PROJECT-ORGANIZED EDUCATION AND HOW TO IMPLEMENT IT
Show me and I will remember
Involve me and I will understand
Step back and I will act
Project-organized education is multidisciplinary by nature. It can be divided into two main groups, design-oriented and problem-oriented education. Design-oriented project-organized education deals with practical problems in constructing and designing on the basis of a synthesis of knowledge from many disciplines. We are dealing with KNOW HOW. The problem-oriented project-organized education deals with the solution of theoretical problems through the use of any relevant knowledge, whatever discipline the knowledge derives from. We are dealing with KNOW WHY.
In the programmes in engineering and science at Aalborg University we use both kinds of project-organized education. In the undergraduate studies the project work mainly involve the design-oriented approach, while the graduate studies mainly involve with the problem-oriented approach.
ORGANIZING THE CURRICULUM INTO THEMES
In order to provide for the use of project work as a basic educational element the curriculum has to be organized in general subjects or "themes", normally covering a semester. The themes chosen in a programme must be generalized in such a way that the combination of themes will meet the aim and constitute the professional profile of the education.
The themes should provide for studying the core elements of the subjects included (through the courses given) as well as explore (through the project work) the application of the subjects in professional practice and society. Therefore the themes have to be chosen and organized according to the following requirements:
If these demands are fulfilled the structure of the study programmes will contain the possibility of rapid adjustment of the content of each semester according to the technical and professional development in society. This means that the total curriculum will provide for great internal adaptability in order to ensure that the courses as well as the project work will deal with the most topical problems.
The curriculum for educating chartered surveyors in Denmark may be used as an example to illustrate the selection of themes as well as to explain the adaptability of the educational model.
The curriculum as shown in Figure 4 is divided into 4 phases:
The first phase, 1st and 2nd semesters, includes one year of basic studies within Technical or Social Science. The studies include courses in the fundamentals (mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, foreign languages etc.), and the basic skills for carrying out problem-oriented project work are trained. After passing the examination of this first year, the students have to decide between several options of programmes, among which is the programme for chartered surveyors.
The second phase, the under-graduate studies at 3rd to 6th semesters, includes two years of studying the main professional areas for surveyors. The themes constitute the main professional profile consisting of Land Use Planning, Land Surveying, and Cadastral Management.
The themes then provide for teaching the necessary disciplines through courses and for training the professional functions through the project work. Therefore this phase is characterized by a "know-how" approach. The aim is for all students to acquire the same basic knowledge and skills within the three main professional areas.
After passing the Undergraduate examination at the end of the 6th semester, the student can continue for two years of specialized studies for a Master's degree.
On the basis of the common knowledge established during the second phase, all postgraduates will have the possibility of obtaining a licence, qualifying them for carrying out cadastral work in a private practice.
In the third phase, the graduate studies at 7th to 9th semester, the curriculum provides for the possibility of specialization. Within broad limits the students can choose their themes for obtaining a specific professional profile and choose their problems within the themes for obtaining special knowledge.
The themes in this third phase of the curriculum therefore have a more scientific approach based on "know-why". The themes will provide for teaching the necessary theories and knowledge within the specific professional areas, and for training the methodological skills of problem analysis and application.
The fourth phase, the 10th semester, is only for preparing the master's thesis which is written as project work dealing with a problem chosen by the student groups themselves.
The adaptability of the educational structure may be explained under three headings:
RUNNING THE THEMES
Each semester has a basic structure containing, in principle, an equal distribution of lecture courses and project work. But the study-time is dominated by lectures at the beginning of the semester and by project work at the end. The distribution during a semester is shown in Figure 5.
Each course is normally divided into 6 lectures, each lasting half a day. This means that the minimum pedagogical unit is half a day, morning or afternoon. Time is thus secured for the absorption of the subjects presented and for establishing the relevant connection between lectures and project work.
There are two types of lecture courses, general courses and project courses. The aim of the general courses is to establish the necessary fundamental and general knowledge for the graduates.
The aim of the project courses given is to deal with the theoretical and professional contents of the theme.
