my professor wants us to walk into local businesses and ask if we can do a free project for them

A reader writes:

In two of my classes so far in college, we have been required to divide into groups of students and find a client in the community, usually a small business, nonprofit, or the like, and do a website or other IT, design, or technical communications work for them. Yes, for free. We get client gratitude and a grade. And it doesn’t count as any kind of internship. Our groups are divided into project manager, technical writer, designer, and developer; all but project manager can be duplicated if need be.

Big University offers no official help to find these clients. It’s entirely in our hands. The professor of both of these (and other classes where this is a requirement) might have some unofficial leads — one group a couple years ago did the website of a club that the teacher was president of at the time — but otherwise, this group of usually 19-22-year-old students have to find the resources and make contacts on their own with zero help. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many wind up doing work for family or friends of family, which comes with its own set of problems.

Banana crackers check:

The professor for this class was trying to suggest ways to find clients. His primary suggestion was to go, as a full group, properly masked of course, and walk into businesses and ask if they needed the services we are offering.

This doesn’t work for a job. I sincerely doubt it would work for this, pandemic or not!

I spoke up against it, saying they’d never get past the receptionist and recommending using email. Probably unsurprisingly, he contradicted me and insisted it was a good idea.

For this guy’s background, he’s talked about his job history several times. He worked for a couple of large corporations before being hired by [Big Airplane Company] and worked there for many years before being recruited to teach classes at Big University (an incredibly common career track in this state). He’s always worked the technical and SME end; he’s never worked for a small company, never worked in hiring even when he managed, never worked front desk.

But I’m asking for a check that going into offices is as banana crackers an idea as I think it is.

Are there better, more reliable ways for my classmates and future students to connect with organizations in our community so they can do these projects that, in my experience, are 50% of the quarter grade? For environment and resources, Big University is in a populous county with several cities, an excellent transit system, and good infrastructure for the internet.

It is indeed a bad idea.

Most offices won’t be receptive to a random group of students appearing without an appointment and wanting to talk to someone (and presumably not knowing who) about doing free work for them.

The ones that are receptive (and there must be some, if the professor has had students do this successfully) are likely to be very small, somewhat disorganized, and … maybe not especially rigorous in their standards if they’re going to let a group of students off the street do web, IT, design, or communications work for them.

It’s not surprising that a lot of students end up doing the work for family or friends instead. And in those cases, you’ve got to assume they’re not learning the same lessons they’d learn from doing the work in a more professional context.

Speaking of lessons, by encouraging students to look for projects this way, your professor is teaching a questionable lesson about how business usually gets done. And that’s before getting into the issues with working for for-profit business for free. That’s a little more complicated here than it normally is, since you’re students seeking an experience these businesses otherwise wouldn’t give you (but of course that’s the argument people use for highly problematic unpaid internships too, although this isn’t quite the same).

As for how to do it differently … ideally your professor would do some of the legwork to set this up, like working with the career services center or the alumni office or tapping his own networks to find organizations that are willing to partner with students for the project. And if that proves difficult/impossible, that’s likely a sign that students won’t have more success trying to arrange it on their own. (I’m also curious about how necessary this element of the work is, or whether the same lessons could be learned by “working with” faux company profiles created for the sake of the project.)

Read an update to this letter.

{ 600 comments… read them below }

  1. TimeTravlR*

    My first thought was Alison’s last note. Just make up a fake company with a fake mission, organization, etc. This professor seems very out of touch on this.

    1. Meep*

      I am a grad student in Engineering Management. Minus one class where I had to contact actual sales engineers to interview them about their jobs, this is essentially what we have done for every class – create a fake company with a need and make a real proposal. It is 100% easier and can get you actually passionate about things YOU want to do.

      1. FakeNonProfit*

        We did this in grad school as well. We made up a fake organization (I was getting an MSW) and then developed the mission, vision, finding structure, and which real nonprofits or govt services we would need to partner with. I made a real budget for my fake program and it went just fine!

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          How did we get this far without Vandalay Industries being nominated to benefit from this excellent free service?

          1. The OTHER Other*

            “And you can see in our subsequent work with the Human Foundation, we have built up real relationships in the nonprofit sector as well”

      2. LinuxSystemsGuy*

        I honestly can’t believe that not one, but two different professors (and it sound like more really, just two so far that LW has had) thought this was a good idea. In every version of this kind of exercise I’ve ever seen, either is was from a book of case studies: with the project details coming from the book, and the prof acting as the “company” for any questions; or something totally made up as noted above.

        Asking students to just find some random company/group that’s willing to let some sight unseen troop of college students do what is presumably somewhat important work for them is bonkers. I wouldn’t trust a company/group that was willing to *let* the students work for them under these conditions to actually be reasonable humans with any grasp of scope or function. Even if they find a “customer”, they’ve been totally setup for failure, and might do damage to the university’s credibility to boot.

        1. EngineeringFun*

          I taught product design for engineers at grad and undergrad levels. Did something similar. Fake products. fake companies. I work in a startup rich city, and would only suggest contacting people prior and never stop bye. I would suggest a networking event at WeWork, but those don’t exist anymore!

        2. Candi*

          LW* here. Class is in three minutes, so I have to be fast:

          The two classes I mentioned in the letter are both under the same professor.

          30% of the grade is book work, and that’s read the chapter and electronically turn in two papers a week answering questions. 20% is reporting on about things are going on with our teams. My impression is it’s set up to minimize work for him.

          There’s another professor that did the outside, HTML-CSS-Javascript, but she had some connections, it was 30% of the grade, and she had a LOT of other practical work.

        3. bamcheeks*

          Work in a large university: we run a ton of live briefs like this and have a whole team of people whose jobs are to work with local companies and organisations to source suitable projects and manage both employer and student expectations of what’s realistic and achievable within the timeframe.

          1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

            That’s a program though, sounds almost like a mini internship. There’s professional contacts at the university that can vet the “customers”, and also work with them to make sure that what they’re getting is what they expect to get. They also (I assume) make sure the students aren’t being abused.

            This is one guy flying by the seat of his pants and expecting the students themselves to do all that work in addition to whatever the thing the project is about. Plus they have a huge negative incentive. If they don’t find anyone to work with they miss out on a huge portion of their grade. They’re motivated to work for anyone, no matter how flighty, abusive, or otherwise unfit they may be.

            Plus the assignment is inherently classist. If my niece got this assignment she could go to her auntie and ask to redo the law firm’s web site, but not everyone’s aunt owns a small law firm. So group “A” has my niece and within an hour has a caring and supportive “customer” who will do her best to let them shine. Meanwhile group B has to spend the first two weeks going door to door to find whatever weird or desperate org is willing to get whatever they get for free from a bunch of college kids.

              1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

                After reading all your comments and the original post, I kinda feel like you should talk to the department head or dean. This seems more and more like the guy is just trying to the minimum possible work while calling it a “project”. I’m saying this as person that had a good relationship with the department head in both grad and undergrad though, so YMMV, but even if you don’t know them it might be worth trying. This is a not cool thing your prof is doing.

          2. Splendid Colors*

            The university around the corner from me has ***internship*** programs where students do websites for local small business owners who apply to the program. I think the City’s office for small businesses refers people there.

            One of my clients had a group of students do her website for free but it took so long (maybe a whole academic year) that she probably lost enough in sales to have paid a real web developer who wouldn’t put the project on hold for 2 weeks every time they had an assignment or exam in another class.

        4. whingedrinking*

          In fairness, this guy sounds like quite a lot of people who are brought on to teach a course without actually knowing anything about teaching, let alone the finer points of assessment and curriculum design.
          But that doesn’t excuse the fact that this is a terrible idea. As a teacher, I’m thinking that the only way to make this concept work at all would involve pants-crappingly huge amounts of work on *my* part – constant check-ins with the students and their “clients” at the very least, if only to make sure the students aren’t being mistreated. And grading it – just the thought is giving me a headache. (How would you even fit this into a rubric?) I’m all for non-traditional and experience-based education, but this is…not that.

          1. Candi*

            LW* here: By teach’s own statement, the university recruited him to teach. It sounded like them hiring an SME to be a teacher. Which does or doesn’t work, depending.

            You don’t want to see his rubrics. Any of them. I’ve never seen any so bad, and I’ve been in college since summer 2018, and I took classes summer 2019 as well. (Summer, eight weeks instead of ten. Compressed Precalculus II. Would not recommend.)

            1. Blarg*

              It’s like the reverse of ‘those who can’t, teach.’ [Which was always so condescending towards teachers]

              Just cause you’re good at a thing doesn’t make you good at teaching the thing, let alone teaching the conceptual underpinnings of the thing.

              A SME often encouraged to teach, as if being an expert in my field made me an expert in teaching. It does not. I’ve met me. I’m not an educator.

        5. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          I wonder if these profs also advise graduates to show their “gumption” by marching into a company’s headquarters and demanding an interview on the spot? ;>

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      RIGHT?!? Whatever happened to making up a business for this kind of thing? This prof is bananas.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: This way, all he has to mark down for the project is whether the company was happy or not. And that everyone did their weekly presentation properly.

        1. NoNotNan*

          Sorry to say, this is very common in Business School. I did it with my e-marketing class (my husband’s friend let us consult with him and someone from the CS school about a new website for his business), for my Organizational Management class my classmate’s dad knew an executive at a manufacturing company (we learned that his pro tip for interviewing candidates involved his receptionist going out to look at the interviewee’s car to assess the state of the vehicle – I had driven my inlaws’ car to the interview and I felt very uncomfortable because I didn’t control the condition of the car I borrowed!) Those two projects made me dread any professor who told us we would be having “networking opportunities.”

          And for a class operations, my classmate’s dad knew a food services business owner and we were supposed to write a report about how to enhance their business operations. The guy and his wife/co-owner were amazingly gracious and gave us so much feedback and sent an incredibly kind message to the professor. The professor’s grade didn’t reflect the customer’s satisfaction despite the owners saying some of our suggestions did give them new ideas. It was one of the two biggest disappointments in school.

          The second was the project management class where we were divided into groups to host a fundraising event for a college scholarship. The fundraiser happened annually so the professor had settled on the exact right way to execute it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was acceptable unless we read her mind and executed it to her specifications. We reach out to donors for the silent auction? Turn in a sample email! 75% credit, here are 20 corrections to make so it matches her ideal template. Website copy to promote the event registration page? 82% credit, here are the comments about what will be used instead. It was when I realized she already would execute the event without us, we just had to dance as her little puppets. It sucked, nothing could remotely deviate from her prescribed plan. She had a formula, which we had to guess, for how many Costco packs of muffins fed how many attendees. We couldn’t go ask the bakery to donate their muffins, we were supposed to plan for Costco muffins.

          1. Candi*

            This is an IT Bachelor’s req class on teams and team management, not a business school class.

        2. Nanani*

          So if the company ghosts, you fail the project?
          To name only one glaringly obvious problem with this scheme :|||

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      This. Alternately, they can even do things like look at existing businesses websites and do a redesign.

      Totally unnecessary to do this with real businesses. Even if businesses magically agreed, it puts the students in really bad positions if their “client” doesn’t like their work. They’re students, not experts, I don’t expect their work to be at a level where their work is useable in a practical sense.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Right?? And what a waste of time for the company, really, to have an inexperienced student designing their website. I hate this professor, what a waste of everyone’s time. And of course the legal aspect of it….

        Is it too early to ask for an update on this one? I imagine that if LW is a student it would be very difficult to push back on this to said professor, but LW, if you don’t need a recommendation from him and are done taking classes with him, it’d be worth it make a bigger issue out of it. At your discretion, of course. No need to do this if it’d be a huge problem for you or you just don’t want to.

        And also, as to why he doesn’t set this up with the school’s career center…could it be because he knows this isn’t a very good thing to be doing and doesn’t want to alert the school to it? Normally I am a proponent of Hanlon’s Razor, but in this case maybe he really is a bad person and not just ignorant or dumb.

        1. Nanani*

          I also speculated that the absence of linkage with the career center, or whatever segment of the school normally handles internships and placements, may indicate that this prof has been told NO by those who know better and is trying to just, do it anyway.

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Oooh, yes, that’s possible too! In which case this guy is Very Bad, not just bad.

          2. KoiFeeder*

            I would be very surprised to learn that the prof had not been told no to this. Inexperienced student work is not how the college wants to represent its alumni to businesses, and I doubt the rumor mill would distinguish between “current student of Hudson University doing work for a grade” and “alumni of Hudson University doing work for money” (and some of the businesses might genuinely misunderstand what’s going on).

            1. Dana*

              The professor probably hasn’t been told “no,” because probably no one with the authority to tell them “no” is aware of what they’re doing in the first place. In most schools, a professor has a lot of latitude and no one is looking over a professor’s syllabus and assignments to approve them in advance.
              The students should complain to the department chair, or the dean, or whoever–that might be enough to get this sort of assignment officially forbidden.

              1. KoiFeeder*

                Okay, that’s fair. What I probably meant to say was “I would be surprised if the professor asked anyone about this and got the all-clear for it” but my brain is fried like an egg.

            2. IHireScienceWriters*

              If they were students from Hudson, I’d be concerned about the police trooping through my business and an inevitable complex legal case. :-)

              1. KoiFeeder*

                I picked it solely because of another commenter’s username. I’m entirely unfamiliar with the show it comes from (one of those CSI shows, right?).

              2. Crazy Cat Lady*

                Said professor would have been found floating in the river, and one of students would have been responsible for their demise.

            3. nonprofit llama groomer*

              So many props for the Hudson University reference.

              I’m confused about your wording. I think you mean to say that if the prof had asked, he’d have been told no, so he just didn’t ask.

              I’m old and a law grad and hate to tell you how many professors I had who didn’t know anything about the actual practice of law at a prestigious-ish law school. Thank goodness for our clinical opportunities where I actually learned from teachers who weren’t as valued as the high brow theoretical professors. My undergrad was at a normal state university and I had professors with real skills and experience and learned so much.

              1. KoiFeeder*

                That is indeed what I meant to say! My brain is pretty fried from a long-lasting fever, so I’m having a bad time with communicating. Doing my best and I do appreciate folks meeting me in the middle here.

        2. Wombats and Tequila*

          That’s what I was thinking. No one* who needs an important task done asks people to do it for free because then the one doing the work have no accountability.

          If I had really needed a website done, it would have been done already. If by chance I was just getting around to proposals and specs, the last people I would want on the job would be kids whose timeline is by the end of the semester, who also have other classes and jobs, who have never worked together before, and whose primary objective is to please the professor.

          Also there is the question of taking the time to talk to random kids off the street. How many meetings does he want the students to have with me? Maybe I would be able to spend 1 – 1 1/2 hours max of unbudgeted time with some random people, but thats only because I’m a people pleaser. This professor is basically volunteering random nonconsenting business owners to set aside their time to do his job for him.

          It wouldn’t be a bad idea if he had already done the work of getting some local businesses to volunteer to have spec meetings with the students, but really the best idea would be if he made up some case studies. That way, he could guarantee that the students would have to use whatever particular skills he knew they should have mastered. As it is, if the assignment is done as he requested, some teams could find themselves mired in highly complex tasks such as building a web interface to some weird old legacy backend written in COBOL on a PC running OS2 (true story).

          *i.e. no one well grounded in reality

          1. MusicWithRocksIn*

            E-mail also is a terrible idea. I’m the person who sorts through the info@ email for my company, and there are SO SO many junk emails a day of people who want to re-design our website or do technical work for us – I do not pay any attention to the details, they just get deleted with all the other junk. Unless someone is actively looking to buy something for us it pretty much gets ignored. I can’t imagine having much luck over the phone either, there is just too much cold calling and desperate attempts to get business right now, no one has much time to waste on sorting through something that looks too good to be true and will probably assume it’s a scam.

            1. Slow Gin Lizz*

              I also do the info@ email at my org and SAME, I delete so many spammy emails of that sort! Cold calling isn’t a great way to get a response no matter which medium you use for it (and if you think of the old-time use of “call” to mean “visit in person,” then this professor’s recommendation is truly cold calling).

            2. pancakes*

              That’s a great point too. I would occasionally get emails from journalism students wanting to do interviews for class projects when I was blogging, and a lot of the time their emails weren’t very polished at all. Which, of course, they are students. It’s unlikely this odd and lazy prof is also covering how to draft professional, eye-catching, spam-defeating emails. Even if he was, the leg work of seeking out and making contact with actual businesses is totally unnecessary and a huge waste of many people’s time, as so many commenters have already pointed out.

              1. Gatomon*

                Ugh, journalism school. This kind of thing was common because the professors were trying hard to simulate “real” journalism assignments to prepare us for careers. Unfortunately, it was a complete waste of time. No one cares about an article that was never even published, and even people who initially were open to speaking would blow you off once they learned it would’ve even make the college paper. Only the students who managed to get on with the student paper or got in with the local paper on internships went on to be successful because they were the ones with a pile of clips with their name on it. And the college basically reserved those positions and internships for their favorites, so the other 95% of us were SOL from the start. (No I’m not resentful of all the money they took from me, why do you ask…)

            3. LinuxSystemsGuy*

              I love the COBOL on OS2 bit, but yeah, it’s not that unlikely. We just bought a washing machine from a local appliance store. The salesman complained several times about how cheap Management was when it came to systems. For instance, they use some weird and creepy website to take credit card payments, and the salesman had to enter our credit card under *his* account. He was very careful to show us that he wasn’t saving our info (which, good on him), but it was still kinda weird and crazy. We commented that they should look into Square or one of the other processors, and he just sighed and said Management was kinda dumb that way.

              I could *totally*’see these people getting a bunch of students to build a website interface to their old ass mainframe based inventory system. Which definitely looked like COBOL to me.

          2. Slow Gin Lizz*

            This professor is basically volunteering random nonconsenting business owners to set aside their time to do his job for him.

            Ding ding ding, we have a winner! Hi prof, Slow Gin Lizz here: How about you just create a project for your students instead of making them do the legwork of finding a project for yourself and the local businesses do the legwork of creating said project?

        3. Candi*

          LW* here: The prof claims the uni is cool with it.

          But after all the comments here (reading from the bottom and going up), I’m wondering if the prof didn’t tell them HOW he’s doing the project he says they said was fine.

          It would explain why there’s a hard explicit no on approaching uni departments.

          1. Certaintroublemaker*

            Please be very, very specific on your feedback form at the end of the semester about this.

            1. Shan*

              Do those feedback forms actually go anywhere worthwhile though? I had some very negative feedback about teacher who arrived 40 minutes late to a lecture because he had a party (he came in, told us to wait, and left again), then awkwardly found out later he was the only one to go through the feedback.

              1. Splendid Colors*

                It depends on the university. My amazing thesis advisor almost didn’t get tenure because there were a few complaints from students that he “ignored their questions in lab.” What that meant was that one of the lab rules was “My hearing aids only pick up sounds from the front, so if you have a question, you need to talk to my face and not the back of my head.” They consistently talked to the back of his head, even after reminders, and then whined about it on their evaluations. The university took student experience very seriously and that was a Big Problem at his tenure review.

                1. Blarg*

                  This seems like layers and layers of disability discrimination. I know the rules are different in academia, but teaching students that they do not have to accommodate the communication needs of others and can, in fact, complain about it is pretty horrible.

              2. Cruciatus*

                I’m a day late (and probably a dollar short), but I used to work in my university’s School for Humanities and Social Sciences and the director of the school absolutely went over these results and discussed with faculty, especially at year-end review time. The faculty do get the results, but so do other people at the university. I had to add all the results into a spreadsheet that gave the professor their own grade, and include all the comments from students at the bottom for the director to peruse in an easy to read way.

                Another option is just to go speak to the director (or dean, whatever it might be called, where I am it’s director) of whatever school that professor is in and even better if you can in a group. Like you said, who knows how the professor is offering this up to the university, and this way you can at least know you tried to set the record straight and offering up why this is problematic and maybe things will change. Good luck!

                1. Cruciatus*

                  I realize now I wasn’t responding to the OP directly, but maybe they will still see this.

        4. LinuxSystemsGuy*

          For what it’s worth, In case you alerts turned on for responses, I don’t see her commenting on your particular comment, but she’s giving lots of comments that are effectively updates. The more she says the more bonkers it sounds. The grading criteria is basically “Did the “clien”t like it”.

      2. Danniella Bee*

        I am currently getting a master’s in business and HR and have done two projects with real clients and am about to start a third. This is a requirement and you cannot just make up a fake business in my program where the professor attends certain client meetings and demands certain types of documentation. These types of assignments are very common and the solution isn’t lying unless you want a failing grade.

    4. Claudia*

      It doesn’t even have to be fake! In my Marketing class in grad school, we all had to pick a real company and design a faux marketing campaign for it. The campaigns were purely hypothetical and only ever went to the teacher, we didn’t march into established businesses and say, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing, but can I manage your marketing department for free?”

      1. Kimmy Schmidt*

        I did this in library school too! Creating fake websites, promotional materials, programs, grant proposals, collections, etc. for real libraries. Only once did I even have to interview someone at the library in question, we usually could find what we needed online.

        1. cardigarden*

          Yep, had this project in library school, too, except like LW, I was supposed to contact a Real Professional. I made the whole thing up and still got an A.

      2. CoveredinBees*

        Yup. I have absolutely done this in classes. Approaching random companies to pitch their “services” is a huge waste of time and not necessary to the project.

