The rise of online learners in project management
Academia is facing increasing demands in the design and delivery of their degree programmes. In this paper, we take a snap shot of project management programmes offered by European universities during the academic year of 2010–2011. The approach adopted here is a reflective one, looking at recent trends in postgraduate project management education and focusing in particular on a new mode of delivery, that of e-learning. The article highlights the dynamic character of project management theories and practices and considers whether an e-learning format is capable of responding to the requirements for quality in this field. The focus is on one particular programme: the wholly online postgraduate programme in MSc in Project Management at the University of Liverpool. The paper presents the student profile, as well as the benefits of a wholly online learning intervention, rather than the alternatives to on-campus and distance learning in accordance with demand and accreditation bodies. The conclusions indicate that new forms of teaching and learning are opening up to higher education institutions. The aim of the research was to discover the real-time dynamic of project management practice and theory and objective and subjective perspectives. This article adds to the debate on project management education and reports on a specific development of project management education from a Higher Education Institution (HEI) standpoint. This paper also highlights the development of project management learners and explores the benefits of online learning and the development of an online global classroom in terms of technology, learning experience, and management learning.
Keywords: project management education partnership; e-learning; online education
To meet the demand, management educators have launched new training programs, master's programs, and specialized courses in many universities and business schools. Today, the subject matter of project management has become an important part of the post-graduate and executive education syllabus (Price & Dolfi, 2004; Thomas & Thomas, 2008). These project management courses are not only important sources of revenues for universities and further education colleges, but also critical investments for a range of companies in a growing number of industries and sectors. Berggren and SoÅNderlund's (2008) paper highlighted that, despite this important development, some academics have argued that much more could be done to develop courses and programs on project management in order to improve the understanding and the knowledge of capability development and strategy implementation (Postrel, 2007). Although the improvement of courses on project management at a university-level and at customized company programs could significantly improve the relevance of management education and corporate practice.
In the 1980s, it was argued that managers were not using appropriate techniques (Lockyer, Oakland, & Duprey, 1981) and that “poor education and training are main characteristics of managers in British industry” (Oakland & Sohal, 1989). In the last two decades, scholars, along with practitioners, have continuously developed their philosophies in order to respond to the turbulence in the management of projects (Crawford et al., 2006). At the same time, this evolution has fundamentally altered the scholarly landscape, addressing such project management theories and practice. Therefore, what are the mechanisms of project management education today? And what improvements are necessary to further improve the quality of project managers in today's diverse disciplines? Berggren and SoÅNderlund (2008) reflected on one such initiative called, “Rethinking Project Management.” The paper focused on a number of issues and set out a new agenda for research and education within the area of project management. The findings were published in a special issue of the International Journal of Project Management and offered a variety of refreshing and important advice for research, research methodology, and teaching.
The overall conclusions centered on the rethinking of project management research, the need to illuminate the complexity and actuality of projects, and that project management scholars must allow for greater pluralism and broader conceptualizations of projects. Much of the above criticisms also hold true for management education in general. The focus of our paper, however, is on tailoring project management learning and the relationships with the professional bodies that accredit such post-graduate programmes. We address both the pedagogy focusing on the implications for education for practicing managers, although some of our ideas also have implications for the ways we are defined as educators. This paper also explores the ways in which project management is being taught across a selection of European universities and the development of one such project management post-graduate degree programme, which was examined through objective and subjective perspectives. We concentrate on the following questions: How is project management education designed to respond to the challenges of today's society and economic demands? How is the idea of the co-construction of knowledge brought into the management education of project management practitioners?
PROJECT MANAGEMENT EDUCATION
Almost every business/management and engineering school has developed at least one dedicated course to project management and many have even integrated topics into the existing core curriculum such as strategy, resource management, and procurement management. The objective of project management is to deliver complex requirements by employing methods and tools to bring about the successful delivery of an output. The popularity of project management lies in its ability to ensure ‘control’ (Bryde, 2003; Hobday, 2000), particularly work of a discontinuous nature, which is generally associated with an unpredictable level of change in the business environment (Hodgson, 2004). Over the past ten years, various standards have emerged and have helped to increase the degree of professionalism of project management. Project Management Institute (PMI) and other bodies, such as the UK's Association of Project Managers (APM), have developed their own standard and certification programs that are comprised of a professional development framework. In response to this growing demand, universities have been modifying their project management programmes in response to these professional requirements, as well as to respond to the economic and social responsibilities when managing such large-scale projects. As a result, academia has identified a shift in the paradigms in order to respond to these diversities in project management practices.