The professional and discipline-oriented approach dominate at the lecture courses given in the undergraduate studies, while the theoretical and scientific approach dominate the courses given at graduate studies. The courses will have to establish the necessary knowledge and skills for carrying out the project work within the frame of the theme. In the curriculum 50% of the time is spent on project work, 25% on courses related to the project and 25% on general courses related to the curriculum.
The aim of the project work is "learning by doing" or "action learning".
The professional skills are established during the design-oriented project work, which is dominating at 3rd to 6th semesters.
Scientific cognition and methodological skills are established during the problem-oriented project work at 7th to 10th semesters. Also the ability to present independent conclusions, and the ability to complete the project in time are practised. In fact the process of the project work at this stage is very similar to the problem-solving process both in research and in practice.
The project work also has pedagogical importance. Each student must be able to explain the results of his studies to his colleagues in the project group and to the supervisor as well. This demand may be the clue to professional and theoretical cognition. Knowledge is only really established when one is able to explain this knowledge to others.
In traditional education the students mainly restore knowledge presented by the teacher. But using the project-organized model knowledge and cognition are established during discussions between the students in the project group, and often without the personal appearance of the supervisor.
The project work normally concides with a semester. At the start of the semester the theme in question is presented during key lectures and general discussions. Recent projects written during previous semesters may be presented for inspiration, and the students will be encouraged to discuss potential subjects for the project work according to their professional interests.
The students will establish preliminary groups for clarification of the possible subjects to be presented at the periodical plenary sessions during the first three weeks of the semester. The subjects for the project work will then crystallize through discussions between the students and their potential supervisors.
Also the process of formation of the project groups will come to an end during this period of introduction. This process can be problematic, but normally the students will find the solutions according to their professional and personal preferences and ambitions. Here it must be noted that the students will have a common interest in getting started and they will share the responsibility of finding a solution which is satisfactory for all students at the semester. On average the groups will be of around 4 students. Also individual studies are possible, but this is clearly an exception. Each group will normally have their own room at the university for carrying out the project work. The rooms are equipped with computer networks connected to internet.
The supervising teachers on the theme are appointed according to professional interests and skills before the semester begins. The distribution of the supervisors between the groups will crystallize during the process of finding the subjects and forming the project groups. The students may have some professional or personal interests and wishes concerning this distribution, but the teachers will make the final decision.
THE PROCESS OF THE PROJECT WORK
As explained above we can identify two different types of project work: The design-oriented and the problem-oriented.
The design-oriented project work will normally be used for training the necessary knowledge and skills within the disciplines presented. The process and the content of the project work will therefore be organized as fixed standards in advance. The supervisor will teach the students what to do, and the capability of doing it will be trained through the project work.
The problem-oriented project work is used mainly in the last part of the curriculum for establishing scientific cognition within the study fields chosen by the students.
The project work here is centred on exploring and handling a problem with an unknown solution. The cognitive dimension leads to questions like: Why is it so....? How come...? What is the meaning of...?
The process is based on problems as a starting point and the character of the problem will then determine the choice and disciplines, theories and methods needed for analyzing and solving the problem.
The process will mainly be controlled by the students themselves. The choice of theories and
methods will be supervised by a researcher, and the product will be evaluated at the examination at the end of the semester.
The project work process will normally run through the following steps:
Problem analysis: Here the problem is presented, described and assessed in a broad context. The relevance of the problem is evaluated and strategies for standard solutions are worked out. The problem is now to be finally formulated. The project work at this stage is based mainly on discussions, studies of relevant literature and maybe preliminary interviews with keypersons in order to confirm the relevance and reality of the problem posed.
Problem-solving: Here the criteria of evaluation are laid down, using relevant scientific theories, and possible ways of solving the problem are evaluated. According to the nature and complexity of the problem, there may be a need for further development of existing theories or even for developing new theories.
The problem may be divided into partial subjects to be investigated separately, and in detail, using relevant scientific methods. Here the supervisor has an important task of guiding the choice and methods, similar to the research process. The problem posed may call for the use of case-studies, experiments, quantitative or qualitative empirical investigation, logical analysis and construction of concepts, etc. Here the point is that the choice of methods must be explainable and acceptable according to the posed problem.
