Using a student survey to measure changes in experience, knowledge, and competency in introductory project management courses
Boston University, Metropolitan College, Boston, MA USA
This paper presents the survey results of several sections of an introductory project management course to determine whether student perceptions, knowledge, and motivation about project management as a valuable discipline has changed as a result of completing the project management course. The survey was administered to students during their second week of class and again in the second-to-last week of the semester. Pre- and post-course results were compared to determine if any changes occurred over the span of the semester. The survey measured students’ attitudes towards project management, as well as their knowledge about core project management concepts and practice. From a pedagogical perspective, several key research conclusions have been drawn as a result of the survey. They reveal that even experienced practitioners are often unsure about their depth of knowledge in project management and lack confidence at the start of their first project management class. However, the post-class survey reveals that a sound curriculum and comprehensive exposure to project management theory and practice can dramatically increase the confidence of all students. In order to draw broader, curricular results going across disciplinary boundaries, we surveyed project management programs located in both a business department and a computer science department.
Keywords: higher education, curriculum; introductory course; academic rigor; measurement of learning; student perception.
Within the higher education sector, project management as a discipline has evolved over the last fifteen years or so from a peripheral subject area more usually associated with civil and mechanical engineering schools, to a significantly more mainstream subject area (Longman & Mullins, 2004) that is in demand by employers in all industry sectors and organizational roles; and one which is embedded into many management school curricula. Indeed, a significant industry has grown up around project management training and education, both outside the higher education sector, and inside it (Price & Dolphi, 2004; Thomas, Mengel, & Andres, 2004).
It is also evident that as introductory project management courses make their way into graduate and undergraduate curriculums in increasing numbers, either as a core course or an optional elective, varying levels of expertise are brought to bear on what is increasingly seen as a “key” management skill. At various schools and colleges, project-based management courses can be found in specialized or generic management programs and disciplines, both at the undergraduate and at the graduate levels.
Despite the efforts of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) to expand the visibility and professionalism of project management and the efforts of the PMI Global Accreditation Center (GAC) to measure and accredit those programs that offer rigorous and theoretically underpinned programs delivering formalized project management knowledge and skills, it could be argued that a dearth of project management academic courses and college-level programs still exists.
As a part of the challenge of delivering effective project management education that meets the rigorous requirements of the PMI GAC, the more progressive departments and faculty that are engaged in project management research and education are constantly striving to demonstrably improve the content and effectiveness of their academic offerings (Berggren & Söderlund, 2008); and to measure progress against learning goals and outcomes in order to ensure that students are engaged in a meaningful learning experience that enriches their work experience in the future.
A brief trip through the development of project-based management education indicates that many courses were historically built around the earlier incarnations of PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). As our understanding of project-based management has evolved, the more progressive programs have embraced the shift from tools and process toward a more nuanced understanding of projects that includes elements of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty (Thomas & Mengel, 2008), and the inclusion of more behaviorally-oriented content relating to managing people and teams within the project domain (Pant & Baroudi, 2008; Thomas et al., 2004).
These developing areas are being introduced into project management programs and are adding to the volume and quantity of learning required to deliver a rigorous and comprehensive educational experience that meets the needs of students and employers.
This paper documents attempts to ensure that learning within one specific program (delivered at a major US university) meets these criteria in their introductory course. It goes ahead and benchmarks and measures students’ experience and learning within the context of a comprehensive project management curriculum in both pre- and post-mode.
Goals of the Research
The goals of our research paper were to understand and measure several attributes as they pertain to project management introductory courses from the perspective of ease of use and student acceptance of the knowledge area.
