Notes for External Collaborators in Informatics Student Projects

MSc, BSc, MInf

The School of Informatics welcomes opportunities for joint supervision of its students through undergraduate Honours and MSc projects with partners from external organisations. Benefits to the supervisor and/or their organisation include a relationship with a possibly bright student and potential recruit, the chance to try a proof of concept of an idea which would otherwise languish, fun, and the chance to do something different and worthwhile. Some projects produce usable results and some don't, but every project is a valuable learning experience for the student. These notes give guidance on some of the issues that need to be considered to ensure that projects run smoothly and produce good results.

Any questions or comments should be emailed to Don Sannella at dtsthe letter a with a circle around itinf.ed.ac.uk.

Timeline

Event MSc BSc MInf
Project proposals due January late February late February
Projects advertised to students January late February late February
Selection made February early April early April
Work starts in earnest late May mid September mid September
Final report submitted mid August early April early April, 1 year later
Duration 3 months full time 6 months part time 12 months part time
Elapsed time 6 months 12 months 24 months
Intermediate presentations 0 3 6

Though the bulk of BSc, MInf and MSc project allocations should be finalised in February / April, a few new BSc/MInf projects can sometimes be accommodated in September.

Responsibilities

It is the responsibility of supervisor(s) to provide an environment (software, hardware and place of work as necessary) where the student can produce the best work of which he or she is capable. Informatics provides lab space with generic Linux or Windows PCs but we can rarely afford specialised hardware or software. Much of our software was purchased under academic software licenses for which commercial application is specifically forbidden.

In the early stages the supervisor will need to inform the student, ensure that he or she understands the project and what skills and action will be needed to make progress, agree a methodology, ensure the project is sound and modify it if not, ensure that necessary resources are available, evaluate the student as far as possible and form an opinion as to the student's capabilities, and possibly adapt the project goals accordingly. The student is expected to take the initiative on the project at an early stage so as the project progresses the supervisor's role should settle down to being that of monitor and consultant.

During the term the supervisor will need to meet regularly with the student to ensure progress is being made and address problems promptly if they occur. At several points during BSc and MInf projects, the supervisor will be invited to attend a presentation by the student in the presence of other staff and students at which the student will receive a critical assessment of the project and his or her progress.

Supervision will require half an hour per week on average for regular one-on-one meetings, two hours for each of the presentation sessions and half a day to read and give feedback on the final report and partial intermediate drafts.

It is the student's responsibility to respect the supervisor's time, including coming to meetings on time, to respect the constraints of the external environment, and to work diligently on the project. Any work that the student is asked to perform that is not required for the project - for instance, assistance with hardware or software - should normally be paid.

Joint supervision

In most cases where an external partner organisation is involved, a co-supervisor from Informatics will be appointed. Having an internal co-supervisor reduces the travel overhead for students, improves continuity and reduces the risk if, say, business priorities affect supervision from the external partner. It also reduces the workload of external supervisors who can reduce their commitment to being technical consultants once the project is underway. The internal supervisor will normally contribute relevant technical knowledge and has the responsibility to ensure that the requirements for the degree are met. The internal supervisor will mark the project, normally after consultation with the external supervisor. Ideally, the internal co-supervisor should be identified before the project is proposed.

The supervisors need to agree clearly, in advance, and make clear to the student, what the supervision arrangements are going to be. Ideally, both supervisors should periodically meet the student together in order to avoid the student receiving inconsistent guidance.

Supervisors need to be willing volunteers - they need to communicate enthusiasm and commitment and be prepared to accept some demands on their time. This is particularly important for external supervisors where the student has several handicaps that do not apply to purely internal projects:

External projects may involve a considerable amount of "tacit" knowledge and supervisors need to think about how the student can learn what is needed to complete the work. When the student turns up on your doorstep what are you going to tell them to do?

Criteria for a good project

A good project allows the student to demonstrate the ability to take what they have learned on the course, apply it to a real problem and write up the results. The mark is awarded for the write-up, not the project, and assessment is with respect to specific academic criteria. The project should contain avenues for contraction or extension, since a) the ability of the student will not be fully known at the outset and b) it is all too easy to specify a project that turns out to be more or less difficult than one expects once it is underway. Once committed the student must be protected against changes in priorities - if staff have to be moved or priorities shift away from where the project is based, supervisors have responsibility to ensure continuity.

Good students are generally steered towards open-ended projects where they can demonstrate that they can grasp a concept and extend it. This does not necessarily rule out bounded projects ("implement an X to do Y", where X and Y are well specified) but if a good student picks up the project they may be encouraged to regard it as an instance of a class of problems and generalise the solution or at least discuss doing so. Projects should contain conceptual problems - students need opportunities to demonstrate their skill.

We cannot guarantee how a particular student will perform in any project - previous course marks are only a rough guide, and marks can only be made available with the agreement of the student. We try to guide weaker students towards less challenging projects but there is an element of pot luck here which has to be accepted. A project may produce results that can be subsequently used by the supervisor, and this has often happened in the past, but it is not guaranteed. The primary emphasis must be placed on the project's educational benefit for the student, and satisfying academic quality criteria.

Intellectual property and confidentiality

Intellectual Property in a venture is owned by the people or organisations who supply original ideas. Students are not employees of the University and they are marked in part for original input so ipso facto they will own at least some intellectual property of any creative project they are engaged in. If this is an issue, the external organisation should arrange for the student to sign a waiver prior to committing to the project. It may also be necessary to ask the student, and the internal co-supervisor, to sign a non-disclosure agreement if they will be privy to confidential information. Special restrictions or agreements may apply to sponsored students. The University must be informed of any restrictions being imposed on or agreed with the student and would veto any agreement that imposed employment restrictions on students after graduation, or restrictions on the internal co-supervisor's subsequent activities. Project reports are in the public domain unless a specific undertaking is agreed to keep them confidential.


Updated by Don Sannella, May 2018. Based on an original version due to John Butler, modified by Helen Pain.


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