How Project Management Tools and Methods Can Help Students to Organize their Projects
This paper discusses how project management tools and methods can help students to organize projects they run as part of their digital humanities (DH) studies. This topic was discussed and analyzed at a MA seminar at the Department for Digital Humanities at the University of Cologne in 2021 called Management of Software Projects, taught by Øyvind Eide. The goal was to further develop Agile management methods for student projects, taking into account the specifics of such projects. Agile methods are applied mainly for product-oriented projects, be they free software or not, and commercial or not. The extent to which similar methods can be used for student projects was examined in the seminar. To analyze how students manage their student projects, a questionnaire was developed, and different groups of BA students were asked about their project management tools and methods. The study aimed to evaluate the knowledge of students regarding project management and to improve their project management skills by evaluating common problems and missing knowledge, rather than to address research questions in digital pedagogy. The results of the surveys were evaluated by MA students. Based on the results, the MA students created a collection of helpful information for the BA students in order to give them tips for the management of their first DH projects. The collection contained suggestions for project communication, organization, and tools as well as suggestions for further self-study.
The main digital humanities offerings at the university can be found in two programs. The first one is a compound program in media studies with media informatics, the other one a program in information processing which can be combined with any other subject at the Faculty of Arts. The digital humanities make up around 50% of each of the study programs at the BA level, whereas the other half can be classified as traditional humanities studies. At the MA level, media informatics also makes up around 50% of the study programs, whereas the MA in information processing is a 100% digital humanities study program (Eide et al. 2023).
The seminar discussed in this paper was open to MA students of these two study programs from the second semester on. The aim of the course and the learning objectives were the independent implementation, application, and extension of current approaches to project management for software technology projects. Students were introduced to the management of software projects, and through an asynchronous collaboration with BA students working on group projects as part of an exercise on making virtual reality systems and games development, students learned how to coordinate these projects. The course was a practical seminar where Agile methods for student projects were further developed and discussed. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MA students who participated in the course were not able to work closely with the BA students and observe their project work. On the other hand, the seminar also included the students’ own experiences, not only from previous student projects but also from their diverse work experience from outside the university. The seminar was held over Zoom, and the content and work was provided through the internal university software.
At the beginning of the seminar, the MA students evaluated what project management in student projects could mean and discussed their own experience and knowledge of project management, both in their studies and their work experience. The graduate students had different levels of knowledge, though due to their studies they all have had experience with student project management. Due to their prior experience, and supported by readings, they were able to reflect on project management methods in theory and develop adapted methodologies and suggestions for the undergraduate students in order to facilitate an implementation of Agile methodology in student group projects.
Student projects make up a central part of our study programs. Several of the seminars in digital humanities studies at the university include group projects. Through these projects, students learn how to work as a team and how to develop prototypes and plan and implement running systems and projects together. By applying project management methods in their studies, students learn key skills such as how to deal with problems and challenges and how to apply this knowledge to future projects. Therefore, it is essential for students to learn project management methods practically and reflect on how to use them properly, also based on theory and best practice.
The first sessions of the course investigated how project management methods are developed for most software development projects in a commercial setting. The Project Management Institute has characterized project management as a “temporary endeavor used to build a unique new product, service or result.” (PMI, “What is Project Management?”). Furthermore, project management is included in building an environment in which humans from different backgrounds can cooperate to achieve mutual objectives or goals, in order to make successful projects within the suggested budget and at the right time (“What is Project Management?”). The question was, how can we use these methods to improve student projects?
In the following meetings, the 12 Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto, the Scrum Guide, and the Manifesto for Software Development in Student Projects (developed in a previous seminar), as well as relevant literature in the field were studied.