Similar studies have been conducted previously in other domains, such as information technology and introductory computer programming, and have shown that student attitudes and experiences in a course can have a significant impact on performance in a course (Davis, 1989; Papp 1998). Within the context of project management, we were interested in investigating several similar issues:
a)What key topics can be taught within a limited time frame in an introductory course? This impacts what learning outcomes can be “imparted” or delivered successfully in a one semester course. Pedagogically, introducing a comprehensive body of knowledge in a project management course is desirable in an introductory course, especially if the student is taking the course as an elective and might not take another project management course again.
b)What knowledge do incoming students come into a project management course with and what expectations can a professor have about incoming students who have four years of working experience in project management? From our experience managing educational project management programs, we have also noticed that novice adjunct project management professors with industry experience often make errors in the assumption of implicit knowledge. Inexperienced instructors risk glossing over the “must teach” topics at the expense of “nice to teach” topics. For example, obsessing in detail over agile project management in an introductory lecture can be a mistake if students don’t have sound understanding of traditional life cycles and project processes.
c)What are student perceptions and attitudes toward project management? Why are they taking the course? Does the attitude and perception change upon completion of a course? Do students appreciate the value of project management as a profession upon completion of the course? Do students have a continued desire to learn more about project management? Does familiarization with project management theory and practice result in an increased desire to take more advanced courses?
d)Given a listing of key competencies, such as creating a charter, estimating costs, or managing stakeholders, how well rounded are they at the start of a course? How much does that appreciably change by the end of the course?
Before we present the survey and results, we briefly describe the program in this section. Project management programs are housed at Boston University in a large college—Metropolitan College. The college caters to working professionals extensively. Our college inherited a project management education legacy from a major software engineering institute which had created one of the world’s first fully dedicated and accredited software engineering and project management curriculum programs for graduate students. It offers graduate degrees in project management, graduate certificates, and clusters of project management courses for undergraduate management and computing students. Students take courses in various formats—online, on-campus, and blended. A project management introductory course (or similar course with substantial project management knowledge content), was discovered to be widely offered for the Spring 2014 semester in several colleges, such as Engineering, Management, Medicine, Law, Public Health, Education, Communications, and Arts & Science. However, comprehensive and generic, non-specialized courses are offered only in the college of this research study. During 2013, students in this college participated in a survey to assess the learning from this mature project management program.
During the 2013 academic year, 94 students completed the “Project Management” survey at Boston University. The survey benchmarked students’ interest and understanding of several project management topics from the introductory courses. In order to draw broader, curricular results across disciplinary boundaries, we included students taking introductory project management courses from the business and computer science departments in our survey. As such, we surveyed students taking the IT Project Management course offered by the computer science department and the Project Management course offered by the management department. About 20% of students belonged to the department of computer science and were majoring in computer information systems; the other 80% of students belonged in the management department and were majoring in various specialized business and management programs. On average, students have four years of working experience and many have project management experience.
Most participants took the survey online. Students in the online project management class used a web-based survey tool. The paper version was given to students taking the project management course in a lecture hall setting. The survey was given during the second week of class to all students. In this paper, this survey is referred to as the “pre” test.
It was decided to keep the survey anonymous (after some initial research and discussion with research assistants), as we wanted frank responses at the start of the semester and especially at the end of the semester, as we had questions dealing with topics dealt with in homework assignments, projects, and tests. There was a risk that students might inflate their knowledge and understanding of project management topics to avoid giving a negative impression about their effort or participation to their professor. This anonymity seemed to work, as we shall soon see in the survey results. For instance, students candidly noted that they did not fully master earned value concepts such as To-Complete Performance Index (TCPI), even though this topic was explicitly covered in the curriculum and even tested in assignments.
Students were asked questions that can be grouped into the following two broad categories–attitude towards project management and knowledge of project management.”
Table 1 describes the category “attitude towards project management.” Students were asked questions dealing with “importance of project management” and “desire to learn project management.” Table 2 summarizes the subcategories of “knowledge of project management.” The detailed topics for this category are presented in Tables 6 to 11 and in Appendix A.
We selected topics by examining our university curricula, required textbooks, and project management competency standards. Note that we do not intend for the list of topics to correspond with any specific project management course outline or lecture module.
