Student group projects and student organizations: is organization possible? From flickr user bjornmeansbearThe group project: that painful thing that pops up every once in a blue-moon-of-a-class. Why is the group project always so strenuous? Even with capable leaders and motivated teams, any project of reasonable size fizzles after a while. The computer science majors at LMU are put to the test every fall; all CS majors (all 6 of us) must create a program of significant difficulty as a team. Over the past 16 weeks, we have been slaving away and trying to stay on top of deadlines. To organize ourselves, we used the project-management software Basecamp. This post will talk about the merits and caveats of using this web technology in a classroom setting, as well as how student organizations can use Basecamp.

Choose the Right Tool

Don’t use a hack saw to make an incision; don’t use a nailgun on your younger brother’s first grade art project. For any group project spanning less than 2 or 3 weeks, Basecamp is not the tool you want to use. Basecamp is meant for companies making products. HackCollege uses Basecamp to organize its many (secret) endeavors. We have several people around the world constantly working on several different projects. We need a central hub for everything.

For 80% of the group projects you’ve ever had, Basecamp shouldn’t even be a consideration. For something on the scale of the iPhone application that our senior CS class creating, Basecamp is perfect. We have many deadlines and milestones (over 20) and segmented responsibilities.

What Basecamp Offers

Basecamp is a web application. Most things you do will be through its web interface. I’ll quickly go over some functionality of each project.

Messaging

An example of the messaging window in Basecamp.The messaging feature of Basecamp is one of its strongest selling points. The threading is great and recipients can be included via email if that works better for them. That is, if I create a message on Basecamp, that can get sent to my teammates’ email addresses. They can then respond directly from their email client. This is great for keeping communication lines open and constant, which is a key to successful student leadership.

Messages can also be linked to a milestone. When viewing a milestone, all of the relevant messages pertaining to it will show up. Cool.

To-Do Lists

Basecamp also has the ability to create To-Do lists and assign each item to a team member. Also, the To-do lists can be related to a milestone. Viewing that milestone will also bring up the associated to-do lists. Cool, but too much micromanagement for most projects. I do tend to make them for myself, though.

Milestones

Milestones are the second cornerstone of Basecamp. These are the due dates. A great feature is the ability to shift deadlines respectively. For example, If you miss deadline A and deadlines B and C both were set to be completed 1 week after deadline A, you have the option to shift the deadlines for B and C automatically. Bonus: your milestones calendar can be exported as an iCal feed.

Writeboards

Cool, but my team hardly uses them. IRL whiteboards and blackboards work much better.

Chat

Never used it.

Files (only on paid accounts)

The files tab is great for going back and checking out versions of files. I haven’t used it yet, but I will be in the near future.

What Basecamp Does Well for Students

The Milestones and Messaging features are by far the best. The milestones keep all members aware of time-budgeting while messages keep everyone in the loop. Basecamp keeps everything under one roof. Everything that Basecamp could be done with some fancy Google Docs, Google Groups and Google Calendar arm-twisting. Basecamp is a one-stop shop.

Basecamp also enables remote working, which is something I’ve become more turned onto after reading Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week. Whether it’s the summer, a short three-day weekend or a long holiday break, projects aren’t going to organize themselves. Take a step in the right direction and make your project management, planning and communication asynchronous.

Student organizations could especially use Basecamp. One Basecamp ninja could prevent a student government ship from sinking. (Sorry to mix ninja and pirate metaphors.) In fact, Basecamp’s design may arguably cultivate better leaders by encouraging delegation. Let me dissect two case studies where a common student organization could use Basecamp: student government and a student newspaper.

Using Basecamp in Student Government

Student government is a great case for Basecamp: plenty of people all with committees, pecking orders and delegations-a-plenty. The most difficult parts about utilizing Basecamp in student government will be getting everyone signed up and nudging people to check it frequently.

Other than that, the work will organize itself: Fall concert? That’s a new project. Deadline for signing an artist? That’s a milestone. Potential artist list? Use a Writeboard. Assigning contact responsibilities? To-Do list. Pre-show setup and post-show striking? Another To-Do list.

Again, the key will be more delegating properly to responsible parties, keeping the To-Dos atomic and keeping government members excited about Basecamp.

Using Basecamp in a Student Newspaper

Student newspapers are a slightly different beast. The big problem I forsee is people glossing over milestones. In a student newspaper, the deadlines are regular and the consequences of missing one is severe. Chances are, editors and writers know the deadlines better than their own phone number.

Thus, Basecamp is probably better utilized as an idea board. Create Writeboards or To-Do lists for suggested stories. If you use the To-Do lists, you can have each writer “jump” on a story and assign the responsibility of that item to themselves. Not world-changing, but good for section editors to keep tabs on who’s-doing-what.

Where Basecamp Falls Short

For many student groups and organization, Basecamp may be too much overhead for the current operation. Smaller groups and less-intense projects should stay away from Basecamp. If you see the following symptoms inside your organization or group, suggest Basecamp:

  • Deadline confusion (not consistently missed deadlines, that’s a different problem)
  • Responsibility confusion (not improper delegation, again a different problem)
  • Responsibility shirking

Otherwise, you will probably do more harm than good by adding another radical to the chaos.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

Basecamp is not entirely free. Free accounts are available, but you are limited to one project at a time. A $12/month upgrade gets you the ability to create 3 concurrent projects and its upwards from there. An important note: File upload is not available if you don’t pay. For our project, I’m plunking down the $12/month just so we can swap docs and diagrams back and forth.

For student group projects, the free account will suit you well enough. And given by the rate at which student organizations tend to hemorrhage money, a $12/month fee to feign organization is nominal.

For CS Students, Icing on the Cake

If you don’t know what an API is, skip this section.

Basecamp has a great API that’s already been implemented in a few different languages (one of them being Ruby). For example, I wrote an Automator workflow and Ruby script that compiles our project nightly and then reports the results to Basecamp. That took me about 30 minutes to write and get configured. You can do all sorts of stuff like this if you’d like.

If you’d like me to send you the scripts that I wrote, just shoot me an email to kelly [at] hackcollege [dot] com.

If You’re Sold, Use Our Promo Code Before You Buy

You’ve been had! This entire post was to just get you to use our promo code! Not really, but if you are going to sign up for Basecamp, please use our promo code: MICHAELSUTTON1 or just sign via our referred URL: http://www.basecampHQ.com/?referrer=MICHAELSUTTON1

Stay tuned for a post where I talk about the theory of race condition and how it can get group projects done in a snap. In t.he meantime, leave a comment about your own experiences with Basecamp.