      3. Bluffdweller*

        EXACTLY, Claudia! =) I’ve also had my students choose a real, local business in our town to practice designing social media campaigns. What’s nice about choosing a real company is that the students can search public data to inform their social media campaign choices (so they’re also learning how to do research, work with data, adapt to audiences and a whole host of other lessons). It’s an opportunity to spend time looking at the actual company’s current choices and discuss various different approaches they could take or should avoid. Sometimes it’s nice to have classes vote on a single local business everyone can promote, so then we can compare each student’s (or team’s) approach to how they would do the social media campaign… again, a learning opportunity to see what works/doesn’t work and how to take one’s work to the next level. Businesses don’t have time to guide students (nor should they be doing the work for a professor in doing so), and students shouldn’t have to be out in the field before they have the knowledge and skills to do so. This is a great compromise… they work with real public data to make informed choices while also being given the ability to learn and advance their skills in a classroom environment.

    5. Kodamasa*

      Not to mention it takes care of the advantages/disadvantages groups will have based on their client. It would be a nightmare to fail your course because your reluctant client stopped responding or gave bad feedback or any number of very likely things to happen.

    6. Smithy*

      I had a program require something like this in the nonprofit space – and the path my group went on essentially ended up here. We first started doing something around the nonprofit organization of a participant’s parent and quickly realized it would be more interesting to develop a spinoff concept from the real nonprofit that better fit with the assignment than the real-life needs of the actual organization.

      For these types of university assignments that are not true internships/externships/apprenticeships/etc – it’s far easier to look at the assignment and build around that. If your group is most interested in developing a business to business matching app but the only company that wants to work with you is interested in updating their website….don’t be limited by that.

      I do think that where the friends/family part of this is helpful is if someone has a relation who’s in consulting or works for themselves, it can be nice to to build off of something that is real. If someone’s parent is a real estate agent in Phoenix, and then you build a service that excites you most around the real estate needs in Phoenix….it’s connected to a real business even if it’s never used. And can be easier to focus on the actual assignment as opposed to created Llama Grooming of the Greater Phoenix Area Inc from scratch.

      1. Fluffy Fish*

        But the friends/family is also really problematic in that not all students will have the same kind of access to friends/families with businesses. This is particular no good for members of marginalized communities.

        So you have people in class who have it “easy” because they have access to a family member who owns a business. And then you’ll have other people who are stuck with this professors terrible go knock on doors tactic. It’s not an equitable assignment and education should always strive to b equitable.

        1. mego*

          My thoughts exactly! I’ve never known anyone who owns a business. Growing up, I’m not even sure I knew anyone who worked for a business. Whenever we were supposed to do things like elicit ads for concert programs, I never had anyone to ask. This class sounds like a nightmare.

        2. MusicWithRocksIn*

          Plus, if you are in a group with someone who’s mom owns a business, there is a chance that that person will suddenly have much more power and pull in the group, because it is her mom, and mom is gonna just say what she needs to so her daughter is happy and has a good grade. It will totally throw off dynamics in that group, and is pretty much teaching the kids nepotism 101.

          1. Felis alwayshungryis*

            To be fair, that’s a lesson they may as well learn sooner rather than later…

            (Joking aside, you’re absolutely right.)

          2. Candi*

            LW* here: My group in fall quarter were working for a member’s mother and her restaurant. He was our point of contact on our side.

            Fortunately, he worked with the group and accurately and quickly relayed what she wanted, without pushing anything or swinging weight around. He stuck to priorities, and the only time he ever brought up his relationship directly was to say his mother wouldn’t like the really zoomed in picture of the broccoli and that we needed an alternative. (He was right, and she wanted the alternative.)

            He’s going to make someone a good coworker with that sense of proportion.

            1. Alpaca Bag*

              That sounds like a good project. I was very lucky when I had an assignment like that, because our group was grad students who worked regular day jobs, so we got to re-do the intranet for a sub-group of Hershey Chocolate. I was in a later class with the student who worked there, and he said they were still using our work.

        3. Smithy*

          I can better frame my position as this – typically with these assignments (unlike formal internship expectations) professors do not confirm whether or not you ever talked to someone with a business and agreed to such an arrangement. If someone has that connection – it can be easy as its grounded in reality.

          However, you can get that same level of “grounded in reality” by deciding as a group what you want to do and therefore what business would fit best and then do desk research on the kinds of websites and apps those businesses use. Maybe ask for an informational interview on how they use their website or app, but don’t bother actually pitching your services. Doing desk research and an informational interview or two, and you’ll get really close.

          I get the point on equity – but group projects are always rife with a variety of inequity. Especially when the nature client everyone gets paired with is different and includes zero vetting. Someone may have a part-time job at a small business where they’re already doing this, and basically bangs out their entire group’s project during their work hours. But to work smarter not harder, my main point is to not invest a business or sector from scratch.

          1. Candi*

            LW* here: We have to show the URL and the website pages we’ve been working as part of the weekly progress and check-in presentations.

            Yes, teach asks questions. No, he’s not good at giving feedback. Most of the actionable feedback comes from other students.

    7. an academic*

      DON’T DO THIS. Lying and saying that your project is on a real company when it isn’t would be an academic integrity violation. At our university, it doesn’t matter how banana crackers the assignment is. If intentionally misrepresent your work this badly, and someone finds out, the consequences will be at the minimum failing the assignment and being put on probation and at most could result in long-term suspension from our entire university system.

      Either work with the professor or complain to their department chair or dean.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        I didn’t think this commenter was advocating lying to the professor, more of a general “this would be a more normal way for this class to handle this project.” But like, with that being how the professor assigned it.

      2. Lady Luck*

        No, they’re not saying to lie. They’re saying to do this as part of the project with the professor aware that it is not based on a real company. This is how I most often see it done. Like say, how a marketing student may do an assignment on how they would theoretically bring in more clients for a pet groomer that specializes in Yorkies, not actually try to find a grooming company to market for.

      3. pancakes*

        It is super normal for students at both the undergraduate and graduate level to complete assignments or independent studies that revolve around actual or fictional companies without contacting them. No one is advocating lying or misrepresentation. My goodness.

        1. an academic*

          Sorry, I completely agree that the *professor* should have set up the course with using fake companies. But it was the student writing in for advice, not the professor. The commenter said to use a fake company.
          That said, cheating happens. I hear a lot about students in lab courses making up fake data because they didn’t want to do their experiment or because they didn’t think their real results “looked good.” These students always come up with some justification for themselves for why what they did isn’t a big deal. As a professor, I’ve heard that if you teach poorly and have impossible or stupid expectations for assessments, you are inviting cheating. I do think it’s highly likely that a small percentage of people of the course really do make up a fake company, especially if the professor does nothing to check.

          1. an academic*

            Also, someone downthread just admitted to doing a fake project and getting a local jeweler to agree to lie to the professor about it. So, it is not true that “no one is advocating lying or misrepresentation.”

    8. A Feast of Fools*

      Yep. We had to do this for one of my undergrad business classes.

      I went back to school in my 40’s after a career in tech sales, so the idea of talking to random business owners about doing a small project for free wasn’t daunting.

      What *was* daunting, however, was getting any small business owner to agree to share any “sensitive” data with me. And, being small business owners, they thought that literally anything about their business was “sensitive”.

      So I went to my local jeweler’s, a place where I was a frequent customer and where we had talked tech as well as gemstones on almost every visit, and asked the owner if my team could do a free project. I got the answer I expected (No), so then I asked if they would lie to my professor if he ever contacted them and tell him that my fellow students and I *had* done a project. The owner was 100% on board with that.

      So I made up a whole presentation about how my team and I researched new software platforms for the jeweler, then helped them through the purchase process, implementation, and training.

      It was complete B.S. but we got the highest grade in the class.

      Oh, and the professor never did verify any of it.

      1. FromasmalltowninCanada*

        I did my MBA at a regional university with really strong community ties. We had a practicum that is somewhat similar to what is described here; HOWEVER, there was a full time staff person who’s JOB was to help develop these projects with outside companies and institutions (it’s not all they did but it was a big part). We signed NDAs, there were really clear processes and expectations on both sides, etc. The practicum was an entire class on its own and it was the only project like this.

        Everything else was either based on case studies or publicly available information. We did lots of work based on public information and even one marketing pitch where the actual company came in to hear the three best plans to make it a little more “real”.

        1. pancakes*

          Right, I don’t have an MBA but I’ve known and worked with a couple people who do, and I would’ve thought what you’re describing was absolutely standard everywhere.

        2. Lizzo*

          I was also going to comment that this type of project seems totally appropriate for MBA students (with the support that you outline here), but for undergrads who, in theory, have little to no professional experience, there are better ways to gain this “real life application” experience.

        3. Elsie*

          Yes, practical experience can be valuable but it has to be set up carefully and it takes a lot of work. I used to work as a fieldwork instructor for a graduate program that required an internship/capstone project. It was a lot of work to set expectations for both students and practicum sites, coaching the students through any problems or misunderstandings that arose, helping students prepare for their practicum, and building connections with organizations to help students have more options. It’s shocking to me that a professor would have such a lack of judgment to give students this kind of assignment without thinking about everything that needs to go into making a practical experience beneficial.

          Side note – it’s also important to ensure that practicums/internships are beneficial to partners. In this case, the professor is recommending them to give free work to businesses who are in an easy position to decline this “help.” However, practicums often rely on nonprofits and community organizations who may be under more pressure to accept students even if it doesn’t benefit their organization.

    9. CheeseToast*

      I’ve worked for nonprofits on the receiving end of these projects from students, and I have never once seen that student work actually used. Nonprofits may be short on cash, but they still tend to have policies in place and professional standards. And they’re generally staffed by professionals with many years of business experience. We’ve had MBA students create plans to improve programs, students design new database systems, etc – all ultimately a waste of our time because students lack the organizational understanding and years of experience that the staff and board have. I would love for professors to stop assigning projects to “help” nonprofits by offering student work!

      1. Gimble*

        One thousand times yes, speaking as a nonprofit communications director. I’m sympathetic because the students are in an uncomfortable spot and the professors/teachers presumably mean well, but it’s the opposite of helpful. At best, it takes staff time and emotional energy to assess the inquiry and kindly decline; at worst it takes way more staff time and emotional energy to do the project and manage kindness around how useless it ends up being.

        Several times we’ve had situations where a teacher obviously suggested us to their students, as we get half-a-dozen similar inquiries about volunteering or asking to interview us. If the teacher reached out to us, maybe I could set up a group thing with a few weeks’ notice, but six different kids out of the blue in a busy week? Not gonna happen. It’s not fair to the students.

      2. This is a name, I guess*

        I think it’s worse now that there are so many undergraduate nonprofit management programs. None of the students even understand how nonprofits work, so the projects are very rudimentary or require a lot of effort on our end.

    10. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, I feel like that is very normal. Or even using a real company but for a project that doesn’t actually go public in any way. I made a business proposal in college for Cracker Barrel to sell food in the freezer section at the grocery story as a group project–but we did not like *actually* work with Cracker Barrel. You do not need to actually work with an actual company to design a website!

    11. Artemesia*

      So cheat? Doing such projects is a great idea and to say ‘it doesn’t count as an internship’ is a poor way to frame it. When looking for a job, it is part of your practical experience which can be cited in resume or interview.

      However, the professor needs to be more proactive in arranging these experiences and the current guidance is pretty lame. My first exposure to this was as a grad student at the University of Michigan where the professor teaching survey research contracted with an agency that needed survey work done and then teams of students developed the various stages of the project from identifying the goals of the client, to devising a sampling strategy, to creating the survey, gathering the data and then analyzing it. I did something similar as an undergraduate where the survey related to the subject matter of the course rather than technical skills. Both very valuable.

      So when I taught, I tried to incorporate such projects e.g. in program evaluation, I would find a business or training program that needed to be evaluated — it is so much more powerful than a fake project for students. Nothing sharpens your skills like a client with good questions and a real need for information.

      If student teams are to locate their own projects, the professor needs to be providing better assistance both from a strategic point of view and with some possible community connections. The professor cannot be ‘hands off’ with this sort of assignment.

    12. Thor*

      My college program did something like this (20+ years ago), but not quite as involved. Businesses were either confused or mad about the disruptions. I once wrote a paper on why I wasn’t going to do the homework because it was stupid. For the record, I got an A on that assignment! I got better grades when I was able to make up the situation instead of find the situation in real life. If professors are going to require BS like this, they need to give students a few leads.

    13. BasketcaseNZ*

      This is EXACTLY what we did in one of my university papers.
      Split into groups and here are five business case studies. Then we had to do things like: Tell us what the biggest problem is and how to resolve it, or Create a business plan for developing a new website, or Create a flow for a process change you would make and detail the costs to change and the cost benefits of the change.

      In several cases, the businesses were real (one of my projects involved our local domestic airline, another a government environmental agency).
      We had nothing to do with the business / organisation itself, but we were still able to create interesting outcomes and reports.

      1. Autumnheart*

        I had a university paper (went back to school as an older adult) and it was basically “Create an ERP installation for your business and describe how you went about deciding how to do it”. Since I work in e-commerce for Real Retailer, of course my paper was based on a Fake Retailer, which certainly provided me with a familiar framework.

        Then for my capstone, I did a Fake Project for Real Retailer, and looked up some (publicly available) information to build my estimates on. One thing I continually had to remember in school was that my work only had to be “good enough for school”, not “good enough for work” since I was not actually going to have to execute on it. It just had to sound plausible in my presentation, and the math had to work out in the context of my scenario. That was plenty good enough to get As in my program.

        And yeah, no professor should expect executable work to come out of your school project. Sure, I could make mine sound good because I’ve done that work in my actual job, but my papers were obviously fictional and that should be fine. The point is to demonstrate that you understand the parameters of the assignment, not to ACTUALLY build a marketable/usable thing. You save that kind of effort for when someone is paying you.

    14. KR*

      I’ve had classes where we need to make fake sample reports and assignments for real companies. The professor just tells us to either pick a company and use public data or gives us an academic article that provides information and gives us the scenario to work with. If I was a business owner and a student walked in asking to do free work I think I would be annoyed at the professor because they’re essentially asking me to do their prep work instead of the professor using the educational resources that are out there.

    15. Make it up as you go along*

      Honestly, this bit of advice is exactly what my class did in the early 00s for a class project where we designed business cards, stationary, and a front page for one of my graphic design courses. Not a group project (no, that was for the class where we revamped the title sequence to a movie, and my group did the opening credits to the Psycho remake… damn I wish I still had that somewhere) but individual work. We were given the option to either make up a company that we “worked” for (and gear the business cards to ourselves) or “be freelancers” and promote ourselves.

      Seriously fun little project, I still have my stationary design in my portfolio, and I keep trying to decide whether it’s data analysis I want to get a certification in or boost my ancient AS to a BS in Graphic Design instead… (yes, it’s ancient, I finished my courses back in 2003)…

    16. Ms_Meercat*

      I’d think you probably don’t even need to do a completely fake one. Just pick a company, and propose doing a website or app for them or whatever the project is. Fake name and logo, but real services, mission, etc and no need to reinvent the wheel entirely.

  2. Plebeian Aristocracy*

    Part of me would love to see everyone show up to his office en mass and make the offer. After all, he might not be a private business, but he might have similar needs (and issues with people showing up).

    1. Kyrielle*

      Ooooo. Or, yannow, pitch it to the college’s business office whilst explaining the concept. *innocent look*

    2. Candi*

      LW* here: I wonder if that happened. I thought that all his office hours being Zoom and not having an official office listed was because of covid, but…

  3. KHB*

    It sounds like the “just walk in and ask” part of the task is just a suggestion, not a required part of the assignment? If so, then feel free to ignore it and find your client some other way.

    Of course, that doesn’t address all the other problems with this type of assignment – but it’s the part you asked about.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      That’s what they’re asking though – what other way? If they aren’t giving them vetted businesses who want to participate, how exactly are students supposed to find a “client” without cold calling whether its in person, by phone or by email?

      1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

        The other way IS emailing or calling, versus marching a whole team of people into a business and asking to talk to…Somebody.

        1. A Feast of Fools*

          Yep. Use LinkedIn to find some alumni and ask if they’d do you a favor. If they went through the same program and had the same assignment(s), so much the better.

          1. Sarah*

            LinkedIn messaging alums in companies you might want to work with is a vast improvement to cold calling companies in person. You might not enjoy LinkedIn messaging strangers but I get 2-3 sales messages a week through LinkedIn so it’s not out of the ordinary behavior.

      2. Autumnheart*

        There are several gig websites like TaskRabbit and Fiverr. Students could advertise on one of those. Someone will probably be perfectly willing to let you design a logo or whatever for student rates.

    2. Candi*

      LW* here: In my opinion, it was bananacrackers to ever voice it as a suggestion. It was very much not likely to work even ten years ago, and then he suggests it in what’s (hopefully) the tail end of a pandemic(!).

      The “go out and get your own unvetted by the school client” is its own problem.

        1. Candi*

          Pick something. Reputation for harassment, shadiness, turnover, how the general business community sees them, financial troubles (we’re not getting paid, but we’d like them to be around long enough to sign off on completion), if they’re micromanagers or so hands-off you can’t move forward because you need their approval.

          We’ve gotten lucky that the students either haven’t encountered these situations, or their internal alarms were sufficiently trained to spot them.

          1. RagingADHD*

            Y’all are adults, right, not high school students?

            It’s been a long time since I was in college, but the idea that people over 18 need someone to pre-screen a business owner just to have a conversation with them seems an awfully extreme version of in loco parentis.

            1. pancakes*

              This is pretty snide, and overlooks what seems to me a rather obvious and important distinction: The fact that these are young adults rather than children and that many are probably paying for their own higher education is one of several reasons why it would be reasonable and appropriate for them to approach administration about what they want and need to get from this class. It is not a class in cold calling techniques. It’s fair and reasonable for them to say that it isn’t appropriate to have a third of their grade revolve around a haphazard assignment that requires cold calling. Not because it isn’t safe for them to cold call people, but because it’s a silly waste of time, and because it leaves a good deal of their own work product dependent on the participation of non-students with little incentive to participate themselves.

              1. Candi*

                At 21, I wound up marrying an abusive jerk because I didn’t have the education or experience to recognize the red flags for what they were. (And took the kids and walked out on him 20 years ago September.)

                I do not want anyone to deal with a bad situation, work or personal, if I can prevent it. Not with my kids, not with my young classmates. Slimy scum tend to be a smaller percentage of the population, but also tend to be encountered just when a person does need something important and doesn’t need to be dealing with them.

                (And it’s 50% of the grade.) :)

            2. Autumnheart*

              Universities that work with local businesses to provide opportunities (internships and the like) do vet those businesses. That’s a perfectly normal thing to do. And I’m sure you didn’t know how to check a business’s reputation and judge its integrity when you were 18.

              1. Candi*

                Most of my current classmates are college seniors with a small amount of juniors, but the principle absolutely applies.

    3. Luna Lovegood*

      Universities of this size often have offices for experiential learning, community engagement/volunteering, career services, etc. They might be able to connect you to organizations that genuinely need help, rather than ones that begrudgingly allow you to do work that won’t be used. They might also be able to tell the professor that these projects work a lot better if partner organizations are identified in advance. There might be resources on campus to help with this that he isn’t aware of. Also, make the suggestion in your course eval (kindly if he’s otherwise a good professor) and encourage other students to do the same. Those carry more weight than a lot of students realize and can call attention to an issue.

  4. Pants*

    I can’t help but wonder if this is a person is significantly older than his students. This stuff probably would have worked in my parents’ time. It seems to me that it falls into the Bad Job Advice From Older People Who Don’t Know How Things Have Changed.

    (See: my parents. Full of advice like this. I’m in my mid-40s and they’re still insistent on stuff like this.)

      1. anonymous73*

        Walking into a business and asking if they were hiring used to be the norm, so I could see this working back in the day. But now? Nope.

        1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

          Even then though, walking in to a business and being like:

          “Hi, we’re a bunch of students who don’t know each other, have never worked together, and may or may not be remotely competent, and we’d like to do real work for you. We have less than three months from the time we are talking to you now until our firm deadline to turn our work in for a grade (oh, also our professor will be reviewing all our work, so don’t give us anything remotely sensitive). We should probably finally mention that we will cease to give a single shit about this after we turn it in, and you will receive less than zero ongoing support”

          Is not exactly something many businesses would have gone for.

      2. Filosofickle*

        Well, it did when I was in college…I was a design student (long ago) and we had to find our own client for a project. I did literally walk into local businesses I was interested in and found someone who was willing to cooperate. They didn’t use my work, and I didn’t expect them to, but they were willing to let me ask them questions and develop logo concepts for them. I did the same in graduate school (recently), our teams had to find local businesses that would let us create marketing plans for them. It was much harder this time around, as we were asking for deeper and more sensitive info. Just getting people to respond was difficult, we burned a lot of time, and they weren’t particularly valuable projects. But we did all find our own clients.

        I don’t think it’s good and wish my schools sourced clients for us, just saying it has worked.

        1. Popinki (she/her)*

          Yes, I remember my sister and her graphic arts classmates going to businesses in person and offereing to do business cards, brochures etc… in 1988. It sounds like the professor has never had to Do A Thing in the modern world and he’s incredibly out of touch with how it has changed.

        2. Malarkey01*

          Yeah, I remember doing marketing and financial plans for businesses in college. They weren’t official and the company wasn’t really going to use them. It was more would you be willing to speak to a student group, let us pick your brain about certain aspects of your business, then we wrote a plan based on their info and turned it in. Most of the time we didn’t even give a copy to the business unless they were interested in seeing what we put together.
          All the small businesses in my college town were used to this though and they generally viewed it as a 2 hour community service to talk to young students.

