Models of management or models of practice – do we need to think again about project-based learning in higher education

I am interested to find out more about how other people use projects on their courses. I also want to find out if people are doing ‘projects’, or if you are doing ‘project-based learning’?

It’s a subject that has fascinated me for some time, actually quite a long time, and has recently led a PhD so I have gone into it a lot. Mostly though, my research was confined to libraries and observations of my own students. Sort of real-world learning, but sadly I never managed to get the opportunity to ask other people what they are doing and so I would like to take that opportunity now.

(Video Clip: Livestream on real world learning featuring among others my own point of view.)

My interest first came about after I transited from the world of professional filmmaking into higher education and I found everyone doing projects. It seemed like an odd word to use in a film school where surely the students would all be doing production work. In fact, the two words appeared to be interchangeable in that context. I also noticed that students were generally pretty poor at doing projects which more often than not ended in disaster (It was a long time ago and I am exaggerating a little here).

Importantly though, what I observed was; that nobody was teaching students how to do projects. Yes, they were being taught the craft skills, they were being supported through the technical and creative processes that go into making a film. But there were no lessons in how to do a project. That started me on a road of discovery that is almost 20 years in its making and is still ongoing.

The big question being: what is a project?

What follows is an outline of the theoretical model I have proposed in my recently submitted PhD which is further elaborated on in a forthcoming book chapter on real world learning. Using case studies drawn from examples of project-based learning on a media practice course at UK HEI aims to illustrate how such a reconceptualization of projects might aid educators in making projects real in an HE context.

The Conceptual Framework

A reconceptualization of projects away from projects as a model of management towards projects as a model of practice offers an opportunity to see project-based learning as a social practice. Given the desirability of the use of live projects as a means of drawing real world learning into the curriculum, this approach offers a new perspective that begins to address a number of problems with project working within a higher education context. For example, a community of practice requires novices learn more than just technical competences and entry level practical skills. They are socialised into a community of practice through the experience of socially situated signifying practices. Thereby exposing them not only to what can be seen to be done but also to what that which is hidden. Such as tacit understanding, transmission of meaning, contextualisation of tools and techniques, all of which renders the experience meaningful. A shift from executability to learnability of projects, foregrounds the ontological characteristics of a becoming mode of project working. One that offers opportunities for exploring the ways in which educators can transition communities of learners into communities of practice and thereby lead to a process of socialisation into real world working.

The challenge for media practice educators

Students involved in projects within HE are not part of a community of practice, closeted as they are, away from the workplace in the cloistered world of a community of learners practicing, so who do they learn from? How do we as educators build into the learning process the kind of experience that enables students, as novice practitioners, to develop the kind of tacit sensibilities found among expert practitioners?

The solution is? (that’s a question by the way)

Rethinking project-based learning as a pedagogy for practice-based learning rather than as an administrative framework for organising busy work. Opens up the possibility for rethinking how project work within an HE context might be reformulated in such a way as to place the social practice of projects before the management of projects. That emphasises learnability over executability and becoming over being.

In conclusion

The short answer to the question ‘what is a project’ is that there are people who see projects as a model of management, an administrative structure that contains activity and directs this towards some kind of an output, most likely a product, artefact or service. Then there are those who see projects as a model for practice, who see a project as a socially constructed space in which actors engage in a primarily social encounter with problems.

Actually, I think the two models are not mutually incompatible and can coexist. The advent of flexible, adaptive, risk driven project management methodologies such as AGILE offer up a space where the both social and learning are a key pillar of its approach. That said, I am still unsure if I really understand the nature of projects and I have real doubts about what project-based learning really is. So, I throw out this provocation to anyone who may be interested:

  • Do you do projects?
  • Or Do you do project-based learning?
  • Are projects models of management or models of practice?
  • Are you using AGILE in some way as a pedagogic tool?

I would love to know.

Further Reading

Bredillet, C. (2010). Blowing Hot and Cold on Project Management. Project Management Journal, 41(3), 4-20.

Gauthier, J.-B., & Ika, L. A. (2012). Foundations of Project Management Research: An Explicit and Six-Facet Ontological Framework. Project Management Journal, 43(5), 5-23.

Hodgson, D. E., & Cicmil, S. (2006). Are Projects real? The PMBOK and the legitimisation of project management knowledge. In D. E. Hodgson & S. Cicmil (Eds.), Making project critical (pp. 29-50). Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, B. (2013). What is a project? Towards a new ontology for projects and project management. Paper presented at the Critical Management Studies Conference, University of Bristol.

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