eCoaching Tip 79  Summer Project Strategies – Field Trips and Focusing on One Stage of a Project

June 8 2010

eCoaching Tip 79  Summer Project Strategies – Field Trips and Focusing on One Stage of a Project

The first summer tip (#78) suggested two ways of meeting the challenges of  “content coverage” during our shorter summer courses: Visual content framing and case studies.

This tip is a companion tip offering suggestions for structuring projects for summer spark and feasibility.

While projects remain one of the very best learning tools, projects take time, and collaborative team projects require even more time.  How can you be realistic about the reduced time available for summer projects, but still cultivate the power of projects for learning and for building community? Here are a couple ideas. See if one of them can help you invigorate and navigate your summer projects. The goal is for both you and your students to take a fresh look at the core concepts in your course and enjoy the learning.

Let Your Students Take Field Trips for Their Projects

Summer is a time of vacations, trips, BBQs and getting out and about — away from our usual indoor haunts of houses, offices, and gyms.  So projects that encourage your students to get out and about are likely to generate enthusiasm, although possibly also accompanied by a touch of skepticism.

How can you do project field trips?  Particularly as getting out and about can take time and planning. The answer lays in the design of the project task. Let’s think about the usual steps in projects and case studies and then consider how to adapt them for summer learning experiences.

Stages of Inquiry: Trigger, Exploration, Making Sense and Testing

Most projects follow the four stages of inquiry from Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000 or the four stages of problem-solving from Polya, 1974.* Here are the four stages of practical inquiry.  Be aware that any new or original inquiry project moves through or requires some form of these four stages.

  • A triggering event where the issue or problem is identified
  • Exploring the problem and gathering relevant information
  • Making sense of the data and defining some possible solutions
  • Testing (applying, validating) the possible solutions

Moving through these steps in practical inquiry can be critical in helping students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  Each of these stages also provides rich opportunities for faculty mentoring, engagement and community.

With limited time a summer project design can acknowledge that there just isn’t time for completing all four phases of an original inquiry.  There are two alternatives.  One strategy is to design the summer project task to focus on one or two of the stages.  For example, a focus on the first two stages — a trigger question combined with a gathering and a synthesis of relevant data — can work well.

Or an excellent summer project might focus on only the fourth stage of testing or validating possible solutions, using example projects or case studies from the textbook or other professional resource.  Even in the longer fall and spring terms, learners seldom get a chance to focus much on this fourth stage.  In fact, Anderson (2008) noted in a personal interview that in their research in online courses they  “just didn’t see evidence” — in the computer transcripts — that learners reached the fourth stage of application and validation.

So, a project that focuses solely on this fourth stage can be an opportunity to regain a critical often glossed over experience. Testing, applying, and validating possible solutions require deep, integrative and innovative thinking. In this scenario a summer project design might evaluate or critique business decisions, consider possible unintended consequences or ripple effects or suggest scenarios to deal with unexpected turn-of-events.  As you will recall these are all examples from the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.


The practical next question that you may be asking is, “What is a good source for possible projects?” Current events bring a couple of leadership decisions to mind almost immediately.  For example, how will Apple’s plan for eliminating support for “flash” on the new iPad play out?  What about all the leadership scenarios for dealing with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico working out? For Obama, for the head of BP, for the governors of the Gulf States?


Also, keep in mind the power of encouraging scientific reasoning.  Now that the summer is half over, what kinds of questions do learners have? In fact, sometimes, just getting to the question with supporting rationale can be a stimulating project that lasts well beyond a course.


Finding projects that focus on stages three and four may require a little more research as these projects require that the initial question has been defined and that a large percentage of the relevant data has been gathered and synthesized.  Prepared case studies may be the best source.  And don’t forget the Duquesne subscription to the Harvard Fifty Lessons —— site with hundreds of short video clips from business leaders on their real life experiences.

Summer Field Trips Suggested by Students

What about field trips? One of the benefits of online learning is the variety of geographic locations and professional and personal interests of the students in your class.  Starting with a question, challenge your students to identify projects from their local region or their professional interests. Then a project design can task your students to build a fourth stage solution based on inputs such as photos, interviews, phone calls.  Part of the challenge is to identify events and people with relevance to the course content and to task the students to propose a real or virtual field trip to gather data, and to discuss possible scenarios.  Let’s get the students moving.  For students who live locally, they might really enjoy meeting in person while checking out local businesses or events.  Students who live afar may want to team up to do virtual field trips together. By the way, the Dead Sea scroll image at the beginning of this tip is from a field trip requested by one of my granddaughters while in Minneapolis recently.  She wanted a day off from kindergarten. J


Terry Anderson whom I mentioned earlier is a professor at Athabasca University and director of the Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research. In the 2008 interview Terry also commented that “formal education has had trouble moving outside the artificial environment of the virtual or face to face classroom so that it makes a difference in real life.”

So it’s summer, let’s get our learners and us out and about and grappling with real issues, while armed with important content questions and data.


  1. Polya is a mathematician from Stanford University who developed an inductive reasoning process that can be used for any problem-solving need. Here are the steps:
  2. Understand the problem, which includes an analysis of it and identification of what is known and what is not known.
  3. Devise a solution plan. This includes many questions to guide the plan’s development, such as, “Have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?”
  4. Carry out the plan.
  5. Look back. Conduct a review to determine if the planned solution solved the problem by working through the previous three steps.

Selected References

Anderson, T.  Personal Interview.  Orlando, FL November 4, 2008.

Boettcher, J. (2008) Tip 58: Reaching the Heights of Learning — Authentic Problem-Solving  Retrieved June 7, 2010 from

Boettcher, J. (2008) Tip 69 Using Peer Feedback to Increase Confidence and CommunityRetrieved June 7, 2010 from

Polya, G. (1957). How to solve it (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Theroux, James. (2007). What it takes to Innovate: The Experience of Producing an Online, Real-time Case Study.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks/published by the Sloan Consortium 11:4 December 2007. PDF online for members.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by