Increasingly, online environments are being used in management education, in addition to the more traditional face-to-face, physical environments (Landry, Griffeth, & Hartmann, 2006). These virtual environments are particularly useful when dealing with part-time or distance learning students or to organize group work. With this rapid growth and employment opportunities in project management learning—ranging from a few sessions in a required course to a specialised degree — the student body is growing. Project management degree programmes or specialist project management modules are attracting more part-time students who are already practitioners in the project management disciplines. These individuals have not necessarily been educated in project management disciplines but have evolved into their roles and therefore do not have the theoretical full scope understanding of project management theories and practices. Universities have also been recently criticised for offering out-of-date and poor teaching standards. Jamieson (2004) stated that the introduction of online learning environments has altered the culture of universities:
“In terms of its impact on the instructional techniques of existing academic staff, the emerging pedagogical paradigm represents an order of change not previously experienced. Whereas academics have traditionally progressed from the experience of learning in the classroom to teaching in the classroom, it is not possible to predicate the adoption of online learning environments on the academic's firsthand experience of such practices. Very few of the current generation of academics have themselves been students in formal online learning programs.” (p. 22)
As has been noted by others, such as Beetham (2005), there have been numerous investigations in the area. However, as Kirkup and Kirkwood (2005) indicated, with the campus-based contexts, teaching staff can appropriate those technologies, which can be incorporated into their teaching activity mostly easily and offer affordances for what they already do, rather than those that radically change teaching and learning practices. There is less, however, that specifically relates to project management in relation to introducing change when incorporating technology within academic renewal processes, even though project management is a substantive field of research and practice. In this paper, we describe the e-learning unit grounded in discovery-based learning theories (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000) for teaching the fundamentals of a 100% online project management course. By using web-based courses and links, the most up-to-date materials can be available to students as opposed to textbooks with materials as much as five years out of date (from the time the author writes the material to the time the texts are published). Today, students and employees want and expect up-to-date materials.
In response to the critique of the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) provision, professional bodies have sought to effectively ‘badge’ a number of programmes. This has been one response to the challenges of enhancing quality within project management programmes and has also been part of a wider encouragement of HEIs collaborating with industry practitioners, such as the PMI and APM bodies. HEIs, along with practitioners and accrediting bodies, are continuously developing philosophies and tools to overcome the risks inherent in the current changing environment (Lancioni et al., 2001). The rapid growth of training opportunities in project management, ranging from a few sessions in a required course to a specialised degree and how to teach the subject to students with different backgrounds and interests, have attracted a great deal of interest and have created notable challenges for the instructors. Universities are also facing challenges to globalise, particularly through franchising overseas (Hitt, 1997), to be increasingly competitive, and to find new ways of reaching new students, particularly through innovations such as e-learning or online learning. Tynan et al. (2010) developed a framework for successful project management education based on the following themes:
- Establishing institutional readiness
- An institutional response to staff development
- Preparing for changes in the ways learning might occur
- Developing impact evaluation indicators
- Project management
The findings highlighted that the impact on student learning or the wider institutional culture remains uncertain, and considerable effort goes into developing professional development based on policy or institutional push when it comes to introducing various information technology initiatives.
The Current Approaches to Educating Project Managers
In this section, we provide an overview of the current focus of project management programs with regard to the competencies and capabilities required by increasing complexity and uncertainty. We have systematically scanned two main sources: project management degrees offered by universities that are accredited by PMI's Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.) and the Association of Project Managers. We have looked at nine universities that offer PMI-accredited master's degrees. All the providers focus on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI) as basic training. Only two providers of all the ones we reviewed explicitly go beyond the PMBOK® Guide level in that they require certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP)® (or equivalent) as a prerequisite. In our research, we have had difficulty finding educational providers, either R.E.P.s or universities that offer wholly online teaching. Our findings are supported by recent critiques of project management education (Crawford et al., 2006) that question the capacity of current education offerings to address a more complex world. There is a debate between the kinds of topics taught and the competencies required (Crawford, 2005), and the need to focus on soft systems (Ives, 2005), rather than relying on project management tools and techniques. As a result, there appears to be a gap between what education providers are offering and what is needed to deal with projects in today's environment. From this critical perspective, the main role of project management education is to develop practitioners with the ability to synthesize and embed management theory within their own experiences and theories of practice, critically assess and reformulate theories, and apply this information indiscriminately when such circumstances present themselves. In Thomas and Mengel's 2008 paper, titled “Preparing Project Managers to Deal with Complexity: Advanced Project Management Education,” the authors highlighted that between 2004 and 2007 the number of R.E.P.s increased by 22.8% and the number of offered programs had grown 79%; however, the state of project management education as presented above has not significantly changed within this timeframe despite PMI's recognition and suggestion to R.E.P.s in September of 2005 that educational offerings for advanced project managers were lacking.