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I’m having flashbacks to a college friend, who, after graduating into a collapsing economy and leaving his first job because it had to stop paying the employees*, found a new job being a door-to-door salesman in the early 90s Moscow. They had to report to the office every morning, pick up their daily supply of the items they were selling, and go sell them. They were advised to go into offices and try to sell to the people working there; who did not take kindly to it. My friend told us that his sales experiences included being thrown down the stairs, and punched in the face. (Separate occasions, different offices.) He only lasted a month or two in that job before quitting it. And that was in the early 90s, and didn’t work then. Based on the scenes from Boardwalk Empire of Nelson selling clothes irons door-to-door, it didn’t work in the 1920s, either!

        * his first job was at a manufacturing plant that made sewing machines. At one point the plant was suddenly like “we have no cash to pay you anymore, but we will be paying you in sewing machines. Use them, sell them, we don’t care.” He received his monthly salary’s worth of sewing machines as his next pay, and decided that this wasn’t for him.

    1. Pickle Pizza*

      Ugh yes! During my recent job search my mother still insisted that I go around and “knock on doors” because people like that. The last time she was applying for jobs was about 30 years ago. Times have changed, and as many times as I tell her that nowadays companies DO NOT want you showing up at their door, she relates it back to her company where supposedly this was commonplace. Maybe it was years ago, but in today’s world everything is done online. I’m sure the paper resumes will be tossed in the trash after the hiring manager tells the job-seeker to formally apply on their website. ‍♀️

      1. Artemesia*

        Just 10 years ago my husband’s former law firm hired some guy who showed gumption this way. So it can work. It just usually doesn’t. And the then senior partner (this was after my husband had left) was a quirky guy.

      2. Dontdoorknockyourresumes*

        Yeah, even if it doesn’t go in the bin it definitely doesn’t leave a great future impression for a lot of organizations.
        I have a colleague who deals with this stuff and has an “applicants with issues” list. Trying to palm off your resume in person instead of following the specific application instructions on the website will only get your name added to the list.

      3. Seeking Second Childhood, CTA*

        I’m in my 50s and that didn’t work for office jobs –even entry-level ones. Even the temp agencies I work for required me to make an appointment to come in and have an interview, be tested, etc.
        It may still work for some retail, restaurants, and construction jobs.

    2. Spearmint*

      That’s my suspicion too.

      I remember about 10 years ago, when I was looking for part-time office work while I was in college my parents (who are now in their 60s) told me to put on a suit and hand my resume into the front desk of office buildings. I went to three businesses. Two didn’t even have a front desk, and you needed a keycard to enter, and at the other the front desk person seemed very taken aback when I tried to ask for a job interview (I never heard back from them).

      I still cringe thinking about it.

      (My dad is/was a seasoned professional, but by the time job applications moved online, his skills were in-demand enough that he got all his jobs via recruiters)

    3. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I’m guessing he’s significantly older just from the part in the letter about him working in industry for many years. Not sure if LW meant 10 year or 30, though.

      1. Nanani*

        Eh, even if he’s not the age of our parents, he may have gotten a first job via gumptioneering and assumed it works like that all the time, or started his career via a personal connection and just kind of imagines how it works for the rest of the world, or some other outlier-but-real scenario.

          1. pancakes*

            I love gumptioneering too. That is perfect. Even if that’s him, though, does he not talk to anyone else who teaches, either?

            1. Candi*

              LW* here: Considering the number of times he’s surprised that another teacher is doing X or Y when it’s already over half the school, I really wonder. And that’s just the stuff that overlaps with what he teaches.

              In System Analysis (basic/101/whatever label) the teacher did the fake X for real company thing, so it’s not like it’s completely unknown in the school. (Okay, yes, there’s some snark there.)

      2. Candi*

        LW* here: If the math adds up, his minimum possible age is 61.

        By his own admission, he’s been shaving his head bald since he was in his 30s, and he’s not particularly wrinkly, so there’s no telling by physical indicators.

        (I get the lack of wrinkly. I’m 44 and regularly get pegged at 25. My mother didn’t start getting wrinkles until she got sick, and my dad didn’t start until a couple years ago.)

        1. Pants*

          I’m also in the “look young” club. I’m 46 but have always had oily skin, which doesn’t wrinkle much. The acne may also make me look younger. $*(#&$)

    4. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      It seemed particularly weird to me given the IT-focused nature of the work.

    5. Candi*

      LW* here: My non-traditional 40+ self is the only student that’s even remotely close to the professor’s age.

      (And people need to not bug my teacher when she’s lecturing.)

    6. RagingADHD*

      Depends where you live. I’m in a midsized US city with several universities, and there are plenty of little retail shops, coffeehouses/restaurants, barbershops, and other types of storefront businesses where the owner is often on site and would absolutely be willing to talk to a student about this project, and consider participating with them — particularly since there’s no obligation to actually use the website when it’s done. They probably wouldn’t consider it as anything like a real business transaction or even an internship, just a favor to the student to discuss their needs and pretend to be a client.

      But the local culture here is very chatty and social. It might not be so straightforward somewhere that’s more reserved.

      1. Candi*

        “particularly since there’s no obligation to actually use the website when it’s done”

        LW* here: Try telling my prof that. He expects the sites to be used, and gets antsy if the students tell them the client doesn’t have a go live date.

        1. Autumnheart*

          Sounds like you might benefit from designing a fake invoice, with a fake customer and fake payment, along with your fake website.

    7. Batgirl*

      Yeah the whole thing reeks of being dated and not bothering to keep up with norms; gumption, doorstepping, using young people as free labour…

  5. Meep*

    I am a female engineer so I often have to deal with random cold-callers showing up at the office wanting to sell us lap equipment because they googled “engineering companies” and found us. We are a software company! In an office building in a very small office.

    What gets me is the “are you sure THEY don’t need it?” One time I called my boss about it due to two insistent chuckleheads. He deferred to me.

    Yeah, don’t do it. Don’t waste small businesses’ time.

    1. anonymous73*

      A few companies ago, my cousin and I worked in the same IT department and have very similar first names, same last name. He was a Networking Manager and I was a peon. People would cold call the company all the time and the front desk would often accidentally forward the calls to me. I would play dumb. It was fun.

      1. Junior Assistant Peon*

        My low-level coworker used to get a lot of email intended for a high-up manager with the same name. I was always trying to talk him into giving orders like “paint the plant pink.”

      2. Hamburke*

        When my husband started at his current job, there was a guy with the same name in another division – nbd b/c the email they use has the daughter company name in it, except that everyone needs a parent company email for payroll and benefits stuff and they had no plan for what would happen if 2 people had the same first and last name (this company has been around for a while and it’s pretty big, so it’s astonishing that this was the first time this came up). Anyway, it took far longer than you’d expect to sort it out and only really was fixed 3 years later when the other guy left (he’s a contractor for the parent company now, hubs just did a project with him).

    2. Junior Assistant Peon*

      Why the hell did computer programmers start calling themselves “engineers,” anyway? I’m not surprised software companies are now getting sales pitches for industrial equipment.

      1. Camellia*

        “We” don’t call ourselves that; we have no control over what title the company chooses to assign to us. We went from being ‘computer programmers’ to ‘developers’ to ‘software engineers’ during the 90’s. Then back to ‘developers’ in the 2010’s, and now I’m seeing it switch back to ‘software engineers’. In fact, my current company just made the switch back to ‘software engineers’ at the advice of some consulting company with whom the executives are currently working.

          1. Ellen Ripley*

            I think it’s pretty clear what a software engineer does. It’s the salesmen who failed here (don’t know your market much?).

        1. Meep*

          I am an actual engineer and graduated with an BSE in Optical Engineering. It is like engineering software like CAD and modeling/designers software that require engineers that know their sh*t doesn’t exist to some pompous jerks. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      2. Meep*

        I am an actual engineer. We specialize in software for optical engineering. I got my degree in optical engineer. But go off. I love when people show their butts. :)

      3. Seeking Second Childhood, CTA*

        Software engineering is real, some “programmers” have advanced degrees in electrical engineering (or other branches depending on the software they’re developing), and your comment comes off as highly abrasive.

  6. This is a name, I guess*

    Many universities actually require community work like this in their classes. It’s often called a “service learning component.” I don’t have a problem with these projects when done correctly, because they teach hands-on skills and often allow the student to leave with something for their portfolio.

    I took a grad level class in the fall with a service learning component, and the professor gave us a few weeks to find a “client.” Because the class was one many people with nonprofit or government experience take, we had plenty of legitimate nonprofit connections.

    The professor should provide more structured resources to ensure students are finding small orgs/businesses that want to “opt-in.” The professor should also create parameters for what constitutes a good group to do pro-bono work for. Like, no family, under $XXX in revenue, must serve BIPOC/disabled/LGBT+/immigrant/low-income/etc communities.

    If you want to work for a business, I suggest partnering with a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce. If you want to work with nonprofits, I suggest partnering with the local Nonprofit Council and/or have a system for soliciting suggestions from the greater classroom community.

    Also, the professor should have some low-hanging fruit. Perhaps in this case, they would bring in someone from Student Affairs at the beginning of the semester to identify a few student groups who might benefit from a website.

    1. quill*

      It’s not service learning if you’re randomly offering a free service to a for-profit business, though. I second going to the chamber of commerce so that you can find legitimate nonprofits that actually need the service, instead of offering to build the local florist a website.

      1. This is a name, I guess*

        Agree. I’d also be fine if they helped for-profit businesses if there were parameters around the business. Black-owned/Queer-owned/Woman-owned/Veteran-owned? Under $XXXXX in revenue? Provides community services? All of that is fine to me (if it’s not officially service learning). Honestly, service learning components often end up helping the university as much as local nonprofits, and many universities are not hurting for cash…they just don’t like to spend it equitably. I’d much rather that trans electrologist or the Black food truck got a new website than some university office.

        1. Spearmint*

          That’s assuming the student project will actually be usable and useful. Many times these projects are left half-finished or are not done to high enough standards to be worth using. After all, it’s more of a learning experience for the students than it is helping the business.

          1. Software Dev (she/her)*

            Yep, and then someone have to come along and maintain the terrible website/app or whatever that the student wrote. These kinds of projects used to be considered giving back to the community but that was kind of the early internet era, nowadays I can’t imagine even a small non-profit finding this useful—better to just have a facebook page.

        2. Another ADDer*

          It’s illegal for for profit businesses to use volunteer labor. Doesn’t matter how little revenue they have, who owns them, or what kind of service they provide, if they’re for profit, they can’t accept free help.

          I’m surprised the legal side of it isn’t being discussed more.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            I’m surprised that the professor does not know it. I mean, I didn’t either, but I’m not the one giving people assignments to go to businesses offering volunteer work.

            1. Candi*

              LW* here: I’m betting part of his issue is he’s always worked where someone else took care of that persnickety DOL stuff.

          2. Teagan*

            Yes, I had the same thought and was surprised this wasn’t more prominent in the answer. This isn’t a formal internship or done in official partnership with the university, so I’d think the businesses would be exposing themselves to risk just by participating.

            1. pancakes*

              That’s not the students’ main problem, though, and not their burden to pursue research into or communicate to the business community. It isn’t on them to lead efforts to bring the university up to speed with regard to overseeing course design, either. There’s been enough DIY as is.

          3. tamarack & fireweed*

            Yeah, design of the whole thing just looks slapdash to me. I can understand why they want to do this: getting students to genuinely engage with real people with real needs beats the dreaded fake group project, by far. But you have to supervise the process very closely, carefully recruit volunteering organizations, run a well-controlled requirements process, and then set things up so that projects are likely to have a useful outcome, and sustainability (ie, you may have to have training of users budgeted in).

            (Unpaid internships are still a thing, so given the educational framing I wouldn’t be 100% sure it’s strictly speaking illegal [in the US], but it’s certainly unlikely to satisfy the volunteer customers or be a great experience for the students.]

          4. Snow Globe*

            For profit businesses can use unpaid interns, if it is primarily an educational internship, and the students don’t do any work that the company would usually pay someone for. Since in this case the students would be getting class credit, and the “client” is unlikely to be gaining any really valuable work that the otherwise would have paid someone to do, it probably is legal.

    2. J.B.*

      Yes, I had a class like this in grad school and the working with an organization made sense and normally had a good product. There were still some issues but at least we had better support for projects. Most of the projects were done with other groups on campus. This kind of a project is often work for the person providing it, as students are learning.

    3. Purple Cat*

      I think it’s also a pretty big difference in terms of quality/professional experience to have grad students doing this and not undergrad.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: To clarify here, it’s definitely undergrad, not grad. We’re going for Bachelor’s in IT. (Which thanks to some kind of finagling that went way over my head, also comes with a built-in ABET cert.)

    4. AnonEMoose*

      You could also look into whether there are volunteer run events in your area that could maybe use some help like this. Things like science fiction/fantasy, comic, or game conventions. Some (like the one I volunteer for) are set up as nonprofits, and could possibly use help like this (although geeky conventions are usually run by, well, geeks, and have IT-type folks volunteering already, but maybe they have a special project and could use extra hands/brains). If you have a local gaming shop or similar, that could be a good place to find out about events like this if you have no idea where to start.

    5. Leia Oregano*

      I took service-learning classes in undergrad as well, but the professors would have never forced us to go out into the community to solicit work opportunities from random businesses. It was always something set-up on the front end by the professors or the department, and then the classes did the work for the clients, whatever that ended up being. Even in my capstone, the department found an interested local org for us to work with. In other classes, we created fictional companies or used provided briefs with the relevant background info to make the final product or project. There are much more efficient and above-board ways to do this, and I would not consider what this professor is doing as service-learning — it’s just lazy, and is a disservice to his students, the businesses they’re trying to “help” without proper support, and the community non-profits and orgs who could actually benefit if this was set up properly.

    6. cleo*

      I taught and led service-learning projects in my previous career as a design professor (approx 2000 – 2015) and they could be great learning experiences. But they took a tremendous amount of work to set up ahead of time and we ended up developing a whole procedure to vet non-profits that wanted free design work. By trying to avoid putting in the work to set up the project, the profess is doing a serious disservice to their students.

      1. Artemesia*

        Nicely put. These projects are a lot of work for professors if they are to be effective. There are programs that just require X hours of service — these may or may not be useful as service to someone but they are worthless academically. And of course it requires a lot of work by the community partner so care needs to be taken to assure that the service is worth it to the partner.

      2. Hanani*

        This exactly. I do a lot of community-engaged learning and it is a ton of work on the front end to talk with the potential community partners, figure out a project/section of a project that is legitimately useful to them and to my students, determine what can reasonably be done in a semester, and then create the steps to scaffold that work actually being done. Once we’re actually in class, a lot of class time is used to work on the project, check in, troubleshoot, and more. After class, I as the professor have to be willing to finish/polish what needs finishing and polishing.

        When done well (key clause) it’s a legitimate and incredibly valuable way to learn, and it strengthens relationships between the students and the community. It sounds like this professor is doing none of the necessary work before, during, or after to make the project and learning experience a success.

        I’m sorry the LW is dealing with bad community-engaged learning, and bad teaching in general. The professor’s approach is all wrong. You could talk to the dept chair and/or another trusted senior faculty member – probably no one can actually forbid the professor from doing it, but they have a much greater chance of getting him to stop than a student does.

    7. TheDisenchantedForest*

      +1 to the suggestions here. All of my classes in hard school were structured in the same manner as the LW: prof gave us a semester assignment that counted for 80% of our grade, put us in teams of 2-3, gave us 2 weeks to find a client before our first part of the project was due, zero resources for assistance with finding a client. Most of us ended up doing projects for our existing companies, reached out to former students who were now in the real world to see if they could help, or ended up doing a lot of cold calls.

      One time, a client I was working with canceled the project due to priorities in their job: they simply didn’t have the time to dedicate to a fake project while also doing their own job. That was not fun, as my group had to scramble to find a new client AND catch up on 1 months’ worth of project milestones while also working on the next part of the assignment.

      If the LW prof won’t help, get creative and leverage any resources available. Good luck!

    8. pancakes*

      Not haphazardly like this, though!

      Not the main point, but I also want to add that the local Chamber of Commerce in the US is historically not a non-partisan organization, and sending students there as a first stop in the community, even if it’s a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ sub-group in particular, doesn’t seem optimal to me.

      It also doesn’t seem optimal to me to suggest that students seek out and make contact with BIPOC or LGBTQ+ organizations with minimal supervision if their studies aren’t centered on those communities and they haven’t had any background. Those organizations typically have enough to do without running spontaneously student-suggested programming.

      1. This is a name, I guess*

        In my city, we have a Black Business Owners group and an LGBTQ Business Owners group. Both are structured like a CoC, but they are independent.

        1. pancakes*

          That’s good to know. I took “BIPOC or LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce” to mean that they’re affiliated.

    9. Snuck*

      This is what I was thinking too.

      Head for mid range non-profits! Head for smaller charities and local clubs.

      I am not sure if I agree entirely with Alison that the professor should be setting more parameters up – if this is for people in a general business, marketing or graphic design course then they need to learn to sell themselves and put their face forward (but cold calling businesses is banana crackers). If the future employment for these people largely relies on networking then why not introduce it in the course? And the fact that more than one unit is requiring this (more than one professor?!!) then it suggests there’s value.

      The “how” is problematic.

      But the intent appears to be to teach students some valuable lessons about the real world. How to approach a business, structure workload through and deliver a product (that can add to an employment profile). Over time you could return to the same contacts for future projects, or seek referrals from them for more work. This is how networking works! Working for family and friends can also work with a big fat IF the work is necessary, the relationship between the project team and the business is professional, and the deliverables are … delivered. I’d personally advise against this and work with non profits, charities, local clubs and hobby groups or similar.

      Working with a ‘real business’ has real life limitations. People have calendars that you have to sync into, they change their mind mid project on you, you have to draw from them their real intent in their communication and so on. That doesn’t happen with hypothetical case study businesses and thus these are less challenging.

      The professor should have a few leads for students who really can’t find one (and would benefit from this networking too!) but these students are going to have to learn to find contacts and work in the future as well, and if between four or five students there’s not a single organisation they can tap and they can’t imagine and think of any others then there’s something a bit … problematic in their future collectively!

      Talk to the local baseball team, or orchid growing club. Seek out an Assistance Dog trainer or a homeless support service. Find a local Autism society and offer to build an informational webpage with fundraising links and such for them…. There’s a million ideas if you just brainstorm. And a wise uni student would be looking up their unit guide for next semester and thinking “hrm another assignment that involves project management with an outside org, who could I contact ahead of time and start the leg work on for this?” Because it sounds like this is common enough at your university that you could pre plan too.

      1. pancakes*

        “if this is for people in a general business, marketing or graphic design course . . .”

        The student has said they’re pursuing an IT degree and “This specific class is on teams and team management.”

  7. Canadian HR*

    I had to do something similar to this when I was getting my HR Diploma. However, our school reached out and recruited Businesses. The businesses would pay a few hundred dollars, which would go to a scholarship fund, and us HR students would tackle a HR project for them. It worked really well; we got real world experience and the businesses had help with an entry level HR project. A lot of businesses chose to participate every year as well.

    1. Rosemary*

      Same for my marketing graduate degree – we did “real world” projects for actual clients, that were recruited by the professor(s)/school. I believe the companies paid something to the school, that I presume went to some sort of scholarship fund.

    2. FormerStudent*

      I’ve had similar classes (IT/software) that would have student groups working with companies. The businesses rarely, if ever, got value out of the actual projects. The draw for the businesses was having an “in” to recruit students for internships and potentially entry level jobs down the line.

    3. AlsoCanadian*

      In my (Canadian PSE) experience, most universities have an office that coordinates university – community collaboration and outreach; some of the larger ones have a stream for undergrads and another for grad students. It’s separate from more structured internship or coop placements; it is basically supporting this sort of experiential learning. Profs discuss with the office and they determine how to set up and describe the opportunity; the office then reaches out to their existing network (and those networks) to recruit businesses and non profits. It’s a mediated match, so everyone gets something they are interested in (we had a geography undergrad work with our data team to build some great maps of where our membership was located, and other GIS basics we just didn’t need on a day to day basis). Lots of great things happening, and some things that just would not have gotten done otherwise for small non profit groups. But it was a mediated, matched service – not a rather willy-nilly free-for-all like this.

  8. Elsie*

    Just wanted to say this is a common model in graduate school programs (I’m thinking public policy and international affairs, but there are some key differences that make this more successful than undergraduates. Master’s-level students have more specific expertise in what their potential “clients” might be interested in. As a result, the networking element a a result is more mutually beneficial (and more natural and possible), particularly because the clients are often non-profits or government agencies that otherwise don’t have the funding or resources. Even then, it still presents some of the challenges the OP here describes.

    1. This is a name, I guess*

      Agree, though upper level undergrads doing a simple website for a small business or a small nonprofit seems totally reasonable in terms of scope. Website design is very automated these, and college kids in computer science/graphic design programs have these skills. And, small businesses and nonprofits don’t have very large web needs, either.

      1. anonymous73*

        The issue isn’t the project work itself. It’s expecting the students to just wander around aimlessly looking for a company to participate. The professor needs to have some resources they can access of willing participants.

      2. Software Dev (she/her)*

        But who is going to be responsible for hosting and standing up the site? For buying the SSL cert? For buying the domain name and setting up the DNS entries? For maintaining it? Does the non-profit have someone on staff who can edit this thing once these students finish the project and are never heard from again?

        1. A Feast of Fools*

          I honestly don’t believe that even professor thinks the website will actually be used.

          When we had to do similar things in undergrad and grad classes (2014-2019), we used the free versions of web hosting sites.

          1. Candi*

            LW* here: He explicitly asks when the go-live dates are during the weekly team presentations.