The project management knowledge topics constituted the largest portion of the survey at 23 questions, covering 19 unique knowledge topics. We consulted three resources that illustrate various project management competency frameworks including the Project Management Experience and Knowledge Self-Assessment Manual (Project Management Institute, 2000) and the Project Manager Competency Development Framework (Project Management Institute, 2007). The APM Competence Framework (Association for Project Management, 2008) was also referenced extensively, and the attributes listed below were integrated in the questions as shown below:
Technical Competence: TC01, TC02
- Foundational, project concept, success and benefits, and stakeholder management
Technical Planning: TC03, TC04, TC05, TC11, TC14, TC15, TC16, T18
- Requirements management, risk Management, estimating, scope management, quality management, scheduling, resource management, and p management plan
Tools and Techniques TC18, TC20, TC23, TC28 and TC30
- Change control, cost management, earned value management, handover, and closeout
Behavioral Competence: BCO1 to BC04
- Communication, teamwork, leadership, and conflict Management
Contextual Competence: CC01, CC03, CC06
- Sponsorship, lifecycles, organizational roles, and technical competence Appendix A describes the questions in detail.
Table 1: Attitude towards project management
|Questions were grouped into the following subcategories:|
|See Appendix A for topics relevant to the above subcategory.|
Table 2: Knowledge of project management
For illustration purposes, Figure 1 shows the precise wording and scale for two questions pertaining to the category “attitude towards project management,” and two questions pertaining to the category “knowledge of project management.”
Question 1 asks students to do a self-assessment about their project management background and Question 2 asks about their comfort level in gaining new knowledge. In the second column in Figure 1, we have a sample illustration of two questions. Here, questions 9 and 10 ask students to rate their knowledge about the responsibilities of the project manager and about project life cycles.
Figure 1: Sample survey questions
In this section, we comment on the scale and describe the data analysis results from the survey.
Comment on Scale and Reliability of Survey
We have used a seven-point Likert psychometric scale for our research questionnaire as it provided enough points of discrimination and sufficient response options. The scale is evident in Figure 1: it ranges from zero, which equals to “none,” to six, which equals to “excellent.” The scale illustrates the underlying symmetry of response options. Student respondents were comfortable with the scale and wording—students communicated that they were easily able to understand and apply the scale. Surveys that use a seven-point Likert scale are very reliable according to several research studies (Andrews & Withey, 1980; Andrews, 1984; Alwin & Krosnick, 1991; Bass, Cascio, & O’Connor, 1974).
The questions and groups of questions exhibited a high degree of reliability, as seen by the Cronbach Alpha scores shown in Table 3. Initially, the Cronbach Alpha value for question areas one and two (“importance of project management” and “desire to learn project management”) were low, but combining question areas has raised the value significantly.
|Importance of project management + Desire to learn project management||0.50|
|Knowledge of basic foundational project management||0.60|
|Knowledge of project management planning||0.72|
|Knowledge of project management planning tools||0.88|
|Knowledge of behavioral and organizational aspects of project management||0.80|
|Knowledge of project management execution||0.86|
|Knowledge of project management monitoring and control tools||0.80|
Table 3: Cronbach Alpha values for scale validation
|Case Processing Summary|
|Cronbach’s Alpha||N of Items||30|
Table 4: Survey case processing
Three survey responses were excluded by Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) because of missing data. These excluded responses were due to missing data from the surveys done manually by students using the paper-based format.
