Exploration in Applied Technology Project

A tactic for making a basic computer literacy course

a growth experience for suitable students, and the instructor,

without risking your sanity or their grades.


Lynda Williams

Computer Science

University of Northern British Columbia


Exploration Project

Most projects, or term assignments, focus on net results. But the whole point of a computing literacy course is to teach students how to learn more, on their own.

The exploration project, developed by Lynda Williams at the University of Northern B.C. for use in the service course Computing Science 150, makes learning sufficiently transparent to be useful at nearly any level of expertise. Use of it also empowers students to take risks which they would not otherwise, since the grade earned is not bound only to net results.

Perhaps most important, to the students, the exploration project lets them learn how to learn while they gain concrete knowledge of programs or computing problems of intrinsic interest to themselves.

The wide-range of tasks undertaken by students has the bonus benefit of keeping the instructor from going stale, and allows her to integrate her full-time work as an educational technology co-ordinator with her part-time instructional duties.


Magic Ingredients

The exploration aspect of the project demands that students tackle something they know little or nothing about to start. They must demonstrate their ignorance intelligently as they work to cure it, through entries in journal which becomes the "experience" write up. This is the largest part of the project in most cases.

Skill in problem solving, defining one's goals, and applying technology in real situations, emerge from the "experience" write up.

The other two parts of the project are:
an initial statement of intent, which must include a case for why learning this particular thing is personally valuable to the student.
an end product, either as a report on net knowledge gained or a data file and documentation explaining it

Typically the "experience" section is longer than either of the other two.



Computer Science 150 is a core computer literacy course required by many courses of study at the University of Northern B.C. (See note below re: free use by others .)

The goal is to turn out students with:

  1. basic working knowledge of the current applications, in the university's particular environment (i.e. students who can word process, print, use university e-mail, etc.)
  2. enough practical theory understanding of computing concepts to have the skills to tackle problem solving for themselves and learn new software or migrate to new computing environments

Broadly speaking, students are taking the course either because they have no choice or to gain confidence with computing situations. Students also enter the course with a wide range of experience, different levels of intrinsic interest or aptitude for computing, and diverse goals.

To stress problem solving and boost relevance, CPSC 150 has relied on a project component, in various forms. The two variations considered in this paper are:
Mandatory Project
Optional Project

Mandatory projects undertaken by over 100 students at once, many of whom were not adequately prepared or motivated, probably took more time than they were worth, both for instructor and the students. Despite this, the project was inevitably reported as the most valuable part of the class by those students who achieved their goals.

Students who proved poor prospects for project work tend to exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:
no ideas what to do a project on
instruction means step by step "do this" then "do that" explanations
low tolerance for technical difficulties
very limited time, even if well managed
not really interested in applied computing, with or without strong aptitude

Making the project an optional alternative to weekly labs, or to writing a "survey" style final exam, acknowledges the diverse learning styles and interests of students.

It also allows the instructor to decide who may and who many not undertake a project at all. Good reasons for preventing a student taking on a project are:
The student does not want to do a project, only to avoid the alternative(s)
This is a bad situation even for technically talented students. The student is better off doing the exam. Assure his/her that a project would take more time, not less, and be impossible to "swat" for at the last minute. The nature of an "exploration project" also ensures that learning will take place, not merely a product be delivered. This means that a student who already knows a particular program very well cannot turn in a project based on existing skills instead of developing new ones.
The student lacks sufficient base proficiency to make progress in the absence of direct support from T.A.s, instructor or programmed texts
The "exploration project" is designed to work for novices and veteran computer users alike. Despite this, a student does need sufficient grasp of basic ideas like file management and screen navigation. Proof of being able to complete work on time is also necessary. A student who, even for the best of reasons, is constantly in need of special times to write quizzes or extensions on assignments, is a poor risk for project work. Such a student is better off tackling the course in a pro-grammatic manner.


Projects past and present

Examples of projects in the past have covered video toasters, EXCEL spreadsheets to do tax returns, building web pages, creating presentations in software for other courses, and on-site interviews with technologists working in the field.

This term one student is experimenting with audio-graphics over the Internet as a means of keeping in touch with a project mentor working in the environment field. This project features data transport from a GIS system into an ACCESS database application.

Two other students are constructing web sites for non-profit organizations, learning not only about technology but how to make it fit real needs. One is integrating learning how to search the web and build pages with course work in Psychology.

Some past projects (pre-1997), which happened to be web mountable, are available at the projects index. A strategy for mounting projects may be re-introduced, once the course is re-packaged, probably using WebCT, such that students can put up their own work.



Use by Others Welcome

Any and all materials (including old exams), which are not student work, may be used directly or copied at will for use by others, according to the following protocol:

  1. Mention me with thanks somewhere in your acknowledgements. Once per project will do. Something like "some raw materials drawn from public domain work by Lynda Williams" is good enough.
  2. ...OR if you edit the material heavily enough to make it something you are vouching for the truth or decency of, do not mention me at all.

The above offer applies only to non-fiction works by Lynda Williams, developed as part of her instructional or project management roles at the University of Northern B.C.

See also materials at:
CPSC 150: Fall 97 offering.
Techie TA Entries (Lynda' only).
Web Authors Materials (Lynda's only).
Perl Workshop Materials (Lynda's only).


Lynda J. Williams,

Project Manager,

Centre for Teaching and Learning,

University of Northern B.C.

(250) 960-5613,