            1. A Feast of Fools*


              Dang. So your professor doesn’t think that businesses have the option to evaluate the free work and decide that it’s not for them? Yikes.

          1. Software Dev (she/her)*

            Ah yes those businesses where they have their own IT person to do all of this but also have no website of their own.

            This whole things seems terrible thought out, OP. I am so sorry.

            1. Candi*

              I’m wondering if he thinks website maintenance is easy once the site is up. It’d be consistent.

          2. Your local password resetter*

            Which begs the question why they would need the students, if they already have people who can do all of that.

        2. tamarack & fireweed*

          If this was well-designed, these questions would be explored during the requirements gathering process, and 80% of the work would go into figuring out these things.

    2. This is a name, I guess*

      Double-commenting to add: I’m in nonprofits, and there’s a proliferation of nonprofit management undergrad degrees and we’re seeing a ton of issues with student project requests that are wayyy too onerous for us. So, I generally agree with you.

      I have a problem with undergrad nonprofit degrees for a number of reasons, but one major issue is those programs were initially designed for mid-career professionals with experience in the nonprofit/government sector. The undergrad degree programs – often taught by adjuncts who don’t get paid enough – haven’t not been adjusted to meet the needs of undergrads with limited work experience. So, we end up getting tons and tons of requests from interns and from cold-emails to do “strategic planning” processes with our organization or doing “fundraising analysis.” However, those activities done by 99% of undergrads end up being a disaster and a time suck for us because the students have no knowledge or experience with nonprofit finance or organizational theory. The finished product does not help us at all, and the time it takes for us to help the students ends up being gargantuan.

      And, because the kids don’t understand how nonprofits work (which is fine…they are undergrads), they really can’t do these projects with small nonprofits, who might benefit from this work, because they often aren’t ready to do strategic planning and wouldn’t be able to truly guide an undergrad project.

      1. Smithy*

        Nonprofit management undergrad degrees???? Yikes….

        I got an MA in Nonprofit Management that even now seems kind of cute given my scope of experience at the time. At the time, a number of professors even had a lot of issue with the program (which was new) because of where exactly the line was with the program being rooted in academia as opposed to technical instruction for how nonprofits operate. And at the undergrad level I see this only being more messy around the clash between theory and philosophy of topics like organization, impact and philanthropy with technical topics around budgeting, nonprofit finance law, etc.

        Even as a graduate student – without a doubt – my dumbest assignment was a mock grant proposal. At the time I thought I was learning something…..

        1. Smithy*

          One more question to This is a name, I guess – I’m actually kind of curious what kind of fundraising analysis an undergrad would provide… a somewhat snarky way, but also genuinely curious how undergrad professors would be guiding such a project.

          1. This is a name, I guess*

            There are theories of philanthropy that they teach in nonprofit management classes (and in less onerous fundraising certificates) that students learn. I don’t know them because, as a former academic in nonprofits, I refuse to take these certifications (I’ve done enough school and I don’t want to be a DoD). But, I imagine you can teach them to a 20 year old like you would teach business administration nonsense to a 20 year old. Plug and play, right?

      2. Aviva*

        Oh gosh I have never heard of nonprofit undergrad degrees! I agree with what you are saying here, I don’t think they seem like a good idea at the undergrad level. I did tons of group projects in undergrad (all for fake companies) and tons more in nonprofit management grad school – all for real organizations but at least half the time the projects were for organizations my classmates or I worked for – since as you said, the program was for mid level professionals. The other half of the time they were for orgs that had reached out to the program director with an established need, because the program had an established (positive) reputation in my community.

        I never cold called or emailed someone to do a project for them, I would have hated that! I have however had people cold call me for projects, which have been a colossal waste of my time and never provided me anything actionable, but I said yes because I wanted to mentor/provide opportunity for someone.

        1. This is a name, I guess*

          It makes me sad. 20 year olds should be studying Russian Literature or Underwater Basket Weaving, not Nonprofit Management. They should be learning the foundational critical thinking skills that undergird all fields – including nonprofit management – and then getting more specific training as necessary. By skipping from Secondary Instruction (High School) to Specialized Instruction (Grad School or Technical Certifications), students are missing out on the actually transferrable skills they need to have flexible lives and careers.

          And, this hyperspecialization isn’t really financially savvy, even though it might seem so at the outset. Students in “vocational” Bachelor’s programs (including Business Admin, Nonprofit Management, Counseling, criminal justice, etc) end up in worse financial circumstances long-term than students with purportedly “useless” degrees (the ones my mom would ask, “What are you going to do with that?!?”). Vocational bachelor’s degrees lead into underpaid jobs with earnings ceilings, and then require students to get hyperspecialized Master’s Degrees to get past the earnings ceiling. Master’s degrees end up being cash cows for universities.

          Many students choose these degree programs because of parental pressure, because of a decades-long anti-intellectual conservative attack on the university, and because of rising costs of college. There’s also a lot of cultural mismatch that first gen college students experience because their parents doesn’t quite understand what an English degree is for, so they get pressured into courses of study that would appear more correlated to specific careers and the labor market (I felt this a lot). However, this societal perception isn’t backed by actual outcome data.

          1. Candi*

            The mix of classes the college has for the IT degree is a bit weird, but it means there’s a broad spectrum of work we qualify for the entry-level for.

            (My networking and C# teacher once said, “You can figure out what to specialize in once you’re out working. This is to get you in the door.”(Paraphrased.))

  9. New Jack Karyn*

    My ex did this when she went back to school for her business degree. It was a capstone project, each group including students from different branches of the business school. The university found nonprofits–usually smaller ones, often newer–and matched them to groups.

    They did not send student groups out into the wild to hunt down their own partnerships.

    1. Becky*

      I went to a conference a few years ago for software QA and as part of the conference there was an area in the lobby where people could volunteer some time to QA an app produced by a non-profit that the conference partnered with.

      I feel like something similar to that could be really beneficial to students (whether it is on the project planning/design/development/quality side) but should be something that the institution manages the relationship with, not students randomly popping in on businesses or other establishments. And it would be very unusual for any client to be able to provide you with a project that could be brought to completion within the time scale of a university semester or even a university year.

    2. starsaphire*

      Similar experience getting my technical writing degree – and again, the *instructor* set up the clients and the *instructor* was the point of contact between the students and the clients.

      We had a staggeringly huge final project, the client was our own college – and the client had reached out to the instructor, rather than vice versa. But our teacher did *all* of the leg work and all of the interfacing with clients; we did zero.

      I can’t imagine, except maybe in the 1990s, walking cold into a business and making that sort of offer!

    3. Insert Clever Name Here*

      My company is a major donor to a local university’s business school and departments take turns being the “client” for capstone projects. Last year was my department’s turn — several of the teams within the department wrote up a real need we had for analysis and the cohort choose my team’s project. We worked with them for about 4 months, but it was completely facilitated by the company and the business school.

      The ultimate result wasn’t actually workable for us, but that wasn’t the students’ fault. We discovered through working with them that we didn’t actually have the necessary data for the analysis we needed. Yet to hear when that issue is going to be solved…

    4. anonforthis*

      Yep I did this for my masters program too but yeah the key is it still needs to be organized by the institution.

  10. Meghan*

    This might not work for this type of class, but when I was having a computer issue and looking at various forms, I came across something interesting–

    Someone had posted their problem on an apple online forum. Somebody (“fixer”)responded with clear instructions on how to possibly fix the problem, and the first person responded back saying that it worked, so thank you. The fixer said, “No problem, glad to have helped! This is also good for me because it’ll help me get a good grade!”

    Basically, there is some godsend of a prof out there telling their students to go online and help people with their computer problems, and if you fix it, you’ll get points.

    1. Jessica*

      Wow. I want to bake this professor a cake, especially if her students actually know anything, which it sounds like they do.

  11. weirdest part of this*

    As someone who works in higher education, in a field where students might actually do a little work for a business or nonprofit as part of the project, the weirdest / worst part of this is honestly that the professor is expecting the students to do the legwork to set this up. That’s 100% the professor’s responsibility, it should be done before the term starts, and if they’ve done none of the legwork, then they have no business requiring students to locate work to complete for a grade.

    1. A former professor*

      Strong agree. I taught an undergraduate capstone for many years where students worked as consultants on a business problem and this was absolutely my job as a professor to find the client, present their brief to the class, facilitate communication, etc. Other colleagues who taught service learning classes (where students were working for nonprofits) were also on the hook for setting up those relationships before the class started. Not normal that your professor is having you find this on your own!!!!

    2. jellybean*

      agreed, I worked in non-profits for a decade and was constantly contacted by PROFESSORS and student services ADMIN coordinating projects like this. Rarely, rarely students and the few times it happened it was more like an MBA group pitching a very specific offering with a very specific course.

      And for the record: we declined all of them. “Let us give you free work” is so very rarely worth the time and effort it takes for staff to support (because they absolutely do have to support it to some degree).

    3. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yes, this! And somewhat unrelated, but what is even the point of having the students go and find an actual company or org to create a website for? If the class is on designing websites and the assignment is to design a website, shouldn’t the assignment just be “design a website” and not all the rigmarole about finding an actual real life company to design it for? There’s no advantage, learning-wise, to creating a real website for a real company instead of just having students create a fake website based on criteria given by the professor. You know, like how 99.99% of all other school assignments do.

      1. Beth Jacobs*

        I think the idea might be to practice soft skills relating to communicating with a client. Which this won’t achieve, because the set up will be so unnatural and awkward.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          Yeah, but like in Alison’s response to the question earlier today about the rude interviewer, that’s what role-playing is for. Although I can’t quite see how one would do that in a university setting, but that’s why when you start a new job after finishing school, you’re working under a manager or supervisor who trains you in how to communicate with clients. (Or at least you should be.)

          1. Lunch Ghost*

            My professor played the role of the client when we made marketing materials for fake clients. She played a very reasonable client with easy to accomodate requests (can we remove the border, can we make this a darker shade of red) but a professor could certainly play an unreasonable client that had to be reasoned with if they wanted to.

        2. Candi*

          LW* here: We’re headed for IT degrees. None of us are in a major that would require dealing with clients, unless we started our own tiny business. (And why would we? Big area, lots of businesses of all sizes to apply to, and great transit.)

          (Now minors, I can’t swear to everyone not having one that might require client interactions.)

      2. Colette*

        “Talking to clients and understanding what they need you to build” is a hugely important skill that you can’t learn if someone hands you a list of requirements.

        This is not the way to accomplish that, though.

      3. Candi*

        LW* here: This specific class is on teams and team management.

        The last class I had him, it was on designing user friendly interfaces, how to find out if your interface is user friendly, and related stuff. Lots of stuff in the book about device development.

    4. Not a mouse*

      I was in a class that did a capstone project for a small for profit business for a community college course. I’m not that bothered by the fact that the business got our work for free, because we did the same work we’d have done for a fake company to get the same grade, and I don’t think the company got such a great product that they necessarily should have been paying for it. And for what we were doing, it was great to be on site for real.

      But having students look for that on their own? Hard no. This was set up by the professor with someone he knew, so we weren’t bothering people, and the business owner was coming in with realistic expectations about what they would get for their time – since the professor has been teaching long enough to know what students can produce.

    5. cleo*

      Agreed! I used to led a lot of service-learning projects and they absolutely require a lot of leg work and planning in order to be successful.

      Ideally the professor would have institutional support to set this up. It’s a lot to ask of one person. The college I worked at had an experiential learning center that developed relationships with businesses and non profits and set up a lot of our service-learning project.

    6. Starlike*

      Yes. I ran into something similar in a Diversity class during my MSW work – we were assigned to find and attend a cultural celebration of a culture we’re not part of and write a paper on it. We had 5 weeks. If you actually applied what you were learning in the class, you’d be aware that many/most cultural celebrations are closed and not something the public can just attend, whether they’re wedding/birthday/milestone celebrations or holidays. You’d also be aware that all of those things are on a schedule – you can’t just walk out and find, say, a seder in January. I have no idea what the rest of the class did – I lucked into finding an all-welcome Holi celebration and had a great time – but I did write about the specific difficulties of completing the task in a culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive way as part of the paper.

      1. Starlike*

        Oops – can’t edit, but what I meant to agree with is that the professor should have prepared for that aspect and at the very least given us a list of arranged events that would be appropriate for us to attend.

  12. Tricksie*

    As someone who works at a university, I’m going to suggest you ask a few of the various university units! Most departments/programs have no staff to update their websites, design logos or promotional materials, etc–could you do something like that? Or how about one of your campus student organizations? Heck, if someone walked in the door of our offices and offered to do graphic design/data analysis/website stuff/promotional materials/etc, I’d be all over it!

    1. Violet Fox*

      I work in IT at a university, and maybe someplace, but where I work no, and I mean NO. With a keep in mind that all universities are different when it comes to this.

      We have professional UI/UX people, and when our website needed a redesign we hired an outside company that also had to comply with fairly strict accessibility standards. We also have professional graphic designers, professional sign makers, strict internal rules on the gender and race makeup of people in photographs for anything we use. Just getting through the paperwork would take longer than a class project lasts.

      While it isn’t strictly the case where I work, a lot universities are also downsizing and centralising IT in general. There might not even be a random department with a random thing for them to do.

      There’s also system access issues for a lot of this, because the students would have to be given access to IT systems wherever they end up in order to do this sort of thing as anything other than their own sandbox test (which they would not need to approach businesses to do), and I’m not sure I would trust a business that just lets a group of random students into their internal systems.

      If students walked into my office offering this, the answer would be no, followed by going through my management chain to figure out who put the students up to this, along with a note to the central IT security group that this is happening.

      1. Tricksie*

        We use some system where we have to build our own pages within a template-thing. I might not be able to get students to have access to that, you’re right. BUT I could definitely have them re-do brochures, work on logos/icons, marketing materials, displays, etc etc. We’ve hired graphic design majors as student workers in the past to do such things. It would all have to abide by university standards and be approved, but my unit in particular would have a ton of projects students could do. I get it that all universities are different!

        1. Violet Fox*

          Hiring graphic design majors, as in having a job listing and a hiring process is also a very different thing than being cold approached by groups of random students from a course. Someone being an employee means having employee system permissions for that particular division, which would also, I would assume give them access to the tools that they need including logo databases, photo archives, and software licenses (well unless it is software from one of the companies that has moved hard towards expensive personal licences for everything). That and the students would actually get paid for their work.

          And yeah, I can say how it is where I work, but I can’t say how it is everywhere, and everywhere is a bit different.

          Our graphics people, sign people, and UI/UX people are all amazing and they are serious professionals, a lot of whom we have hired in from private industry. I’m also in one of those places where GDPR is a thing/serious concern so a lot of dealing with things like pictures of people means dealing with strict data storage, permission (as in to use the photos) tracking, etc as well. It makes things a lot more complicated.

    2. Natalie*

      Yeah that’s a great idea! Or – what about a research lab on campus? Many professors in the sciences and engineering have websites for their research group that highlights their equipment, their research, list of publications and grants, etc. The professor would probably have the group work with grad students anyway (which – annoying for the grad student, but shouldn’t be too bad)

      And best of all — the websites don’t really matter for anything anyway so you can’t do any harm.

    3. Jessica*

      Public R1 in the US here, and I can see it happening (if they were our own university’s students), maybe. At department level, we mostly don’t have graphic design/marketing positions, and all you can do is hope that for one of your staff whose main job is something else you can manage to hire someone with a few skills. There are professionals at university level, but their department would charge our department for their services, and we have no budget for that.
      For websites, the level of support has varied over the years. Currently I have a professional from our IT group developing our new website, but that wasn’t always a thing. I wouldn’t let a bunch of undergraduate randos build my department a new website even if I were desperate, but maintaining an existing website? Many departments would be thrilled to have free help on that.

    4. Candi*

      LW* here: Asking anyone at the university without going through the prof is a hard, explicit no.

      That includes not just the campus I attend, but the four other campuses in this part of the state. (Big, multi-campus university. The one in Big City thatway and thatfar from my campus’ city is the oldest.)

      1. Esprit de l'escalier*

        Who is issuing the hard no? The prof or the department or the university administration or some other entity?

          1. Esmeralda*

            Because the other depts/programs on campus are tired of hearing from this prof’s students every semester.
            Because they’ve worked with this prof’s students in the past and the work was….not good.

            Because if they have to waste time turning away groups of students again, they are going to give the prof what-for.

          2. Jerusha*

            I’m *very* suspicious as to why! At best, I think he’s operating on “better to get forgiveness than permission”, at worst he’s knowingly circumventing an explicit “no”.

            You mention elsethread that there are University-endorsed organizations to provide networking support – maybe ask them for help and let them (or, if they’re external, whatever office “endorsed” them) run the issue up the chain of command? Because this sounds like the sort of assignment that should be in collaboration with them to begin with, so at best he’s failing to make use of readily available resources to help link students and clients/projects. And, at worst, we’re back to “told he couldn’t do this [or at least not how he’s doing it]; proceeding to do it anyway”

  13. Zombeyonce*

    Besides all the problems with this that Alison noted, I’d imagine a decent number of the cold-called businesses would think this was some sort of scam. If someone approached me like this, I’d wonder when they’d ask for the money they said they didn’t want, or if they would do something nefarious with the information they’d get access to as part of the project.

    There’s also the issue of finding the line on pushback from the business owner, who could easily take advantage of the students. They might decide they don’t like how the students work and insist they put in way more work than should be expected, or that they hate the result and insist it be redone, or that a million little changes be done as the project goes on, contacting them way too often. We’ve all seen how freelancers get treated from stories on this blog. A bunch of college-aged kids are unlikely to have the skills or confidence to push back against bad behavior, or even know where the lines are.

    1. Nanani*

      Oh good point.
      20 years ago when a lot of small business had only vaguely heard that a website was a good idea, maybe it would have been okay, but in the era of professional social media managers this is not going to go over well.

    2. Not a mouse*

      That would absolutely be an issue with the project I mentioned above. It was a cybersecurity course. “Hi, I’m a student from the junior college! Please let me evaluate your cyber security!” Hahaha NOPE, if someone cold called me with that proposal.

    3. Grey*

      I’d think it was scam too. If I were approached like that, I’d worry it would turn into “Here’s your website. Now pay us or we’ll report you to the labor board”.

    4. AJ*

      This. Also many locations would be nervous about a security situation with unknown people arriving at the office too.

  14. CamJansen*

    I am laughing very hard at this; this would get you a nice escort off our campus and a bunch of “we work with proprietary information!” Huffing and puffing.

    Echo everyone else; this is bananas.

      1. Violet Fox*

        You really need to make a formal complaint about this. It is wrong on so many levels, and at least in the US, working for a for profit business for free is illegal.

  15. Nanani*

    Are the students beign left without resources from the prof -because- the university’s coop/internship/etc placement division has told him NO?

    Could you innocently email such a department and see what they say?
    A message similar to the one sent to Alison, maybe minus the “banana crackers” phrasing, should do nicely.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Oh I don’t even think the Career Services or whatever office is even aware this guy is doing this. this sounds very much like a “oh I had a BRILLIANT IDEA for students to get REAL WORLD experience” and then ran with it.

      Although if its been going on for a few years I seriously wonder how no one has noticed.

      Personaly i would go to the Dean and point out how this is just not workable. There is no structure, no support. A teacher who is giving terrible ideas about how things work to his students. Just lay out all the bananacrackerness of this idea.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Yeah, if LW has the capital to spend on this, it would be worth mentioning to the dean. Not even necessarily in a formal complaint, but more of a “Boy, it sure is hard trying to find an org/company to do my project for!” in a way that just makes it seem like LW hasn’t any idea how weird this is. Of course if your school is very large, this won’t work, but I’m used to small schools so my advice might be totally useless.

        1. Violet Fox*

          A formal complaint would be a really good idea. This is inappropriate to ask students to go exploit themselves and work for free.

        2. Candi*

          LW* here: I’m not talking to the dean of engineering, the prof’s boss, right now. I’d wind up reaming him for wanting everyone back butt in seats starting fall quarter -no online or hybrid courses AT ALL.

          1. Hanani*

            LW, is there a senior engineering prof you trust? If the Dean (who is also the dept chair?) isn’t an option, then getting other senior faculty involved is probably the only way to try to push for change. There are more official channels, of course, but their efficacy really varies, particularly when it comes to faculty.

          2. Kammy6707*

            Is there a Dean of Students or Dean of Academic Affairs? When my now-husband returned to school in his late twenties, he had some issues with an out-of-touch and bullying professor who basically ruled over an entire department. He was not the Chair of the department, but interestingly enough, the Chair was the only female among the department faculty and she was overworked as the male professors dumped all the classes on her they didn’t want to teach (I have worked for over a decade in higher education, I know that you get a release for a certain number of courses when you are a Chair). So going to her wasn’t really an option. I suggested he go to the Dean of Academic Affairs – who had actually been one of my favorite professors when I had attended the school several years prior. He was VERY interested in what my husband had to tell him.

  16. alt ac*

    Agreed on all accounts! I do, however, have a suggestion.

    Universities are like mini-cities. I direct a student support service that is underfunded, and I am the sole full-time employee. I would love love love to work with a group of students on a project like this, and I can’t imagine programs at your institution are any different.

    Now for the rest of it: This is infuriating because it instills the need to do unpaid/uncredited labor. As someone who has worked with undergraduate and graduate students for nearly 20 years, I fight this and continue to fight it. This is bad teaching, but it’s also terrible mentoring.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yes to this but especially the third paragraph! It is so bad to give students the mistaken notion that they need to do unpaid labor in order to succeed in life.