Importance of Project Management
The first group of questions queried the students about their background, including how much experience they had in project management and if they valued it as a discipline. In the last column, we wanted to determine their opinion of project management as a discipline (i.e., if it was important for everyone to know project management).
|Importance of Project Management||Project Management Background||Important to Know Project Management||Important for Others to Know Project Management||Average|
|% of Total Sum||36.4%||45.5%||46.0%||45.8%|
|% of Total Sum||63.6%||54.5%||54.0%||54.2%|
Table 5: Importance of project management
Analysis of the surveys and results presented in Table 5 seem to indicate that students’ attitudes toward their background in project management was possibly one of modesty. The mean of 2.02 translates to low on the scale of 0 to 6. About 36.4% of the population felt that they had inadequate backgrounds in project management prior to the start of the course. This was a surprising revelation, as most, if not all, accepted students were working professionals with at least four years’ experience. This leads us to conclude that practitioners are insecure about their background in project management, possibly because they lack formal education in project management. Such a perception is evidenced in similar surveys in information technology and computer programming (Papp, 1998), where a comparable question is presented to students. However, our group of students, upon completion of the project management course, felt comfortable about their background knowledge in project management as the mean climbed up to 3.54 (medium to high scale). This represents 63.6% of the total sum of students. We believe that a good curriculum with sound presentation of key concepts provided an opportunity for the experienced students to connect their previous work experience with current theory and practice—boosting their self-confidence. The average for the entire grouping of three questions is shown in the last column in Table 5. It reflects one of building student confidence and appreciation of the importance of project management as a discipline upon completion of the course.
Desire to Learn
Students generally are apprehensive about unfamiliar subject matter topics. We wanted to benchmark the comfort level of students and their level of interest in learning project management. Analysis of the surveys and results presented in Table 6, column one, once again seems to indicate that students’ attitudes toward project management were initially insecure. This perception is, once again, evidenced in similar surveys (Papp, 1998; Davis 1989; Harris 1993).
|Survey Mode||Comfort Level in Learning||Level of Interest in Learning Project Management||Want to Learn Everything||Average|
|% of Total Sum||42.8%||44.1%||28.5%||38.5%|
|% of Total Sum||57.2%||55.9%||71.5%||61.5%|
Table 6: Desire to learn project management
Most students had a high interest in learning about project management in both pre- and post-surveys. The fact that many students self-selected project management as a discipline of their choice for career growth might explain this high post-survey consistency (as opposed to being compelled to take it as a required course in their primary major). Of particular interest is the student response to learning more about project management. This data reflects a dramatic shift in optimism and a desire to learn more about project management. We note this promise about the field—a good introductory course can whet the appetite of students and they might want to learn more. We noted that even experienced practitioners are surprised how much more there is to master in the discipline!
Knowledge of Basic Project Management
We had four questions pertaining to project management basic concepts.
|Survey Mode||Project Management and Organizational Managers||Role of Project Manager||Phases and Life Cycles||Project Charter||Average|
|% of Total Sum||43.8%||39.2%||35.9%||35.3%||38.5%|
|% of Total Sum||56.2%||60.8%||64.1%||64.7%||61.5%|
Table 7: Basic project management knowledge
This data expresses the reality that many students are not aware of project charters and their role in project sponsorship.
The first two modules in our introductory curriculum cover the following topics:
- Project environment
- Projects and companies
- Role of project management
- Project life cycles and project management processes
- Deliverables and milestones
The post-course survey validates improvement in student confidence as they pertain to these foundational topics. The mean moved up from an exact medium to very high.
The post-test data notes remarkable improvement in awareness about both charters and project life cycles. The reason for this can be attributed to the extensive papers that students wrote within the context of a term project. Here, they research life cycles and demonstrate mastery over project management processes, as reflected in the ISO project management standard and the PMBOK Guide®. The overall average reflects an improvement in the self-confidence of students in project management foundational topics.