The twelve principles behind the Agile Manifesto were taken as a starting point. The main idea behind it is that, while planning is important, it is also crucial to accept that plans change and to allow flexibility, focusing on valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It is emphasized that the priority is to deliver valuable software to the customer early and continuously, and that later changes are also desired. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design are essential to this and increase the agility of a project. Flexibility enables the customer and the development team to gain a competitive advantage, and the relationship and collaboration between the customer and the developers is of high importance. Teams should be self-organized and work effectively and flexibly through regular evaluation (Agile Alliance). After this, Scrum was examined. It is a widely used methodology that intends to be simple and adaptable by working in sprints, yet with clear rules. Sprints in Scrum can be defined as a short, fixed period of time dedicated to specific work. It was designed for complex projects, so the Scrum methodology can be adapted to effectively structure student projects and organize student collaboration (Pope-Ruark 165).
Scrum creates an effective and collaborative environment through close collaboration and involvement in the final product, and with a strong focus on communication. An essential part of the Scrum methodology is reflection and evaluation, as well as allowing sufficient time to address problems and challenges for which solutions and strategies are sought collaboratively (166). As part of the Scrum methodology, the Scrum Master is responsible for the implementation of Scrum and acts as a moderator and mediator (Schwaber and Sutherland). The Scrum methodology promotes communication through subdivision and common objectives, accountability, and reflection among team members (Pope-Ruark 1).
Lastly, the seminar discussed the Manifesto for Software Development in Student Projects, which was created in a previous seminar. The Manifesto is intended to set framework conditions for the planning and execution of such projects. Certain aspects that are important for the successful completion of student projects and that can be applied despite variance between projects were elaborated. These include that the end product and the learning process should be equated in both implementation and documentation, as well as that the projects should be self-organized so that an assessment of the workload through appropriate distribution through modular micro-tasks is ensured. In addition, the importance of agility is addressed because of the need to respond dynamically to new obstacles through technical implementation and organization. Furthermore, agility depends on competencies in group communication, which should be transparent and reliable, which can be enabled by a suitable communication platform and regular meetings. As a final point, the Manifesto describes the importance of creating an executable prototype, which should be created as quickly as possible and continuously developed.
Based on the agile methods and the Manifesto, a survey was created in which undergraduates were asked about their knowledge of Scrum and other Agile methods and their own project management methods. The students were working on different projects exploring auditory spaces and sound as a design tool in VR and AR. Each group consisted of three to four students and was interviewed separately so that different student group organizations and structures could be observed.
In the questionnaire for the BA students, a qualitative research method was used to investigate how they organize their projects. This approach was chosen because the use of qualitative methods enables the interpretation of opinions, reasons, and motivations. Through such methodology, meaningful data can be captured, including underlying behaviours, beliefs, feelings, motivations, and values that cannot be captured through quantitative methods (Salini and Lenngren 189ff.). Thus, an open approach to the research subject is made possible through which unknown experiences and facts can be explored. The survey aimed to let the students speak on their own to look at their subjective perspectives (Scheibler).
In the first part of the questionnaire, the undergraduate students were asked what the term “Agile project management” meant to them. It also asked specifically about the use of Scrum and a Scrum Master in the student organizational practices. The students had little to no knowledge about Agile methods and Scrum. In their groups, there was no Scrum Master and the students organized themselves independently as a group. The groups were also asked about their internal organization, and it was found that some groups used fixed meeting times and tools to manage their projects. Most groups had a schedule that was adjusted based on progress and the tasks were divided according to knowledge and interest. Based on the requirements of the seminars at the university, each project was documented, and the sprints were reported on regularly.
In another part of the questionnaire, the groups were asked about their group communication and individual relationships. It was found that most groups had a confidential and open dynamic and that this was very significant to them. The final part of the questionnaire included the desired project organization from the students. The following points emerged as a result:
The goals should be unambiguously defined.
Communication plays a decisive role.
Tasks should be divided according to expertise.
Meetings in person are preferred to those in the digital space.
Since the seminar was held during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the lack of face-to-face cooperation on student project organization was discussed. The COVID-19 pandemic had an immense and drastic impact on universities and students since teaching inevitably had to take place in the digital space. Due to the extensive impact of the pandemic, students had to react immediately to the obstacles and new circumstances and demonstrate agility in project management.
