time with an up hill struggle. How do secure that first all-important job when you lack the practical skills needed? Youth unemployment is approximately double the national average here in Canada and similar patterns are found across the developed world. Add in the number of graduates who have had to put their new degree to one side as they accept jobs as baristas and you have a picture of the tough reality fresh graduates find themselves facing.

Given this new reality I see a growing realization among both students and academia that something needs to change. What are the new skills schools need to help their graduates develop? How can we better prepare under-graduate students for the competitive job-market they need to enter? Given the speed with which the global economy is transforming, such questions are pressing issues that need the urgent attention of educators at all levels of the educational ladder.

To me, one of the solutions to the problem is to transition more classes from the traditional textbook centered “sage-on-the-stage” format to the “Project Based Learning” (PBL) approach. Project Based Learning (PBL) is a learning strategy in which participants plan and execute real life projects in order to develop their skills. The PBL approach relegates the textbook to a background role and instead focuses on having students experience real world projects that they have to plan and more importantly execute!

While students are used to working on projects (many traditional course do include a degree of project work), rarely do those projects involve both planning and execution. The trouble with that traditional approach is that real lessons are only learned when you do need to execute upon your plans. As I often tell my students a plan without execution is simply a bunch of ideas floating around in a vacuum. The PBL approach goes beyond those traditional student projects by forcing students to put their plans into action to see how well they fly.

I have been utilizing the PBL method for my under-graduate “Applied Project Management” course at the University of British Columbia (UBC) for a couple of years now. The course places students into teams who start by selecting a real world project they want to accomplish. As a team they then plan the project out, execute their plan and then reflect on the outcome they attained. Challenging students to face the difficulties of making things happen in the real world students need to raise their own funding, identify and engage stakeholders, work as a team, overcome obstacles and manage risks. Is it sometimes frustrating? Yes. Does it always go according to plan? No! Do the students learn real world skills? Absolutely!

The students do still get instruction in how to plan and manage a project and as such the course is still a course that teaches the Project Management tools and techniques. Using a flexible online “Project Based Learning” kit that gives mini-lectures (in written form supported by illustrations and diagrams), samples and templates, students have access to a repository of knowledge they can draw upon as needed. The goal of the course however is put that teaching into context. The guidance I give them and the material in the Project Based Learning kit is aimed at providing solutions to the here-and-now needs of their projects or to problems the students are facing as their projects move forward. As such the learning is in context and student lead rather than a one-way street of information flowing into an out of context world that is void of need.

The results from the course are fascinating to see. There is often an awakening of how hard it is to sell ideas, engage people, making things happen on time and communicate clearly. There are high points when the team is motivated and low points where enthusiasm has dropped. All teams do eventually finish their projects, although not every project fulfills its original objectives. At the end of the day teams get the exhilaration of having accomplished something and realization of that today’s toolkit of professional skills is going to take some time to master.

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