The results of the investigation are evaluated, compared to the consequences, and again compared to the posed problem. At this stage the project work is characterized by professional absorption through lectures, methodological analysis, field work, etc.
Report: Here the group has to review the project, set up conclusions, and complete the project documentation. The report will then present the studies carried out. It will prove the knowledge established and also how this knowledge was produced. At the final stage the project work is mainly characterized by the tension of approaching deadline; - like in practical engineering.
Through the curriculum the project groups deal with still more advanced problems and the level of problem-solving progresses towards the thesis.
In many of our master's programmes, one of the project reports is replaced by a scientific paper following the norms of international scientific journals.
EVALUATION AND EXAMINATION
The capability and the quality of the educational system is evaluated within the educational system itself. This is done by a system of internal monitoring.
Internal monitoring serves the purpose of quality management with regard to the relevance and quality of the courses as well as the quality of the entire semester concerning supervising, organization and ressources. A monitering report is presented by the students in co-operation with the teachers. This report is assessed by the Board of Studies and used for preparing and improving the same theme the following year.
A system of external examination at the end of each semester serves the purpose of external professional and academic control. One or two external examiners are present, representing the professional world/industry, and/or the academic world/universities. The examination system thus allows for the control of professional relevance and academic standards as well as control of the entire educational system. At the more important examinations including the thesis, the examiners are appointed from industry and other universities by the Ministry of Education. Examiners at the remaining examinations are appointed among the university's faculty.
The emphasis at the examination is on the evaluation of the project. The project group submit a written report of 50-150 pages one to two weeks before the examination. At the examination, the group make an presentation of the project, where each member of the group presents a part of the project. Often they also make a poster. This is followed by the defence of the project report. The evaluation is conducted by the teacher appointed as the group-supervisor. Such examination normally lasts half a day.
The purpose of the defence and the following discussion is to examine the knowledge possessed by the individual student about the project and the connected academic disciplines as well as their broad insight and professional knowledge. In the session in which the report is presented and defended, the members of the project group are examined in the project courses in connection with the examination of the report.
The examination of the general courses is normally held at the end of the semester, in which they are lectured. This examination does not differ from the examinations at other universities. At the examinations of the projects and the project-related courses, the students are graded, while the general courses are mainly assessed on a pass/fail basis.
The process of the project work and the selection of theories and methods are controlled by the students, but the standards used at the examinations and the criteria of excellence are certainly not under the influence of the students. These standards and criteria may be more difficult to define precisely and communicate to the students beforehand than in the traditional learning processes with standard solutions to standard problems based on textbooks.
On the other hand, the documentation of the knowledge possessed by the students is provided in a far better way. In the project-oriented model all marks on the diploma can be documented by the reports and assessed by trade and industry.
THE ROLE OF THE SUPERVISOR
The supervisor in the project-organized education model has to face other demands than the teacher in traditional education. Pedagogical skills for guiding the project work as well as skills for guiding the use of scientific theories and methods for analyzing the problems are essential. The supervisor has the responsibility of guiding the students to complete the project work in time, and in a defensible way according to methodological and scientific requirements. Of course normally the supervisor will possess a broad professional insight. But if the supervisor is not familiar with the professional subject, a second teacher should be attached to the group as professional deputy supervisor. This means the traditional role of the teacher is changing from: Lord at the lectern, to coach on the side.
The teacher also has to face the demands of constantly changing the contents of the courses, or developing new courses, according to the development of the profession, new research results and the changing problems within society. These demands may be seen as a challenge rather than a problem. They also ensure the continous professional development of the faculty. But a problem may arise regarding the distribution of the limited resources at the university since much preparation is required.
The project work which is carried out by the project groups, promotes strong motivation for research by the teachers. In the project work, the problems and the choice of theories and methods are discussed with the supervisor. Many essential problems can be defined through the project work and continued in the research which is carried out by the supervisor. Many of the student projects may be based on the current research activities of a teacher. The project groups may e.g. analyze partial problems, theoretically or empirically, and thus contribute to the development of knowledge in fruitful co-operation with the teacher.
This interaction between education and research thus allows for the development of the necessary dynamic element of innovative education.