  17. Zoe*

    I used to work for a school of engineering and this is a huge no-no. We did both “service learning” — applying engineering to help community orgs — and industry projects. Good pedagogical practice BUT:

    For the former, we had a coordinator who was the liaison for the groups to scope out projects and manage placements and generally make sure things were on track.

    For industry, *they gave us a budget for materials/supplies and we negotiated project scope.* Typically $10-20k, and with the understanding that what they built might not work :P Again with a coordinator and very stringent check-ins and planning phases, stage gates before getting into prototyping, and so on.

    This prof is out of touch with business needs AND doesn’t seem to have thought through how to get the best educational or employer experience out of this scheme.

  18. Bananakins*

    I work at a similar Big University and have heard my student workers and interns talk about doing these types of projects. One of my interns told me his group contacted the small business through Instagram DMs.

    1. pancakes*

      That’s even worse! For a start, what sort of business doesn’t think that’s a scam? And what student wants or needs haphazard contact with absolute random, unvetted people via DMs? I suppose the students don’t know what to compare this sort of instruction to, but if I was paying a lot of money for a class with a significant unplanned and problematic element, I’d be really angry about that.

  19. PJ*

    I sort of get one part of this as a lesson – brainstorm on how to network and get clients – but the walking in cold is definitely banana crackers. This guy is still acting like it’s 1982.

    My church did a similar thing where we worked with three college students to have them help us redo our website. But the students’ timeline was a semester, and unless said business/entity has already deeply considered what they want from a new or redone site, a semester isn’t really enough time to get that going. (We didn’t know what was wanted or needed, other than we had to get rid of the hideous old dusty site we had.)

    You’re definitely right that this should be an email and not a cold walk in.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      YES, this is a big challenge. The LW indicates this is for 50% of the grade for a quarter-long class, which I think is just a couple of months long. As with all group projects, some are going to have more or less capable students, so the odds that these groups are going to create anything valuable for these businesses in that short period of time, unpaid and outside their school obligations, is very low. In exchange for a free product of unknown quality or completeness, the business would have to donate some of their employees’ time to support this.

      It’s unlikely to be of value to any business, and really unwelcome if the students just drop in. Even a business that happens to be looking for this kind of help would want to work with a professional with a portfolio of successful designs, not a handful of students still learning the basics.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: A quarter at this college is ten weeks, plus another for finals. So yeah, not long at all. Every group is rushed -we have weekly presentations in class on how we’re doing.

        My group got lucky: The small business baker wanted a site layout redesign, not a full new site. The biggest bear is fixing the purchasing plug-in, and that’s the PM and Developer’s job.

  20. David*

    I’d say the only types of businesses I would use the walk-up approach with would be restaurants and stores – small businesses that have a public space. That being said, you still need to make sure the nature of the project would be helpful to companies like this.

    1. Nanani*

      In 2022, restaurants probably already have a website, in the form an instatokbook page, a listing on the local delivery app, and so on.

    2. Strict Extension*

      Exactly what I was thinking. It sounds like LW is equating “walking into a business” with “asking at the reception desk in an office building” while professor is much more likely to be thinking of businesses that are more public facing, like retail and direct services. I worked in a small retail business in a popular shopping and dining area of a major city for ten years, and proposals like this were not unusual at all. Sometimes it was students asking for something related to a class (usually not asking to provide a service for us, but more likely wanting an interview or shadowing), but very often actual businesses marketing their services with cold calls. Just yesterday at my current position in an arts organization someone walked in off the street to ask for a meeting regarding our IT services provider. If LW has never had a job that encounters this tactic, it’s understandable to assume everything has moved online, but it really is still very common to drop in physically. In fact, it was one of the things I missed least from pre-pandemic times, and I would be happy to see it go again.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: I’ve worked small business retail, daycare, and big and small business housekeeping, and someone walking in would at best have been redirected to the manager or owner, if we weren’t told to turf them right out. (Some of my housekeeping bosses were Not Nice.)

        For food service, I worked at one big business fast food outlet. I was usually stuck in back on cooking or prep, so, no, I wouldn’t know how they handled that.

  21. Springtime*

    Being very shy and socially awkward as an undergrad, I always hated these kinds of projects. But…looking back, I can see how the networking and cold-pitching skills were valuable to practice, and my classmates who were more advanced at them were deservedly doing better than I was. Your professor is doing you a little bit of a favor by putting you in a group, because you can combine all your networks to come up with a single project. As you say, you’re 19-22 year olds, but some 19-22 year olds are actually running their own businesses–there’s not exactly an adult age when you’re “supposed” to know how to do this. So your situation is pretty excruciating, but if you can pull it off, you probably have actually learned something.

    1. Nanani*

      Eh, I disagree.
      Most people don’t go into jobs that involve cold sales unless they actually want to be in sales, after all.
      Combined with the suspicious lack of pre-set partnerships with the program, I really think Banana Crackers is the correct take and it’s not a favour.

      1. Candy Morningstar*

        I am curious what class it is for. If it’s a marketing class (rather than a web design class or something) then the pitching and cold calls could be a valuable part of what they’re supposed to be learning. Having a pre-set partnership arranged with a business doesn’t give you that. But I agree there should be more guidance than just “wander into a business.”

        1. Candi*

          LW* here: It’s not marketing. It’s IT. This quarter is on teams and team management. The other quarter I had under this professor it was about designing interfaces that were user-friendly, the ways to get the info you need for that, and related topics.

    2. J.B.*

      Most professors handle group projects terribly. It is wildly irresponsible to put people in a group and say “have at it” – this professor is unlikely to be overseeing what happens within the groups.

      1. KoiFeeder*


        Also, I had terrible networking and cold-pitching skills in undergrad, because I’m autistic and use a cane. I’m offputting to begin with, and limping around with a group harassing local businesses would not improve my mood or my social skills. That’s why I didn’t major in sales! Now, if I was lucky, I might get paired with a group that understands I do my best work in a quiet cave away from other humans, but it’s more likely that I’d either be quietly resented or complained about to the professor- either for “sabotaging” the group’s attempts to snare a business or for not helping them.

      2. Candi*

        LW* here: The groups have a weekly presentation where they show the class and prof how they’re doing and where they are on the timeline of the project.

        But he’s not good at giving feedback. Most of the feedback has come from other students.

    3. Antilles*

      Your professor is doing you a little bit of a favor by putting you in a group, because you can combine all your networks to come up with a single project.
      How many college students actually have a useful network though? Most college students’ networks is family/friends from your hometown, other college-aged people you went to high school with, other college students at your university, and people directly affiliated with your university.
      As an adult, you develop a network by working with clients, going to national conferences, former co-workers/bosses who move companies, and so forth…but none of those are things which really exist for a 21 year old whose daily life revolves almost entirely around the university and its’ environs.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: There’s a couple uni-endorsed organizations on campus provide networking and connection opportunities, and other organizations are allowed to advertise on campus and invite students.

        And in my on-the-spot opinion, they’re far more useful for networking and all than these projects.

  22. The IT Project*

    I HAD TO DO THIS IN COLLEGE TOO!!!!!!! No advice just commiseration.
    It was awful. We ended up doing some database for the library on campus so it was less awkward. I went to school in a very small farm town so there weren’t many places to work with.
    But it was hard because you are a student with limited resources and you are expected as a team to code this random system for someone and write up all the documentation, etc. We didn’t possess all those skills but this was a required senior year IT project. It was 20 years ago so I don’t remember the details and how we went about finding a place of business but people in my class did do projects for small businesses in the community.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Honestly this makes more sense 20 years ago when the IT was much more of the wild wild west. The professor is extremely out of touch with how any professional organization handles it’s IT and network and website security which would be to laugh in the face of any one offering this service for free.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: I forgot to mention in my letter. The professor listed off a list of small, local businesses that we could try. No, he did NOT contact them -he just said that since they were small, local businesses, they would be worth walking in and asking if we could help them.

        I didn’t recognize most of the names, but

        (wait for it)

        one of the businesses he listed was Goodwill.

    2. TheRain'sSmallHands*

      I had to do one where we did an audit or a corporate project. Like any corporation would give you that!

  23. Robin*

    I think interacting with real businesses has value that cannot be replicated by a faux company. This is a chance to understand how this kind of project works out in real life, with all the joys and frustrations that come along with that. They also make connections with people who might like them! Building a professional network is a great perk to these kinds of courses (and, is often part of the point).

    I have a professor that runs practicum classes that are widely loved. He also co-runs the year-long practicum that is part of my graduate degree. One of the reasons he is so successful is that he has done exactly what Alison mentioned regarding preparatory legwork. Take the semester-long class: he had potential partners and projects lined up before the course started. In the first third of the course, we bid for projects (top three) and were assigned to groups based on those bids. Roles were self-assigned within the groups and we met with partners throughout the rest of the semester to produce whatever deliverable they wanted. My group created a stakeholder map for a refugee repatriation effort.

    This absolutely depends on the professor having connections and networks, which the university career center/alumni organization can/should help with! If this professor is not engaged, then this will not work so the LW and their group seem stuck doing that legwork themselves. Honestly, that is a waste of time and I am sorry they are put in such a situation.

  24. M. Dharm*

    Unless this is a class in “how to survive as a freelancer”, the idea of making students find their own “employer / client” seems like a waste of valuable time.

    The idea of getting some level of “professional experience” is valuable. Some institutions (like my alma mater, Harvey Mudd College) actually runs a program where companies *pay* the school for students to work on a real project (it’s not a huge amount of money; enough to make sure it is a “real” project) and the students get course credit for it as a capstone experience. Expectations for how many man-hours are spent on the project are set and managed according to the size of the team.

    My point is, like many others here, finding these clients is really the job of the instructor / institution, not the students.

  25. Fae Kamen*

    This is pretty common for social studies and social justice oriented classes, working with community groups or nonprofits rather than private businesses.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: We’re all going for Bachelors in IT. The closest we get to social stuff is the soft science classes we all had to take as reqs.

  26. The Real Persephone Mongoose*

    With all the rigor around data security, I seriously doubt that a company of any size is going to allow people they’ve not vetted access to any of their internal IT infrastructure to create a web site. This professor has been out of the ‘real’ world for far too long. Like the one I had for Leveraging Future Technology who kept wanting to talk about his News Groups experiences as though they were current. Like…dude, the 70’s called. They want their internet back.

    1. Violet Fox*

      Yes! Not to mention, why would anyone need random students coming along to make their website.

      At least where I work, we treat all cold solicitation to be spam, phishing, or a security just no.

  27. Raine*

    I had to do this in college, for the PR class in my broadcasting degree. We had to find (individually, not groups) a business or organization that wanted free advertising on the college radio station and put together an ad campaign. All the campaigns ran on the station, and I also got another radio spot that could go in my portfolio. I walked into the local indy coffee shop and didn’t have any trouble pitching my idea or getting the campaign run. While I’m sure it’s not as ‘professional’ as the experience one gets from doing something in an internship or an actual job, it’s still *experience*, and it is still educational.

  28. Megan*

    When I was in business school (15+ years ago now) we had to do something similar – BUT – my University has a Service Learning department. They promote assistance to the local business community from the University and accept the businesses as clients, and then coordinate with professors and their students on specific projects. It worked pretty well, but the department to facilitate the connections and projects was absolutely necessary for it to be beneficial to all parties.

  29. Ryan*

    Oh this is just a bad teacher.

    Talk to the department head or a dean. This is terrible pedagogy, lazy, and just setting every student up for failure.

  30. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    I’m willing to bet some money that Big University’s administration is wholly unaware this is happening (or happening in this way). I suggest elevating your concerns to the department chair or dean (depending on the nature of the program). Typically when these sorts of arrangements are created formally there are agreements in place covering topics like access to and disclosure of sensitive client information, ownership of any IP created, control over the work of the students, pathways for terminating the arrangement early (and under what conditions) etc. Depending on the nature of the client businesses there may well be other risks and considerations too (like various privacy laws protecting client data, insurance requirements, the list goes on).

    1. Esmeralda*

      There are also insurance and safety issues if the students are working off campus under the auspices of a university function or department. I betcha University legal would blanch at this part of the assignment…

  31. ManyHats*

    At larger companies, the students won’t make it past the security guard, much less the reception desk. Even in our small building, security calls us if a guest arrives, and if we say we’re not expecting them, they’ll be turned away. Expecting strangers to take time out of their workday to speak to students about giving them jobs is just silly. The amount of time the staff will have to spend with the students will add stress and the work may not help the company at all in the end.

    1. Calliope*

      I imagine the prof is imagining a local diner or food pantry, not a big company with security!

      1. ManyHats*

        Even so, walking in cold is unprofessional. This teacher probably thinks businesses would welcome cold calls on the phone, too. Hahahahaha.

        1. Calliope*

          I honestly don’t think small local businesses would usually care. They might say no but I have a hard time imagining anyone getting mad at some college students anymore than they got mad at us when we were middle school students walking in to local stores and asking the manager if they’d buy an ad in the yearbook. This just seems . . . like something students have been told to do since time immemorial. Best idea ever? No. Banana crackers? Also no.

          1. Candi*

            LW* here: What are the chances that a manager or owner, who has a million other things to do for any business, will even have the time to talk to someone who just walked in to offer services?

            It’s only in badly run businesses where the manager or owner is sitting like a lazy king on his throne. In a well-run business, they’re doing a lot of different things. Especially in a small business where everyone wears several hats.

            Cold calls are problematic for similar reasons, but at least a call is reasonable to do in a pandemic.

          2. pancakes*

            Middle or high school students going around selling yearbook ads is categorically different, I think, than college students paying for the privilege of going around to local businesses seeking a haphazard, self-directed but poorly supervised and under-supported education.

            1. Insert Clever Name Here*

              Yeah, middle/high school students selling yearbook ads is definitely a much more straightforward transaction than designing a website!

              1. pancakes*

                The purpose is also totally different – raising money for the yearbook, not pursuing a college-level education.

  32. S*

    When I was in school we did projects for local non profits as well as within the school that were intended to provide real world value – yes, for free.

    Here’s why I think this is a good idea and not as sketch as it sounds –
    1. You are students which means you are still learning, it is actually true that the most valuable experience comes from actually doing things. Unlike the “design for exposure” complaints of free lancers you still have lots to learn and there is actually value to you in doing some non classroom exercise work for a grade.

    2. These are things you will have on your resume and can discuss with prospective employers. As a hiring manager in tech I generally don’t want to hire people who don’t at least have one non class project on their resume. (see value of experience) I also weigh the quality of the companies they work for, so fake ones would not be recommended.

    3. They can also help broaden your network and help you find a job, and give you a portfolio item that should be at a higher standard than class work.

    As for how you get these projects – what if your project this year was to build a website for local businesses and non profits to submit projects to your university for students? (and promote it, etc) You are 100% correct that this professor is out of touch m

    Alternatively I would look on linked in for local non profits, or organizations in the area and try to identify the right people to reach out to in the organization for the work you are trying to focus on. (website building would be It or marketing for example)

    There are also websites of volunteer opportunities in many regions that may have need for this kind of work. Non profits are still businesses and you may feel less crappy doing free work for them.

    1. Spearmint*

      I don’t think many people are against real-world projects being part of a college education. The problem is it’s not fair to expect them to get projects on their own, even leaving aside the professor’s outdated advice for how to do so. Few businesses will want to give a project to a random group of students with no work experience based on a cold pitch, but many might be willing to agree to something like that if they’re approached by the professor and/or school (where it would be framed as an opportunity to give back).

    2. Candi*

      LW* here: I can count on one hand the number of nonprofits I’ve seen in the work students did last quarter, the work they’re doing this quarter, and in the saved projects the prof has as examples on Canvas. For something that’s been going on at least four years that I know of.

  33. Limepiranha*

    Speaking as a nonprofit communications manager in a college town- I field many of these requests at the semester beginning/end. The worst of the bunch implies that our social media/communications footprint is lacking and they ‘want to help’ while in actual experience we have rarely been able to use what is produced. It takes our time and resources to educate and generally students have their own requirements from their professor that likely does not align with what our needs/brand guidelines may be. I always respond to requests to work with us but I direct them to our intern program that hosts a handful of interns that stay with us throughout the semester to get a fuller range and variety of projects in our organization. All that to say yes it is unfair to place this upon students to create the opportunities. Especially if this professor (and/or others) do this project each semester likely area businesses will have their own experience and will likely decline or direct the group somewhere else.

    1. J.B.*

      Yes. I might propose a project mainly for the benefit of a student who works with us already, but would not be sad at all if that student’s group thinks we are too boring and want to do something else :)

      1. Limepiranha*

        Precisely. We have had interns that came to work for us or positive group experiences out of certain areas of the college working on a project within their preview. But if you’re asking to lead the charge in directing your student, devoting resources to them, and guiding them through it….well that’s your job, not ours!

    2. Candi*

      LW here: I suppose that’s one good thing about it -prof doesn’t put any reqs on what the projects themselves should look like.

      The Powerpoint presentations and submitted materials reporting on how we’re doing, on the other hand -those better be up to par.

      Considering the class is teams and team management, the presentations being properly done are the least annoying thing -that makes sense in context.

  34. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    Hey, that’s how government where I live gets a good number of their basic IT work done. QA? GDPR? Good luck with that.
    (In all seriousness, my last job was lead by two uni teachers who employed their students during the academic year. Granted, their course was a optional and a easy way to get credits, but at least they could’ve tried to make the conflict of interest less obvious)

  35. SmBizOwner*

    I’m the owner of a small cafe business in a town with a large state university. In any given semester I get 20-30 unique requests from students for varying amounts of my time because their professors (of a variety of different classes) have assigned a project that requires them to interview/observe/create sample work for/etc a local small business. All of these take my time, some more than others. I used to do it for 1-2 students a semester. After 10+ years in business, I rarely say yes anymore, unless the email I get making the request is exceptionally well written. That’s rare. I never understand why the professors don’t think the few local business will get sick of these requests.

    1. Calliope*

      Hah, probably depends on the size of the college and the size of the town – I imagine it’s easier with small colleges in large metro areas!

    2. BigHairNoHeart*

      That’s what gets me. Surely if the instructor gives this assignment to multiple classes over the course of several years, they’re just going to…run out of willing businesses! (obviously there’s less of a risk of this if it’s a large city or a class that’s offered infrequently to a very small number of people, etc. etc.)

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: It’s a large city, in a county with other small to large cities, and surrounded by counties with their own small to large cities.

        Even so, I bet a lot of the smaller businesses around the various college campuses get sick of it.

    3. Kelly L.*

      I used to work for the Llama Grooming Department of a college, in a town where there were not a lot of llama grooming businesses to choose from, and we would get this every year from both high school students and students at a different university in town. The university students were mostly journalism students wanting to interview someone, and the high school ones were part of some job shadow program where kids had to find someone in their field to follow around for a day. Well, like I said, not a lot of llama groomers in town, so they’d call us and want to shadow the professors. I think they found it pretty dull and not much like the actual industry, but it worked OK until the year the high school teacher scheduled the project during the college’s spring break. No one was in town for the kids to shadow. They were big mad. The teacher was big mad. Sorry, not much I can do.

  36. Brett*

    Code for America.
    Just contact your local chapter and go from there. They can connect you with appropriate clients (government and non-profit) who have specific defined needs for volunteer help in the areas you are describing.

    There are other similar non-profits who do similar connecting between clients and tech volunteers (e.g. GISCorps for experienced geospatial tech volunteers), but that’s a great spot to start.

    _In this particular field_ (website or other IT, design, or technical communications work) I might disagree with other commentators suggesting university resources. This is, unfortunately, an area where I have found universities to do a rather poor job in connecting non-profit clients to students. That is part of the reason specialized non-profits like Code for America exist.

    fast forward (ffwd) is another meta-resource in this space. They are an investment accelerator who maintains a considerable amount of information on tech non-profits and could possibly help connect with one that has needs for the services you would be looking to provide. The professor should be the one reaching out to them though.
    (And, unfortunately, normally the experience level ffwd non-profit’s need is higher than entry level.) They do maintain a “jobs” board that includes both paid positions and current specialized volunteer needs for tech social non-profits.

  37. Longtime Lurker*

    There’s an easy way to do this— I took a video production class in college and our final group project was to make a promotional video for an on-campus group (club, team, or program). Groups signed up to be considered and the professor gave them detailed info about what to expect and how to treat our teams as service providers. Once word got around that your club could get a free video if you worked with the class there were plenty of clients.

  38. Calliope*

    I would email instead of showing up but I can think of 3-4 non-profits in my neighborhood alone who would likely be receptive to this and some of whom already employ students from the local college (a couple of miles away). Those include a food pantry and three different orgs that do work with kids in the community of different ages. There’s also tons of local businesses who don’t have the resources for a real website – ones with a retail component as opposed to office-y ones – and who primarily operate via Facebook and Instagram now. As I said, I wouldn’t just show up but honestly, if you did and people happened to be there they’d probably still be friendly and receptive. That’s not a bad thing about them. It’s the nature of being small and local.

    I don’t think requiring students to reach out is the end of the world since that’s a good lesson about professional communication too. And the work may or may not end up being used. Were I teaching this, I might limit it to non profits just to make things less dicey but I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary.

    Anyway the way I would actually handle this were I a student looking for a “client” would be to post on a neighborhood Facebook group or two since ime local businesses and non-profits are active on those.

    1. Spearmint*

      “I don’t think requiring students to reach out is the end of the world since that’s a good lesson about professional communication too.”

      Is it? I’ve never had to pitch a project to a random business I have no connection to. I’ve put in applications for job listings, but that’s different.

      Even many freelancers don’t go around pitching themselves to random businesses cold.