Knowledge of Project Management Planning
Even experienced students rated their understanding of both critical path and program evaluation review technique (PERT) as very low in the pre-survey as illustrated in Table 8.
|Survey Mode||Scope Statement||Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)||Critical Path||PERT||Average|
|% of Total Sum||37.6%||32.3%||30.8%||27.6%||32.1%|
|% of Total Sum||62.4%||67.7%||69.2%||72.4%||67.9%|
Table 8: Knowledge of project planning
The introductory course covers two modules in the following topics:
- Identifying requirements and scope from the project charter
- Creating a scope statement from requirements
- Creating a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) from requirements
- Estimating activity duration
- Constructing a network of project activities
- Developing a project schedule using critical path approach
- Optimizing the project schedule to accommodate project constraints
- Creating a project plan
Students have a lecture on the topics of critical path and PERT, and manually create a critical path for data-sets involving 10-12 nodes. As a result of the above education, we see the post-survey findings for project planning appreciated notably. Good pedagogy, term projects, and assignments played a key role in doubling the overall average, mean rating of students for questions 8, 9, 10, and 26 from 2.2 to 4.6.
Tools and Techniques
In order to survey students’ knowledge about project management tools and techniques, we identified the following set of assorted questions: 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 23, and 24. The pre-test mean for these questions reveals an average of 1.82 (see Table 9).
The following topics are covered very well in our project management curriculum in both the management and computer science program:
- Creating risk register and risk response plans
- Principles and concepts in estimating time and cost
- Estimating approaches and models
- Decomposition and bottom-up estimating
- Quality planning
|Survey Mode||Decomposition||Package & Control Accounts||Cost Estimation||Parametric Estimation||Quality Plan||Risk Events||Risk Register||Average|
|% of Total Sum||31.7%||29.3%||33.4%||24.1%||34.4%||33.3%||29.7%||30.4%|
|% of Total Sum||68.3%||70.7%||66.6%||75.9%||65.6%||66.7%||70.3%||69.6%|
Table 9: Planning tools and techniques
The hands-on learning that occurs on these topics in class and in research for the final term paper (where they master estimating, identify risks, come up with a risk response plan, and identify quality plans), resulted in dramatically improved knowledge for project management tools and techniques for project planning (to an overall average of 4.05).
Behavioral and Organizational Project Management
The questions that attempt to capture a sense of background knowledge in behavioral and organizational project management topics are: 16, 20, 21, 25, and 30. Table 10 presents the average pre-survey results at 2.15.
Even though experienced students manage stakeholders at work satisfactorily, they were unaware as to how one can “rank the stakeholders.” The introductory Boston University curriculum provides rich coverage of various behavioral and soft skills topics, such as:
- Communications models and communication process
- Communication barriers and communication tools and techniques
- Types of communication and information distribution
- Stakeholder management
- Communication planning tools
- Project changes
Upon completion of the course, the post-test mean average climbs up to 4.67.
|Survey Mode||Stakeholder Management||RACI||Communic ations Plan||Managing Changes||Closing Project||Average|
|% of Total Sum||26.4%||33.4%||30.5%||31.5%||29.5%||31.2%|
|% of Total Sum||73.6%||66.6%||69.5%||68.5%||70.5%||68.8%|
Table 10: Behavioral project management topics
Knowledge of Control Tools
We decided to be hard-nosed about project control tools and techniques and picked on the topic of earned value management specifically in our survey. The questions that capture students’ responses on this topic are: 27, 28, and 29.
|Survey Mode||EV Theory||CPI/ SPI||TCPI||Average|
|% of Total Sum||32.0%||23.0%||21.1%||25.4%|
|% of Total Sum||68.0%||77.0%||78.9%||74.6%|
Table 11: Control tools and techniques
The low pre-test data in Table 11 speaks loudly and resonates with our experience about earned value. Very few incoming students are aware of earned value, as they might not have used earned value management (EVM) control techniques on projects at work.
Since EVM is covered extensively in our course, the post-class survey reveals a threefold improvement in mean ratings. Here, we note that (even on the topic of TCPI), we have succeeded in making a dent in the introductory course.
An introductory project management course can change perceptions, knowledge, and outlook about the value of project management. Introductory project management courses can result in dramatic increases in student confidence and ability, but they must be well-designed, balancing the technical and behavioral/organizational aspects.
The survey results reveal that (despite being apprehensive at the start of a project management course), exposure to a good curriculum provides large numbers of students with the confidence to enjoy the “wild-wide-world” of project management.