Project Management Education
Organisations are spending significant amounts annually on professional development for their employees, with a view to reaping a reward in the form of competitive advantage. According to a training survey (Roden, 1996), employers “spend over US$50 billion per year on formal employee training and education and approximately US$180 billion per year is spent on informal, on-the-job training.” Despite this investment in educational programmes in the field of project management education, it is difficult to be sure that the knowledge gained is linked to the context of professional practice that will benefit the employing organization. An important caveat is that learners who engaged in a “blended training” format (i.e., including both online and face-to-face elements) showed significantly better learning outcomes than did purely web-based learners when compared with people taught entirely face-to- face. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes was larger in those studies compared with conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face (Geiman, 2011). The finding suggested that online and blended trainings are comparable in terms of their effectiveness. Finally, the study concluded that online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media, building in learner reflection prompts, and allowing learners to spend more time in training.
Because project management is at the confluence of many other disciplines, drawing on these fields to inform its integrative philosophy, it necessarily incorporates the various concepts, theories, and methods found in each of these other disciplines, including qualitative, contextual, analytical, and quantitative approaches. Others have followed a shift in project management research emphasis to developing management models to guide project management implementation (i.e., of procurement and supply chain alliances, resource management, portfolio management, performance measurement, people management, and organisational behaviour).
This paper will also discuss how such initiatives into online learning programmes have evolved into the realms of project management. As a result of the demands for project management education and the advances in such online activities, the student profile is changing. In the design of undergraduate and post-graduate programmes in the area of project management, the author has considered the online resources and capabilities. Thus, critical reflection is a fundamental component of the management education pedagogy. Critical reflection entails (Thomas & Mengel, 2008):
- Questioning assumptions and taken for granted notions embedded in theory and practice;
- Recognizing the processes of power and ideology inherent in institutional practices, procedures, and institutions;
- Exploring the hidden agendas concealed by claims of rationality and objectivity; and,
- Working towards realizing a more just work environment (Reynolds, 1998, 1999)
E-LEARNING APPROACH AND THE ONLINE COMMUNITY
Universities throughout the world are paying increasing attention to the possibilities for online delivery of their degree-level programmes. A 2004 survey of European universities recorded that 54% of respondents expected off-campus online learning to play a major role in their institution over the next five years, an increase from 36% two years earlier (OBHE, 2004). Some research has been done in the area of online/distance learning, but none of it proposes formalized guidelines. Online study opens up opportunities for many people who for economic, physical, family, or other reasons, would find it impossible to become full-time residential students (Moisey, 2004). Universities see, in meeting these needs, an opportunity to expand and deliver their programmes to under-served populations as well as on an international scale. We will use the term e-learning to refer to this kind of off-campus study, as opposed to online learning directed at students who are residents on campus.
Online learning is usually web-based, covering many different approaches that have in common the use of information and communication technologies and it is often used to mean the use of computer and Internet-based technologies or systems in order to deliver a broad range of learning opportunities that are designed to enhance knowledge, skills, and performance and makes information or knowledge available to users or learners and disregards time restrictions or geographic proximity. These learning opportunities are available via a computer Internet connection and are accessible to more than one person at the same time. E-learning environments have been used for students studying in operations management courses with some success (Greasley, Bennett, & Greasley, 2004).
To counter the competition, academic institutions worldwide have recognised the Internet's value as an instructional tool and are developing, or have developed, online learning programmes (Allen & Seaman, 2008; Larreamendy-Joerns, & Leinhardt, 2006). Although online learning has advantages over traditional face-to-face education (Piccoli et al., 2001), concerns include time, labour intensiveness, and material resources involved in running e-learning environments. The costly high failure rate of e-learning implementations discussed by Arbaugh and Duray (2002) deserves attention from management and system designers.