      1. Calliope*

        Well, I guess it depends on what field you’re in. I’m a lawyer who was in private practice for a number of years. I didn’t walk into random businesses to pitch my services (and nor would I here as I said) but knowing how to have a professional conversation with someone I had never met but might ultimately work with in a professional context was absolutely important. That’s hardly unique. Even if you’re not going to be “pitching” your services, you might be pitching stories if you’re a writer or fundraising if you’re at a non-profit or any number of other things that require you to interact with strangers professionally.

        Something doesn’t need to be exactly the same as what you’ll do in a job to be useful as a skill. In this case, you’re offering something for free and have no investment if they say no (you can just find someone else) so it’s pretty low stakes.

      2. Triplestep*

        Why is everyone assuming that “Small Business” = “Small Office”? My city is full of Mom & Pop retail businesses, diners, etc. The way one gets work with these outfits has never changed – you walk in and talk to the manager or owner. This time instead of asking to be come part of the waitstaff or crew, you’d be asking if the business would like to reap the benefits of an assignment and get some free communications work. I’m surprised that what this professor is asking has people wringing their hands to this degree.

        I’m also surprised that the LW seems to imply that it’s shocking they are not getting something for this work – money or internship credit. You’re getting real life experience and a work example for your CV or portfolio, which is worth more than money and at least equal to internship credit.

        1. PNW Zebra*

          The idea that this experience is somehow more valuable than money or internship credit is supremely out of touch. Experience doesn’t get you closer to the degree you’re paying for or put food on the table. College students aren’t idiots, they are contributing to the business in this situation, and businesses are going to get way more out of the exchange than students will. This attitude just normalizes exploitation.

          1. Triplestep*

            Not experience – the *actual work sample* is more valuable. I do not know what field you are in, but I know you are definitely not a designer. Being able to show a prospective employer that you created a website is huge. I work in architecture, and students who can show actual work examples – drawings of things that have actually been built, or could be built from a drawing they devised – have a competitive advantage over students who can’t. So please put away your broad sweeping brush when you’re talking about things that are “out of touch”.

            1. MsM*

              Except that if you’re planning on going into web design in some capacity, I’d assume you’ll have plenty of samples in your portfolio anyway: most of which will probably show off more of what you can do to greater advantage if they’re not constrained by the limitations of a semester-long client project that may or may not end up getting used in any form resembling what you envisioned for it.

              1. Calliope*

                Why would you assume that? Legitimate question. I don’t know why you’d necessarily have a ton of non-school samples.

                1. MsM*

                  …I hope the “non-school samples” is the part that confuses you, because I’m really struggling to respond to the idea that any college student in this day and age wouldn’t be building up a portfolio from the moment they decide web/digital design or communications is something they even think they might want to pursue without engaging in some potentially unflattering demographic profiling. Although honestly, I’m still almost as confused by why would it matter more that a portfolio sample is “real” than that it demonstrates you know what skills the job you’re applying for needs, for much the same reasons as PNW Zebra. If an employer really wants to know whether you can put together something that works under the conditions they need it to work under, why wouldn’t they just give you a test or small practice assignment?

              2. Triplestep*

                Showing you can design for real people with real requirements and constraints carries it’s own value. Your student portfolio shows your technical skills for things that were designed in a vacuum. The two kinds of work samples are both valuable but not comparable.

                1. PNW Zebra*

                  In my industry, when evaluating portfolios for hiring most don’t care if they’re done for no-name pizza chains or made up companies. Real companies/clients only matter if they have significant market share or other recognizable brand. There’s literally zero additional value and a lot of headache going about it this way.

                2. Triplestep*

                  @PNW Zebra a minute ago you were poo-pooing the value of experience, and now you critique the real life work of students based on if it was done for a company with significant market share or other recognizable brand?

        2. Spearmint*

          “I’m also surprised that the LW seems to imply that it’s shocking they are not getting something for this work – money or internship credit. You’re getting real life experience and a work example for your CV or portfolio, which is worth more than money and at least equal to internship credit.”

          That’s the same argument people use for unpaid internships. It’s straight up exploitative to expect people to drum up unpaid work for themselves simply “for the experience”. I could easily see this turning into, essentially, an unpaid part-time job unto itself.

          Now, it would be different if the professor was coordinating this and essentially handed them a project as part of the coursework.

          1. Triplestep*

            I’m not talking about the experience alone – I am talking about the resulting work sample, as I just wrote above. Using the word “exploitation” for what’s going on here is totally over the top and reeks of an entitled attitude – like a non-professional’s project is going to be so great they should get paid heaps of money for it. No, they are getting paid in the opportunity to have an actual work sample to show a prospective employer, which – if you work in a field that values that (like design) is extremely valuable. YMMV, and probably does if you work in a field that doesn’t produce things the way design fields do.

            1. PNW Zebra*

              “Getting paid to work” is entitlement, kay.

              No one is suggesting they get paid like industry experts. The idea that you should only get compensated for your time and effort once you’re an expert in something is false.

              1. Candi*

                LW* here: I’d expect minimum-flipping-wage at the least. More for the students who’ve had actual experience.

                My state has it in law that our minimum wage must always be a certain amount above federal -originally done to attract workers before the Big Industries were founded. More recently, they’ve shaken off even that and are pushing for $15/hr within the next few years. (Covid messed up the original timeframe.)

                So this is NOT an paltry amount of money. Especially for college students.

          2. Calliope*

            This is such a worst case scenario though. Like nobody is saying it’s the best assignment ever but it’s also pretty common and not really worthy of that much outrage. Just . . . don’t make it a part time job. Check the boxes of the assignment and move on.

            1. PNW Zebra*

              If you’ve ever done work of the type letter writer is describing, you’ll know that checking the boxes here is at least a part-time job given that a quarter has maybe 10 weeks of instruction.

              1. Calliope*

                I mean. School does take the time of a part time job, yes. Not sure the specifics here, how many credits the class is, or the general workload. But the point being you can set limits on how much you work and keep it to the term time. If the professor is assigning more work than can be reasonably completed that is a different issue.

                1. Candi*

                  LW* here. The class is 5 credits -the usual maximum.

                  The prof doesn’t set the timeline or amount of work. The client does. If it’s too much, the group has to push back. The prof is no help -it’s between the group and the client.

                  There’s two members of my group who are Not Available for group meetings or schoolwork, on different days of the week, due to their jobs.

                  I’m a nontraditional student -I’ll be 45 when I graduate. I am NOT letting these kids not realize the value of their work.

            2. pancakes*

              No, it was not “pretty common” at my undergrad or graduate schools for professors to be disconnected, disengaged, and haphazard about how we spent our time together. In places where that is common, students should be asking themselves whether the education they’re getting is truly worth their time and money. Even an under-resourced community college can do better than this.

    2. pancakes*

      Cold sales calls are a very particular form of “professional communication.” Students who intend to go into sales should certainly study sales, but it’s not as if this is something everyone needs basic education in to be a well-rounded person. And anyone studying or wanting to study sales would be better off doing so in a less haphazard way. “Not the end of the world” isn’t much of a recommendation!

  39. ActiveLearning*

    Depending on how this was presented, I actually don’t see too much of a problem with this. At my undergrad, every business major had to do this. They know from the get-go, so they plan for it throughout the year. Like they reach out to businesses, which might need to happen with many companies, they listen to their needs, develop plans, etc. You learn a lot from this process.

    I also had to do this for my program but with a research project, in a foreign country, with no resources and barely knowing the language. I had to come up with a research topic, question, and everything else, including dealing with logistics, finding logging on a very tight budget. I was very nervous but I got through it and learned a lot from that experience, including what I’m capable of.

    If LW’s professor had told them about this project when the semester started, the students should’ve been planning for it. But if it’s just being sprung on them, then the professor should’ve done more planning for students. The only thing I agree with LW is that they should not just show up and demand these people’s time. They should communicate via email, phone, or LinkedIn, explain the situation, and ask if they could work with them.

    1. Pilcrow*

      I agree, it’s not so bad. I did pretty much as the letter described twice in my last year of college for technical writing (granted, it was the late 90s, then). One was a school-facilitated partnership with local non-profits where my partner and I re-wrote the procedures manual for the local United Way chapter. The other was a capstone project I found on my own to do a operating manual for a local candy company. I did basically just walk in and ask (technically I called to make an appointment first, but still).

      Both were great content for the portfolio and getting that first career-track job.

      As for the “doing it for free” angst… it was basically the homework for those classes, not a full-time job.

      1. PNW Zebra*

        I think times have changed enough since the late 90s that the “doing it for free” angst is well warranted here.

        1. Pilcrow*

          Would people be wanting to be paid to do a large research project/term paper, one that took up most of the semester and counted as a large part of the final grade? Because that’s essentially what these types of projects are. Yes, they take up time outside of classes, but so does doing research in the library and writing papers.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            I definitely wanted to be paid for working on my professor’s art installation on his behalf for a grade. That kind of sucked.

          2. Candi*

            LW* here: We’re doing work for a for-profit business that will benefit long-term from our work -YES, we should be paid!

            There are mock projects teachers can assign that assess/teach the same knowledge to assign a grade without having students do work for free for an outside organization.

            We are paying -via grants and borrowed money- to be in this class. Indirectly, we are paying to work at these businesses.

            The only reason I’m not including interest comments about the money we’re paying for college is the freeze on loan interest that’s been going on for most of covid. (Although I’d rather have people alive and the interest.)

            1. ActiveLearning*

              “We’re doing work for a for-profit business that will benefit long-term from our work”

              How do you know this? In a previous comment, you said that your class is only ten weeks and it’s all rushed. I can’t see how something of significant value to the company can be produced in those conditions. Like will you have time to fully understand their issue(s), develop solutions, and test if your solutions are effective in 10 weeks on something you’re not working full time on?

              1. Candi*

                These are small businesses -we’re talking from one to maybe ten workers. For many, this is the first website they’ve ever had. For others, it’s having a poorly-done site, often one the owner through together on a web-hosting site without really knowing what goes into a good site, redone by people who have at least had some education on the topic, and sometimes some experience.

                In any case, the sites from my fall class are all still up. From the project files the prof saved as examples, only one is no longer up.

                Don’t diss my classmates. Poor quality work is not one of the problems for most of the students.

    2. anonforthis*

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing a project *based* on a local business where part of the process involves visiting the business to learn about it. It seems like the prof expects their students to actually work for and implement their projects with the business, which is weird. When I was in college I had to make fake donor materials for existing nonprofits for a class, but we weren’t required to impose them on the organizations.

  40. Joyce To the World*

    Sounds like one of my Psych professors who tasked us with giving 15 child IQ tests and 25 adult IQ tests. His suggestion was to go to a school to give the children’s IQ tests. It was almost 30 years ago and I even then would not have been comfortable going into a school like that. I gave those tests to the same people over and over again and everyone I ran across. And I gave the child test to adults.

  41. RedinSC*

    I work for a well known non profit in my community. We get not only college students, but high school students doing this, I get about 3 requests a year for this kind of thing.

    Honestly, it’s exhausting. It’s SO MUCH WORK for the organization and it never turns out any type of product or service that I can actually use. I really want schools to stop the process. Just leave us alone, we don’t want some not thought out, half finished projects that either I or one of my colleagues has to spend HOURS of our time managing.

    I’m really sounding grumpy about this, I know, but it really is a big burden that organizations go through to support their community. I’m really not interested.

    1. Ginger Pet Lady*

      I agree. Professors cannot assign homework to people/students who are not in their class. That includes:
      1. “service learning” – which is always more work for the recipient, and sometimes added expense, too.
      2. Interviewing someone in the field – I used to get 10-15 requests for informational interviews every semester because some professor at some point put my name on a list of potential interviewees. And I would ignore them because I DO NOT HAVE TIME TO BE A HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT. This led to unhappy students leaving me some (clears throat) lovely voice mails.
      3. Asking for assignments to be reviewed by a professional. Grading is the professor’s job.

  42. Just Another Zebra*

    So I was an English major, and for one of my classes the professor required we run a workshop for an underserved community. This professor set up more than twice the required services that we could utilize, so we weren’t just cold-calling random businesses. She also gave us access to previous students’ projects (to demonstrate what worked at what didn’t), as well as guided us through the entire process (which ran roughly 8 weeks).

    This professor sounds, frankly, lazy and out of touch. I’d contact the dean or department head, or even your student advisor. They might be able to guide you, or else put a stop to the crazy.

  43. BigHairNoHeart*

    Oh goodness, I know your instructors think they’re giving you practical experience by assigning you these projects, but you’ve already identified so many flaws in the plan. Do you fill out evaluations at the end of your courses? If so, I’d really encourage you to spell out why it stinks (stick to facts, sound professional, etc.) in your evaluation. And encourage others in your class to do the same. If enough people are forthright with the instructors that this project is unfeasible, they might do away with it (might). Unfortunately, that means you’d still have to find a workaround and DO the project anyway, but it feels really unlikely that there’s any way to avoid doing it altogether short of dropping the class.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: And the class is a req for the IT degree. Fun times.

      I let loose on the form for the last class I took with him, too. I suspect that part of it is shoving all the evaluation work off on the companies -which doesn’t work as well when he’s accepting the students’ word the client is happy. (Students have offered to put prof in contact with the clients. The teacher always waves it off with “no, that’s okay,” and there is no process for submitting .pdfs or other docs of emails from clients stating their satisfaction or lack thereof.)

  44. Minerva*

    Around 2009 I worked as a bank teller. One day the branch manager thought it would be a good idea for me to talk through the strip mall we worked in and see if we could offer any of the “smaller” businesses (ir no the big chain stores) merchant services.

    I ran into people who were terrified when I asked for a manager, gave cards to people who had no authority to make those kinds of decisions (we of course never heard back) and had 2 people tell me tell me some version of “get the f*ck out” So it did not go as planned and the next time I just wanted to walk in as a customer it…was…awkward.

    So no, people do not like it when you walk into their place in this manner to drum up unsolicited business. At all. Your professor is wildly out of touch.

    1. Minerva*

      *Or unsolicited school projects that impact how they do their business I would suppose. Sorry I got on a tangent lol

  45. Nea*

    I had to do this for my Master’s degree so my response is a lot closer to “Oh, yeah, those assignments” and not “This is bananacrackers!”

    A few things to help:
    – If he just said “the community” without spelling out which one, you’re golden. Church is a community.
    Twitter is a community. Charity drive close to your heart is a community. Minor actor in a show you’re part of the fandom in is a community. Go somewhere you want to donate your time to.

    – If you must stick to the local area, Big University’s populous county is probably crawling with small-time creatives (authors, actors, builders) and tiny charities desperate for more publicity. Do a targeted location search on etsy or facebook. Check the community theaters.

    – DON’T just walk up (in these days of plague??!!!) Send an email. And start it with “I would like to x for you as part of my studies in y” so the recipient has context. I don’t care if he thinks it’s a good idea; tell them that you contacted whoever in the manner requested by their covid rules/website/front desk/large barking Rottweiler.

    1. Calliope*

      Yeah, I think there’s a lot of daylight between “well designed” and “banana crackers.” This is not a super well thought out assignment but it’s also not that hard to figure out something that will meet the parameters and ultimately be fine.

    2. BigHairNoHeart*

      These seem like good workarounds! I think the thing that gets me about this assignment is that when OP asked the professor how to find potential clients, they gave such useless advice. If the prof had offered up some suggestions like these, my “banana crackers alert” would be significantly quieter!

    3. TheRain'sSmallHands*

      Not only small time creatives….but do you know a teenager in need of a babysitting/dog walking/ lawn mowing web site, Does your little sisters Girl Scout troop need a “contact us for cookies” page…Aunt Lizzie’s bookclub need a page that tracks current book/meeting date/host …and allows her fellow wine drinking readers to participate in an old style forum..they are probably no likelier to get used in 2022 than a small business/non-profit project (all this stuff is just now done through apps and aggregators – you don’t want your own restaurant website – you want to be found using OpenTable), but Aunt Lizzie is probably much happier to give you use cases while she talks about her bookclub.

    4. Candi*

      LW* here: It was the walking up specifically I was asking for the bananacrackers judgement on. The rest is just very, very annoying, plus I’m peeved we’re doing for free what small businesses and freelancers should be getting paid for. Why should any of the places HIRE someone when, if they wait a bit, there will be students needing a grade willing to do the work for free?

      1. Nea*

        There are A LOT of reasons why doing this is to both your and the other person/group’s advantage:

        Because there’s no guarantee that there will be another student willing to work for free.

        Because I’m sending you to the kind of people who can’t afford to hire.

        Because I’m sending you to the kind of people who don’t think their work is “worth” hiring someone for. It’s amazing how creatives will blow off their own work as not that important when compared to (massively famous professional in the field).

        Because when they hire someone they’re getting experienced quality work. Students, no matter how good a student they are, are still learning and the work will reflect that.

        Because you’re getting real-world experience in things that can’t be taught in a classroom, like “So how does a brand-new freelancer go look for work?” “What is most important to a small business and is it what I thought it was?”

        Because when you do decide to go pro, be it as a freelancer or as part of a larger company, you have a real-world portfolio and are prepared to discuss real-world problem-solving in your interview.

        Because – and I know this goes against Alison’s usual advice, but this is an edge case – if you make this a good experience for them as a volunteer freelancer, yes, they really might be willing to hire you later, or point you in the direction of someone who will hire you.

        The brutal truth is, learning how to do something inevitably means you’re going to be working for free. If that’s a sticking point for you, that’s going to be a problem. I’ve been in my line of work for 25 years – every bit of it proprietary information. So to this very day, as a well-paid senior in my field, if I’m in a situation where I’m asked for work samples I’d have to make something up (for free) or volunteer for small real-world projects like this because my time is expensive.

        1. Candi*

          “The brutal truth is, learning how to do something inevitably means you’re going to be working for free.”

          Learning how to do something is what I borrowed money to pay the college for.

          I did not pay the college so the teacher could dump his responsibilities onto an organization who never agreed to be involved.

          I’ll work for free for my classes since that’s why I’m there.

          Working for free for a business, that did not agree in advance to help with the college and the education, is not what I’m paying the college for and not why I’m there.

          And this “you must work for free to learn” is an archaic, out-of-date thinking that remains in place because it gives those who benefit from the free labor more power.

  46. Oregongirl*

    This is very poor teaching and incredibly lazy on your instructors beh. I would strongly encourage you and your classmates to push this up to the department chair or school head. For many of the reasons stated above, this reflects poorly on your University and department. Go as a group, so you can’t be singled. Good luck!

  47. anonymous73*

    I’ll admit that I went to college in the dinosaur age and never would have needed to do this type of project based on my major, but this is bullshit. You should never be required to do this type of leg work on your own for a college course. Your professor needs to have a list of businesses that have already been contacted and agreed to participating that you can choose from for the project. Is the university aware of this professor’s requirements and in agreement that this is how it should be done? I would start with your advisor or another trusted faculty member to try and get this practice squashed. What happens when everyone says no?

  48. RunShaker*

    I’m wondering if Dean or university’s legal counsel are aware of what this professor is doing. I’m wondering about pay/labor laws on for profit businesses, how this could negatively affect the university and/or business if something goes sideways, if business harasses a student…… I think it would be in university’s best interest to set up what others have suggested, the university works with certain employers and employers pay money to university. Something like this needs parameters set by university to avoid all kinds of issues (legal, PR, protecting students, etc).

  49. voyager1*

    I think of instead of pushing back like you did. I think a better approach would have been to ask the professor, what were some projects done in the past.

    This honestly doesn’t sound hard as a project goes.

    I get the whole free labor angle on this… but still I don’t think this project idea is all bad. It is really going to come down to how much time it will take.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: He keeps electronic files of projects done in the past. Especially when it lets him brag about current TAs. He makes sure we know exactly where they are and where to find them on Canvas.

      And take it from boots on the ground here: Building an acceptable website from the ground up, even on a website-hosting platform, is hard. You’re building the online public face of a company, and there’s a million things to get right even before the widgets don’t work the way the site says they’re supposed to. That was last fall quarter’s project, and we were tweaking things until the day before final presentation.

      This quarter, “all” we have do is change the site’s layout -and it’s still a problem. Part of it being the client wants very specific backgrounds, so everything has to be built around them -but the color coordination alone is tricky because of the colors in the backgrounds. Lots of communication via hex code between me and the developer.

  50. Person from the Resume*

    Ugh! I have had to do it. I did not finish a masters degree 20 years because the “professional project” at the end was this. Well if you were already employed in IT, you could maybe leverage your job duties and report about work duties in order to complete your professional project, but I couldn’t twist things enough to do that so the onus was on me to find a non-profit, small business or whatever that was willing to have a volunteer do an IT/web-design project for them. It was awful and I never graduated. I ended up completing basically the same degree at a different college that did not have this “banana crackers” requirement.

    Yes, I’m a bit bitter about it. But 20 years later this is even more ridiculious with increased network security concerns.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Other points against: the quality of the work is extremely variable. Do they actually have all the skills to deliver a quality project. Who maintains the product for the business/non-profit after the project ends?

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: My classmates have managed to pull off some great work. But yup, the business is the one who gets stuck with maintenance.

        Which, incidentally, that club the teacher belongs to is looking for someone to do. As well as revamp it a bit.

        And which the teacher suggested that one of the groups could take on.

        As far as I know, no one touched it.

  51. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Ask the professor what his personal experience with this is. When was the last time HE waltzed into a business he hand no connections to, and cold-pitched this idea? What was the result?

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: After the pushback on using email (I meant net, but wasn’t fast enough on my mental feet) and his list of “small local businesses you can walk in and check with” including flipping Goodwill, I’m pretty sure he would duck the question or pushback that it would totally work.

