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Live from RE’08: Recreating Industry in an Academic Course

I wanted to spend a few minutes writing more about the first paper from this morning, again that was Requirements Engineering Education in the 21st Century, an Experiential Learning Approach, presented by Gil Regev. In his talk, he described the design of their Requirements Engineering masters course. This class effectively simulates an end-to-end practical project for the students. In the last 2 years, they increased the time spent in this project on the business, RE, and specification topics from 7 to 11 weeks of the course (out of 14 total weeks).

He goes on to explain that industry is full of “wicked problems”, where the problems are difficult to define for all stakeholders, there are no clear stopping rules, they have strong moral/political/professional dimensions which cannot be easily formalized, and there is often no objective measure of success. Their course design is a bit unconventional – which I love – the intent is to reflect industry realities by maximizing confusion, not giving the rules of the game out, and stating goals that are not the actual learning objectives. Also, they do not grade the experience in order to create an active fearless learning.

They give the students vague a problem statement around management believing sales are suffering because of customer support problems. The instructors play the part of subject matter experts, going as far as to dress in costume to clearly separate their role as non-professor. They point out this probably does requires business savvy instructors.

In the end, the students say they would have done better if they knew the rules, if they had theory about RE before they did the exercise, and the course is chaotic. If only! Though at least one student shared a retrospective in which she recognized after the course while working at a company, that this course was in fact simulating the real world.

This class is going to be very hard to replicate in industry (as a training), since it takes 14 weeks and 6 hours a week. And even for the instructors, it is very time consuming to teach it – partly because they play the role of subject matter experts, and partly because they need to do some amount of redesign every year on the scenario so that students don’t hear ahead about how to do the exercise – as it would take away from the learning.

All that said, I like it. I like that they are trying to recreate an industry problem and teach it in academia. And sure, they can’t simulate it exactly, but this is one of the better attempts I’ve seen at it.

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