Innovative Teaching at NJIT: Meet Professor Katia Passerini

Katia Passerini, who teaches management information systems, recently won an innovative teaching award.

NJIT has a lot of good professors.  Consider, for example, Professor Katia Passerini. She teaches management information systems, a field that merges information technology and business management. And she teaches in a way that keeps her students alert, engaged and eager to learn.

How does she do that?

She has her students work on many hands-on projects.  Some of them are real-world, in the sense that the students work with non-profit groups that need help with projects.  She also often divides her students into teams. And instead of grading the teams herself, she lets the students help evaluate each other’s projects.  It’s a process, used widely in the workplace, called peer evaluation.  She also uses the latest technology in her classrooms.

In this interview, Passerini, a School of Management professor who recently won the Innovative Teaching Award, discusses her teaching methods.

Why do you emphasize hands-on projects in your classes? 
I believe that students are best challenged by working on hands-on projects that simulate real workplace challenges. Each undergraduate information systems course I teach includes hands-on laboratories. For example, the students in one of my classes, (MIS 363: Project Management for management majors) spend about half of class time working with Project Management software in a computer lab. In this way, they can quickly see how the theoretical concepts they learned transfer into practical applications.

Can you talk about projects your students worked on?
I challenged my students to develop information systems solution for clients, one of which was for the Organizational Development Network, its New Jersey Chapter. The students had to meet with representatives from the Network, a nonprofit group of human resources managers from NJ corporations, and get feedback from them. They then had to develop Web applications based on evolving client-specifications. The students quickly learned that client needs change during a project, especially after the first prototypes are released. They had to identify strategies to deal with the changing requests.

Didn’t you also have your students compete in a web site contest?
Yes. For another real-world project, the students competed for the development of the best Web site, and the winners of the competition (a team of four undergraduate management students) received a financial reward from the client. It was a great experience for the students.

Do you sometimes mix graduate students with undergrads?
In other client-based projects, I did experiment with pairing graduate and undergraduate students from various classes. I tasked the graduate students with managerial responsibility of the projects, and the undergraduate students with the technical execution. All of the students learned that authority within a team does not necessarily equate with status. In some cases, undergraduate students quickly took over the management role from their older peers, honing their emerging leadership qualities. 

You also use an array of digital tools – WebCT, Moodle, Wimba and podcasts -- in your classes. Can you discuss that? 
WebCT and now Moodle are the university learning management systems that enable any instructor to maintain and customize a web space for on-line interaction. I use Moodle extensively both for face-to-face and on-line courses, as do many professors here at NJIT. I also supplement the on-line environments with the use of other tools, generally podcasts made available to the students, or synchronous tools such as WIMBA that enables live remote interaction. I had guest speakers addressing my graduate classes from Canada or other locations. These tools create a more dynamic environment and support sourcing know-how from where we need it, at the time we need it. They extend the classroom experience beyond the traditional boundaries.

Oftentimes you divide your students into teams and have them work on projects. What is the benefit of teamwork?
At least half of the class-deliverables for my classes must be completed by working in teams. All students in general and management students in particular need to be prepared to deal with teamwork, which is what they’ll do at their jobs. They must learn the positive aspects of teamwork and the synergy of outcomes. They must also learn to overcome hurdles and conflicts while maintaining quality management. 

Sometimes we erroneously think that it’s easier and faster for students to finish tasks individually. The reality of today’s workplaces, though, is such that it’s rarely possible to complete deliverables independently. The more students are exposed to dealing with motivational issues, timeline management and learning to devise strategies for dealing with pressure, the more prepared they’ll be for future challenges. The most important lessons I learned in my professional life have always resulted from team interactions and accomplishments. That’s because the ideas generated in the team process are often richer and more resilient.

When you form teams you pair students from different majors who have differing strengths and preferences. Why do that?
It’s fairly easy for me to mix majors on teams.  Most students who take management information systems courses are generally already in different majors (computer science, management, engineering management, architecture, etc.).  I ask the students to complete short bios that highlight their backgrounds, as well as to take short self-assessment tests (such as the Belbin team profiles used in many businesses to elicit preferred team roles). Based on the results, I form the teams by mixing students from different backgrounds.  And I intentionally mix students with different team role preferences. So if a student said she’s “action-oriented,” I’ll put her on a team with someone who said he’s “innovation-oriented.” Recent managerial research has shown that forming teams in this way works best in the workplace. I read that research to assure that my students learn in accord with the best managerial practices. And working in varied teams will help my students when they start working, since at their jobs they’ll be placed on such teams. So it’s good for them to get used to that now.

In terms of grading student work, you use a method called peer evaluation. How does that work?
Peer evaluation is a more democratic form of grading. It lets my students see that there are many ways of evaluating a project, not just my way.  My assessment is still there, and is the major one, but what student teams say about each other plays a large role in improving and evaluating our projects.  Students, moreover, can be demanding critics. If some students are not working hard and contributing to their team, the other students will call them on it.  And yes, sometimes teammates do get fired!

Isn’t peer evaluation also used today by companies and other organizations?
That’s another benefit of peer evaluation; it mimics current organizational practices, such as the 360-degree performance assessments. In my prior management consulting jobs, I was assessed by my peers (as well as managers and clients) at the end of each project. This constantly reminded me that I had to deliver my best work when dealing with teammates, since they would later be commenting on the quality of my interactions within the team. It was a fair game, and it was part of the annual reward system. Peer evaluation works extremely well in today’s current workplace, and I am again leveraging that experience in the classroom.  In this way, my students will know what’s expected of them when they start their careers and can more easily excel at their work.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)