Scope Creep in Action


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In late 2009, I was involved with a $300,000 federal grant project who’s charge was to build an online application for teachers to help them digitize their lesson plans and share them with other professionals.  At the time, I was leading a non-profit organization that was the fiduciary agent of the grant. There were two third-party vendors intimately involved with the project — a local technology consultant from the suburbs of Chicago and a small marketing/technology firm located in Minnesota.

From the outset of the project, there was a question as to what the scope of the project was going to be.   Originally, we had planned to create an application that would have very robust features that would allow teachers to not only digitize lessons online but also organize them in a password-protected environment.  From the beginning of the discussions attended by myself and a representative from each firm, there was some disagreement over which type of technologies should be chosen to build the application and how much technology would have to be created.

The computer programmer wanted to use Microsoft products and software development tools whereas the rep from the marketing firm wanted to search for application that had already been created so as to streamline the process and make it easier to integrate with some of the customer-based management tools that the marketing firm had already developed.  The team decided to work with Microsoft products and build an application from the ground up, while keeping a fairly aggressive scope to the project itself: build an application for the end user but ALSO build a document review system for the principals of the project, which would allow for the review of lessons that were submitted to the application and edit/censor them if need be.

My lack of experience as a project manager and instructional designer contributed to a minor train wreck when halfway through the project, the team ran out of resources to complete the application according to its original specifications.  Reflecting back, I see the mistake that was made was two-fold: 1) our team should never have chosen to build an application from scratch and 2) our team was too aggressive in believing that the application should have all the bells and whistles that we had conceived.  There were also some personal conflicts between the marketing firm and the individual software designer that contributed to problems in the project.

If I had to run the project again, I would have taken the time at the beginning to define a limited scope to the project.  To conserve resources, I would have definitely also taken the marketing firm’s advice and searched first for an application that had already been built that could meet the requirements of the project.  Not only would this course of action have been cheaper, it would have allowed the team to focus on allotting more time and resources to garnering feedback from end-users about the usability of the software.  Because the team had envisioned such a large scope, it was always rushing to complete tasks and what ended up happening? Only the technology tools allowing teachers to digitize lessons was created and finalized.   The document review system was left half done and remains half done to this day.


Estimation of Time, Cost and Resources

The first resource I identified is a very informational tool that can help IDs with general definitions and strategies used to help create a framework to understand how to manage time, cost and resources of ID projects…  It is located at:

Among the highlights of this resource are:

  • A discussion of the costs and benefits of a “Top-down” (TD) and “Bottom-up” (BU) approach to budgeting and allocating time toward project activities.   Generally, the TD approach is made by upper and middle level managers whereas the BU approach is made by employees and other lower level employees.   Generally, predictions of resources and time allocations are more accurate when they are made from a BU approach because the individuals involved will be involved in most of the work to get the project completed.
  • The Template Method is commonly used to help predict resources and time allotments of new projects.   This method essentially identifies similar projects that have been implemented in the past and makes predictions based on the results of these past projects.


The Second resource I identified is a paper detailing the tools and techniques of project managers.  It is a relatively short piece and is organized extremely well in my opinion so that it is informative and easy to find what you are looking for.  Here is a link:

Some highlights:

  • The author breaks down projects into 4 phases.  This conceptual framework can help IDs manage the multitude of moving parts that make up projects and make them better able to predict how long projects are going to take and how many resources are going to have to be used to complete them.  These four phases are:
    • Initiating
    • Planning
    • Executing
    • Closing

It is important to note here that what most people associate with the “work” of a project — the execution of it — is at most a fourth of the entire project itself.  The paper emphasizes the need to thoroughly examine and complete each phase diligently to avoid costly walk-backs and misappropriation of funds.





Project Schedule and Estimating Activity Duration

Instructional Designers have to be scientists and soothsayers if they are to be successful.   They must approach new projects in a logical fashion and understand how to set priorities but must also be flexible in the management of the project itself.  Like it or not, projects in the end are reflections of how expectations are managed with realities on the ground.

Here are two resources that can prove useful in planning an Instructional Designers project schedule.


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Resource #1

This resource presents various models that exist that help conceptualize the entire ID process in the E-learning industry, which can go a long way in making sure that the ID is realistic with each step in the process.  There are five models that have been proven to be effective frameworks for IDs to work from for successful projects in elearning:  1)  ADDIE, 2) SAM, 3) Dick and Carey Systems Approach Model, 4) Rapid Instructional Design and 5) Rapid Prototyping.

