An interactive, adaptive, expert-based, e-learning tool for project management education
Project management education presents several challenges, primarily because it is interdisciplinary and because the existing literature is vast and dispersed in various media (books, articles, internet, etc.). The existence of standards and processes included in systematic yet concise documents (such as A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge [PMBOK® Guide]) creates the need to couple them with elaborate documentation and examples that corroborate the learning material and lead to efficient and broad project management education. Bringing these two knowledge pools together in a form acceptable to both learners and teachers, by maintaining, at the same time, the completeness and integrity of scientific concepts, is a rather challenging task.
In this work, we present a novel and structured system that employs mind maps and knowledge enhancement and enrichment approaches, in order to develop an interactive, e-learning tool for project management education. A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items arranged and linked to a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing. The use of mind maps bridges the gap between the conceptual and process-oriented knowledge representation that is inherent in project management education.
The tool developed is adaptive, interactive, expert-based, easy to enrich, and open in terms of structure. As a key paradigm, we have mapped the structure of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition and associated it with material from open sources. The tool enables e-learning and is easy to use in any browsing platform. We demonstrate the design concepts and guidelines and highlight its benefits in the professional development of project management; furthermore, we show that the process-oriented methodology is maintained and mapped unambiguously to an HTML product. The overall outcome has the characteristics of a “PM-Pedia.”
The primary purpose of this article is to present all of the necessary elements for the development of an online e-learning tool, and to correlate them in an effective way in order to increase its adoption for educational purposes. E-learning is an essential element in the majority of modern management teaching methods, so it could not be excluded by one of the most distinguished branches of administration, namely, project management.
The presented tool is an expert-based, adaptive, and interactive online knowledge database. Its objectives are to facilitate the introduction of beginner learners to basic concepts of project management through the systematic formulation of process-oriented methods, and to offer a self-evaluation mechanism that enables the evolution of knowledge for the learner. The structure of the learning tool is much similar to the structure of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008).
This article is structured as follows. In the second section, we briefly review the literature and introduce basic concepts, we highlight the items necessary for the development of the tool, and stress the importance of e-learning in modern education; the key differences between guidebooks and textbooks are also emphasized in this section. In the third section, we deal with the details of progressive development of the tool and the presentation of the specialized mind mapping software (Mindjet® Mind Manager 8 –“free trial”). Finally, in the fourth section, we illustrate the evolutionary characteristics of the model, stressing the expert-based and adaptive aspects of the development, and justify the name “PM-Pedia” that we have given to the final product. The article culminates with conclusions, contributions, and guidelines for future research.
Basic Concepts and Literature Review
A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items arranged and linked to a central key, word, or idea (Wikipedia, n. d.). The elements of the map (concepts) are usually enclosed in definite shapes of some type (nodes) attached to each other by drawn lines. Frequently, words on the lines referred to as linking words or linking phrases specify the density of the relationship between the two concepts. As mind maps are considered to be critical for the final outcome of the educational process, Jonassen (2000) indicates that the technique of conceptual mapping is an intermediary learning tool that promotes the development of new knowledge, enhances interaction, and involves people in cognitive processes for analysis and the critical encounter of the content of teaching, as well as the organization and representation of knowledge, taking into account the social and cultural environment. Conclusively, through this particular mind mapping feature, this study makes an attempt to embed mind maps in project management training. To achieve this, the PMBOK® Guide is decomposed as described in section 3, in order to facilitate a deeper comprehension of its content by both the apprentice and the advanced user.
The granted interactivity and efficiency in refreshing as well as enriching information, thus knowledge, in combination with the potential of global access and application from independent personal computers (PCs) everywhere in the world, have already transformed the market interest for creation and utilization of e-learning tools into “a survival skill for corporations and individuals” (Cross, 1999). The most typical characteristics of e-learning remain the ease in accessibility and handling of information in a self-paced (Obringer, 2001) way, along with its applauded adaptability, bringing users one step closer to its learning objectives. At the same time, “the matching of content and delivery vehicle to a learner's style amplifies retention and magnifies learning results,” as cited by Assumption University (2002). At present, e-learning appears highly attractive to all, especially to companies that want to reduce the cost of executives’ training, hence the observed increase in relative web pages’ attendance. The existence of ample material in digital form has boosted the evolution of e-learning tools and practices. However, as Clark and Meyer (2002) point out: “The technology that has lagged is the pedagogy and design thinking and strategies required to make all of this digital information reusable and targeted toward adding value.” The actual “trigger” in the development of the present e-learning tool is the creation of an open-ended knowledge database based on the structure of the PMBOK® Guide, while it is enriched with scientific material, lessons learned, and case studies from open sources provided by the members of the global project management community, thus creating a so-called PM-Pedia.
