I’m a tutor for the Open University's TM470 Computing and IT project module. TM470 is different from most other OU modules, since it is less about learning about Computing and IT concepts, and more about applying what has been learnt.
When I was a computing undergraduate, I had to write a dissertation. I had to identify a problem, do some background reading, figure out what I needed to do, go ahead and do what I needed to do, and then write everything up. TM470 asks you to follow a similar process, whilst offering some helpful guidance.
One of the most important decisions that has to be made is choosing a project, or identifying a problem that you want to solve.
This blog has been written for TM470 students, and aims to share some useful advice and pointers to help you with the process of choosing a project. This post accompanies earlier articles that I have written relate to TM470, which can be found by following my TM470 blog tag (OU blog). The articles about Understanding the literature review, Academic writing, and the TM470 Project report structure might be helpful.
In essence, the project is all about showing off: showing off how you can use the skills and knowledge you have acquired throughout your studies. It is also about showing off how you’re able to plan. Finally, it is an opportunity to show off what you have learnt from the process of completing a project.
Within the resources section of the TM470 website, there is a section called Study Materials.
At the start of TM470, it is recommended that you have a good look through four different resource sections:
- Study Guide
- Project Choice
- Sample Project Titles
- Choosing a Lifecycle Model
Defining a project
The module materials shares dictionary definition of a project: “a carefully planned piece of work to get information about something, to build something, to improve something, etcetera.”
It goes onto mention some of the key characteristics of a project:
- They are unique – i.e. specific to a particular set of circumstances and not part of routine activity – and would not arise without deliberate intervention.
- They are planned around a collection of available resources, schedules, budgets, etcetera.
- They are self-contained around aims and objectives, and it is possible to decide when they are complete, and whether they have been completed successfully.
For TM470, the module team suggests that a project should:
- identify a problem,
- be practical or have a strong practical context,
- have a proposed solution using (or related to) computing and IT,
- include aspects of planning, evaluation and revision,
- be broadly based on one or more level 3 computing and IT modules
- will not be pure research but will extend and apply what has previously been learnt at level 3 to a practical problem.
Types of projects
There are, broadly speaking, three different types of TM470 project:
- Development projects: involve creating something: processes, algorithms, software, hardware, interface design, etc.
- Research projects: involve addressing a research question or analysing the possible solutions to a research problem, making detailed recommendations. This typically involves investigating the relevant academic area in depth.
- Evaluation projects: are sometimes named ‘compare and contrast’. You might compare processes, analyse an implementation, assess different user interactions, etc.
The most popular type of project is the development project. This is where you build something, and then write a report that describes what you have built, and how you have built it. You would, of course, start the building after you have done some detailed planning and shared a detailed summary of all the resources and skills you need to start the project.
Sometimes, projects will not have a clear boundary between each of these categories. A development (or implementation) project might contain bits of research, and also bits of evaluation too. A project that is based on the interaction design module is a good example of this, where you might ask the question “is my design any good?”
Project choice guidelines
Your project should address a non-trivial question. The question should not have an obvious answer, and this means that it should be “reasonably difficult” (but not too difficult). It should ideally occupy the time that you have available, the resources that you have access to, and draw on many of the skills that you already have.
Here are a set of collated and edited tips from both myself and fellow tutors:
- Your project should ideally be based around a clear, concrete problem or scenario that needs a solution.
- Your project must have a clear focus and ideally focus on a specific level 3 modules that have been previously studied.
- Your project should be sufficiently detailed to allow you to achieve significant depth of analysis and reflection about what you have learnt and achieved during your project.
- You should not attempt to do too much.
- You should choose something that enables you to play on your existing strengths rather trying to learn an entirely new skill set.
- You should choose something that you are interested in; this will keep you motivated. Make sure that you have fun whilst working on your project.
Starting your project
The first TMA is all about setting the scene and sharing your project ideas with your tutor. It is also used to help you to plan what you are going to be doing:
- Choose (and justify) an appropriate lifecycle module; always ask why you have chosen the approach you have chosen.
- Create a project plan and include this in the TMA (and all subsequent TMAs); create a Gantt chart.
- In your plan, outline very concrete 'deliverables' (including your TMA submission dates), regardless of the type of project.
- Take time to identify risks: what are they? Write them down and submit them in your TMA.
- Make notes of what you have read; this can feed into your literature review, and have a look at the OU library to carry out some further research.
- Write about the resources that you need, the skills that you need, and the skills that you need to develop.
- Start to think about ethics.
- Take time to review all the marking grids that are provided with the TMAs: you can almost mark yourself!
Projects connected to your workplace
If you are thinking of basing your project on something that you do in your workplace, there are a number of things that you need to carefully think about:
- Timing: does the timing of a work-based project align with the timing of TM470? For TM470, you need to go through a complete project lifecycle, from beginning until end.
- Who is involved: sometimes work-based projects involve teamwork. If this is the case, whatever you do on a work-based project might not be suitable for TM470 for the simple reason that everything that you do, and you submit in your project report must be all your own work.
- Planning: are you able to do your own planning for the project? If someone else is doing the planning, or deciding on deadlines for your project work, your work-based project might not be suitable for TM470.
- Complexity: some work-based project address a very small part of a much bigger project. Are you able to choose something that enables you to demonstrate a breath of skills and abilities?
Essentially, TM470 is all about what you do, and what you learn through the process of completing a project. Another way to choose a project is to think about what skills you might like to develop. Only choose a work-based project if all the above criteria can be met.
The degree apprenticeship version: TMXY475
There are two versions of TM470; a degree apprenticeship version, which goes by the code TMXY475, and the non-degree apprenticeship version. Although the aim and structure is broadly similar, TMXY475 has a slightly different focus to TM470.
Apprentices who are taking TMXY475 have the challenge of identifying a project that aligns in two different ways: it connects with the level 3 OU modules they have previously studied, and also relates to some task or activity which relates to their workplace. Working with their module tutor and line manager, apprentices must choose a project that aims to address a particular business need, or to provide a clear benefit. Their project must also fit within the module timescales.
An important difference is that apprentices will need to not only write a project report, but also to prepare and deliver a presentation about their project.
Choosing the right project at the start of TM470 is really important. If it is too simple, there might not be enough to get your teeth into; you need something that really allows you to show off your skills and abilities.
A TM470 must always link back to Computing and IT, irrespective of how technical it is.
Whilst it is often great to see technical skills demonstrated through an implementation or development project, some of the best projects I have seen have been about design. Rather than developing lots of a code, a project might share a series of detailed designs, which are then thoroughly evaluated, by applying the concepts presented through the interaction design module.
TM470 is all about sharing a technical story about what you have done within your project. Within this wider story there will be other stories, such as a story about your reading and what you know (which is presented through the literature review section), and what you have learnt (through the reflection section).
The key bits of advice I have are: play to your strengths, and try to have fun with it. If you’re having fun with your project, you’re likely to be motivated. Also, do some thorough planning, write down potential risks, and consider the resources and skills that you need to do what you need to do.
I would like to thank fellow tutors Chris Thomson and Eleanor Dare, who were kind enough to share some PowerPoint materials which offered useful advice and guidance about TM470 project choice. I would also like to acknowledge the TM470 module team, some of whose words I have creatively shared through this post. I would also like to acknowledge Alexis Lansbury, who is my TM470 line manager.