Thursday, November 7, 2013

Interdisciplinary Project "Post-mortem"

            By trade, I'm a 9th grade English teacher. You may or may not know that education is an ever-changing process with an ebb and flow of  "best practices" and new ideas that people, especially administration, are eager to implement. One year our principal was really stressing the importance of interdisciplinary projects, so the 9th grade computer teacher approached me to ask if I would like to work with her. "Sure!" I enthusiastically replied, imagining the cool projects that could be completed in English and Computer class. We made a plan to meet and discuss the project later so I was left racking my brain for things that my students could still complete before the grading period ended.
            The next day we met to discuss our interdisciplinary project; however, I soon learned how rigid the Computer teacher was with her curriculum. "We're studying databases this semester, "she informed me matter-of-factly. "What can you do with databases?"
            "Oh," I said, caught off guard at how little wiggle room there seemed to be. And that was how the project happened−I had to make concessions to fit into her curriculum so we ended up planning to have the students do a database of prefixes, word roots, and suffixes that included their origin and the meaning (i.e. etymology). It was a topic that sort of fit into my curriculum and something I thought could be nice to have in a database form.
            Even though I thought I had made an acceptable compromise, the Computer teacher was concerned about copying and cheating; however, etymology was one of the few things I could think of to do with databases, a concept I didn't even really understand! The Computer teacher did try to explain the program to me, but all I could imagine was an Excel spreadsheet but that wasn't quite right. Nevertheless, we trudged ahead with the project, wanting to fulfill the desires of our principal and hoping it would be a beneficial project for the students.
            After storyboarding the rough idea, we both went to our separate classes and planned how we would conduct our classes and what parts of the project our students would do in our classes. I suppose it was a functionally organized project since we created "separate units addressing the same specialty" (Portny et al., 2008, p. 63). So we did understand our own parts, but I know I did NOT understand the Computer class part of the project! And to be honest, I didn't have the time to do so either because it was my first year at the school so I was planning a new curriculum and having to document it all. It was quite the process and even though Murphy (1994) wrote, ""Proper instructional design, on average, requires between forty and sixty hours of design work for every hour of classroom presentation time" (p. 9), getting that much time is impossible for a teacher. Nonetheless, we did try to remain in constant communication. Although, I believe one of the pitfalls of the project was that we had "different work procedures and reporting systems... to guide [the project]" (Portny et al., 2008, p. 64). We knew what we were looking for in our own specialty area and we weren't clear about what that was and then the communication began to fall apart as students tried to pit us against each other saying that one teacher said this (which was against our original agreement) or by lying about changed due dates. (Though with some e-mails and visits, we were able to nip those rumors in the bud.)
            Nevertheless, I know I was very frustrated with the lack of clarity of the project. At this point in my career, I hadn't even heard of project management so we hadn't established a clear plan. In fact, the plan we had wasn't exactly agreeable for either party either. I think we handled the planning phase of the project too informally because we didn't feel like we had time for much more than a verbal agreement and (very) rough storyboard (Portny et al., 2008, p. 77). It would have been better if I had gotten a better understanding of databases by making one with the Computer teacher. She could have taught me how to make it and what it did by leading me through the process instead of trying to verbally explain it. I think a visual aid would have helped tremendously but we were both feeling pressed for time, so that was never proposed.
            However, as I continue to think about the project, the Achilles' heel of the project was the fact that I didn't understand databases. Without that knowledge, proper planning was impossible and without an appropriate plan, the project falls apart quickly. I was making deliverables and assessments based off of my understanding and perceptions and I think that's when students got frustrated and began to feel like the project didn't really matter and to be honest, maybe it didn't. I never actually got to see the databases because I didn't have the right program on my classroom computer. Clearly, we did not spend enough time planning because I did not understand databases nor did I have the appropriate program to even begin understanding them. Portny et al. (2008) wrote, "Project managers can increase a project's chance for success by planning and guiding based on understanding specific project life cycle phases" (p. 108). That is something the Computer teacher and I did not do, so I believe our project was doomed from the beginning. Lesson learned: Take the extra time that is needed to write the plan as a Statement of Work with a Work Breakdown Document if multiple parties are involved. It will save all stakeholders many future headaches.

Allen, S., & Hardin, P. C. (2008). Developing instructional technology products using effective project management practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72–97.
Copyright by Springer-Verlag, New York. Used by permission via the Copyright Clearance Center.
Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.
Murphy, C. (1994). Utilizing project management techniques in the design of instructional materials. Performance & Instruction, 33(3), 9–11.
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  1. Geez, Lesley...this was a difficult project. Your description had me trying to understand what seemed to be un-understandable. So much analysis needed to be done prior to kicking off a project like this to be certain the project could be done and whether the project should even have been done! (Portney et al., 2008) It seemed the stakeholders were really just the principal in demanding this project take place. Did the students get much out of the project? I feel your pain on this one...and, equally felt your need for the information we have received in our resources to tackle projects in the future with knowledge and confidence. It is so hard to move forward when you are not certain what the plan is. But, sounds like you gave it your best effort.
    Hey! I love the blog...the bookshelves are so you, in an English Major kinda way. Have enjoyed the information you share with the class. Good luck in future project planning!

    1. Hi, Sky (right?)! Honestly, I don't think the students got much out of it. It turned out to be such a nightmare that I kind of stopped caring... I could tell what they were learning was minimal and if it was just my class, I would have revamped the activity; however, since I was working with someone else, I merely kept pushing through it. It was awful! But I put on a smile and tried my best to keep the kiddos motivated. At least my principal was happy about our collaboration, even though it was definitely not successful! Nonetheless, I learned a lot and will think twice before working with someone who is so rigid about her curriculum!

  2. Lesley,

    Your experience and project description was like apples and oranges, (English / Computers). Sorry for this analogy, however, I could not help but conjure up images of a Charlie Brown reference, where he is sitting in a classroom listening to the wonky voice of the teacher that we never saw!

    Although you tried to keep the communication open, it must have been hard to mesh these two areas of study together. I agree with your suggestion of the computer teacher providing a brief overview of databases through visual aids. Although you were pressed for time, had you obtained the basic knowledge of databases, you would have added value to the project in the long run.

    Robin Bock

    1. Thanks, Robin. I really thought Computers and English could work, but that was before I learned that I only had one option: databases. That's when I should have run the other way. Haha! But you're right: If I had known more about databases, I think it could have been more successful. As it is, though, I didn't really even understand the final product. Yikes! At least the principal was happy. Ha!

  3. Lesley,
    Great example! I feel as though as Instructional Designers and Project Managers, there may be times where we do not fully understand the content, but, working with a SME makes the process easier. The SME and the Project Manager must make time to complete the necessary steps, such as the ones you suggested. I think your project could have been a success even if you weren't well versed in databases, if you had time to plan! If you were to do this again, would you come to the initial meeting with some ideas of your own?

  4. Lesley,

    My background is computers ... programming & web designing, so I guess you can say I am very computer literate. To have the computer teacher not show you what or how to use a database or even have a database program was not very professional on her part. She should have had a little lesson or demonstration available & prepared to show you. If the computer teacher had the proper tools & you had some training, all would have worked out. You cannot just throw two people together from 2 different subjects & expect to create something good without the tools & knowledge. Sorry to hear this was a disaster.


  5. Hi Lesley,

    I see where the project failed. As I read in your blog " the Achilles' heel of the project was the fact that I didn't understand databases". What have you done as the PM to prevent this from happening? Had you known that this training was going to be so data intensive, would you have participated? Thank you for your posting.