Courses and Lessons Are Like Projects.

There's no doubt: one the one hand, teaching and learning are complex phenomenon. And we tend to think them as governed by occult rules and principles which experts study: cognitive psychology, instructional design, etc.

Here "learning" is the object of various disciplines: it's a concept; something abstract which lies behind behaviors we can see.

At the same time, teaching and learning are also: concrete things that happen in specific places and times which we hope to observe or at least to measure. From this angle, teaching and learning are not disciplinary objects: teaching and learning are practical activities: things we (purposefully) do.

  • Students and teachers need to show up in the same place.
  • They all need to know where to buy the textbook.
  • Students need to know if papers will be typed, submitted electronically or written with crayon.
  • Professors need enough hours in the day to grade the students' work.
  • Etc.

The first angle is theoretical: it's part of an intellectual activity of making and testing hypotheses and theories with an eye towards on prediction and control, understanding and explanation. Theoretical matters are very interesting to scholars and intellectuals.

By contrast, practical matters can seem trivial to intellectuals––at least when they're not internal to the discipline: "How can I design an experiment which will determine if there is a correlation between cognitive motivation and who shows up to instructor office hours? And who's going to fund such a study?"

Practical matters have elements like: partners, goals, resources, limitations, materials, people, skills, deadlines.

  • As a young man, I was already a pretty good cook. But it took me years to be able to get all the food done and on the table at the same time.
  • I had most of the skills, but I couldn't turn the resources into a finished product all having a single deadline.

A number of methods for arranging practical matters are bundled into the techniques of project management.

As practical matters, teaching and learning bear strong similarities to project management. The following is a list of standard definitions of a project. But notice how they could also apply to a course or a lessons.

  • It's limited in time: it has a beginning and an ending.
  • It requires planning, monitoring and control--adjustments as you go.
  • It has a goal: something that needs to be accomplished.
  • It has a definite size and shape: it isn't doing everything; the scope is limited.
  • It must meet definite standards: not just any results will do.
  • Resources are required.
  • There are not only resources that are available, there are limitations: resources that are not available or whose quanitity is limited.
  • It must be accomplished using specific skills, and the skills must be matched to the desired results.
  • There are risks and benefits: things can go wrong, and specific good things may emerge and are likely desired.

Not every course or lesson is like a project; but many need at least some of these kinds of features. Lacking these, a project is not do-able, and a course or lesson is not 'learnable.' We're not even talking about cognition or motivation: it's just not practically possible for the participants to work together effectively if these things remain unknown.

Hence clever teachers and learners ask themselves and each other certain questions.

Questions Teachers & Learners Can Ask Themselves--About Courses and Lessons

  • When does it begin and end?
  • What has been planned? What kinds of things should I be watching out for? What kinds of adjustments might we need to make as we go?
  • What's the goal? What will be made or accomplished by the end?
  • How big is this? How much time will it take? What is too much work and what too little?
  • What standards must be met? What does an acceptable result look like--also a moderately good, superior and exceptional result?
  • What kind of stuff do I need to finish this? Paper and pencils? A computer? A textbook? Library access?
  • Is there something we must not do? Use a calculator? Use Wikipedia? Perhaps I'm doing some research, and I need to consult at least four resources but not more than twelve.
  • What kinds of skills do I need? How can I determine if we have the skills needed to succeed?
  • What bad can happen? Can I be harmed by this process? The answer here should be 'no' under almost all circumstances. And what is the tangible benefit? How will we all be better of once the course or lesson is done? How will I personally be better off? And how might the world even be a better place?

When we hear these questions, some of them are familiar. They sound like "learning objectives." Others are completely practical: "Do I need a pencil? Should it be gray? Or may I use magenta?"

As a codification of ways of planning, initiating, monitoring and controlling processes, project management probably resembles metacognition: project management is an instance of the brain's executive functions--but formalized. So "practical" matters in fact engage what are likely to be the same aspects of thinking which do other kinds of planning and control. We may want to teach something abstract like "metacognition"; but to teach anything whatever requires answering these practical questions. So if you want to improve students' metacognition, organizing and executing a project, or even a lesson shaped like a project, may be a very good pathway.

Even though we are greatly concerned with what learning is and how it happens, if we don't help students with the practical details of planning and executing work, that mysterious thing called learning can't happen. And this is one obstacle we face in facilitating learning--aka "teaching." We may know all the theories of learning, but a theory of learning is not ipso facto a method of teaching.

I'm not arguing against have theories about things like learning and teaching. But we need to remember what theories are.

  • Theories bear on ideal objects: "social solidarity" and "social class" are fundmental sociological concepts. But you can't locate them on a map.
  • "Self-efficacy" is an important psychological concept, but you can't show it in a photograph.
  • Until quite recently, you couldn't photograph an atom.

All these concepts are very important to their respective disciplines: and they allow us to predict, control, explain and understand. But the ideas may not correspond to simple physical things we can see or directly control.

We face this problem every time we try to take our theories of learning and apply them. We can't see "cognitive engagement" or "self-efficacy" or "motivation" with the naked eye.

Teaching and learning may rest on processes invisible to the naked eye; but lessons and courses are spatiotemporal things: activities with extension and duration, leaving traces, demanding behaviors. And in order to get a hold of teaching and learning, at some point we need to move from the abstractions to the concrete activities.

Teaching a course or a lesson, and taking a course or a lesson: these are concrete physical activities. And project management gives us a good analogy for what the dimension of learning which is not theoretical but is absolutely necessary.

––Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Hello, I use Gantt Project to manage my MOOCs and also reguler university courses. Good post.

    1. That is amazingly clever! So all your assignments are in there with deadlines so you can see what's due when? You are an organized learner!

  2. I appreciate you articles. it is really very nice. Thank you for sharing your views with us

  3. It is very nice to read this post. I appreciate your views about this. It helps us a lot. Thank your very much.

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  6. Wow! What an eye opener this post has been for me. Very much appreciated, bookmarked, I can’t wait for more!
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  7. I use Course Buffet to sort all my MOOCs.


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