    2. pancakes*

      It truly does not matter what his personal experiences have been. Students don’t need to waste time focusing on him as a person or try to bargain with him in order to complain about this. They can and should put together a list of their own talking points, not his (labor laws, waste of time, etc.), and go directly to a department chair or dean.

  52. Coin_Operated*

    Oh my gosh, this is obnoxious. I’ve had this happen to me a few times. My workplace has a lot of history in my city and there is a high school and state university close to my work, and it feels like every year, a teacher from one school or the other assigns students a project where they all need information from my workplace that they want me to provide, and it’ll be like 30 + requests that come via phone or email on once. To all teachers and professors, PLEASE STOP! Lol

    1. Candi*

      If you get interns in, or some other worker has a bit of free time, it sounds like a general-purpose official response for the requests might be useful. Some polite, professional version of NOPE, not here.

      (LW* here: It’d be politer than some of the responses my classmates got.)

  53. Simone*

    I had to do a similar sounding project at college but the clients were all sourced by the professor. There were three or four clients and each group picked a client, after being presented with each business’s brief, (with plenty of double up). At the end of the project the clients were presented with the business/marketing plans developed for them, and each picked a winner. It was up to them whether they implemented whatever we’d suggested. I feel like that was kind of a good mix of the work for a client side and the invented case study side. (In another class we had to do something similar to what the OP’s describing–it was a disaster. Businesses were like ?.)

  54. College is weird*

    In college we had to do something sort of similar. We had to find a business and ask to shadow them for the day. Attend meetings, interview different people that worked there and see how the business was run. We then had to come up with some sort of problem the company had at the time. Write a proposal on how to fix it and then present it to the company. All for free, all around class and work schedules. It was nightmare to coordinate. At the time I worked full time and attended school full time. I really had no time to go shadow a company for 8-16 hours. Lots of other issues were at play but it was basically a shit show. Not sure how we passed but we did.

  55. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Wow. So group projects were created so that out numbered teachers could get limit the number of and therefore improve their feedback/grading of complex projects from their students.
    This delusional jackanapes is pushing off THAT part. “Make up a project. Go find someone to let you do it. Send me their review of your work.”
    Dude. What does this guy DO all semester?
    Who is going to give a random horde of people claiming to be students access to their computer system?
    Business: “ok, so who do we contact at the university? What paper work do we fill out? What is required for this internship?”
    Students: “It’s not an internship. It’s a group project for one professor. He approved our project XYZ. You just need to let us do it.”
    Business: Pikachu face.

    1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      Off topic, but notable: The Delusional Jackanapes is a really great band name.

  56. PNW Zebra*

    If the university is as large as it sounds or it’s located anywhere near Seattle, I can almost guarantee this isn’t allowed by university policy. Organizations that receive benefits/services from students as part of their curriculum have to be vetted and randomly sending students off into the wild for the random exploitation of their knowledge isn’t going to fly. This is an instance where I’d recommend checking in with the Career Center, since they’re often in the loop on internship processes, and ask them who to talk to or what to do. Unless everyone in that group is completely checked out, they’ll recognize this for the problem that it is.

    1. Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom*

      Exactly!! This kind of project goes against University handbooks and policies. I was waiting for another person to say this. Students need to be protected from this type of assignment and class.

    2. PNW Zebra*

      Also I’m pretty sure that everyone saying “this isn’t a big deal” has no actual clue how much work goes into projects like the one letter writer is describing. It’s entirely reasonable that a project of that size would take up between 50-80% of someone’s time in a full time job if it needs to be done within a quarter (which is really only 10 weeks of instruction time). That’s way too much work for what students get out of this.

      The whole point of vetting businesses for interns is to make sure that the thing is fair. Businesses have to make a commitment to participate in education, ie, they agree that the students have more help/mentorship/support than a normal employee would get. They also typically get some sort of little award or recognition for their participation with the university. In exchange, students get the right amount of credit for the amount of work they put in and some protection in case something goes wrong.

      1. Nanani*

        It looks like most of the “it’s not a big deal” comments have latched onto one detail that’s sort of similar to something they did -in a completely different context-

        Lots of “I had to do this, BUT” comments where the BUT actually does make it OK, like “But the prof had set up the arrangements with businesses, “But it didn’t have to be a real business,” and “But it was a course where outreach is an expected component”

        LW’s actual situation really truly is banana crackers, not a banana-flavoured party favour.

    3. Candi*

      LW* here: Ding ding ding! You’ve guessed where one of the uni’s campuses (although not mine) is located.

      After all the people saying it, I’m wondering if the prof’s “it’s fine with the university” is because he never asked. It would explain the explicit hard no on not asking onsite uni departments to do the project.

      Not sure if I’d be able to take THAT on if it’s true, though. :(

  57. Yellow Rose*

    My company has recently migrated platforms from one that has worked well for years to one that…is a challenge, to be polite.
    I’m starting to wonder if it wasn’t someone’s college project.

  58. Triplestep*

    There has been much written about the fact that digital natives do not prefer talking to people either on the phone or in person. But the best way to get a job with an independent retail or food service business is to walk in and speak to the owner or manager. That is all the professor is saying to do.

    1. a tester, not a developer*

      There’s a significant difference between asking for a retail or food service job vs. asking for access to a company’s network/data.

      1. Triplestep*

        Oh, please you can design a simple website to market a business w/out access to data, and you don’t strictly need access to the network either.

          1. PNW Zebra*

            You’re making a lot of assumptions about the scope that the LW didn’t indicate. What if the restaurant decides they want an online order form? What if they can only find a nonprofit client that wants a way to process donations online? The whole point of having the university or professor set up the project in advance is to make sure the work can be done in a reasonable amount of time and that the business wants stuff that the students can provide.

            1. Calliope*

              So say “that won’t work” and hit up someone in your dorm who had a dog walking business or a friend with an Etsy shop which is what it sounds like most people do from the friends and family project. Again, I’m not saying it’s a good assignment. But plenty of professors suck at their jobs and usually making a major case out of something that has been going on for years and is pretty common is less effective than just finessing it so it works and you can move on.

              1. pancakes*

                “Teaching has always been half-arsed here, just muddle through and get your diploma” is one approach. It’s not the only approach, and personally I don’t think it seems to have a lot going for it.

    2. Antilles*

      But the best way to get a job with an independent retail or food service business is to walk in and speak to the owner or manager.
      How is that relevant to college students getting a degree in technology or website design though?
      Presumably the students aren’t paying thousands of dollars on tuition in IT/technical communications because they want to learn how to get jobs in food service or retail. And they aren’t going to be starting their own independent IT shops straight out of college either, so it’s not like they’re going to be responsible for cold-calling businesses either.

      1. Triplestep*

        How is that relevant to college students getting a degree in technology or website design is it to do a project for a small business? Are you saying it’s not relevant because the small business is retail or food service and not corporate or non-profit?

        1. Candi*

          LW* here: We’re getting IT Bachelor’s degrees. We won’t be the ones making outside connections in the companies we work for -that’ll be sales or marketing’s job.

          In-detail web design and development is a different degree at this college, with only a few early-on overlapping classes. Technical writing/communications has more overlapping courses, but it’s still distinctive enough I can minor in it, separate from my IT major.

          Other classes in the IT run include software and hardware network building, with switches and routers, coding classes, HTML-CSS-Javascript, and SQL. (List is not exhaustive.)

          And this specific class this quarter is about teams and team management, not building a bloody website or making contact with businesses outside the one you’re working for to offer them services.

  59. Pantalaimon*

    I did one of these projects in business school. Every group (maybe 15 groups in the class) had to create a training program for a real-world business (no making up your own fake corp). My group did ours for the wait staff at a private social club in the area that one of our group’s partner was a (contract – not employee) landscaper for. It was a great experience for all of us; i am pretty sure that it was the first “sales call” any of us ever made, and we got held up to the group as a good way to do networking – the spouse was outside the business but had a nice relationship; we actually did have to sell ourselves a little bit to the business. If the professor had done that for us, it would have been a much less valuable learning experience from my perspective.

    1. Triplestep*

      Well if you read a lot of the comments here, you’ll see that experience as actually NOT valuable – you were exploited and it was just a way to use you for the free labor. (Insert eye-roll here.)

        1. Triplestep*

          I think the term you’re looking for is “mutually beneficial”. If a thing is valuable to both parties, we don’t have to use a loaded word like “exploitative” for one of them.

          1. Candi*

            LW* here. From what I’ve seen and done, the businesses get far more value out of the unpaid work the students do than the students get. When one party gets far more benefit out of a situation than the other does, it can be exploitative.

              1. Candi*

                Are you trying to provoke me into an argument so you can prove you’re right? It seems to be the pattern I’m getting from your comments.

                I’m of the view internships should always be paid. I remember the days of massive unpaid intern exploitation stories hitting the news. I’ve also noticed a lot of places that still have unpaid internships are operating on a classist system: You have to have the money to do the unpaid usually full-time internship, and you or your parents often have to know the right people to get past the initial applicant screening. This closes doors to the poor and unconnected.

                Students should not have to do outside-of-class unpaid work in order to pass.

  60. Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom*

    Since this is happening at a University, the Chair or Dean can also be looped into this conversation. I would highly recommend that you contact the Chair of your division. They might want to know that this kind of out-dated process is happening. This information had to be listed on the syllabus. By listing it on the syllabus it becomes a type of contract. I would imagine that there are types of concerns about this type of process for the project and is against the University policies. Don’t take this on yourselves, let others know about this assignment.

  61. LMB*

    When I did my big final research project in college I couldn’t figure out how to find the data I needed. My professor suggested I call hundreds and hundreds of local education departments all over the country on the phone, individually. I didn’t want the professor to think I dismissed their idea out of hand, so I called three. Each time I got a very confused receptionist who had no idea what I was even talking about and a large long distance bill (this was the late 90s). I ended up changing my whole research question to accommodate data I could easily find online, and it was a much, much better idea to begin with. I couldn’t believe my professor had suggested the other model and method. This door-door project sales scheme this professor is suggesting will never, ever work. Even if a business does need a project done they will be caught off guard and not be able to sign up for it on the spot. It’s incredibly odd.

  62. wendy byrd*

    This prof is completely out of touch with the level of security at businesses these days. To do a project for a company would require allowing access to their network. No way any astute business is going to do this without a thorough background check.

    Sounds to me like a way for him to not do the teaching he is being paid to do.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: That last line, the thought has crossed my mind. Two of the assignments we had last week involved a lot of research for the student, but most of it would be “check off done or not” for him. There’s “trying to lighten the workload” and there’s “not me” where work burdens are concerned.

  63. Dust Bunny*

    Offering work done by unknowns with a lot of demands on their time who will be graduating and probably leaving town soon . . . does not sound like something that would interest my place of work. This sounds like you’re asking to set us up with an amateurish, soon-to-be-unsupported website.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: The prof encourages using a website-hosting platform when possible. Besides that having its own problems, there’s one he advocates so very very much that the term “shilling” has crossed my mind on multiple occasions. (He also pumps up using the Big Airplane Company he worked at whenever it can be remotely connected to an assignment.)

      Web-hosting site problems: My group’s client is actually using the much-teacher-advocated site, and she had only a very, very basic understanding of how it worked. Part of my group’s work has been finding out what the site’s options and capabilities are and educating her on them.

  64. irene adler*

    So assuming a student group is able to complete the assignment for a local business and create a website for the local business:
    Who will maintain – and update- the site once the school term is over?
    Will the business require training to manage the site? Who’s gonna provide that?
    Who bears any costs involved?
    And, might there be some liability issues that could come back to bite the university over this project? (is the university even aware of this assignment?)

    Gah! Gumption.

  65. Heather*

    Professional societies (especially local chapters) are a good way for students to network with real professionals in their industry – who are usually looking for ways to help out students. Also the students’ own alumni association, where students can look up alums in their field. Both of these are ready-made networks of “warm contacts” where a student already has something in common with the professionals, and the professionals are more likely to be inclined to help with a request like this.

  66. Daisy-dog*

    Didn’t read all the comments, but I haven’t seen this mentioned yet. What happens if the client doesn’t know how to use the technology that the students used and has to make updates? Like they decide to change their business name from “The Facebook” to “Facebook”. Or if they change their hours or expand their business. Or if it was poorly done in the first place, but followed the rules taught in the class.

    I’m more confused by who this is supposed to benefit.

    1. Nanani*

      It benefits the prof, who doesn’t have to any course design or planning or even grading – he can just ask the company how it went and take their word for it.

  67. a tester, not a developer*

    My company does do projects with students – but it’s all through the school. There’s no way in heck we’d give access to client data or product stuff to a group of of students who just showed up.

    The student projects we do allow are usually just giving them the requirements documents/use cases from a real project that was done in the past. We then offer a comparison between their work and what we actually implemented.

  68. Nina Bee*

    There’s fake brief generator sites out there too, not sure if that would be useful. Or team up with a business faculty to see if any entrepreneurs need things done? But agree that it’s lazy of the professor to put all that on you. They could have at least started some type of university backed scheme to act as a support or go-between with interested businesses in your area. It’s easy with hindsight and work experience to know how to navigate all that, but expecting you to suddenly know while trying to do assignments is a lot.

  69. Didi*

    This is entirely out of touch.

    It’s not even a matter of getting by the receptionist. Most corporate offices these days have security downstairs and you can’t even get a visitor’s badge to get to the elevators without being added to a security list.

  70. Emily*

    I’ve been on both sides of this type of project, as both a student and a client, and in neither case were the students responsible for finding the project — the professor came with a list of possible projects already there and the students selected or were assigned one. And that’s necessary because that way the professor can work with the client to scope it ahead of time and set expectations regarding what skills the students have and what a reasonable-sized project is. Those aren’t something you can expect students to be able to do themselves, even apart from the finding of the projects.

  71. TiredMama*

    How unfortunate that the professor is being so unrealistic about it. There probably are many businesses that need this sort of help that do not have the budget for it. I would start with a non-profit to see if they need assistance or know of companies that would.

  72. Emilie*

    Aha, now I understand the strange emails I get sometimes from students from top universities, asking to do market research or something. This must be required by their professors for a grade. I was told to send anything like that directly to spam, as Alison said, most large businesses don’t want free work from inexperienced students.

    Looking into the non-profit sector sounds reasonable to me. I see a lot of orgs looking for volunteers to help with website design etc. What if you contacted some large org like Gates Foundation to help you make contacts?

  73. Belle of the Midwest*

    I work at a large midwestern state university and this is complete bananacrackers. This needs to be brought to the department chair and escalated higher than that if necessary.

  74. Rock Prof*

    This sounds awful and poorly setup.
    I will say that my school does something somewhat related. We have big community-based-learning group on campus, and they help link community groups/businesses with the campus. For it to work, it really has to be done intentionally, with everyone knowing that the students will have less than a semester of facetime. Long-term projects that need constant upkeep, like a website, are really difficult unless you have a standing commitment. Some of the examples that we have: an upper-level nutrition class might partner with a food insecurity nonprofit and work on them with a project, or a class of Spanish majors might work as tutors with an after school center. You can’t just cold call about these, and I would absolutely never depend upon my students to arrange all the details.

    I actually do this in some of my classes, and I think I do it really successfully. I teach about rivers and river monitoring, and my students will work with community groups to measure change in stretches of rivers and surrounding areas. It works well for me because I have the sampling time built into my class (and the locations are close to campus), and the community groups are paying for the equipment. The students are doing the same projects and learning the same skills they’d be learning in class, but the data actually gets used by someone for actual projects. We’ve had a 4-year project going with a nearby group, as they’ve been doing ecological restoration. Semesters I’m not teaching the class, I have student work study students working on it, so we get continuity of data. It has worked amazingly well, and a whole bunch of students who have gone through my course have gotten hired by the groups we’ve worked with!

    1. emmelemm*

      Yeah, I have a friend who works at a university branch in a small town/rural area and I’m not sure what her job title is but her broad purpose, I believe, is “fostering connections between students and the business community”. So she might be setting up things like this, where students would be doing some work for/with a particular business, or, if a business decided they wanted to help students in some way, she would find a department/group on campus where the particular business’ efforts could be best used.

      Point being, this is something that needs arranging.

      1. Rock Prof*

        Exactly! My school has multiple people working in community/business connections. They also help organize and oversee internships and some work studies. It really takes a lot to do this successfully so both the students and the community groups get a benefit from it!

  75. Kathryn*

    I actually just (as in, left the classroom five minutes ago) gave a presentation for my capstone class this semester, in which we partnered with a local nonprofit and worked on a partnership development project for them. The difference is that our professor secured the client himself, and our school throughly vetted the client before finalizing the consulting agreement (well before the class began). I think it went really well – they got free work and us students got to add something to our resume – but I would have been uncomfortable if we had to find a client ourselves.

  76. Dragon_Dreamer*

    I go to a well known university, and our computer science capstone students have to do projects like this. HOWEVER, there is a coordinator who makes sure the projects are ones that actually need doing, on campus if possible! Also, the projects last the whole year.

    I know this because my huge cataloguing project was offered as one they could make a user interface for. They treat us as actual clients, and the product launch is in 2 weeks! In the past, groups have worked with the library, various departments, and even professors and grad students. Others have expanded upon work done by previous groups to produce 2.0 versions. They’re always looking for new projects to assign to capstone groups.

    Your professor is way out of touch. There are better ways of doing things.

  77. LuckyClover*

    Every semester (we are a non-profit closely associated with the university) we post a call for volunteers for specific roles on our campus’ service-learning opportunities page. And every semester, without fail, we get contacted by a group of students for a Marketing class who want to volunteer to “help” us with our marketing for a semester-long assignment in their class. It’s not the role we are looking for help with, and almost always the students don’t have clear guidelines, the motivation, or even the skills necessary to provide support to our program’s marketing.

    I gave the benefit of the doubt and in good faith have taken on these groups in the past, and it’s a disaster! And almost always more work for me with no true usable deliverable.

    Alternatively, we were approached by a media production instructor who took an active role in managing and supporting students to create a video resource that met our needs and is actually useful. In my own experience with this I would say – It can be done – but not if the instructor isn’t playing a true teaching and supporting role in the process

  78. An SBDC Consultant*

    Please reach out to your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) these offices provide free business consulting (funded mainly by the US SBA). They often will know businesses that would be thrilled to get your help! There is an SBDC office serving every county in every US state and territory.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Thank you, and everyone else who has suggested this, so much. I’ve tracked down the link to our state’s SBDC. Just have to figure out how to get it out to the future students (at least the ones on campus), and no, I don’t trust the teacher that far.

  79. Ann O'Nemity*

    I used to work at a nonprofit that occasionally worked with student groups or classes on these types of projects. A key difference is that the professor or program director was the one that reached out initially. We always made sure to clarify realistic expectations up front to limit the amount of work for our staff (e.g. a 2-hour discovery meeting, a 1-hr mid project check-in, and a 1-hr final presentation and feedback, no more). Our org received little to no value from the results of the projects but we considered it a service to the community and aligned with our mission to help students gain experience.

    If I was in the OP’s shoes (a student asked to cold-call clients), I’d look to nonprofits that have an educational or workforce development mission. Instead of pitching this as “free work,” I’d ask them to volunteer their staffs’ time for a class project. Because basically that’s what this sounds like.

  80. AnotherLibrarian*

    There’s nothing wrong with this idea on paper, but the issue arises that someone at the Uni should be coordinating these projects and assisting the students in finding “hosts” who genuinely need/want the assistance. As someone who does get contacted by students who want to interview me about my “job” on a regular basis, I generally find these cold calling situations troubling.

  81. Justice*

    Clearly, this isn’t just an exercise in web design, or whatever.
    Part of the assignment is to practice using your GUMPTION! to get a “client”.
    This is hella dumb and embarrassing and I bet the small business owners in the area are just as annoyed by these unsolicited requests as I would be.

  82. Martin Blackwood*

    Gonna repeat what others have been saying that your professor should do mre legwork.
    I go to a tech institute that values hands on work, eg. The culinary students sell what they make through the school. One of my classes has optional “live jobs,” (that count towards your grade if you do them) mostly things like business cards, things that can be done in a day (mostly, some exceptions). The instructors are the ones finding the jobs (and the ones having trouble finding them!), not us. I can see the value of learning how to communicate with clients, but I dont think for a project this big you should be responsible for figuring out who needs your work. And like, it seems like you’re expected to do IT and technical writing, which in my unexperienced opinion, if someone needs it, they’re going to search it out themselves instead of waiting for some nobody to offer for free, especially if the scope is comparable to 50% of your grade.

  83. Junior Assistant Peon*

    I could see this working at a small enough business. Pretty much every pizzeria in my area (except for the big chains) have websites that look like they were created by the owner’s 12-year-old nephew in 1995.

    1. Rock Prof*

      I got volunteer credit by creating and maintaining the website for a nature sanctuary in 1996 when I was 14-15. They kept it up for way longer than they should have. HTML 2.0 forever!

  84. Dasein9*

    This is . . . not good. For undergraduates to cold-call local businesses does not enhance the university’s reputation with the community. I suspect the administration might have some objections.

  85. Melody*

    I had a project like this for a PR class. We were to find a small business or other organization to do PR for and do a campaign for them. I definitely thought it was as insane as this student thinks it is and was highly relieved when a group member suggested we do it for the sports team she was a part of.

    In retrospect – that little college town was full of business owners who were alumni & many businesses were used to doing things for/with the school, so I think it was one of the few scenarios where it would have worked. But, it’s still a crummy way to handle that kind of project. We weren’t all going to be going off and starting our own little PR or Marketing firms, we were likely to be hired by them and not chasing down sales ourselves, so what value did that add even if we’d done it as directed?

