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March 21, 2015

Injecting Agile into Group Projects (part 4)

"Kanban Yoda", by G.Dugas, is a derivative of "Do or do not... there is no try" by Christopher Michel, both licensed under CC BY.

“Kanban Yoda”, by G.Dugas, is a derivative of “Do or do not… there is no try” by Christopher Michel. Both works licensed under CC BY.

The Kanban board can be a terrific Agile tool for managing group tasks. Unfortunately, many student projects are ill suited to group work. Sometimes they cannot be easily broken down into discrete tasks or, when they are, take more effort to complete than if done by a single person. Or dependencies are so strong that one task can hold up everything else until it has been completed, causing backlogs. In such cases, even a Kanban board can’t help.

I believe that an assignment must include a balance of the following key elements to be considered a legitimate group project:

  • Clarity and ambiguity: a clearly articulated problem or deliverable (what to deliver) that allows for multiple solutions and an open-ended number steps (the path to delivery).
  • Significance and application: tasks that have relevance for the students and that have practical application
  • Independence and interdependence: discrete tasks that can be completed independently by any group member, but that also cannot be omitted for project success
  • Facility and difficulty: a mix of easy to complete (low hanging fruit) and demanding (requiring significant effort) tasks

Let’s consider the assignment originally intended for this week from my Intro to Canadian Business syllabus.

The Assignment

GOAL

To encourage group members to think about the budgeting process and the types of decisions needed when budget cuts are necessary.

SITUATION

Many people live beyond their means.  Then, when financial catastrophe hits unexpectedly, those people often lose whatever financial security they have.  Preparing and maintaining a budget is an important habit and a critical tool for planning ahead.

Part 1: Each group represents a household with a monthly net income of $2900.  Rent costs $650 per month, car payment is $400 per month, and insurance is $80 per month.  Each group, or household, should assume that one member works 30 kilometres away and the car goes 30 kilometres for each litre of gas used.  Student loan payments equal $240 per month, and utilities total about $270 per month, depending on the season.  Each group must prepare a budget to include the above expenses as well as additional expenses for groceries, clothing, entertainment, and miscellaneous items.

Part 2: As the result of an economic downturn, monthly net incomes will be reduced by 20 percent.

PRODUCT

Completion of a budget, revised budget, and summary paragraph to support the decisions made on the revised budget following the economic downturn.

Screen shot of originla Budgeting assignment tables

Original assignment’s Budgeting tables (to be filled in and submitted by each team)

Deconstruction

Now let’s see how the assignment stacks up against the group project viability criteria I listed at the top of this post. I think it will become evident why this project may in fact frustrate any kind of authentic group work.

Clarity and ambiguity

The only articulated tasks are:

  • Prepare a budget (fill in expenses, calculate net income over expenses)
  • Revise the budget (reduce income by 20%, recalculate)
  • Write a paragraph supporting the group’s decisions.

Seems clear enough, but what is there really to decide? Other than popping a few made up numbers into a table, doing some basic arithmetic, and perhaps explaining in a sentence or two why they chose the numbers they did, there is little for the group to discuss. In fact, if expenses do not exceed income (as is the case with the numbers provided), then there’s no need to even revise the budget. Do we expect students to write, “We decided to not revise the budget because it was just fine”, in their supporting paragraph?

And since this is an assignment worth marks, how will student submissions be assessed? In Agile terms, what are the acceptance criteria laying out what constitutes a “done” assignment? How will we know if students have attained the stated goal? Unclear. One way to remove that ambiguity is to provide a marking rubric. We’ll discuss rubrics in a future post.

Significance and application

Let’s revisit the goal of this exercise: “To encourage group members to think about the budgeting process and the types of decisions needed when budget cuts are necessary”. Is the assignment an expression of that goal? Though the value of budgets should both resonate with students and have broad application in their daily lives, will this assignment grab their attention? For one thing, demonstrating that at least one member of the group can can add, subtract, and calculate 20% doesn’t lead to much deep thought or discussion of budget processes, nor is there much to decide when the budget cut is so small that income still exceeds expenditures. For another, what is there in this exercise that students can apply to their own realities?

And should a group project not also incorporate some kind of “team building” learning outcome? Knowing how to budget is a valuable asset, but so is the ability to effectively function within a team. How students can acquire and demonstrate the latter should be of prime importance and be embedded into any project. Such skills have broad application well beyond their current business program.
Assignment Kanban board

Independence and interdependence

The bulk of this assignment’s tasks can only be done in sequence. And the tasks are so simple that any one member could easily complete them all in a single work period. So where’s the need for a group? Yes, some steps may lend themselves to cursory discussion (So, what do you say to $100 for entertainment?)  But any member could easily complete this assignment with ten to fifteen minutes of effort and no more team discussion than, “Are you all OK with these numbers?” If anything, this assignment encourages independence over interdependence.

Even if the group had laid out the obvious tasks on a Kanban board (right), there are no more than nine tasks (for five people), and the only ones that might realistically be done independently are the calculations and the assignment submission itself. What’s the point?

Facility and difficulty

As demonstrated above, this assignment scores big on the facility scale. It lacks any kind of difficulty. A project should have enough challenging tasks to make it difficult for even the most committed member to tackle them all, encouraging a division of labour.

Conclusion

Exposing students to budgeting is a good idea. But doing it in this manner is not likely to encourage much group discussion group of budget processes or to foster much collaboration. Fortunately, a few adjustments to the assignment can go a long way to realizing both of those positive outcomes.

My next post will detail how I modified this assignment to better meet my criteria for truly “group” projects.

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