All of these frameworks serve to help IDs plan a project’s work schedule effectively.  The last two “Rapid” frameworks are well suited to elearning because of the recursive nature of software development and the need for constant feedback and adaptation during the software development process.   The first three frameworks all describe more descriptive planning, with the SAM model resembling Rapid Prototyping from a cyclical, developmental level.

I can see using this site to identify which model is appropriate for a given context.  The more comprehensive the plan, the better able an instructional designer will be to estimate activity durations and set project schedules.


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Resource #2

This article provides information about project management software available for instructional designers, describing the benefits and drawbacks to each software from the perspective of instructional designers.  Using project management software can help streamline the amount of time an ID takes to juggle tasks, meet deadlines, plan for contingencies and, perhaps most importantly, COMMUNICATE project progress to key stakeholders.

In addition to project management software that can be fairly expensive, this article mentions Google Docs as an application that may work very well in certain instructional design contexts.  Google Docs is free and should be considered FIRST, before IDs decide that more robust applications are needed.   The reason for this is simple:   with all the complexities of some ID projects, the last thing an instructional designer wants to do is confuse stakeholders with the technology being used to run the project.  Google Docs is so common that it runs much less risk of turning off stakeholders who are being expected to learn new technologies in the project itself.

The more stable the software used in ID projects, the easier it is for the project manager to estimate activity durations and set project schedules.




Communicating Effectively

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Interpretation of the Message:  The message was not collaborative in nature and seemed to relay an expectation that there is a something missing that needs to be addressed immediately.   All three modalities, in my opinion, conveyed this urgency.


The three different modalities created different reactions in me, although the message was generally the same in each.  The face-to-face experience was the most pleasant for me personally primarily because I felt that I would immediately be able to either apologize or ask a clarifying question (I could also offer an explanation as to why the information had not already been provided).

The email and voicemail conveyed the same information but then created a degree of anxiety and extra work on my side to not only respond to each but also produce the deliverables that were expected.

Ironically, I think that the email conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message, albeit in a slightly impersonal way.   In some cases, with the fast-paced nature of communications, being direct with communication that does not require any clarification is the best mode of communication.

This experience has convinced me that the main consideration that must be observed when choosing the right way to communicate is whether the content of the communication begs further discussion or whether it doesn’t.   If there is any ambiguity in the message, or if the relationship between the two people is either poor or non-existent, it is preferable to use face-to-face strategies as it can build rapport and ensure that the ultimate deliverable will be exactly what the manager wanted.

The lesson:  The two main considerations when communicating with members of a project team are the content of the communication and the particular disposition of the person to whom is being communicated.  Some team members, even though the content of the message may be straightforward, are going to want a face-to-face meeting to ensure that the directive has import.  Other team members may be completely comfortable with an email reminder or a voicemail of something that they know they are late in turning in.

Post Mortem Living Library

The project I am focusing on for my post-mortem is called Living Library.   This was a technology project initiated and completed in 2010 by a non-profit organization in the Chicagoland area.  The purpose of the project was to create web-authoring tools for teachers so that teachers could digitize lessons and share them in an online professional learning community.   The project involved coordination between 3 computer programmers.  Other stakeholders in the the project included members of the Illinois Education Association — the state’s largest teacher’s union.


  • A software program was created that is easy-to-use and satisfies the requirements of teachers.
  • A suite of education content was created that modeled how the software is supposed to be used.
  • Several learning resources were created that helped new users learn how to use the software.
  • A process was developed that helped organize ongoing technical requests from customers interacting with the software program itself
  • The scope of the project remain relatively constant throughout the term of the project.


  • There were working conflicts between the programmers in the project.  Halfway through project, one of the programming teams took over the responsibilities assigned to another team, creating a delay in the rolling out of the project.
  • The software still need to be de-bugged after the project was finished.


The part of the PM process that definitely could have been better thought through was the Project Planning stage.  As mentioned above, the scope of the functionality that was created in the software program was confined and well defined.  What was missing was a coherent working process for the multiple computer programmers working in the project.  An operational plan would have helped build sustainable communication lines that would have prevented delays in the project itself.  There could have also been a more robust testing process at the end of the project itself to make sure that the software was working properly.


Plagiarism in an Online Environment

  • What plagiarism detection software is available to online instructors?

There are several online resources available for teachers and students that can help prevent plagiarism.  These resources are free and allow users to copy and paste text into sophisticated search engines that will return results signifying if there are similar texts already on the Internet.   Instructors may also have access to an institution specific database that will search through submitted assignments and determine whether similarities exist between previous work at the institution (Laureate, 2010)


  • How can the design of assessments help prevent academic dishonesty?

