Project based MSc Advanced Computing Science

I’m trying to find out if there would be any interest in a degree where you mainly ‘do the work’ and learn through discussion with fellow students and mentoring staff, who can guide you to what you need to know. There would be no exams on this degree and it would all be done via coursework as groups and individuals over a year. So read the following and put something in the comments please, or email me your comments if you prefer.

The basic idea

My idea is that the ‘clients’ would be local businesses, who might need some prototype work done to prove/disprove an idea, but also maybe a research group which works with local groups to explore issues and problems, or maybe charities too. Even more exciting would be if a student had an idea for a start up, which we could develop over the year. I know from other work done with the Aberdeen Software Factory that we can find lots of projects on which to work, so that’s not a problem. I think this idea would work, but I need to sanity check it with the public. So, I’m asking, does this sound like the sort of thing you’d be interested in?

As a student

Would an MSc where you only did group work with real clients for two terms appeal? You still do an individual project in the summer. The goal is for students to learn to successfully develop software solutions while helping to solve local and global problems so that they have a portfolio of external client examples by the end of the degree. Does this sound like it would appeal? What more would you want to know before you signed up for such a degree?

As an employer

Would you want to hire people who had a track record of workinig on four or five projects the previous year with a variety of clients be ideal? What would you want to know they’d done over the year, or just have them be able to point you to websites, or applications in which they’d made a contribution?

As a potential client

What would you want to get out of this sort of arrangement? Assume that all of the IP can be sorted, as I’m told it can be based on current types of projects underway at the university. What else would you want to know before you committed to such a collaboration?
Like I said, I think this is the way to go: learn by doing and then do it some more to develop good habits. This is also what is suggested as good practice by any number of reports on employability and learning and of course, the big universities do similar project based work too. Sheffield does its MSc work with Genesys at the MSc level, which is what inspired the Aberdeen Software Factory in the first place. We should aim to do what we can at our level and find our level and then get better.

Now that you’ve had a read email me something, or put something in the comments. Thanks.

12 thoughts on “Project based MSc Advanced Computing Science

Thomas Lancaster
March 26, 2012

A very interesting sounding idea for a course.

My initial thought is whether there’s a market? Certainly, this isn’t aimed at people wanting a more traditional MSc, or gearing them up towards a PhD. I’d imagine that a lot of the people wanting to develop a portfolio and with that programming interest would already have done this alongside their undergraduate degree.

The other matter is making sure that the right core skills are covered. This is more restrictive than just getting companies involved as they have to have regular projects in the right areas (if nothing else, to avoid the MSc becoming “samey”).

This could also end up being quite heavily a “business” style course, so the title might not be exactly right. For instance, I’ve noticed a lot of companies needing web sites now are not just so bothered about the core site, but more the additional features – e.g. the search engine optimisation and the social media integration, so this becomes almost as much a marketing exercise as a development exercise.

Learning by doing is definitely a good thing, although I’d need to be convinced about whether it will support a whole MSc. I’ll certainly be keen to be kept informed with the progress.


March 26, 2012

Great idea. Problem with this kind of project work is that various members of the group will provide various levels of effort and input. The best choice in my experience is to determine the skill set of each student-participant and then delegate project tasks accordingly. Unless there’s a strong leader – or well-organized faculty member one or two will do all the work with the others just tagging along.

Albijon Hoxhaj
March 26, 2012

Hi Bruce,

in my opinion is a good idea at MsC level where students need practical knowledge to get ready to work.

If the customers are ” real customers ” the idea is Great! I’m based on 3 year experience with Accenture and Avanade on the consulting area. Why? Because for big consulting firms the most important skills , the most appreciated, are ” Communication skills ” with the client and Business Analysis ( Functional Analysis). A real project gave to students a whole look in all the phases of the software development process and they can practice different skills based on what they’re are interested for example:
Project Managing
Functional Analysis
Business Plan- Financial area

March 26, 2012


thanks for the quick comments and generally liking the idea. That’s reassuring.


A number of students in the past have always ended up going down the developer route for future work, and this would address their needs rather well. We also have a number – maybe a quarter who go onto do PhD work, and this would work well enough for them too insofar as it shows them a different way to work with clients (‘problem holders’ as I heard someone mention them the other day).

In order to ensure we cover the key skills at a deeper level, there will need to be another readings course for discussion and thinking about the topics in more depth. We will also balance the subjects/skills required for each project over the year so that our key strengths, which were previously delivered by lectures and coursework, are still covered.


