Takeaway projects: A missed opportunity?
Higher education (HE) institutions (including universities, colleges and others that qualify) and dedicated Research institutes are the breeding grounds for producing innovations and new knowledge. Typically, HE institutions produce knowledge in two broad ways: (1) as an outcome of their routine operational processes—that is in the process of delivering education, and (2) by providing dedicated services to develop bespoke solutions for the client problems, such as undertaking research and development (R&D) projects funded by the government or private bodies.
As part of producing knowledge through their operational routines, HE institutions include a mandatory final year project component as partial requirement for completion of their undergraduate and post-graduate programs.
These final year projects allow students to apply their learning, knowledge and transferable skills acquired at various stages in the program to complete a task independently (more or less) with some form of mentoring by a supervisor and in the end takeaway knowledge holistically. These final year undergraduate and postgraduate projects—usually research tasks, are essentially takeaway projects as they entail significant learning and knowledge takeaways.
Takeaway projects can occur in several forms. For instance, a learner can be assigned a takeaway project by a company to develop a proposed solution in the School laboratory. Or a supervisor can assign a project that could contribute to cumulative advancement of knowledge on a certain research topic of interest. In other cases, students can be assigned a project that they can take back to their laboratories or homes to execute the project and achieve the desired learning. In all cases, learning is the key takeaway. In some cases, product developed during the process can also be taken away by the learners.
Notwithstanding the form they take, the idea behind the takeaway projects is simple. That is, by completing a holistic project, a learner can potentially takeaway knowledge in a more concrete manner often complemented by an understanding of how knowledge learned during a program of study is actually applicable in the real-world situation.
For the purpose of discussion here, we only consider takeaway projects as the undergraduate and post-graduate projects completed at HE institutions.
The takeaway projects often produce or lead to new ideas, thoughts or tangible products/services which can be spin-off to build actual products and services. Particularly, pure science Final year projects provide engaging learning experience and potential of concrete knowledge takeaway.
Yet, in hindsight it seems that, by and large, a system that enables tapping into this ocean of ideas or in other words ocean of knowledge generated by the takeaway projects is hitherto non-existent or working on a limited scale.
Adding to the predicament is the fact that with every passing day, the demand for higher education and those that provide higher educational services is increasing. According to rough (unconfirmed) estimates available on the internet, there are more than 25,000 universities across the globe. A UNESCO report published in 2017 suggests that between 2000 and 2014, the number of students enrolled in the HE institutions doubled from 100 million to 207 million (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002478/247862E.pdf).
These healthy numbers raise the question: how many of the ideas generated by these large number of graduating students go begging? or in other words are we missing on the opportunity to actually put into use the knowledge created through the takeaway projects?
While, there are no statistics to confirm or deny that the knowledge created is used or not or how useful it is; in hindsight this area deserves attention.
This becomes particularly more important as it is a common practice that both public and private sector funding bodies across the globe fund large number of takeaway projects every year to find solutions to societal problems, resulting in a significant increase in global R&D spending. A UNESCO report puts the R&D spending figure at a staggering US$1.7 trillion (http://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/research-and-development-spending/).
That raises another question: can some of the funding be spent on building a system that uses takeaway projects output of HE institutions to put knowledge produced by these projects for some worthy use? Answer to this may not be so simple due to involvement of complex web of stakeholders and their requirements.
Operationalization of a proposed system:
One possibility is to consider having a system where HE institutions work with an overseeing authority (e.g. education related institution) to examine the usefulness of knowledge produced through takeaway projects on an ongoing basis. Following steps may help in operationalization of the system:
- Every year, one or two HE institutions are selected to examine their takeaway projects for knowledge transfer purposes.
- The selected HE institutions then handover takeaway projects to the overseeing authority. The projects are then examined by a committee of experts to filter out most potential ideas. The filtering process can result in categorizing the projects across multiple classifications, e.g. (1) ideas/knowledge that can be immediately put to use with some refinements, (2) ideas/knowledge that are promising but require more work, and (3) ideas/knowledge not found substantial for further work.
- The ideas that can be implemented with some refinements (classification 1) are then sent to another committee to identify opportunities for refinements first. Once refinement is completed then the next step is to identify potential investors and establish spin-offs for commercialization.
- Promising ideas that were categorized to undergo further refinement (classification 2) can be sent to designated incubators for further work.
- In lieu of the HE institutions handing over their takeaway projects, the overseeing authority can provide funding to enhance teaching and learning activities at the HE institutions.
- The students whose projects are selected by the overseeing authority for implementation or incubator work should be recognized with monetary reward and ‘Certificate of Recognition.’
Benefit proposition for the parties involved:
By setting-up a possible system on the above lines, a win-win outcome can be achieved for all the relevant stakeholders.
Overseeing authorities can tap into knowledge that may otherwise go waste, hence encouraging a sustainable development environment. The knowledge acquired can be less costly and used for developing solution to societal problems and hence society will benefit as a whole. Some bright ideas can even be further investigated by initiating funded projects at R&D centers of HE institutions.
It should, however, be recognized that initially the quality of takeaway projects handed over by HE institutions may not necessarily be of desirable standards. But over a period of time with the system in place, it should be expected that the quality will improve as HE institutions will be cognizant of the benefits of the scheme, and the purpose that it serves.
HE institutions get monetary support from overseeing authority. The funding can be used for building facilities, improving quality of education and research work. HE institutions will also be motivated to make more efforts to produce quality graduates with capabilities to produce quality research output.
Students on the other hand will get better educational environment, recognition for their work and motivation to excel in their careers. Students will also learn project management skills as that will help them produce the work with best quality possible. Getting quality education will help students in their career advancement.
Project management as a discipline will also benefit, as HE institutions may use PM as a tool to produce better quality projects, resulting in overall growth of the PM discipline and potentially increased influence.
Professor Jiwat Ram
© 2018 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.