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Scoping Experiential Learning Projects: Aligning Course Learning Objectives with Company Goals so Everyone Wins

Jordan Levy

At the start of most college classes, faculty members provide students with a syllabus that outlines the goals and schedule for the course, including an overview of key assignments, deliverables, exams, grading procedures, and behavioral expectations. These are typically simple when the curriculum is content-based (i.e., there’s a textbook to follow).

But, what happens when the curriculum is project-based and there are external stakeholders involved in the education process?

When it comes to planning an experiential learning engagement, it’s certainly worth rethinking what needs to be included in a traditional syllabus to properly prepare all stakeholders for the experience. An integral part of the course planning process requires faculty members and the host company representatives to clearly define and align course teaching goals with company objectives through a Project Charter.

Our team considers the collaborative design process of our Project Charters to be a crucial part of our value proposition as we prepare stakeholders to launch and execute project-based learning experiences.

Through CapSource’s instructional design tools and services, universities and host companies can easily come together and focus on clearly defining engagement expectations at the outset, thereby making it easier to manage projects, grade student outcomes, and foster the most meaningful collaboration with industry partners.

Here’s a quick look at how we develop project scopes and align course learning objectives with company goals so experiential learning collaborations can provide the most benefit to the schools, companies, and students involved in the process…

What’s the point of a Project Charter?

Designing a Project Charter requires understanding student capabilities, course learning objectives, and key company challenges. For example, a marketing course that uses an experiential learning engagement might coordinate a project with a startup that needs the students to develop a marketing campaign or a social media strategy, while a senior capstone seminar might want to work with larger, more established companies willing to incorporate elements from many different areas of the business that the students were exposed to throughout their program. These academic requirements (or, what we call Collaboration Requests) provided by faculty are a crucial part of the engagement design process. At the very minimum, these outline the types of organizations that are welcome to apply, the format of the engagement, the timeline, and other factors like key contacts and program details.

Once the goals are clearly outlined through the Request, companies are able to understand and express interest in collaborating with that program. To complement the faculty member’s contributions, the company initially provides an overview of their business and the challenge they want the students to solve. As a facilitator, CapSource uses our framework, templates, and expert instructional designers to convert proposed projects into a formal, detailed curriculum by finding a middle ground between academic and professional objectives. Our hope is to ensure that engagement goals are attainable and that all parties can see clear value in their partnership. The key is to outline the marriage between these diverse and often conflicting interests in writing–which is exactly the point of a Project Charter.

Project Charters are similar to Consulting Project Scopes, but they’re built to be a learning experience. That’s one of the key reasons CapSource combines the consulting framework with Case Teaching Theory. Traditional Project Scopes typically outline a work plan that’s agreed upon between a “customer” and “provider.” In this case, the students (along with their faculty) are “providers” and companies are the “customers.” Since the students can’t really be involved in the scoping or engagement planning process, they really can’t agree to a typical Project Scope and work plan. In fact, they often don’t have the experience to understand the challenges at hand and the knowledge needed to resolve them, which is why they’re going through this learning experience in the first place!

CapSource Project Charters provide faculty and company representatives with a series of questions and overarching milestones they can use to guide students through a project, leading to a meaningful learning experience and useful deliverables. The key priority for the first few milestones should always be to help students gain situational awareness before diving deeper into more complex parts of the engagement. We often encourage students to start off by learning about their Host Company’s industry, products, business model, and/or competitive landscape in order to establish a sound grasp before trying to add value by solving the key case challenges later on in the engagement. Once the students have built a solid foundation, they can develop and execute on a work plan based on the clearly defined business challenges and constraints included in the Project Charter.

Why can’t students develop a Project Charter themselves?

In most experiential learning engagements, teams of students are presented with a host company’s specific business challenge and tasked with using their knowledge and personal experiences to create a plan to solve that challenge. A well-designed Project Charter doesn’t eliminate the need for students to collaborate, plan, and get creative, it should ideally just help guide their thinking so they’re able to focus on critical engagement goals and how those relate to their course topics and learning objectives.

