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Running a process environment for teaching BPM

posted Sep 19, 2013, 8:58 PM by Evan Morrison   [ updated Jan 14, 2014, 7:22 PM ]

View what the process lab at the University of Wollongong Looks like Video

In 2010, frustrated with my inability to use industry based process models (due to NDA’s and other privacy concerns) that I was creating during contract engagements I set out to solve my problem in a unique way. This involved speaking to my PhD supervisor Professor Aditya Ghose, who just so happens to teach budding students the art of requirements gathering and process mapping. The idea that I had come up with was that I would create a learning platform for students. I did this by deploying a multi-tenant Oryx BPMN environment. In return for the server configuration,  I was given the ability to direct the assignments specification slightly (I could set broad industry space for the mapping exercises).

After making a few calls and procuring a server I set about configuring an environment that would allow students to do web based process modeling. The result was the “SOA BPMN Toolkit” which is the still used as the classroom environment for all SOA students at the University of Wollongong today. There have been improvements over time and also a few setbacks that have caused hiccups. By and large the system remains relatively beneficial for conscientious students.

What have I learned through this process?

Students do not follow instructions. As part of my deal for a server,  the server was to be inaccessible from outside of the university network. This was a relatively easy request for me to follow as it meant that I did not have to ask to have the port unblocked. However, it did mean that students could not easily log into the server from their homes. It was possible with a little SSH tunnelling (which any computer science student should be able to understand and do with relative ease). To assist students, I provided documentation for logging into the server from offsite.  Surprisingly, year after year there is always at least one student who emails me in the final week before assignments are due complaining that they cannot access the server.

Roughly 99% of students do not do any level of proofing or take steps to learn how to do things for themselves. In the last three years,  I have only had one email from a student who had pushed the system beyond its capabilities. That student wished to understand each of the possible BPMN elements and was using an element that was available in the offline tool provided to all students (in case the server was inaccessible). When he tried to create his process in the online platform, he found that the tool lacked the model element that he wanted to use. He then emailed me and asked if I could help. For his specific request, I dedicated roughly an afternoon verifying and then hand converting his model (from BPMN2 xml into Signavio JSON ecoddings). Interestingly, that student was the only student in his class to go on to begin a research career and is currently enrolled in a PhD program.

Students love excuses. One of the saddest parts of the exercise always occurs in the final week before submission. When roughly 70% of the class wakes up and realises that they have an assignment to submit. Typically this means that all of a sudden the server is overrun and the server crashes under the weight of the students logging in at the last minute. We run a virtual server and do make as many efforts as possible maintain the server online, but without a large budget the server still crashes from time to time. The result of which is an excuse for students completing at the last minute. Instead of downloading the offline tool that is provided (see learning point number 1), the students throw up their hands in defeat and demand extensions for their work, claiming that they are under resourced and that it is absolutely impossible to work in such an environment. Typically, the students are given extensions which they use as much as possible and generally submitting 2-3 weeks late. On reviewing late assignments I often shake my head and wonder what jobs these students will end up taking on. Many assignments are poorly completed tasks with incorrect labelling, construction and non-logical flow – basically a demonstration of everything that they are taught not to do in class. Ultimately these students demonstrate that given 2 months they are still unable to construct even the basic documentation that a typical BA does on a daily basis.

So are we doomed?

No, not really. On average 30% of students in the class ‘get it’ and take the necessary steps to understand the subject. It does mean that we need a way to accelerate the way that students learn industry relative process concepts. My original aim when I started the process laboratory three years ago was to get students to develop processes that were of sufficient quality to use in experimental settings and I think that the way to move forward is to focus on industry specific outcomes for assignment specifications. The subject itself is not supposed to teach students just how to model processes, and is mainly supposed to introduce general concepts using process modeling as a litmus test for the student’s ability to understand a specific aspect of SOA. Moving forward my plan is to roll out EduBPM – a platform for learning process management from an industry perspective.