The more an assessment requires the student to draw upon experiences and articulate these experiences within the context of content that is introduced in the course, the less likely the student is to plagiarize.  Why?  Because asking students to share experiences and personal opinions precludes the ability (and usually the motivation) for students to borrow the work of others without proper citation.   Creating assessments in this manner puts more emphasis on an instructor’s ability to design a rubric that is effective in measuring how students incorporate what they learn into real life scenarios and is, in my opinion, a more meaningful activity than simply asking students to regurgitate content.

  • What facilitation strategies do you propose to use as a current or future online instructor?

My facilitation strategy can be summed up in two words:  Big Questions.   I plan to focus my instruction and my assessment strategies on measuring student ability to engage with questioning techniques, whether it be in answering questions posed to them or in generating their own questions.  For the most part, my experience with online teaching thus far has been with professional development of teachers, which makes the art of questioning more important than any other skill in my opinion.

On a practical level, this means I plan to be relentless in my questioning of students and I want to make sure that I’m always challenging them to push their inquiry.  I use the phrase “tolerate ambiguity” to describe how I want my students to approach learning.  It is not the answers that are important.   It is persuasion and interaction in a social environment that makes real learning possible.  As a facilitator, I want to be known as the teacher that constantly wanted his students to push their comfort zone.

  • What additional considerations for online teaching should be made to help detect or prevent cheating and plagiarism?

The best thing an instructor can do is to encourage students to be original and creative in their work.  This is done through constant communication and the crafting of assessments that require students to draw upon their own experiences as much as possible.  There is no panacea to prevent plagiarism from an instructor’s standpoint.  It is the instructor’s responsibility to make sure that students have the resources to know what plagiarism is and the attentiveness to address issues of concern as they come up.

Impact of Technology and Multimedia Week 5 Blog Post

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  • What impact does technology and multimedia have on online learning environments?

New technologies and multimedia make online learning environments possible in two ways:  1)  they facilitate the sharing of asychronous content and 2) they facilitate the participation of remote learners in a synchronous environment.  Although many people emphasize the power of technology and multimedia to recreate face-to-face instruction virtually through synchronous application, the power of technology and multimedia to provide higher and higher levels of quality with asychronous content shouldn’t be discounted.

In fact, technology and multimedia bring asychronous and synchronous tactics to bear on the ultimate experience of virtual reality, which is the next great horizon (possibly) for education.  The idea that complete, or near complete, immersion in online games may one day mirror our experiences in the real world so closely that many of us will be willing to replace one with the other sums up the potential of technology and multimedia for online learning environments.


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  • What are the most important considerations an online instructor should make before implementing technology?

By the far the most important consideration is for the instructor to know what types of technology with which learners are already familiar.  When content is introduced to students alongside complicated instructions on how to access or asses that content, there is a risk that students will become frustrated and disengage from the learning environment.  This is called “information overload” and it is a “no-no” for online instructors.

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  • What implications do usability and accessibility of technology tools have for online teaching?

The more learners become accustomed to new technologies the greater the horizon for online teaching.  Fundamentally, an online instructor is only able to bring students to the next step in their learning process and must slow down their approach when technology tools are unfamiliar to students.  When students already have the requisite skills to interact with technology, online instruction can focus on some of the more meta-cognitive aspects to teaching.

A great example of how technology tools have changed what is possible for online teaching exists in the company I helped found called Teach Different.  We create professional development courses for teachers and have decided to use Google Classroom because of the extensive familiarity our students have with it. (Many already use it with their students)   This technology tool allows us to spend less time training students how to turn in assignments, participate in discussions etc. and more time on the real content of the training.

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  • What technology tools are most appealing to you for online teaching as you move forward in your career in instructional design?

The technology tools that are most appealing to me as an online teacher are tools that allow novices to create professional looking multi-media presentations to students.  In  my opinion, what is missing from really great online teaching is the ability for instructors to engage students with content that is exciting and engaging.  Teachers are usually relied upon to be knowledge experts and not so much presentation experts.   Because of the nature of online learning, presentation is everything and the The better technology tools get, the more incumbent it is on online instructors to familiarize themselves with what is out there and try their best to captivate students…



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The main takeaway I have acquired from my experiences learning about the emerging field of online learning is that great teaching online is a balance between a thorough knowledge of the capacities of students with an evolving awareness of the new technology tools that are being developed that can make learning more engaging.   There is no handbook that will answer all the questions about which technologies should or shouldn’t be used.   There is only what there is in the traditional face-to-face setting:  1) best practices, 2) trial and error and 3) intuition.  Teaching is more of an art than a science.