Without aligning course teaching goals with company goals, it’s very challenging for engagements to run smoothly. Companies need to understand what to expect from the collaboration, who needs to be involved, how much time they’re required to commit, and what resources are required to be successful. If students are tasked with creating their own Project Charter, the planning phase is pushed into the project process itself, leaving very little time for students to deliver meaningful outcomes to their host companies. In fact, without pre-planning engagements, companies and students are often never able to align on their project plan, leaving all parties feeling misled, frustrated, and disengaged.

Most students have never worked on a real project or been through an experiential learning engagement like this before, so designing one is theoretically way outside of their skill set. They don’t know what to look for, what’s feasible for them to accomplish in a given time period, or even what resources they have at their disposal. That’s why designing and aligning on engagement goals at least at a high level before on-boarding students is a crucial part of the design process.

Note: If your preference is to teach students the critical process of diagnosing issues (like a consultant would) before trying to resolve those challenges, then that should actually be the process detailed in the Project Charter. In these cases, it’s critical to build out milestones helping students use methods to identify challenges within a host company based on certain criteria and constraints. Even more important is getting the company to agree to that plan so that they know to expect that the students will be coming up with their own business challenges and a roadmap to resolve those challenges accordingly (if that’s also part of the plan).

What makes for a solid Project Charter?

Most faculty members have used syllabi before and are accustomed to outlining objectives, resources, and project milestones at the beginning of a course. However, most host companies have never done an experiential learning engagement or worked with students before. In addition to outlining the project challenge for students, host companies need to understand what company resources are required such as access to key people or information. An essential part of preparing companies for experiential learning engagements is developing a thorough Project Charter to ensure they understand what to expect.

Similar to how a syllabus outlines course objectives, materials, and required time commitment, a Project Charter is a course outline that provides essential structure to companies, faculty members, and students involved in the experiential education process.

The key items included in our Project Charter for example are:

  • Course Overview & Supervising Faculty
  • Collaboration Timeline & Next Steps for Companies
  • Company Overview & Key Company Champions
  • Project Process & Milestones (Including Engagement Goals & Deliverables)
  • Student Learning Objectives & Required Prerequisites

Most importantly, a Project Charter helps to define what companies and students want to get out of the experience, ultimately resulting in higher levels of engagement and more useful outcomes. CapSource plays a key role in refining Project Charters and aligning interests before handing off the engagement to educators and their students to manage moving forward.

How can CapSource help with the process?

Not only do we match companies with schools based on narrow academic requirements, we fully design engagements with clearly defined goals and objectives through the creation of a Project Charter. CapSource’s team of instructional designers are available to support educators every step of the way, from establishing core requirements, to on-boarding companies, and finalizing Project Charters so that they properly align learning objectives with company goals so that everyone wins.

Our flexible instructional design team offers diverse expertise that can help design projects across any discipline or industry. For example, during the Fall 2019 semester we designed a Live Business Case, partnering introductory business students at Northern Illinois University with a Burger King Franchisee to help them analyze their data, expand the business, create more efficiency, optimize employee performance, and gain financial clarity. With the Live Business Case encompassing multiple smaller projects touching on many different functional areas within the business, Northern Illinois University recognized the value of drawing upon CapSource’s framework and our instructional design team and process to maximize the chance of student success through their partnership.

Our instructional design framework is built into our CONNECT software tool, which helps educators connect and design project-based learning engagements with interested host companies. We offer CONNECT through our website for free if educators wish to source their own companies and design their own projects. Alternatively, we offer Company Sourcing (and Instructional Design) as a service since we know how burdensome it can be to identify organizations willing to be part of the education process and convert that interest into a meaningful learning experience for students and valuable outcomes for Hosts.

We figure it’s worth noting that CapSource CONNECT can be configured, customized, and implemented as a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform for schools looking to custom brand, scale, and manage their experiential learning process and ecosystem themselves. Check out how SUNY Potsdam is using CapSource CONNECT to build more profound experiential learning relationships with their alumni and local employers. By customizing their templates and engagement formats, they’re able to combine our framework and tool with their unique program goals to drastically scale and improve the experiential learning opportunities available for their students.

 

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Interested in seeing more sample Project Charters we’ve designed for our 40+ school partners?

⇒ Check out the different Engagement Formats we offer with corresponding samples.