Why Can’t Your Real-World Project Live in the Real World?

As educators teaching in professional study programs, our goal is to create classroom experiences where our students can work with professional partners, developing projects that have real-world impact. We believe that implementation is an essential part of the professional study experience. We also know that’s easier said than done, and something we learned first-hand when we invited Artists Alliance Inc. (AAI), a contemporary artists’ space located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to be a real partner in a master’s level course that we were teaching, Design and development of application architectures.

Jodi Waynberg, Director of the AAI, presented the following problem to our students: the organization’s website was messy and in desperate need of an update. The solution seemed quite simple, designing and launching a new website, however, it turned out to be more complicated than expected. While the students presented effective responses to the problem, none of the solutions they developed were implemented. The gap between design and implementation left us baffled, so we partnered with Jodi after the course ended to find out why.

In our article, Is your real-world experience real enough? (Faculty Focus, March 2020), we concluded that for real-world interaction to occur, faculty must engage their partners in the learning experience and prepare them for potential product implementation produced by their students. We used our findings to see how we could better guide real-world projects and provide AAI with the website they were looking for. What has crystallized through this effort is a series of steps that faculty can take to foster partner investment in student projects. These subsequent steps are, in our opinion, necessary to successfully implement the student project from start to finish.

Step 1: Prepare the partner for what is real

We found that our previous attempts to implement a real-world project in this course had been hampered because our partner also needed to learn many of the concepts and skills that the students were learning. As Jodi said, “For me, it took a lot of understanding and experience to know what was realistic.”

To begin our research, we sat down with Jodi and her team and introduced them to the design concepts, expert language, and technical solutions needed to redesign a website. We provided Jodi and her team with web development resources and tools so they could be more involved in producing informed project deliverables that everyone could review, respond to, and agree on. AAI found this helpful, as Jodi explained, “We needed someone to walk us through and say, ‘Okay, so you want X, this is how you get to X’ because we were operating on a visual basis. We want it to look like this and we have absolutely no idea how anything can look like this. And so, it was useful to go through this process.

Step 2: Define the scope of the project

We found that if you provide your partner with the knowledge and skills described in step one, they should have enough understanding to effectively define the scope of the project. With our support, Jodi was now able to do this effectively, which she appreciated, noting that “when I started with you, the web development process was incredibly abstract. I now have the necessary language for this work.

By giving the AAI team the tools to design a website, they gained a working understanding of their project’s needs and what it would take to implement them within the confines of the classroom. Jodi’s comments put this into perspective:

I felt like the classes never really arrived because there wasn’t enough time for the students to learn the organization and for us to think about exactly what we needed. If all of this conceptual work had already been done by our organization, and we were initially providing an inventory of content, examples of sites we already liked – basically a precise structure of what we were looking for – then maybe the classroom experiment might have been successful.

It was a crucial idea for us. In a standard 15-week course, there is a need to speed up the project development process. Thus, the more the client is ready to define and contribute to the project, and to lighten the cognitive load of the student, the more it is possible for the teacher to guide the project to its completion.

Step 3: Decide on project tasks

Based on our research, we believe that if steps one and two are done with the partner, students, with the support of faculty, should have the skills to determine whether scope goals can be implemented in a meaningful way. realistic. All parties must be able to decide what project tasks are needed to deliver an achievable result, or borrow a concept from project management, a minimum viable product (MVP). We define MVP for students as a functional version of a project that meets the needs expressed by partners and can be developed over time. If the students and partner cannot agree on the MVP, the project will likely remain a classroom exercise.

Assuming that said agreement is reached, a change of responsibilities for everyone involved should follow. The responsibility of the partner, as Jodi describes it, should become “higher”. This transition, she says, “was really helpful, as it allowed me to think more broadly about how the website represents the organization publicly, rather than getting bogged down in functionality.” At this point, students, who are now confident that the tasks listed are reasonable enough and that a satisfying and usable project can be delivered, should be able to take responsibility for completing the tasks that will culminate in an MVP.

Step 4: Implement the project

In the final stage, students must complete tasks, enforce deadlines, and recognize milestones; the partner provides ongoing feedback and support; the teacher assists by helping the students and partner recognize when the MVP has been reached; and finally, the partner receives the necessary support to bring the project to the real world.

The measure of the success of the implementation is not only that the project is in the real world, but that it also has some impact on the needs of the partner. If the project has in some way helped the partner better understand their needs and they get a solution that solves their problem, then the students will see that the skills they learned can really extend beyond academic space. Jodi validated this idea at the end of our work together:

We now have a site that better reflects the work we do. As a visual arts organization, having a visual presence that is purposeful and intentional is incredibly meaningful to us. It communicates something to our peers, to our funders and to our potential funders. I get emails from people I haven’t spoken to in a long time who have noticed the changes to the website and are complimenting us, which is an added bonus. I think we have something to be proud of, which is how we do our job and what it’s like to work with Artists Alliance.

In conclusion, working with AAI to redesign and launch their new website has proven to be a great learning experience for us. We better understand the steps necessary to prepare our partners and students to develop and manage a project that can have a tangible impact in the real world. Our next step is to turn these steps into a program and see if we can achieve real-world implementation in a classroom.


Dr. Paul Acquaro is a lecturer at the FOM University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management in Berlin and an adjunct adjunct professor teaching online at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in database development, web technologies, IT management, business communication and project development. Acquaro has over 20 years of experience in information technology, communications, curriculum development and teaching, and earned a doctorate in education, focusing on instructional technology, from Teachers College in Columbia University. Among his many interests, he explores how to combine the possibilities of online learning and the power of problem-based pedagogy.

Dr. Steven Goss is the Dean of the School of Professional Studies at Manhattan College. He joined Manhattan College after serving as vice provost for digital learning at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he helped facilitate the institutional mission of online education. Prior to Teachers College, Goss led several successful online initiatives at Bank Street College of Education and New York University. He has received awards from the Association for the Advancement of Computing Education (AACE) and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) for his research on learner-centered online education.


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