In March 2014 I ran a workshop on developing student-run software houses for the HEA at London Metropolitan University in London. The day was broken into two halves with the morning devoted to short case studies with plenty of time for questions, and an afternoon of hands-on workshop starting with Strategic Play session using Lego Serious Play to let people think about their own situation followed by a wider focused World Cafe style approach to our main questions. This worked well for our twenty-five or so participants.
The seven short case studies meant we had at least one look at each of the four ‘live client interaction models’ I’ve identified at different universities. The ones in bold presented for us.
- Model one focuses on the degree with a core live client module for all students (Durham, Lancaster, Sheffield Hallam and Aston)
- Model two starts small when someone offers services to community supplied by students across discipline or university (Aberdeen, Greenwich, Worcester, Plymouth and Chester)
- Model three is an umbrella where a commercial and entrepreneurial unit organises activities (Edge Hill, Hull, and Napier)
- Model four is a commercial unit where a manager liaises with live clients and organises students as staff, or as freelance developers (London Met, Southampton Solent, Kent and Sheffield)
The afternoon sessions started with the warm up using StrategicPlay approaches using Lego Serious Play with each participant reflecting on their own situation by building models to share with others at their table reflecting these questions:
- what is your biggest challenge to the next step of starting, or developing further, a student-run software house
- add how will you have overcome this challenge in the next six months?
The goal was to have people reflect on their situation and take in what they’d learned from the morning case studies and general discussion over lunch. The next step was to widen out the discussion using a World Cafe approach that addressed these four questions:
- What might the ‘next level’ look like at your institutions?
- What don’t you know that you wished you did know?
- What is holding you back?
- Where do we want to go?
We gathered the results on sticky notes on flip charts which have now been collated here.
What might the next level look like for our institution?
Sticky notes say:
HR/finance/IT/legal departments informed and engaged
IP and contracts
senior management support
investent in future
long-term planning, sustainability
visibility internally and externally
more staff involved
greater engagement of staff
incentives for staff to engage
train students to do some work for staff autonomy
enhance first year lead in
opportunities to engage at every level capture results
opportunities both inside and outside curriculum
separate or linked?
curriculum keeping pace with industry
guessing the next gen.
maintenance/support ‘surviving the summer’
working around inertia
How might we achieve this?
Sticky notes say:
motivate by linking to drivers – employability, income, student satisfaction
reward staff appropriately
enthusiastic staff members setup team – perhaps as their own loss of time initially
less talk, more action
academics working in collaboration with software specialists
find large org’s in local area that would support idea and business costs
get external partners
focus on lean and agile – reduces risk
research orientated software solutions
make initiatives self-financing
institutional mandate to support this including legal, finance, etc
departments recognise value of this and willingly invest money
skip the university – set it up externally!
seek approval/support from relevant departments. exchange knowledge with similar schemes
students develop own ideas initially!
What’s holding us back?
Sticky notes say:
support from university service teams, e.g finance, legal, etc
buy-in by key people
lack of sustained support from senior decision makers
sustainable future and proof planning
visibility for the university’s programmes
increased pressure on staff time. Limited staff resources
incentive misalignment (workload reluctance)
the contractual process ->timeliness
space: labs, group working areas
structure for this new initiative
industrial involvement (of the right type!)
good infrastructure needed
(small?) numbers (of students), lack of vitality, feedback (about how we are doing), atmosphere
managing TA support
can we deliver what client’s want? within budget, timeline, etc?
module descriptor and latency issues
getting the right type of students and staff on board
varying skill base of students
how to get the first project out?
visibility for students (student motivation)
management: unreasonable expectations and promises
What don’t we know that we wish we knew?
Sticky notes say:
how to engage less-able students safely in outreach-like activity
how do we group students?
engaging with mid-range students
is here an unaddressed market for ‘safe’ student activity? (i.e. not addressed by existing business)
how to identify bad projects (and clients)
how to identify good projects
how to combine live projects with rigorous assessment efficiently
use cv* to filter the type of students and not necessary be a cv
students do not get paid in many successful cases
how much trouble will I get into if i short-circuit university procedures?
things that active software developers know
future skills to demand
what barriers to entry prevent students joining software development teams
better lead and networking
costing and planning
a fair commercial contracts that is business, not ‘academic’
when IP is given away. Should source code be accessible by client, or just the final product?
Where do we wish to go?
Sticky notes say:
Happy students (NSS)
flexible and adaptable students
develop confidence in students by giving them positive opportunities
generating good quality professional [students?]
generating successful students
good score DCHE (festinate of leavers in higher education)
enable students to develop skills that industry want
maintain links with former students
catching the next wave (wearables)
happy, satisfied customers
maintain connections with industry (be in their little black book)
will develop good reputation with industry
a successful cooperation with industry
assist local companies
able to adapt quickly to changes (in IT industry, HE, accreditation, etc)
grow talent pool in the UK
cross department links
ease of implementation of programmes
ease of assessment
improve overall reputation
feedback in connection with modules and programmes
manage numbers realistically
depends upon obstacles in your way?
Pulling some of the thoughts together across these boards we see recurring themes:
- Support from higher levels of the university, and coordination with other important departments like finance, legal and human resources as well as IT. In order to make this work smoothly each of these aspects needs to be addressed.
- Support and recognition for the time and effort in managing these projects with students, and possibly some sort of incentive beyond this to encourage more staff to participate in these programmes too.
- The difficulty in finding good students to participate, and levelling up those who are willing but lacking some skills to work on these types of projects.
So there is still more work to be done here, but we’ve made a start. There is also intention from the workshop participants to move ahead with this work. To start with the JISC mail list STUDENT-LIVE-CLIENT-WORK has now been created for those interested in talking about this more and keeping in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.