Universities are establishing online degree programs or re-focusing continuing education divisions and forming partnerships with corporations. However, the problem becomes the blurring of the roles of business schools that cannot decide whether they want to be purely academic institutions or businesses. Some businesses want to systemize training functions or maximise their investment in education. Other corporations want to develop the employability of the workforce and remain competitive in the marketplace (Dillich, 2000). Business schools have been launching online degree programs and establishing education divisions; however, the resources required to manage and coordinate such programmes can be extensive. An online partnership between corporations and universities may offer the best of both worlds.
The case study involved systematically gathering enough information about social settings in an online learning environment, method of learning of an individual, and within the group. This allowed the researcher to effectively understand how it operates or functions. It is not actually a data-gathering technique, but rather a methodological approach that incorporates a number of data-gathering measures (Hamel et al., 1993). Based on Yin's (1994) definition, a case study is preferred when “how” and “why” questions are posed, when the investigator has little control over the events, and when the focus is on contemporary phenomena. The example of the University of Liverpool and Laureate Online Education project management programme will be discussed in detail, highlighting the scope and principles of this 100% online experience—the empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context (Yin, 1994).
Modes of Study: The E-Learning Environment
The online and virtual environments are particularly useful when dealing with part-time or distance learning students or to organize group work activities or assignments, and some authors have argued pertinently in the case of management, that e-learning has contributed to discovery-based learning theories (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). It is noticeable, therefore, that a 2004 survey of Commonwealth HEIs recorded that 54% of institutions expected off-campus online learning to play a major role in their institutional strategy over the next five years, an increase from 36% two years earlier (OBHE, 2004). This view has become embedded within HEIs as the current Online Learning Task Force has noted (White, Warren, Faughnan, & Manton, 2010).
The reason for this is that e-learning opens up opportunities for many people, who, for reasons that might be economic, tied to family, or simply distance, would find it impossible to become full-time residential students (Moisey, 2004). Universities see, in meeting the needs of a wider group of students, an opportunity to expand and deliver their programmes to under-served populations as well as being able to deliver on an international scale. Often web-based, e-learning covers many different approaches that have in common the use of information and communication technologies, the use of computer and Internet-based technologies or systems in the delivery of a broad range of learning opportunities designed to enhance knowledge, skills, and performance. Thus, e-learning is able to make knowledge available to users or learners and can in an asynchronous manner, disregard time restrictions or geographic proximity (Greasley, Bennett, & Greasley, 2004).
Others have noted how to counter increasing competition, and HEIs have recognised the value of e-learning as an instructional tool and are developing, or have developed, online learning programmes (Allen & Seaman, 2008; Larreamendy-Joerns, & Leinhardt, 2006). Some suggest that e-learning has advantages over traditional face-to-face education (Piccoli et al., 2001), although there are concerns that include time spent online, labour-intensive study methods, and costs incurred in running e-learning environments. We might add that the costly high failure rate of e-learning implementations discussed by Arbaugh and Duray (2002) deserve attention from educators and learning technologists. At the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, a number of postgraduate programmes have been established that are wholly online in character. One of these, the MSc in Project Management (MSc PM) is now used to demonstrate the e-learning environment in more detail.
The foundation in the online approach was presented by Gruengard, Kalman, and Leng (2000) and is now entering its tenth year. The online MSc in Operations and PM offered by the University of Liverpool is delivered as a partnership, with the University retaining full control over all academic and teaching aspects of the programme, while the commercial partner looks after issues of recruitment, marketing, and administration. The degree programme itself mirrors, as much as possible, the academic structure of established programmes and is targeted more specifically at working professionals in the operations and project management industry who already have significant practical experience and a sophisticated understanding of the field.
The distinctive feature of this 100% online programme is, of course, the module delivery mechanism. Each taught module, in general, is delivered entirely online over the Internet, over a period of eight weeks. For this purpose, the year is divided into five periods of ten weeks, allowing for two-week vacation periods between each module. If, as is expected to be the norm, a student pursues only one module at a time, this schedule would enable the full programme, including the final dissertation project, to be completed in about two years, although this can be extended to allow for longer vacation periods. Module delivery involves the use of proprietary software to support a virtual classroom (Hiltz & Wellman, 1997) for each module, within which a maximum of 21 students are guided by the module instructor.