I’ve two thoughts about the group work. First, we can’t afford to have anyone taking things easy and letting the others do the work. This will need to be made clear at the start. Second, that each student will get more familiar with team work as there will be lots of this, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get a handle on.

I’m also going to go speak to other subject areas about how they manage this sort of thing. It’s not like we’re the only ones who do it. Lots of design schools seem to manage this easily enough so I’ll ask them.

Steven Knox
March 27, 2012

I’ll be in the TLC so we’ll be able to discuss it properly then but I thought I’d put in my personal two cents anyway. Personally there are two things here that would make me not consider this program.

First off group work is an instant turn off. I’m pretty sure I can say with certainty that very few home students would touch this for fear of a third year project x2. I think you will struggle to find people willing to place there MSc in the hands of others. It’s my experience that in education saying everyone has to pull there weight doesn’t really do much. In the real world they either wont get hired or they would get fired and the project would be postponed until a new team is put together or resources are pulled from another project. You can’t do that here. If I were you I would make them all personal projects with conjoint work with the teams in industry, that way it’s all you.

Secondly I like the idea of getting a nice portfolio but I would have an irrational fear if it was not guaranteed that all projects were from industry clients. I understand that this would not happen, but the fear would be that it would be to easy to stop finding industry projects and start just making up research ones. I don’t think this would happen but thats not the point, this MSc has to make me want to do it over any other MSc. Risks, even irrational ones, make it less likely for me to pick this program over another one. If all of the projects are on the spot made up research projects I’m in an even worse situation than if I did a research masters, wich is what I don’t want since I’m doing this masters.

Personally I wouldn’t consider this program as there are to meny risks in comparison to a traditional business oriented taught masters.

March 27, 2012


perfect this is what I wanted to know. I know the fear of undergraduate group projects and I want this to be as unlike that as possible and find a means that suits everyone on a group. I would not want people to think others were coasting on the degree. It works at other institutions, so we should be able to make it work here too.

As you say, in industry it works one way, and that is how we should have it working here as far as possible. Maybe we can find a way to pull people off of a team project if they are not doing their duties. That is something to consider.

I have not had a problem finding industrial projects in the past, so I don’t think it would be a problem finding more in the future either. I also am not looking for ‘pure’ research projects, but rather those who work with external clients, so again, a mixture of real world and academia to some extent. This provides an attractive aspect for staff, which is also needed.

Thanks again for your help and I’ll see that I can address your fears and make a more compelling case for you to sign up for such a programme.

March 29, 2012

Hi Bruce,
I like the idea, and I’d agree with Albijon that it would particularly suit those students who feel they need a bit of practical experience to get a job (I’m thinking of those students who perhaps got a 2:2 in the UG degree, and need a bit more to enter the career path).
Like others, there’s the worry that group work always raises; though I’d imagine if it is predominantly group based; you won’t get those students who really hate working with others.
I’d also imagine that to get through any form of validation, you’d have to have significant individual elements; especially in the write up – that ‘Masterliness’ we’re generally looking for.
While I can see Colin’s point of view for identifying strengths in students & assigning roles based on them, there’s clearly the danger that some could end up doing lots of coding; but very little project managment; or missing out on the usability design or whatever.
You’d have to find a way to play to their strengths, while increasing the skill set!

I could also see that it may be easy(ish!) to develop a part time mode to suit those already in the work place, so that they could use projects they’re working on anyway & reflect on them for the course etc.

March 29, 2012


thanks for your comments. I suspect you’re right about it being a good way for someone to build their portfolio of experience, if they didn’t get the degree they wanted. This is a sort of a compressed app development experience in a way, so would suit those students well.

We’ll also need to look to skillsbuilding for those students too as they will need help with aspect too. This will be part of the PDP aspect of the programme to ensure that all students know what they want out of the degree, and what steps they need to take to ensure that it happens as they want it to play out. Part of this will need to be a list of skills/experiences they want to have by the time it ends, which is looked at again on a number of occassions over the year to see that they’ve not missed something, or reprioritized their list too.

I’d not considered part-time, but you’re right. This could work that way too for those in a job. On the other hand, though we’d probably point those to our Software Project Management distance learning degree, which covers some of the same things you’d have from a PT version of this programme. Still, something to think about some more. Thanks again.


June 5, 2012

I am not sure this would appeal to most Vietnamese students at first as they prefer more traditional routes. However, after the course has run a couple of times and there is evidence that this type of study produces the desired results, then I could see it being attractive.

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