Students reported how the lack of face-to-face meetings and physical presence impacted their project because, for example, participants had their cameras turned off, making meetings less personal. In addition, meetings were rescheduled more frequently due to the flexibility of meeting in the digital space. Another problem was communication and, in particular, the expression of criticism and direct feedback. Not only were messages and other forms for digital communication more easily misinterpreted compared to face-to-face meetings, but there were also more inhibitions about giving feedback. Therefore, communication was difficult. Since the seminars were held online, a communication deficit among the individual groups and between the undergraduate students and graduate students was observed. At the same time, the importance of digital project management tools increased because projects took place in the digital space. Students learned about new tools, such as Discord, which is now included in the standard toolkit of significantly more students that before the COVID-19 pandemic. Discord is a social media platform for private and group messaging and voice and video calling that was originally created for computer gamers, but is now increasingly used in other areas, such as for project management in student projects. Communication, limited as it was by the COVID-19 pandemic, was yet identified in the survey results as the most essential aspect of student organization. It can be seen that students overwhelmingly prefer the physical space over the digital space due to the experienced qualities during the pandemic and prior studies when it comes to communication. Since some changes that were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, like online classes, are becoming a permanent way of teaching, results can also be applied to online classes in general.
In this context, a collection of helpful information for students was created to grant them valuable insights for the management of their first digital humanities projects. We based our collection on the results of our questionnaire, so that students can educate themselves about how to organize their projects. For us, it was important to have a collection that can and should be expanded by following seminars and students, so that it grows and is adapted to recent additions in the seminars.
The collection is accessible to students and includes suggestions for project communication, organization, and tools, as well as suggestions for continuing education. The collection has been organized into the following sections:
Guide to Software Project Organization (Documentation, Planning, Meetings, Task Sharing)
Guide to Group Communication
Useful Tools for Software Projects (Tools for Organization & Planning, Communication Tools, Development Environments, Libraries)
Continuing Education (Tutorials, Literature, and Programming Languages)
In-Institute Tips (Hardware, Available Resources)
Due to the digital availability of this collection, support can be provided at all times, and it can be updated whenever called for.
Project organization in student projects was investigated as a topic area that has hardly been explored in digital humanities study programs. Based on the results of the survey, it was found that almost no groups consciously worked with Agile methods such as Scrum, regardless of whether they knew Scrum theoretically or not. Nevertheless, most groups intuitively implemented some kind of Agile sprint planning. It can be concluded that a short introduction to Scrum at the beginning of the semester would be exceedingly fruitful for BA students. For most project groups, personal communication was extremely relevant and improved the quality of the projects and the ability for problem-solving. Direct communication was essential to avoid conflicts, so providing solutions and methods for communication, especially regarding problems and feedback, seems useful. Furthermore, due to the study programs including numerous group projects, it seems expedient to learn established methods of project management in order to be able to apply them in group projects. This can be ensured by the cooperation of graduates and students as well as the development of theoretical basics and the examination of feedback. Students thus learn important methods of project management in an academic context and later in a professional context.
In student projects, different pedagogical approaches can be taken, such as project-based and problem-based learning. According to Stephanie Bell, a use of such methods can enable students to develop key competencies such as collaborative working, capacity, and the ability to solve complex problems (Bell 39ff.) The possible benefits of group work using collaborative learning include increasing engagement and reinforcement of learning; helping students develop stronger interpersonal, leadership, and negotiation skills; and introducing students to collaborative experiences that they are likely to experience later in the workplace (Pope-Ruark 1). A particularly important aspect of such methods is critique and revision, which is facilitated by an audience, usually in the context of a course. Thus, students can gain theoretical and practical experience in project management (Arantes do Amaral, 125). This emphasizes the importance of students learning project management methods effectively. In contrast to projects in companies, students in student projects organize themselves and decide where, when, and how they work (123). Since there is limited time due to the framework of the seminar, students need to learn effective ways of working and use internet-based software for collaboration (127). Concepts of project management must be applied to the project and to problems. The difficulty here is that there is no standard formula; responsibilities and challenges vary from project to project. Students thus learn which aspects and applications are appropriate for their specific project (Kloppenborg and Baucus 618).
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