Strategies for developing live student-client projects

Projects in which students work in a professional consulting capacity with “client” organisations can bring many benefits for all involved, but need careful set-up and support, as Lyvia Royd-Taylor explains

Lyvia Royd-Taylor's avatar
University of Brighton
14 Nov 2022
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Incorporating live-client projects into your teaching can be rewarding for students and boost their employability in the graduate job market. During such projects, students work in a professional capacity with commercial or third sector organisations. However, tutors are often put off by the amount of work required to set up such projects. The following strategies should help tutors to set up and run live-client projects.

1. Selecting the right client

Selecting the right client for your course is integral to the success of any live-client project. There are several factors to consider here: the level of students you are teaching (undergraduate or postgraduate), the desired learning outcomes, the appropriate client “fit” with the course content and the number of weeks you have in which to deliver the course. In addition, consider your social impact. When developing a live-client project for final-year undergraduate students in the School of Business and Law here at the University of Brighton, it was decided that the course would work with third-sector clients when possible; the aim being to expose students to potential careers in the third sector and deliver consultancy to clients who would not be able to afford it otherwise.

2. Finding your client

Finding your client once you have decided who to aim for can be a challenge, but there are several approaches you can adopt. What contacts do you or your colleagues have? Is there a university-community partnership programme that may have a list of possible contacts? Has your department been approached directly by parties needing assistance? Do you have a placements or employability department that could provide some interesting leads?

3. Briefing your client

It is important that your students are presented with a clear project brief at the beginning of the course. To achieve this, the project aims and outputs must be agreed with the client beforehand. This is a crucial step in managing the client relationship. What format of coursework will address the learning outcomes and at the same time provide the client with what they need? What are the client’s timescales, and do they fit with those of the course? Will your students prepare a report or presentation for the client, or both? If there are several components of coursework, what will the weightings of each element be? Agreeing on these points with the client beforehand will aid the smooth running of the project.

4. Setting client expectations

In terms of setting expectations with the client, it is worth pointing out that there will be a range of student knowledge and abilities within any course and not all students will produce exceptional output. However, it is the case that even poor outputs can sometimes include an element or idea that is worthy of consideration by the client.

5. Briefing your students

Ideally, it is good to brief your students on the live-client project at the beginning of the course. This can be achieved in several ways:

  • The client is invited to an early session to present the brief face-to-face to the student group;
  • The client presents a virtual, live presentation to the student group;
  • A pre-recorded client brief is recorded and made available to the student group.

Which approach you use will depend on several factors, including client availability, location, teaching facilities and staff preference. If a recording is made, this can be posted up to the virtual learning environment (VLE) so that the students can refer to the original client brief whenever they need.

6. Intellectual property considerations

A central premise of live-client projects is that the client will be able to use the students’ work for their own ends. This requires students to agree that their intellectual property (IP) can be used by the client. There are several ways to approach this. The first is to make it clear to students before they join the course that their IP will be used in this way. Thus, by signing up for the course, they tacitly agree to the arrangement. Alternatively, tutors may wish to have something more formal in place such as a Microsoft form that students complete before teaching commences, where they sign over their IP for the purposes of the course. University legal departments can advise on the contents of such a form.

7. Assessing student contributions

One common challenge of group work involves weak members who make little to no contribution within their group. This can be very demoralising for the group members involved. It also presents challenges for tutors in terms of whether to adjust individual marks based on contribution or not. There are two approaches that tutors can adopt:

  1. Allocate a single mark to all group members to replicate working life.
  2. Adjust individual marks according to the contribution of each member.

Option (a) requires students to be informed of this approach before the course starts. With regard to option (b), a quantitative approach to adjusting marks minimises subjectivity and ensures that all students have an equal opportunity of gaining the marks they deserve.

Martin Fellenz in a 2006 article entitled “Towards fairness in assessing student groupwork: a protocol for peer evaluation of individual contributions” provides detailed advice for tutors in terms of assessing group work and individual member contributions.

8. Managing student contact with the client

Students often have questions for the client while working on the brief. This leads to the issue of whether students should be allowed to contact the client directly. As a rule, this is not advisable as it will inconvenience a busy client. If possible, students should always contact the course tutor with their questions in the first instance. The tutor can then clear up any easy-to-answer questions. If the tutor cannot answer every question, they can approach the client, having collated a few questions, and feed the answers back to the students as necessary.

9. Adapt according to each project

In addition to the above points, it is worth considering whether to allocate students to groups or allow them to self-select. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Tutors should draw on their experience regarding this or consult colleagues as to the best approach.

Occasionally, clients will offer an award for the best student group at the end of a course. This is always welcomed by students and adds an element of competition to the proceedings. However, it should be made clear to students that “winning” the competition has no bearing on the marks awarded if that is the case.

Overall, live-client projects are an engaging way to boost student employability and can help deliver consultancy and social impact for clients. With some initial investment of time, tutors can develop a course format that can be replicated and adapted for different clients each year.

Lyvia Royd-Taylor is a principal lecturer in marketing in the School of Business and Law at the University of Brighton.

She has been shortlisted for Most Innovative Teacher of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2022. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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