Framework of the PMBOK® Guide and Its Characteristics As Compared To A Textbook
Although the basic principles and structure of the PMBOK® Guide are used in the development of this tool, supplementary learning elements enrich the structure of the guide. The architecture and concept of the PMBOK® Guide can elegantly be depicted on a mind map, as it contains 42 processes that are, firstly, grouped in line with Knowledge Areas (in nine project management processes) and, secondly, defined by the project life cycle (in five product-oriented processes) (PMI, 2008, p.37). The relationships between processes and their respective subtopics (inputs, outputs, tools, and techniques) are portrayed in a mind map by hyperlinks. Further information is provided in section 3. Nevertheless, the PMBOK® Guide is a guidebook, not a textbook. In that sense, it enumerates the tools and techniques, inputs and outputs, step-by-step directions on processes, and possibly some templates, but it hardly elaborates on the application of these techniques, not does it give any paradigm of application, case study, or self-assessment opportunities, which would be instead the purpose of a textbook or of supplementary software products.
The distinctive difference between the present e-learning tool and traditional textbooks and/or guidebooks for project management is thus that it unifies the positive characteristics of textbooks, guidebooks, and self-assessment tools “under one roof.” Most important, however, is the fact that the developed tool is open, expert-based, interactive, and adaptive and it enables distance learning, in non–real-time. The tool brings to the learner the combined benefits of formalistic thinking and open, elaborate, moderated information. Last but not least, while a guidebook for which “there is a great need to help both new and experienced project managers improve their skills and procedures” (Morris, 2008) demonstrates how to “Do the Right Things,” the developed tool is oriented towards “Doing the Things Right”.
Elaboration of e-Learning Tool
The building of the e-learning tool is achieved with the use of the Mindjet® MindManager 8 – “free trial” specialized software. The procedure of modeling includes four steps:
The ensemble of processes of the PMBOK® Guide was recorded, documented, and allocated in the nine Knowledge Areas (PMI, 2008, p. 37), decomposed up to “activity” level. The main topic title is “PM-Pedia,” followed by consecutive subtopics concerning the 42 processes and their respective inputs, tools, and techniques and outputs as dictated by the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth edition. For compatibility reasons, the numbering of chapters remained the same as that of PMBOK® Guide—Fourth edition. At the end of the map, an extra chapter, relevant with training and certification information based on project management issues, was added.
Step 2 deals with the enhancement of suggested T&T (tools & techniques) with scientific and learning data, directly accessible to users through the Web. It is not feasible to include all T&T in the enrichment procedure. For example, for the “alternatives analysis” technique (PMI, 2008, p.144) in the Estimate Activity Resources process of Time Management (PMI, 2008, p.141), there is a wide variety of scientific references (make-or-buy decisions, etc.), as it consists of an acclaimed technique; “expert judgment,” on the other hand, is expressed in a more subjective way, because essential as it may be, it cannot be included in any type of bibliography. Out of a total of 131 T&T proposed by the PMBOK Guide®_, 74 of them were subject to enrichment. As a part of enriching the T&T with material and/or links, at the end of every Knowledge Area there have been included questions and answers, which lead to evaluation of essential knowledge with a more apprenticing perspective.
Once the construction of the main body of the PM-Pedia has come to a mature level, the elements are conceptually correlated; that is, outputs of processes are fed as inputs to other processes. A typical example involves “change requests,” which, as an output of the Direct and Manage Project Execution process (PMI, 2008, p.87), need to pass through Monitor and Control Project Work (PMI, 2008, p.92) and, finally, arrive at the Perform Integrated Change Control process, as an input (PMI, 2008, p.97). Evidently, the operational structure of mind maps facilitates information feedback through simple hyperlinks, as is clearly depicted in the final form of the model.
Once the PM-Pedia is developed as a robust and rich mind map, it is exported in HTML format. The exported mind map is easy to use as a normal web page in a learning environment. The respective exhibits throughout the evolution of the model development are shown in the appendix.
Key Features of the Product
Digital Illustration of the PM-Pedia
The structure of the model as a website and the near real-time data uploading through an administrator are the main features of the tool, which provides accessibility and availability among online users and does not need extra portable storing means, as in the case of an e-book or a software package. This is because HTML applications have become the most widespread means of acquiring information, both in the business and the personal levels.
Mind Maps and the Structure of PMBOK® Guide
In reality, mind maps are considered to be a dignified characteristic of a webpage, but due to their suitability for project management education, they are even more important. Every PMBOK® Guide process consists of incoming elements (inputs) that are being processed with the necessary tools and techniques and conclude to results (outputs) that are viewed as inputs to other processes. The importance of information feedback during a project in association with the interactions between processes prompts for the use of hyperlinks as a means of item conjunction within an HTML application. Hyperlinks facilitate information gathering and accessing, hence the inclination to use an HTML-based website as the definitive version of the model.
Tools & Techniques Enrichment
The addition of online references in 74 out of 131, proposed by the T&T discussed in the PMBOK® Guide transforms the PMBOK® Guide from a guidebook into a textbook and generates a PM-Pedia. This transformation enables the user not only to consult the required pathways to appropriately manage situations, but also to deepen his or her knowledge and shape his or her administration style through a blending of online open-source tools. In other words, added entries and links, imported comments, and expert-based reviews on the PM-Pedia elements facilitate research, allow assessment, and broaden the spectrum of knowledge.
