by Thomas DeVere Wolsey
Digital Project Management Tools bring College and Career Skills Right into the Classroom
This weekend, one of my projects is to renovate the garden and put in spring vegetables. It’s up to me and my favorite nursery. All I have to do is motor on down to the garden center, buy what I need, and plant the seeds and seedlings. Other projects take a bit more planning, and digital tools can be a big help. Students often have a great number of projects in progress, and many of those involve collaborative work. Students work with students, with their parents, and sometimes members of the community. Teachers orchestrate much of the project management aspects, quite often. But, what if students could take on some of the College and Career Readiness Standards and learn how to manage their own projects?
Here are some of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards that require collaboration.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
The Common Core State Standards in English-language arts/literacy emphasize the need, for the first time, for students to work together in a variety of settings and contexts and to use their literacy skills to get the job done. Assigning, selecting, or choosing a project is the first step. Managing the project so that work that is planned is actually carried out is where technology comes into play. Class projects last from a day to several weeks, and they range from preparing presentations to the class, making a digital demonstration of knowledge, or engaging in various service-oriented activities.
A project management tool that has been around for more than a century is named after the man who created it, Henry Gantt (cf. Clark, 1923). The Gantt chart has been used in the military, in manufacturing industries, live sports events (think Final Four) and in long range planning just about everywhere—including schools. Gantt charts are useful because they graphically show, “Work planned and work done are shown in the same space in relation to each other and in their relation to time” (p. v). Their visual nature encourages student project participants to develop a plan, stick to it, and note their progress over time. Digital tools improve Gantt charts by automating some tasks, making them easily available to project participants at any time, and being infinitely expandable. The use of color further improves the appeal and utility of the organizer.
Gantt project management organizers can be created with sticky notes on a white board or wall (Click here to see one example), on butcher paper, or with an 11 X 17 piece of construction paper. However, technology can greatly simplify the task. Typically, they show the tasks to be accomplished, who is responsible for each task, and a timeline showing planned and completed tasks. Excel® spreadsheets offer one digital solution to the Gantt chart that makes updating simple, and you’ll see that data entered in one part of the chart is translated visually. Gantt charts can easily be created in a shared spreadsheet file such as those found in Google Docs, or with online apps specifically designed for this purpose (see figure 1), such as Smartsheet.
Online apps, such as Smartsheet, make it easy to share the chart on a class webpage, blog, or course management system. Parents can see it, students can edit and change it, and everyone will know who has to do what in order to get the job done and done well. Read more about project management tools for the classroom in this interview with Jodi Sorensen of Smartsheet. The company provides a free student project sheet for teachers to get started–log in and play around; it’s fun. There’s also a free teacher syllabus sheet. All those binders of curricular materials may be a thing of the past. One feature of Smartsheet I liked is the capability of linking other files (pictures, documents, and so on) right to the project organizer. See how this is done in this video on YouTube starting at time 0.36.
If you choose to use Excel or other spreadsheet software, you might find that templates for Gantt project management organizers are helpful because the setup is already done. In figure 2 you can see a basic template from Microsoft downloads, found here. Figure 3 shows a modified Gantt Project Management Organizer using Excel for use in upper-elementary and secondary grade classrooms, and you may download this template if you want to try it out.
Both of these organizers allow students to quickly enter data about what they plan to do, how much they have accomplished, and how they are proceeding. The neat thing is that Excel and other spreadsheets or software automatically create the timeline showing what is planned, and what is actually accomplished. These examples show a start date for the first of the month, but teachers can create their own templates just by deleting columns for dates that don’t match the timelines for completion.
Choose the digital tool you plan to use (e.g., Smartsheet, Excel). Next, train a few students, perhaps one from each project group or team, to be the expert on using the project management technology. The teacher should not be the only resource for using the tool.
Help students define the major parts of the task. In the example in figures 1 and 3- above, the teacher defined large categories as
1. Planning, Reading and research,, making it happen, etc.
2. Research, interviewing, and so on.
At first, students will need help breaking down the specific tasks for each category. A model the teacher creates or from past student project will be helpful in guiding students to decide just what the specific tasks might be.
Start the project!
In schools and at the university, we often engage students in projects of all kinds. However, students need to know more than what the project is and what its goals or objectives are. They also need the 21st century skills to manage large projects that will help them succeed in their schooling and in their careers. Have you tried using digital project management tools, or even a traditional paper-based Gantt chart? If so, tell us about it by posting a comment.
Clark, W. (1922) The Gantt chart: A working tool of management. New York, NY: Ronald Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/ganttchartworkin00claruoft
Read more on this topic at the International Reading Association website. (added 3-29-2014)