The MSc PM programme design became targeted towards PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) framework for working professionals in the domain of project management, seeking potential students, many of whom would already have significant practical experience and sophisticated understanding of the field. The programme is delivered in partnership between the University of Liverpool and Laureate Online Education, a for-profit organisation with headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The strategic nature of the partnership is important for both organisations although most relevant here, the quality assurance and full control over all academic and teaching aspects of the programme rest with the University. The MSc PM programme received PMI R.E.P. accreditation in 2011.
The University therefore oversees all academic aspects of the course programme, to ensure that the procedures required by the UK Quality Assurance Agency are followed, ensuring in the e-learning environment, that appropriate academic standards are maintained. The distinctive feature of this 100% online programme is, of course, the module delivery mechanism. Each taught module, in general, is delivered entirely online over the Internet, over a period of eight weeks. Figure 1 presents a process map of the interaction of resources within the online classroom presenting the module's mode of delivery and rubric in terms of teaching and learning.
Figure 1: Process map for the online classroom.
The module delivery involves the use of proprietary software to support the virtual classroom with a small cohort of students, usually approximately 16 students, guided by an academic instructor. There are no set times for lectures, because the virtual classroom operates in asynchronous mode. Modules run for an eight-week period, each week equal to an e-learning seminar. If, as is expected to be the norm, a student pursues only one module at a time, this schedule would enable the full programme, including the final dissertation project, to be completed in about 2.5 years, although this can be extended to allow for longer periods and ensure progression. Typically, a seminar would incorporate a set of discussion exercises to be “posted” during the week with an expectation of student participation in further discussion, perhaps a rejoinder of other students' views, to formulate the basis of a critique of the discipline that is collectively shared and digested. The average age of students in this programme is the mid-thirties (compared, for example, with the on-campus student on the equivalent programme whose average age is the early twenties); therefore, although it is logical to expect individual experience to be brought into the seminar, it is noticeable that the pedagogy that underpins the programme insists on this being necessary. The programme currently has 1192 students enrolled, at various points in their studies, with an overall median age for the MSc in PM programme, 39.4 years, with the majority of students falling in the 31- to 40-year-old bracket. This is slightly older than the overall average age of active students, as seen in Figure 2. The MSc PM programme currently has three tracks: general project management (no specialization) and two specializations—Oil and Gas and Infrastructure. The distribution of students over these three specialisations is relatively level, although we do see a higher number of students in the general track (45% of students)
Figure 2: Programme population.
These students come from a diverse set of nations, with 70 different countries represented worldwide, as represented in Figure 3, with a growing shift towards countries in the Middle East and African nations. The materials used in the virtual classroom reflect the diverse nature of the student experience, thereby drawing on international cases for example, and also are configured with the working professional in mind.
Figure 3: Geographical distribution.
What this online, e-learning MSc PM programme represents is the demand for a particular type of student and a particular type of professional. Students find the programme rewarding for many reasons but, overall, employers find it assists their employees or potential employees. In other words, there is a market demand for the skills and knowledge that the student is engaging in. Although this might often be the reason behind the provision by HEIs for academic programmes, it is not a necessity. This programme, however, attracts an international student population that may well have experience in the field, but still requires the broader theoretical understanding of project management principles to be found in the provision from HEIs.
This section of the article has introduced into the discussion on project management education the potential of delivery in an e-learning format. The relevance of this is related to how this mode of delivery can satisfy the requirement for quality in the field. In this sense, the fact that there are different modes of study, including a wholly online provision, is one response, a provision that satisfies a clear demand from students who enter the virtual classroom with varied levels of experience and from different organisational and national cultures. We would suggest therefore that there is a scope to provide this form of project management education and there is a need to understand the pedagogy behind this.
The E-Learning Pedagogy for Project Management
The provision of a wholly online MSc PM programme challenges traditional concepts about the way project managers learn. In the traditional classroom format, students have come to expect knowledge to be transferred from books, articles, and importantly, from the academic domain into their own domain. The online MSc PM programme is different and in many ways represents the need to respond to the requirement for quality project management education in a dynamic global environment and importantly, in a way that captures current knowledge, trends, and practice in the field through the involvement of the student. A key difference, therefore with traditional on-campus delivery is the deliberate involvement of students in this way, recognising their value to the field and bringing this into the learning method. In a traditional format, this may happen, but generally such an approach will be incorporated by chance rather than by design.
