Project Management as a Fundamental Skillset

Unbeknownst to many in the education sector, project management has grown into a complex academic and applied discipline of study with clearly defined best practices and standards.  As technology continues to evolve and offer efficiencies in productivity, it has also prompted a revolution in project management that is becoming a foundational aspect of modern work life, but we don’t teach it.

Last week Alanna and I presented on this foundational collaborative standard from two angles at the well attended ECOOCamp 2021 online Ontario educator’s conference.  Alanna’s recent post-graduate course covered project management from an academic/industry angle and my grade 11-12 software engineering class has basically become a project management course as a result of many students having had no contact with it in any other courses.  From those two angles we asked the big question, “why aren’t project management best practices taught and used in public education?”

Like many aspects of modern work evolution, project management (PM) best practices aren’t a focus of study in public education.  This is a disservice both to students and educators alike.  Following project management best practices means you’re not wasting time in meetings that aren’t meetings.  If a meeting isn’t predicated on necessary two-way communication in order to reach a consensus, it’s a bad meeting.  When was your last staff meeting about two-way/consensus building?  Teacher contempt for the the institution of the staff meeting would quickly fade if PM best practices were applied to them.

There are other obvious benefits to public education engaging with PM best practices.  If everyone on your staff has a clear idea of what they are responsible for, the timeframes and resources they have to work with, and access to support in order to meet expectations, your in-school projects will be more than an empty checklist and will actually engage and motivate your staff.
From the student angle, applying PM best practices allows for consistent, meaningful assessment of process while also ensuring better outcomes for student led projects.  When students graduate they’re able to immediately understand and engage with post-secondary and workplace expectations around collaboration without being surprised by this world-wide literacy they’ve never been exposed to in class.  Why project management best practices haven’t been integrated into curriculum across all disciplines is a very good question.

Modern PM leverages digital tools to achieve credible levels of clarity and shared purpose in group work.  In our presentation, Alanna leveraged the PM industry awareness she had just developed from her Instructional Design post-graduate course from Royal Roads University.  In our presentation Alanna explained Kanban and covered how it grew out of Japanese manufacturing management from the mid-twentieth century.  From there we introduced Trello, a virtual Kanban inspired online tool that helps remote groups organize, clarify and assign responsibility though an intuitive and remarkably high-fidelity online interface.

This all came about because, as Alanna was taking her project management course, she was listening to me behind her in our shared office applying PM best practices with my software engineering class.  The combination of my applied project management and the academic research Alanna was doing for the course produced the grist for our presentation:

Vague and inconsistent group project expectations
in student collaborative projects result in headaches
for both teachers and students.  You owe it to
yourself and your students to engage
 with PM best practices!

Teachers and students both struggle with collaboration.  From the assessment side, group work, especially without clearly defined guidelines and expectations, can quickly devolve into chaos where work is not even distributed and projects do not reflect collaboration so much as the efforts of one or two key people.  That happens to students in classrooms but it also happens in staff management.  One of the main benefits of following PM best practices is that group work isn’t an excuse for doing less.  Individual accountability is obvious to everyone involved and this leads not only to satisfyingly successful collaborative work but also to an appreciation of your individual best efforts.  The students who struggle most in my class with project managements are the ones who have learned that they can Jedi Mind Trick their way through group work and do very little.  The leads quickly realize how important it is to clearly communicate consistent expectations and many quieter students in the class thrive because group activity isn’t equated with having a big mouth.  There are real benefits to adopting these standards of project management excellence beyond just productivity.

Using PM best practices allows us to tackle complex
technology in groups and produce a rich, engaging
and ultimately successful student directed project
for a wider variety of students.

In our software engineering course students begin grade 11 by training in Unity game development and Blender 3d modelling.  These challenging technical skills were (I thought) the biggest hurdles, but it turns out they weren’t at all.  We’re at the point now where the grade 12s teach the technical training in only a couple of weeks and then support junior students in a live software development environment.  Students are able to produce complex, genuine software engineering and digital creativity with our process.  For the students committed to developing these high-demand skills, our technical training gets them there efficiently and supportively.

The big struggle turned out to be getting high school students to recognize why their project management strategies weren’t working and providing guidance and tools that would support best project management practices which most were unaware of.  When we looked at how group projects are developed in other classes, we found a wide range of approaches ranging from almost completely lacking in any organization or credibility to rote, restrictive, step-by-step strategies that offered no genuine management control by students and stifled creativity and self direction.  We couldn’t find any other courses following industry standard project management and I struggled to find any on the staff side of the equation either.

Engaging with PM best practices and then giving your students the guidance and tools needed to successfully work together on collaborative projects is an individually empowering step that will help students not only in school, but when they graduate too.  I’ve had university students return and say that my open level technology course did more to prepare them for challenging university project work than any ‘U’ level class they took.  I’ve had college and apprenticeship students return with the same insight.  In case you think this doesn’t apply to workplace students, I’ve had them return saying that this experience has gotten them jobs and helped them find promotion once employed.  This really is a 21st Century fluency we’ve missed.

If PM best practices started in classrooms, I’d hope at some point that they would begin to infect educational management as well.  I had a former department head tell me that she diligently kept receipts for the first couple of years of managing her department budget but eventually let it slide because the budgets they were operating under were frequently adjusted in the murky world of public sector accounting.  I’ve frequently been asked to do project work within the system where we are given no clear budget, timeline or even specific outcomes.  This kind of vagary produces frustration and disengagement in staff and students alike.  PM best practices not only result in greater individual engagement and positive morale, they also let you get stuff done fairly and effectively.

We had a great crowd at ECOOcamp and now we’re going to aim the presentation at the Ontario Library Association super-conference.  If we can engage teachers to adopt PM best practices, their students will benefit in many ways.  If we can reach a critical mass in aligning public education with PM best practices, we could revolutionize the bureaucratically obscure system we’re all living under and produce happier, more engaged staff who produce more efficient and effective projects.  I don’t enjoy the disengaged, sardonic staff thing that happens in education.  If we could all believe in the system it would make for a more pedagogically meaningful working environment for all.  It just takes some transparency and clarity to achieve.

The benefits of digital tools aligned with PM best practices also promises to raise the engagement and effectiveness of your online classroom.  With everyone on the same page in terms of expectations, and with rich online tools like Trello to intuitively interface with what’s happening in group work, rich, meaningful learning can happen collaboratively, even in a remote setting.  In a digitally powered face to face classroom tools like Trello can keep students organized and focused on their specific tasks and responsibilities, leading to greater student project success.  Because the collaboration is transparent and meaningful it is also a genuine learning opportunity because each student’s actions have a credible impact on the outcome.
Here’s hoping project management best practices and professional understandings can find their way into our public education system sooner than later.


The presentation slide deck:

The Project Management Institute

“Project Management Institute (PMI) is the world’s leading professional association for a growing community of millions of project professionals and changemakers worldwide.”

Trello, a (free!) online project management tool:

Project Management 2nd Edition freely available text:

Online Resources for Project Managers:

Resource Management 101:  Guide for Project Managers:

Ontario Colleges Project Management Courses:

from Blogger