Even the experienced practitioner’s self-confidence about most project management topics is lower than one can estimate. As such, pedagogically, professors should allocate sufficient time for key foundational concepts in the first few lectures and resist the temptation to abruptly cover topics (such as agile project management) in an unstructured manner in introductory courses. The instructor must put in special effort to cover key concepts slowly and gradually. Our research reveals that such sound pedagogy will allow experienced practitioners to connect their working experience with the project management body of knowledge.
Post-survey results of project management knowledge topics reveals that students can master several topics quite readily in their first course if a curriculum is well-designed.
Finally, our survey analysis reveals a continuing interest in the field of project management. In the post-course survey, students expressed a desire to learn even more about project management. Pedagogically, this supports the credence that schools should consider offering more than just one elective in project management. A well-taught introductory course can lead to several additional courses for a school or college.
We are grateful to Boston University Metropolitan College for providing the research assistants that helped with the research project over a span of three semesters. Thanks to Meera Kanabar the “public health epidemiologist from Columbia University” for entering the data into Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) and presenting useful analysis data to mull over.
Note: Questions were randomized.
A. Importance of project management
1. Rate your background in project management.
6. How important is it for you to know project management?
7. How important do you think it is for everyone to know project management?
B. Desire to learn project management
2. Rate your comfort level in gaining in-depth knowledge of project management.
3. What is the level of interest in learning about project management in general?
4. * I want to learn just enough about project management to “get by” in my field.
5. I want to learn everything I can about project management.
C. Knowledge of basic/foundational project management
8. Rate your knowledge about the responsibilities of the project manager and other organizational managers.
9. Rate your knowledge about the responsibilities of the project manager.
10. Rate your knowledge about the various phases of the project management life cycle.
26. Rate your knowledge of the project charter.
D. Knowledge of project management planning
11. Rate your understanding of the scope statement as the primary document that describes the project.
12. Rate your knowledge of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).
15. Rate your knowledge of the project network diagram and the critical path method.
18. Rate your knowledge about the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT).
E. Knowledge of basic project management planning tools
13. Rate your knowledge about the correct way to decompose items in the WBS.
14. Rate your knowledge of work packages and control accounts.
17. Rate your knowledge about project cost estimation.
19. Rate your knowledge about parametric estimation.
22. Rate your knowledge of the quality management plan.
23. Rate your knowledge about potential project risk events.
24. Rate your knowledge of risk responses.
F. Knowledge of behavioral and organizational aspects of project management
16. Rate your knowledge about using communication tools such as the Responsibility Assignment matrix (RACI).
20. Rate your knowledge of identifying and ranking the importance of stakeholders.
21. Rate your knowledge of the communication management plan.
25. Rate your knowledge of identifying change requests and assessing potential project scope changes.
30. Rate your knowledge processes associated with formally closing a project.
G. Knowledge of project management monitoring and control yools
27. Rate your knowledge about Earned Value.
28. Rate your knowledge of Cost Performance Index (CPI) and (Schedule Performance Index) (SPI).
29. Rate your knowledge of To-Complete Performance Indicator (TCPI).
* Question 4 was omitted from analysis.
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Vijay Kanabar, PhD, PMP, has over thirty years of experience teaching in the United States and Canada as a professor in the areas of information science and project management. He earned his PhD from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada with a focus on software cost modeling. Dr. Kanabar is passionate about curriculum and education; his efforts are evident in the introductions of more than a dozen new information science and project management courses and programs at Boston University. He has five books in the areas of information technology and project management. In addition to innovative curriculum design and program implementation, his other research interests include online education, information assurance, project cost estimation, and project risk analysis. He teaches at Boston University and is the Director of the Project Management Programs at Metropolitan College.
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An essential tool for project planning, a work breakdown structure organizes a project’s total scope to help practitioners track projects across disciplines and project life cycles.