In the MSc PM online classroom, the mode of communication is asynchronous, again deliberate and necessary given the requirement to enable students to fit the demands of their education into their work schedules. This is deliberate because it encourages practitioners to engage in postgraduate education in a manner they would struggle to do otherwise. The asynchronous mode also caters to an international community of academic staff and students who may be working in several different time zones. In simple terms, what we see at play is a particular type of learning that seeks to draw from student X aspects of project management that would help student Y to learn. We can explore this by reflecting on two approaches that might be captured through e-learning: constructivism and collaborative enquiry.
According to Wilson (1996), constructivism describes the view of learning in which the students construct their own unique understanding of a subject, through a process that includes social interaction, so the learner can explain his or her understanding of the topic under study, and thereby receive feedback from academics who we assume to hold the knowledge. Collaborative enquiry via Internet-mediated communication provides a framework for the mode of learning (Stacey, 1998). For example, as all coursework, discussions, and group activities are completed in an asynchronous online environment, students and academic instructors are able to collaborate over a specified period of time and, although interactions are not real time, there exists space to reflect and to contribute. This mode of teaching requires rigorous assessment criteria based on discussions that are responses to specified questions, levels of participation based on quality of contribution and not quantity of contribution (thereby requiring an academic judgment on student involvement), original assignments, and individual or collective project work. Such an assessment platform provides the foundation to the pedagogy of the programme.
This facility, the virtual classroom or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), provides chat rooms and discussion boards familiar to the online community and simple to use (Lewis & Allan, 2005; Santy & Smith, 2007). However, this is about much more than the technology and the platform from which the delivery of learning materials can take place. As theory building and interaction increase, students eventually reach a stage of knowledge construction in which they are highly productive and collaborative learning begins—the ability to share differing views, personal experiences, and abstract ideas develops. Through collaboration, socialisation, and points of conflict, students co-construct new knowledge about aspects of project management under study. Both students and the academic instructor facilitate this, the latter coaching and guiding the former as and when the need arises. We can see this in the following brief extract from a typical MSc PM classroom from the type of interaction that takes place.
Initially, within the seminar, the Discussion Question is posed by the academic:
“Assess the importance of managers, both as the drivers of change and the obstacles to change, in the implementation of lean at Pratt. Support your answer with evidence from the case study.” This provides the platform from which we expect the student to respond:
Student 1: Initial Response: “The strategic importance of management influence to the success of any Lean implementation can be deduced from all the case studies reviewed from the inception of this course. The case of Pratt (Womack & Jones, 2003, pp 153–188) is no different; instead, we are better made aware of the gravity of management influence to any successful attempt on adopting Lean as a standard for operations. Principles 9 and 10 of The Toyota Way (Liker, 2004, pp 169–184). As explained by Liker (2004) ‘the leader's real challenge is having the long-term vision of knowing what to do, the knowledge of how to do it, and the ability to develop people so they can understand and do their job excellently.' This, he claims is the foundation for true and long-term success in any organization…In conclusion, people are the bane of all organizational processes. They are required to make decisions, and run the machinery needed to make the business work. Hence, the right attitude to work predominantly determines the success of the enterprise. Managerial influence in the process of change could either make or mar the success of the improvement process. Having the right type of management to provide the needed vision and guidance and know-how from the top, whilst effectively building up employee motivation and participation is critical for the success of any improvement initiative.”
What we witness typically, are aspects of theory, for example ‘the leader's real challenge is having the long-term vision of knowing what to do...' combined with initial reflection from own experience ‘influence in the process of change could either make or mar the success of the improvement process...' and in this instance, some instance of anecdote borne perhaps out of frustration ‘people are the bane of all organizational processes.' This lays the basis for an initial response from another student in the classroom, who will have not met the original student other than in the virtual environment. As we see here:
Student 2: “Leadership has been often listed as the most important driver of change within an organization. Just as leadership has been regularly identified as the driver of an organization that changes successfully, it is also often cited as the reason for failure. One of the most important things a leader can do is to actively participate in the change, or “walk the talk.” However, a leader who thinks that merely communicating the changes without action could be setting the company up for failure. As you mentioned, active leadership has been a theme in the case studies we have looked at:
(Reference: Whelan-Berry, K.S. (2010). Linking change drivers and the organizational change process: A review and synthesis. Journal of Change Management, 10(2), 175–193)
What we have witnessed here is the reaction, not in real time, but after a period of reflection, to the initial post made by the original student. Challenging the anecdote and position of the original student, Student 2 seeks to provoke further thought: ‘leadership has been regularly identified as the driver of an organization that changes successfully…’
Further contributions will be made by other students or by the original student who responded to the question in a similar way. At some point, the role of the academic instructor becomes more specific. He or she helps the student to synthesise the various contributions that are made. This method allows for further exploration and development of the issues under consideration. Any form of leading the group to a higher understanding is appropriate here and, interestingly, this is not confined to the academic (who might perhaps sit virtually at the head of the classroom). This design means that discussion is the best opportunity or tool that the academic has in terms of assessing what is said; that is, we see the co-construction of knowledge with respect to project management, and students understand their own responsibilities for learning. Students implicitly become more demanding while at the same time offering more in terms of the ability to assist their peers, as they question their own thinking processes.
This lays the foundation for an enhancement in their own levels of skills and capability to understand. This interaction between students and their peers and between students and the academic—the process of learning—takes place in an environment of wider participation and the international mix of multiculturalism. In essence, the conditions are created through this wholly online environment to examine theory, to share experience about practice, to synthesise existing knowledge in a collaborative manner, to produce new forms of knowledge and apply this almost in real time, within the respective organisation of the student. This, we would argue, clearly meets the requirement for quality in project management education.
In this article, we have reported on our initial experiences from a wholly online MSc PM programme at the University of Liverpool. Although the programme is in its infancy to date, reactions from students and from PMI, the accreditation agency, have been very positive. Contrary to many preconceptions, online learning, in the mode we have described, is very far from being an impersonal and alienating experience. We believe that both staff and students find it to be a stimulating and challenging mode of teaching and learning that has more in common with small-group seminar-based learning than it has with conventional lecture-based teaching and, we might add, other methods of distance learning. In a programme such as this, many of the students bring to the classroom a wealth of project management experience from their earlier studies and their professional lives, often including knowledge outside the scopes of their instructors. At the simplest level, simple queries about project management are answered by other students under the guidance of the academic. Beyond this, the mediated classroom discussion provides a means in which students can share their broader knowledge with their colleagues, enriching the learning experience for everyone, with the added value of a global classroom with project management practitioners from multinational companies perhaps discussing with entrepreneurs or individuals working in family-run businesses.
The structure for the delivery of this programme in this way involves the HEI and the partner organisation, Laureate Online Education. Within this relationship, there exists an infrastructure of student support and quality monitoring that, for reasons of time and space we have not delved into in this article. Although these are essential in ensuring the quality of the programme, including the experience that any individual student will have as he or she progresses through the programmme, what we have sought to concentrate on here are the needs for quality project management education and whether the mode of delivery can satisfy, or even enhance, that quality requirement.
The requirement for quality is evident in most if not all HEIs that deliver project management education. Table 1 provided a sample of HEIs that are known in this area for providing a rigorous academic product. Their provision is an outcome of the dynamics at play in the field of project management, which has included the way in which the field has changed in recent decades and, interestingly, the proximity to practice validated through the badge of accreditation. The professionalisation of project management is recognition of how it has become integrated into the broader aspects of management and, overall, exposed to global trends in the commercial world. The quality requirement therefore has to reflect this in some way, and as we see in Table 1, the provision of core and elective teaching modules demonstrates that this is being satisfied. Equally, we would argue that the virtual classroom offers the chance for internationalisation in ways that are difficult to replicate on campus.
In this way, we are indicating that the mode of delivery is important in meeting the requirements for quality project management education. We have shown project management in an e-learning environment as one response to the global demands for project management professionals who are highly skilled and respected. Looking specifically at the University of Liverpool's MSc PM programme, we described this wholly online initiative and looked critically at the pedagogy that lays the basis for this programme. There is, we believe, the environment in which a co-construction of project management knowledge is enabled; in this way, we have considered that learners are also able to actively contribute to a wider understanding of project management theory and practice. The virtual classroom is pedagogically driven; the conditions are created to examine theory, to share knowledge about practice, to synthesise knowledge about theory and practice in a collaborative manner in an international context; and, to apply this knowledge in an organisational setting in real time. The online learning environment is providing new ways in which project management education can be delivered; however, the real message is that this environment is providing new and exciting ways in which learning is shaped and transformed.
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