Basecamp for Organizing Student Research

At my small liberal arts college, teaching is a priority but it is also our privilege (and expectation) to conduct research. Since I teach a full load each semester, I devote my summers to research, working with students to accomplish the agenda I’ve set.

That previous sentence makes it sound like I’ve been doing this for awhile. I haven’t. This summer was my first to focus on research, since at my previous institution there was not as much of a research expectation (and, admittedly, the resources weren’t there to support it.) We just finished up our ten-week term and I’m evaluating what worked and what didn’t. I’ll report here how we utilized Basecamp for organizing student research, emphasizing its use for a very small, undergraduate-focused research program, and how it worked or didn’t.

Messages: Basecamp has a Messages feature which enables a group to send and receive messages within Basecamp. These messages can also be sent to regular email; you can reply and the response will be updated in Basecamp as well. My two students and I started out using this feature but abandoned it pretty quickly in favor of just plain old email, especially as we started working with a couple of collaborators who were not using Basecamp (and really had no need to.) In the end, the Basecamp Messages feature was not that valuable for us.

To-dos and Milestones: I had two students working on two different projects. Their tasks overlapped somewhat (for example, each was using my lab, so each held responsibility for weekly lab cleanup) but not completely. I was working on their projects but on some other research of my own. At the heart of undergraduate research is helping students develop as researchers, so I wanted to help them develop good personal time and resource management skills but also have the opportunity to observe me and each other and learn from what others do. We used Basecamp to organize tasks and milestones, and it worked fairly well. I liked that I could assign each student to a project, and initially I would enter in to-dos for them as we discussed them together.  We also worked together to formulate milestones to work towards as the time was appropriate. The students could see their to-dos, as well as that of the other student and me, each time they logged in. Gradually, they became more independent and began entering in their own to-dos and milestones. I was able to keep an eye on them from my account to make sure the students were making appropriate progress.

I liked that I could subscribe to the Basecamp calendar, which stayed updated with milestones and to-dos, in my own Google Calendar account. I also liked that the students could see the plans and progress of others. It was also helpful that I could add my to-dos for both their projects and my own, letting them know how my expertise and availability would help them out (and hopefully teaching them how to plan their work around the time constraints and expertise of others.) Overall, I’d call this feature a big win for my research program, although it could easily be usurped if Google Tasks would add a feature which enabled users to share tasks with others.

Files: We tried using Basecamp’s Files feature to share documents between ourselves, but the 10MB limit for the free account filled up really, really fast. Neither of my students had had experience with digital academic reference software, and I consider this to be a critical skill for working in research today, so we abandoned the Basecamp Files ship about 5 weeks into our program and started using Mendeley, which gives 500 MB free for shared space. This ended up being a much better option. I set up a group for us and students could add documents to our set, as could I. Later on we were able to talk about how to use the program in citations for the papers they wrote. In the end, it was a much better manager of our files, both practically and didactically.

Beyond the usual documents, each project had a number of other file types to share and store (including image and Matlab files), so Basecamp had nothing to offer us there. Our college’s research storage space is still under development, so we used Dropbox. It was an adequate solution for the summer, since the files could be access from a normal Windows directory and could be easily accessed by Matlab. I installed Dropbox on each of their research computers and set the preferences so that only the folder devoted to their work could be seen on that computer. (Admittedly, they could have changed this if they wanted to, but we were open about the arrangement and they had no interest in seeing other files I had on Dropbox.) I look forward to soon having dedicated server space so we won’t be needing Dropbox in the future, but it worked in the short-term.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about how Basecamp worked for us. It’s definitely not the killer tool for undergraduate research at small school. But using it this summer has led me to know my ideal workflow better, and I’ll have a better handle on what to look for when we get up and running next summer.

What about you? How do you implement project management tools for your academic needs? What are some ideas from larger project management that might translate to small projects very well? Let us know in the comments.

[See Heather's follow-up post here. --Ed.]

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user Angellis Ater]

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