Insertion of Questions and Answers
Self-assessment plays an important part in the conceived model. Questions and corresponding responses were thus added and grouped into nine levels, according to the respective Knowledge Area. Questions relate to individual activities, processes, T&T, and critical situation evaluation. The plan for the future use of the model requires that its content is operated under continuous renewal, holding the number of questionnaires at a high level, according to the latest advances in the PM field.
The term PM-Pedia was coined in order to define the evaluated model as a free, web-based, open-source, project management e-learning tool that combines the terms project management (PM) and encyclopedia (-pedia). This tool was inspired by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia; however, instead of providing definitions and links to each tool as to other terms within an encyclopedia, the tool contains several appropriate online references in each respective chapter and follows the structure of the PMBOK® Guide. As a result, project management education is based on a formalistic, process-oriented framework elaborated with practical methods and strategies that need to be followed in order to plan, execute, and control the project throughout its various phases, and to deal with any critical or unexpected situations. The main concerns are:
- The evaluation and refining of received elements. A group of moderators should be available who will screen and improve data and transform them into a-ready-to-publish-on-the-web-page-format.
- The need for a specialized administrator, responsible for the selection and renewal of data received, the publication of evaluated and refined text on the web pages (comments, reviews), and the handling of an online HTML-based e-learning tool. In short, this website needs to be converted from its present static form, to a refined, more dynamic form.
- The need for a website specialist and the requirement to host the dynamic website on an online server.
Guidelines for the Evolution of the e-Learning Tool
The main incentive for the development of the PM-Pedia is the realization that a guidebook, although it may be useful, does not facilitate learning in the mechanisms of tools and techniques, while most textbooks lack the formality of a guidebook. The first attempt to create the PM-Pedia initiated as part of the graduate dissertation of one of the authors. The developed “beta” model presently operates in an experimental fashion, and is practically evaluated on a daily basis by several undergraduate and graduate students. This gradually leads to the transformation of the model to an integrated, dynamic, e-learning website built upon the principles of the PMBOK® Guide.
In the steady state, the required workforce should consist of the administrator, a group of evaluators-editors (moderators) specializing in one or more cognitive areas and other sub-moderators holding at least some basic project management knowledge. The roles and responsibilities of each of these entities lie in the gathering of received data and their classification in two main categories. During the first classification, they diversify the content into the following categories: “Expert-based Reviews and Hints,” “Case Studies,” “Education and Credentials,” and “Employment and Workplace.” The second classification deals with the categorization according to PMBOK® Guide's nine “Knowledge Areas.” Following the initial information filtering, data concerning “Expert-based Reviews and Hints” and “Case Studies” are posted to respective moderators (based on the Knowledge Area in which they specialize), that are responsible for a thorough evaluation, appropriately refining and editing the context. The administrator's duties are thus limited to receiving documented text from the moderators and posting it on the appropriate website domain. The separation of domains follows a two-level classification identical to the responsibilities of sub-moderators, after receiving users’ data from the administrator.
Exhibit 1 illustrates the organizational structure of the operational website. The blue arrows represent received data, which are distributed by the administrator to submoderators, evaluated and processed by moderator-editors and finally recovered by the administrator, ready for posting in the appropriate domains of the website.
Conclusions, Contributions and Guidelines for the Future
The present work has set the basis for an interactive, adaptive, knowledge-based, open e-learning tool, appropriate for apprentices as well as project management experts. Learners may use this tool for both training and self-assessment, even for preparation towards a PMI® accreditation. The tool was developed using mind maps and the Mindjet® Mind Manager 8 – “free trial” software as the foundation to model the PMBOK® Guide–defined Knowledge Areas and processes and was then enriched in most of its elements. The model was also exported into web pages for ease of use.
Through a continuous improvement and enrichment path, the product is gradually being transformed into a PM-Pedia. The operation of the product requires the participation of people with distinct roles and responsibilities as described herein. The product is now on a broad evaluation phase in order to shape its final form. Future actions contain the further enrichment of the model, the addition of a scoring module, and the inclusion of case studies, etc.
Screenshots of PM-Pedia mind map as developed in the conceptual environment of Mindjet® MindManager 8 – “free trial.”
Step 1: Mapping of the PMBOK® Guide processes into mind maps (Exhibit 2)
Step 2: T&T enrichment with scientific and learning material found on the Internet (Exhibit 3) and import of respective sample questions and answers at the end of each chapter.
Step 3: Conceptual process correlation through hyperlinks, and addition of relationships in interrelated activities, such as “Change Requests” (Exhibit 4).
Step 4: Export of mind map into web pages and options parametrizing through the software menu (Exhibit 5).
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Morris, R. A., & McWhorter Sember, B. (2008). Project management that works: Real-world advice on communicating, problem-solving, and everything else you need to know to get the job done. AMACOM, Books24x7. Retrieved January 23, 2010, from http://common.books24x7.com/book/id_23782/book.asp
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© 2010, Dimitrios M. Emiris, Dionisios Kontostavlakis
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy