Project Topics

In the class I teach, the students have to do a group project which combines a lot of the skills they acquire during the semester. It requires them to create outlines in a word processor, make spreadsheets, utilize a database (well, access), make a Powerpoint presentation and create a web 2k+ word web page for their project. The entire thing is basically a research paper gimmick, and they are only allowed to use web resources they find and evaluate using search engine strategies we discuss in class. Since I know from experience most students are going to half-ass this thing anyway (my course is an annoying Gen-Ed requirement everyone has to take, but no one wants to) I don’t require them to write their papers about technology. I figure that if they were not enjoying the class, they are not going to put any effort into the project, and then we all will have to sit through a boring presentation, full of miss-pronounced terms.

One semester I had two girls give a presentation on history of computing, and between them they pronounced ENIAC in about seven different ways, none of which were right. Another semester I had a guy who did a pretty decent job talking about mobile computing but… Well, his resources were at least 5 years out of date somehow. He never mentioned the iPhone or Android and his presentation implied that things like localization, and high-def phone cameras, ubiquitous data coverage and augmented reality apps will be things of the future. I ended up giving him full credit, because he technically fulfilled all the project requirements – only docking few points for failing to check date relevance of his data. Oh, and there was also that one girl who claimed that hackers have been messing up the internets since the 1800’s. Granted, that example is mostly a typo but a rather funny one.

I generally don’t mind when students do their projects about non-tech related stuff. Especially since the entire thing is more about the process rather than the content. And it sometimes it actually works quite well. In the past I listened to a passionate presentation about the literary works of Kurt Vonnegut, an in depth study about the causes and treatments for Malaria, and amusing insights into the elusive worlds of competitive river dancing and cut-throat whiffleball pitching competitions. That said, I usually encourage people to write about technology, and provide them with a near little file called project_topic_suggestions.pdf which outline a 20-odd different interesting topics that could be worth looking into.

Everyone’s favorite topic from that list is of course social networking. Everyone wants to do that one, and I usually end up parceling it out into chunks on a first come, first serve basis. The first group to approach me gets to talk about facebook itself. The second gets to write about social networking in general. The third has to focus on internet privacy issues but go beyond just social networks and etc..
I also have topic suggestions that suffer from the opposite problem. No one ever wants to touch them. For example, at some point I added software patents as a possible research area, but no one ever took this bait. I suspect that my students simply don’t care about that issue as much as I do. And why would they? They are not programmers, so in theory the debate on validity of software and process patentability does not involve them, even though it really does. The legal blackmail, and patent licensing deals have direct impact on software prices, and solvency of small indie dev shops – and the customers will feel the impact of these back-room deals deep in their wallets. But the whole thing is so abstract that it does not even register on the radar of non-programmers.

Future of computing is also one of the avoided topics. I basically ask students to look into things like quantum computing, bio-computing, developments in artificial intelligence, progress in robotics and etc… You would figure that at least one per year, there would be a futurist in the classroom who would jump on that. But no. No one cares about my pet “trawl singularity hub for bleeding edge stories about computing and see which ones stick” project.

Then there are topic suggestions that are no longer relevant or interesting, even though they once were. Here are couple of examples:

Back in the mid 00’s I added topic called “Software Monoculture” suggesting that students take a long hard look at Microsoft’s dominance in the OS market and their impact on software ecosystem as a whole. I wanted them to see how smaller companies can be completely wiped from existence on Microsoft’s whim, how they embrace and extend open standards into oblivion, and what do these things mean for the industry. This was a big thing in the last two decades, but as I mentioned the other day, we are in a much, much healthier place right now. Microsoft is no longer the 800 pound gorilla able to bully the entire computing world, and the explosion of mobile and web services made platform independent design the norm rather than the exception. So the entire topic is slightly outdated – more of a historical footnote than anything else at this point.

Another extremely topical subject: folksonomies. Remember when this was a thing? It exploded in the early 00’s and revolved around the neat idea that you can add a semantic layer to your web services, by crowd sourced tagging systems. The expectation was that once the system has enough users, some sort of tagging consensus would emerge from the initial chaos. Back then it seemed like a huge thing and a lot of companies jumped on the bandwagon. Technorati became the leading tagging service for the blogosphere, Flickr became the folksonomy hub for picture sharing. In 2007 an empirical study on online tagging systems was published, proving that the idea was actually sound. In most large folksonomies and ontological consensus did emerge, even in the absence of centralized vocabularies. Crowd sourcing categorization and organization of your data turned out to be a valid, albeit chaotic and unpredictable approach to semanticizign the web. But by that time no one cared anymore. Tagging and tag clouds became a standard feature in most web services and by extension ceased to be a hot buzzword. I have not heard the actual term “folksonomy” uttered in years. So this topic will likely get nixed by next semester. No reason to include something that is no longer relevant.

What topics should I add to my list? What would be topical, relevant and interesting research topics for today? What kind of things could I give to non-techies that would be both relevant to their mundane analog lives, but also would trick them into learning more about the wonderful digital garbage dump of awesomeness the rest of us live?

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14 Responses to Project Topics

  1. icebrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Folksonomy is still around, particularly in the semantic web, but the crowsourcing part has been mostly dropped, from what I can tell.

    One thing that has been in the news recently is the way automation affects jobs. Searching on Google News, you get more than 400 articles just in the past month. And while this used to affect only dumb, repetitive factory jobs, it’s already moving past that, so it doesn’t fall in the category of “future of computing” that doesn’t attract your students.
    It could even motivate them to explore professions that are more “future proof”, but this may be wishful thinking – from what I can tell, most students read but don’t really make the effort to ‘get’ what they’re reading.

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  2. Andrew Zimmerman Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    FILESHARING!!! Luke. Although I think you probably would have added that.

    Have them look at p2p, and tell them “Yuh no, there is something out there OTHER than Limewire and the dead Napster.” I would explain Bittorrent,

    have them analyze maybe RIAA, and its suing of people for millions. :)

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ icebrain:

    Well, I think the whole point of folksonomy was that it was a taxonomy added by “folks” – ie. your users. Now that the crowd sourcing is no longer emphasized it’s just tagging. :P

    Also, thanks for suggestion. That’s actually a very good topic.

    @ Andrew Zimmerman:

    File sharing is indeed on the list, but no one ever does it. Not sure why. Too technical maybe? Perhaps people are reluctant to out themselves as pirates by showing knowledge of these things? It is strange.

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  4. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Clouds? It’s probably not a scary thing since the iCloud release :)

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    Good point. I don’t think I have cloud computing on the list. It shall be added. :)

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  6. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Careful with that suggestion Luke. You’re going to get a presentation about how ice crystals in cloud formations are being used a replacement for silicon because of it’s superior conductivity. (There’s more than one irony there :))

    I don’t suppose a topic about open source (or even just crowd sourcing) would attract any interest? I bet it’s on your list already.

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  7. Type-O:
    In the class I teach, I the students have to do

    I *have* the students do
    the I students have to do…

    :) Just saying

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  8. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Though it may not be newsworthy for long, the impact (both for good and ill) of technology on recent revolutions seems like a good topic.

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  9. Morghan UNITED STATES Safari Linux says:

    I wonder about the mobile wars and how orphaned devices may eventually affect the overall status of a platform.

    BlackBerry was the master of letting their customers down by not updating the software on that really expensive phone, but it seems Android is taking their crown with manufacturers and carriers dropping devices for the next big thing seemingly at random. I’d be interested in how people see that compared to the planned end of other devices like the iPhone.

    We know that iPhone will be obsolete in a year or two, but an Android device is more of a crap-shoot,. It could be stuck behind the lead in a few months, or it could be updated for years, there’s really no way of knowing what manufacturers/carriers will continue to support their phones and tablets and which will never push an update even in the case of a serious flaw being found.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Nope, no one wants to write about open source. I tried, but my students just don’t care. They don’t see anything even remotely fascinating about the entire movement. I suspect it might be because most of them grew up in a world where digital data is free by default. I mean, Hollywood movies are free on the internet, so is proprietary software. 80% of software they use is already freeware or open source (unbeknownst to them) so it is not something on their radar.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    What, you have never heard about the iStudents? I just messed up the capitalization.

    Also, fixed.

    @ StDoodle:

    That’s actually a good suggestion. Thanks!

    @ Morghan:

    Apple has the best track record in this department. They still fully support iPhone 3GS. You can still upgrade your 3GS to iOS5 and from what I heard, the new OS actually makes the old phone much snappier.

    Android phones on the other hand are a complete crap shoot because the individual manufacturers just don’t give a fuck after a while. It’s kinda sad that the combination of an open OS and a competitive multi-vendor hardware ecosystem actually results in worse support, than a monolithic, one-company environment.

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  11. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    One more suggestion that you might not have considered: What about the impact of technology on music and the visual arts? I suspect that your students, if they don’t care about technology, at least care about music or movies, (Surely at least one of them plays the guitar?) Have them research autotuning, the impact of digital post-production, CGI, photoshopping, the benefits of different audio formats (lossy vs non-lossy) etc. Have them talk about both the practical consequences for individual artists (or studios) as well as their effects on the industries as a whole. There’s a lot of controversy at least among musicians about this so you might get a bite.

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  12. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I don’t know how many of your students later end up with office jobs. But I suspect, statistics being what they are, that it is at least 50%. And most companies nowadays use ERP, CRM and/or Financial software suites (that is a strict minimum). These are pieces of software often royally ignored by student before they leave college. Nevertheless, nearly all of them will be forced to work daily on at least one of these in their professional lives. Maybe that’s a good topic to investigate for them…

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  13. Have you considered offering extra credit for “difficult” topics? Or use weighted grading for them?

    I would just tell them “hey, if you take piracy… a topic that no student takes, I am going to be much more understanding if your information isn’t as complete as someone who takes a non-controversial topic, because I recognize that getting straight answers about piracy is difficult.” (as an example).

    Also just read this article, thought I would share: ra_now_your_freedom_depends_it#

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Nice! I like this one. I’m getting all kinds of good suggestions here. In the past I had a group of students do a presentation on video editing. They were all communication majors so it was sort of their thing. It was fairly interesting. I should make this a suggestion.

    @ Alphast:

    Good point, but I doubt any of these would have any takers. In fact, I’m surprised how many students in my class have never actually worked in an office environment. Perhaps I’m biased because I always avoided retail and food industries when I was younger. Most of my part time jobs were office gigs where I did data entry, filing and other intern-level bullshit. Most of my students on the other hand never have used Outlook, and things like network shares and printers are like arcane magic to them.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Wow, I didn’t think about that. That is a really good idea. Multi-tier topics, some of which might be more difficult and therefore more valuable. I will need to ponder on this.

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