ICT and small businesses: the brief

It is quite understandable that when people talk of the contribution that the business world can make to ICT lessons, they tend to think of big business. And why wouldn’t they? Big companies often have the money to finance the production of nice-looking resources, or even to provide people to spend a day in school running a simulation of some kind. However, my experience of talking to students in lessons is that small businesses, such as mine, have much to offer too. I thought I'd explore some ways in which that can happen, in an occasional series.

It's good to talk. Photo (c) Knight Foundation http://www.flickr.com/photos/knightfoundation/One way to involve small companies is to invite them to be clients for students undertaking ICT projects. This goes on already, of course, in many schools, and involves a business giving  a brief, such as for a website or, that old chestnut, a brochure. The key to the success of this sort of thing rests on several factors, in my opinion.

By the way, I am using the word “business” as a shorthand for any small organisation. As for the term "small", the definition depends on the sector of the economy, but what I have in mind is a local business of, say, up to ten or so employees.

First, it has to be real. That is to say, it has to meet a real business need, and be intended to be used. Making it up, like pretending to set up a shop, doesn’t work any more, as I noted in Authentic Leaning and ICT.

Second, the client, and the teacher, must put aside all the politically correct nonsense which holds that if you fail to give 100% positive feedback to a student he will develop a personality disorder and turn into a psychopath. We live in the real world, and no business should have to accept inferior work just because it’s a student producing it. True, you may wish to make some allowances, because students are not yet experts in the field, and you're not paying them, but that’s not the same thing as putting up with shoddy workmanship.

One big difference between a student and a professional, apart from the level of expertise they possess, is the fact that the student is not being paid, at least not in monetary terms, as already said just now. There needs to be an imputed cost, and guidelines put in place to make sure everyone knows how much labour and time are going to be expended. For example, if the student is expected to spend 6 hours on this particular piece of coursework, then it may be sensible to allocate 1 hour in total for the initial briefing meeting, 2 hours for the work itself, 1 hour for feedback and tweaking and 1 hour for writing up the project. What would not be reasonable is to expect the student to spend 3 hours a night for a month working, in effect, as slave labour.

What also needs to be agreed is that the student will receive useful feedback: “This is good because…”; “This is not very good because…”. I think it is not unreasonable to expect the client to give longer term feedback as well. For example, has the new website been easy to maintain? Has it resulted, as far as anyone can tell, in more traffic?

In my own case, I accept student contributions to this website and the Computers in Classrooms newsletter. What I have started to do now, at the behest of teachers actually, is to give the students a brief. This is what they would get were they to be asked to contribute to any other professional journal or magazine, and it helps to reinforce the idea that this is for real, not a game. After all, teachers and other education professionals want to read useful stuff that is reasonably well-written, otherwise they will stop coming back, no matter how altruistic they like to think they are. What do students get out of it? The opportunity to write for a real audience, which means making sure the article is accurate, comprehensible, and relevant to educational ICT. If it’s done properly, everyone wins, especially if the article is very popular.

A good example of this is The importance of mobile phones in education. It was written by a student in July 2010, and consistently receives hundreds of page views a week. This month, for example, it has already been read just under 1300 times. That's quite a feather in the writer's cap.

So, if you teach ICT and you want to inject some real world requirements into your coursework projects, don’t just think big: think small!