  86. MrMassTransit*

    I do IT and web design work as a side gig. I charge below market rates for what I do, but with the caveat that I absolutely cannot take requests during normal business hours as I work a day job. Last week I started getting calls on my business line every time minutes. Since I was working my day job, they just went to voicemail. Eventually I started getting text messages and emails as well.

    Apparently the owner of a business I had designed a website for had let some local university students resdesign his site and try to integrate real estate MLS feed. The students absolutely botched something and took the site down. When I asked them what they had done they couldn’t even begin to provide a remotely coherent answer. Essentially their reply was the equivalent of bringing a car to mechanic that you had tried to fix yourself and when the mechanic asked, “What did you do?” you respond, “I serviced the engine” over and over without being able to provide any additional detail.

    I ended up restoring it from backup that evening and they were ultimately successful with getting their edits online, but I truly wonder how advisable something like this is.

    On a more positive note, when I was a senior in college I was assigned a project to ‘interview a local organization or business that exemplified principles of sustainability.’ I emailed an organization I was interested in and asked if I could interview them, they said yes, and while I was there I pitched myself for an internship after the interview. The internship lead to a full time job and ultimately a lot of career growth in that industry. However, this was in a smaller city – I don’t think that would have worked as well in a major metro area.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: And this would be one reason why my group is inching along when redesigning the layout of our client’s existing site. We don’t want to break things. And this is a site hosted on a site-hosting platform, not on a company server. Also, all the notes.

      (That’s also a frequent answer to the teacher’s questions after the group presentations. “Why didn’t you do X and Y?” “We were worried we’d break A and B, so we’re working on not breaking things.” Teacher never has any advice on how not to break the things.)

  87. A Simple Narwhal*

    Woof yea it’s not fair to expect students to find their own project within a real organization. You’re going to run into all the issues Alison outlined, plus it leaves students without personal connections (especially first-generation college students) at a severe disadvantage, and puts those with connections ahead of the pack. I know this already exists in real life, why introduce that in a college environment?

    I had to do a project like this in college, but the main difference is that the professor arranged everything ahead of time! We had to do real work for a real company, but the companies had volunteered and showed up to class with a project in hand for us, we just had to pick which one we wanted to do. I can’t imagine how it would have worked to have to hunt down a company willing to let students do work for them without the university or professor’s intervention.

    So yea, absolutely banana crackers.

  88. Maggie*

    I’m a social work grad student and we have an assignment right now that requires us to interview someone in a social services agency/community organization/similar position for a community assessment paper (it’s a group project). Tbh we had a lot more luck walking in a few offices in the neighborhood we were studying, chatting with the receptionist, who gave us business cards, advice about who to talk to, what other organizations they know might be good fits for this assignment, etc., compared to when we were blindly emailing people. One organization even offered to do the interview then and there! Of course, we are only asking for a 30-minute interview – not to do a project for them or any long-term partnership.

  89. MsM*

    My MBA program incorporated a lot of these hands-on projects into the curriculum and student clubs. I honestly loved them, and I hope they provided some degree of value to the organizations (I think they did, since a lot of our “clients” would come back with new assignments in later semesters). But as everyone is saying, these were almost exclusively nonprofit projects, recruitment was either handled by the professor or a student committee who could seek faculty/career services guidance as needed, and there was a rigorous vetting process to make sure the projects had an appropriate scope given everyone’s time constraints and that at least one of the team members had some prior experience that might be applicable to the project.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Several of my classmates have held IT or related part and full-time jobs, and a few internships. (We’re headed towards IT Bachelors.) We’re also technically seniors (it says here), so I guess the idea is we’ve had enough classes to know the basics. (Insert assume joke.)

      The biggest annoyance to me is we don’t get paid money for this. The second biggest is the prof has been doing this for at least four years and is still tossing students to the wind. He has TAs most quarters, and he’s known to dump a lot of work on them as it is.

  90. Quiet Riot*

    I work at a Uni and this happens here, too. There are at least two classes I can think of that have this kind of project built in. They actually encourage student groups to identify something on campus that needs fixing and then contact that department to see about how they can help fix the problem. Usually the issue that students want to fix is something that cannot be done over the span of a year or more (think academic advising) never mind a 15 week semester (noting that often we don’t hear from the groups themselves until 3-4 weeks into the term). Those of us who are in target departments always cringe when they see those courses in the subject line of an introductory email. Agreed that the faculty member should be providing more direction/assistance in identifying target companies (or departments).

  91. Formerly Libraries*

    I used to work for a liberal arts college as their Service Learning coordinator and Community Liaison. My entire job was working with professors to match their course objectives with local non-profits so that students could gain this kind of experience. I was primarily concerned with making sure that all people were being served by the project: local orgs got needed assistance, professor’s learning goals were met and students benefited by receiving credit and actual experience.
    It was very tricky! It involved a lot of leg-work done by me and the professors I worked with prior to the planning of the course. This assignment sounds like a disaster.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: That it’s so far not a disaster in most cases I put down to kids these days being awesome.

  92. Chilipepper Attitude*

    1. all the students should get together, start a google doc or similar, and track every business they cold call/walk-in. track the rejections and possibly reasons for the rejection (no we are not hiring students!)
    2. all the students should agree to go ask the career office for help finding a business they could do this work for. And they should specifically, they need help to avoid a.) breaking any internship or other laws, b.) harming the university’s reputation in case their work is not great quality, and c.) any liability in case their work is not great quality. Say this with the tone of, of course these are issues you would want to help us with (not, we hope this gets the prof a slap on the wrist and forces him to change the assignment)
    3. can you use any of the gig websites to find someone who needs this kind of work done?

    I’m so sorry about this! We had a similar project, UX redesign of a website in library school. We could choose any website and could do UX testing with anyone or just redesign it. We did not have to contact the website owners!

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Oh, and the annual project management course for the library school degree had a project like this – worked out in advance with the organization that would benefit from the project! Profs did the background work, not the students!

  93. Irish Teacher.*

    On top of everything else, I’d also be concerned that this seems to be quite unequal. Those students with family or friends involved in businesses have an advantage over those who do not have such contacts. I know all you need is one person with such a contact in a group, but if students are choosing their own groups, it is possible that people from similar backgrounds may be likely to work together and even if they don’t, there could be a bit of awkwardness about the student from a background of poverty who has little to suggest when the rest of their group is like “hey, my uncle Max owns an x company. They might let us do something for them” or “my aunt Susan handles PR for such a business. I’ll ask her if she’d speak to her boss for us.”

    Could you just make it up? Does he check that it’s actually for a company? I know when I was a student teacher we had to do a class using computers. This was back around the turn of the millennium when schools still only had a “computer room” and little or no resources in each classroom. I asked the computer teacher for permission to use the room and he agreed VERY reluctantly (“but make sure they don’t touch this and ensure that is turned off when you leave and be careful with the other”) so I gave up and just wrote up an account of a class, describing how I WOULD do things if I had access to the resources. Could you just choose a business and create a website and submit it to him? Would he check whether the business actually used it or not?

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      Having read comments above, this seems to be very culture-based so if your university or professor is likely to care whether you have really been in contact with the company, obviously creating a fictional one is not an option. Generally, any courses I took, lecturers would encourage you to “make it up” if you didn’t have a real example, but that may depend on college or culture.

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: We have to show the URL(s) as part of our weekly presentation, and screenshots from the in-progress website. So making it up would be almost as much work as doing it.

        In another class a few years ago, I did BS reaching out to an organization that didn’t get back to me. (Including phone call -they never did call me back.) They had enough social media and online stuff I was able to present a very, very thorough report. (I suspect part of the reason I got away with it is my teacher was up for retirement in a couple quarters and used technology the minimum she could get away with.)

  94. DG*

    I also found this to be very common in my MBA program – but the professor was always responsible for finding the clients and was usually able to draw on his/her own network of business contacts. Other than not subjecting students to a humiliating, cold-calling sales process, it also ensured the professor properly vetted each business. These types of projects are only valuable if the designated contact at the business is able to make time for the students, provides feedback, and has realistic expectations for the scope of work.

    FWIW, a lot of my classmates did put these experiences on their LinkedIn profiles if they felt they were otherwise light on relevant professional experience. It would be something like:

    Small Town Coffee Shop – Student Consultant
    January 2019 – April 2019
    -Improved customer ordering experience, reducing average wait time by 3 minutes
    -Created Instagram marketing campaign, increasing followers by 10% over 4 months

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: It’s an IT Bachelor’s, and there’s a required internship as part of the course.

      Which I’ve been getting offers for, but I am not in a position to move to flipping Texas for an internship that must be on-the-spot. It needs to be close or remote.

  95. Miss Muffet*

    A “compromise” solution of some sort could be – he solicits (or even asks students if they have people they’d like to ask) community members to serve as advisors/fake clients for projects using made-up companies. He could ask for people who are in roles similar to what the kids would be interfacing with if they were actually working with real companies, but maybe those people/their companies don’t really need the work done at all (or as people have mentioned, by random kids walking up).
    This way, you’d have “clients” who are willing to do this work, maybe with less of a time commitment (an hour a week or something), give the kids actual experience in having live conversations with people-not-their-professor and getting feedback on their work, but the website, etc would all just be pretend work. I’d have to think that even that work product could be used in a portfolio for students just starting out.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: One of prof’s selling points for doing the work is we can include it in a portfolio.

      Which will be kind of hard for my role on the fall quarter project last year. Most of my work was initial work that wound up severely altered in the final product. And asking All The Questions on our Discord channel -one thing about being 20-ish years older than my classmates is I recognize things they don’t have the experience yet to (they’re getting there), and I am totally going to use it to help them out.

      (I’d rather give the young adults a chance to learn from me than the hard way.)

  96. EmbracesTrees*

    I’m a prof and am APPALLED at the laziness, lack of oversight and accountability this all indicates, not to mention the blasé attitude about a very real potential for inappropriate student-“client” interactions.

    These profs are way, WAY out of line. Yes, it’s a lot of work but I’m guessing they’re also submitting this to their administration as ways they “support community engagement” in their courses — while doing literally nothing to ensure that it’s a) a meaningful learning opportunity for students and b) a worthwhile experience for the “clients” (meaning, they actually *are* helping community-institution ties).

    It’s just lazy, poor teaching.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: He’d probably go that he has the groups do weekly presentations as progress report and check-in, so he’s keeping track.

      Most of the meaningful feedback comes from the other students.

  97. DrPep*

    One strategy might be to contact researchers/research groups at your university to see if they need any of these services. Many academics would like to have a website to promote their research, but don’t have the time/skillset to put one together themselves. And this way, you would be contacting people within your own organization so it wouldn’t feel so much like a cold call. Just a thought!

    1. Candi*

      Contacting the university departments to do the projects is a hard explicit no.


      He never said we couldn’t contact individuals working at the university to do personal websites for them.

      (I like looking for loopholes. I only exploit them if I need to and I get a net benefit.)

      1. Venus*

        Love it! Offer to redo the Dean’s website as a way to explain what is happening. Go there in person, because it’s required, right?

  98. Team Oxford Comma*

    I would suggest you reach out to your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Women’s Business Center, Economic Development Department of your city or Downtown Business Association. They often know of start-up companies or folks in the start-up phase who would welcome the help. I work for a membership based business organization and could give you the names of 8 companies who would welcome this, and then it seems like a warm introduction rather than a cold call.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: We’re four weeks into the quarter, but that’s something to pass on to future students in Discord.

      (Don’t blame Alison. It didn’t occur to me to write her until a week ago! And she responded fast.)

  99. TotesMaGoats*

    I’ve seen this type of projects a lot. In my undergrad the marketing students did a logo/rebrand for (usually) non profits and churches. It was a cool experience. They got a grade. They got something for their portfolio. I don’t know how those were sourced though. At my current uni, we have similar projects occurring pretty often but the faculty sources the client.

    If you just want to get things done then some of the suggestions around business dev centers or things like that are a good idea. Small churches and things could be cool too. Given the struggle to get good info when picking a dojo for my kid, every single martial arts studio I called/looked up needs a better web presence.

    If you want to raise this as a larger issue then go up the chain within his department. In my school, students would come to me with this issue and we’d work out the best way to raise the problem and to whom. All the way up to the dean. Do not go to the president without exhausting those sources. There is a really issue of access and equity for the students when left to their own devices in this kind of situation and that’s where I’d start your concern.

  100. Sarah55555*

    I find it fascinating that there’s an assumption by many here that the students are only going to approach random office buildings. Small businesses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I’ll be honest, I think it’s good for LW to get out. It would be one thing if they were selling services, but this is critically different than the old “ask for the manager to give them my resume”.

    1. Candi*

      LW here*: The random office building approach was the teacher’s assumption, not mine. I’m the one who tried to push back and say use email. (I meant the net, but I am not the fastest at verbally thinking on my feet.)

      And we are “selling” a service: We’re saying “let us do a service for you so we can get a good grade.” Without pay, mind.

  101. nnn*

    My first thought is that it would be far more effective for the professor or the department to set up some kind of “Get your free websites here!” service that is consistently present year to year (and, hopefully, can build up reputation and/or word of mouth), and use the labour of each year’s students to make websites for the companies and organizations that sign up.

    My second thought is that OP’s group could pitch that to the prof as their project – set up a website and online presence for a service that matches future student groups with organizations needing websites. If your school has marketing classes, you could see if there are any students in these classes who need to find their own marketing project and collaborate with them.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Classes started in March, so it’s a bit late for us to do that. BUT it is definitely worth passing on to those who will be in future classes. (My college has a BUNCH of Discord channels.)

  102. Red*

    Not that out of touch academia wise: I’ve had to do this in 2 classes already and I anticipate doing it for my capstone next Fall.

    In each one we had to find a business to help with our issue. One class it was solo and it was ‘service learning’ so we had to choose a business/non-profit with an obvious social mission. Another class it was for creating an excel database: caveat, we were told to specifically look at small, non chain businesses, or local non profits/religious centers.

    Next year for capstone, we have to find a business willing to work with us and that business will sign an agreement with the university. Granted we don’t have to do it in person en masse, but we do have to be the ones to solicit and find the business (I believe they have some up the sleeve companies if a group can’t on their own, but it hurts your grade to go that route) and then consult with the business to identify pain points and come up with a solution plan via consultation to improve their pain points.

    Do I hate it? Oh lordy yes I do.

  103. Candi*

    Ladies and gents, I have class in a couple minutes, but I’ll be back later to read all the comments!

    (Yes, I’m sticking my name on this -I quit sowing my field of effs quite some time ago!) :)

    LW* OP*

  104. Imaginary Number*

    Rather than looking for a traditional business, consider a local adult sports team or club (i.e. rugby, softball, ultimate frisbee, roller derby, hockey, rowing, etc.) Many of them operate as LLCs to manage costs and dues but aren’t making anyone money.

    1. Alexis Rosay*

      Yeah, if you HAVE to do this, that’s probably a good idea. Look one level below businesses to community groups, and you might actually find some takers. I can think of some tiny, hyperlocal groups of volunteers in my area that might take some free work from students. Examples:
      – “Bike Advocacy _[Neighborhood Name]_”
      – “Neighborhood Cleanup Group _[Street Name]_”

      If you have any super-local news sources, especially neighborhood blogs, you can see if they have an events calendar and use that to get ideas.

  105. Alexis Rosay*

    My partner runs a very small nonprofit and he once agreed to participate in something like this for a class, where several groups were assigned to create marketing materials for his organization. (The professor asked him, not the students.) He visited the class on the day of their final presentations and gave some feedback to the students.

    One group did a good job but the results in most case were almost hilariously bad. He wasn’t expecting much, but…there’s no way most people will think this will result in an actually useful product.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Thankfully, most of the groups are doing better than “hilariously bad” -there’s a weekly presentation where the groups each talk about how they’re doing, where they are on the timeline, what stuff looks like, etc.

      Where a lot of falling down happens is making the sites both desktop and mobile device friendly.

      1. Alexis Rosay*

        Yeah, I’m not sure if the students were freshmen or what, because they didn’t seem to have developed their skills much. But the biggest reason they were bad wasn’t necessarily that the students were lazy or something–it was the fact that they hadn’t actually taken the time to understand what his nonprofit was before creating the marketing materials. So in a lot of cases, the materials had a nice appearance but were basically marketing a totally different organization.

        But more specifically to your case, yeah, having a website be both mobile and desktop friendly is a pretty basic requirement for any web development these days, so that does seem like an issue and something the professor needs to proactively address if it’s something most students struggle with.

        1. Candi*

          Our bunch are mostly technically seniors, several of who have part/full time IT jobs or even internships in their history. So some education and skill development there.

          You don’t want my commentary on getting this prof to proactively address anything he doesn’t want to be proactive on.

  106. Corporate data dog*

    In the current climate, data and web security are a big issue. I don’t know a single business that would set themselves up as possibly liable for a data breach because their website was developed by a group of students. Free isn’t always free.

    1. Becky*

      Anyone with any sort of proprietary data, algorithm, programming etc, would be a big NOPE. Even if you could get to the point where you sign an NDA, there’s then no way you could then show the work you did to your school!

      1. Candi*

        LW* here: Luckily, we don’t have to show the backend stuff, just how it looks to someone browsing the website.

        No one went in for the other IT work -maybe because of the problems you both cited- so I have no idea how that’d be handled.

      2. Insert Clever Name Here*

        It’s doable, but takes a lot of work and not something likely to be done for just anyone walking off the street — I work for a large company with a lot of proprietary data and my team worked with a business school cohort last year on their capstone project. The company is a major donor to the business school and this is part of our interaction with the school. Before we could exchange any data, we had lots of conversations with IT about how the data would be provided to the students, where it would be hosted, how it would be used, and where the final product would remain; Legal was involved as well, as was the community partnerships/outreach department. All of the students, their advisor, and their professor had to sign NDAs. The final part of the project was the students presenting the final result to their professor with us in attendance — they were graded off that presentation.

  107. Nancy*

    Going in person was a suggestion, not a requirement. Email a few local businesses and organizations and ask them if they are willing to talk to you about what they would want in a website. Design a simple one based on what they said. Or contact clubs at the university or local business groups. Ask students who took the class or the department for ideas on what was done before. Is there a local org you like but you wish their website was more user friendly? Have a favorite cafe where you are recognized as a regular? Member of a local hobby group or team sport that wants to promote themselves more?

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Going in person should never have been brought up. Not at this point in time in the history of business, and NOT during the (hopefully) tail end of a friggin’ pandemic.

        1. Batgirl*

          You understand that she is likely paying a lot of money for this advice and that the pandemic, which is also quite a big deal, loves to rip through educational settings. I’m with you partially; if you pay close attention to every out of touch university professor you will slowly go mad, but the OP has a lot riding on this grade which will involve a lot of unnecessary work because the guy is a buffoon. I would do a banana crackers check too.

          1. Candi*

            The last time I looked at the actual number of the money I owe was last October when I did my FAFSA filing.

            $28,000 at that time. And it’s only THAT low because the covid student loan interest freeze has been own most of the time I’ve been getting loans; when I went to the community college, the costs were low enough the grants covered everything. (I still get every grant I qualify for.)

            For how big a number this is to me, I’ve never made more than ~$14,000 a year. I cried when I learned the average minimum wage lowest-level entry-level IT techs tend to get hired at in the area. ($26/hr.)

            This education means a lot for me.

  108. Cookies For Breakfast*

    I have two similar experiences from two different large universities (neither in the US; in one case, not finding the free work placement within a certain time window meant putting graduation on hold for months). Both were 10+ years ago. At the time, the work experience “opportunity” was a real selling point institutions took pride in, until the time to find the placement came and we realised what it really meant. I wonder if it’s still marketed like that.

    It’s very puzzling that this continues to be the only way some universities address employability, when partnerships with employers, active support with building a network, and practical lessons like building a resume, navigating salary/taxes, benefits, and interview skills would achieve lots more.

  109. BlueBelle*

    This is so laughable I want to cry. I can not imagine anyone at my company being receptive to this. The amount of work it would be to provide students with the information they needed to complete such a project, unsupervised? NO. Just no. Not to mention the number of internal marketing rules we have around our colors, brand, logo, and layout, we even have our own trademarked font for all external publications. This just goes to show out of touch one can become after having been out of the corporate world for so long.
    I offer to call this professor myself and let him know how ridiculous this is! :)

  110. Dana Lynne*

    My son recently had a project of this type that was done right.

    His professors and campus mentors for this “senior project class” identified the prospects for the students ahead of time and smoothed the way for them.

    The students then contacted these prospects, who were EXPECTING THEM, and worked out the details of what would be done, the timeframe, etc.

    There was no “cold calling”.

    This professor is totally out of touch and I am so sorry.

  111. More Coffee Please*

    I don’t think a student group having to find their own client for a project is crazy or inappropriate, but the idea of walking into a physical business location does seem weird. I think cold-emailing (or reaching out via LinkedIn, etc.) is a better way to go to ensure the request lands in the right place. That also makes it easier to reach a larger number of potential clients.

    I’m no longer in school but have done “real world” projects like this both ways – in some cases being required to find my own project/client, and in others being assigned a project/client. I think both have value, and for different reasons. Finding your own project/client allows you to pursue something you’re truly interested in, not just whatever happens to be available on a list. When I had to find my own projects, I specifically reached out to companies/people that excited me, which often led to meaningful experiences. On the other hand, the assigned projects felt more “official,” and I was typically able to work with more senior/renowned people who might not have responded to a cold contact request.

    In short, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Did you have only a week to get a client and report back to prof that you’d started first phase? And that deadline could only be adjusted if your group could prove you’d been looking without success, or a lot of groups were having trouble?

  112. OyHiOh*

    There is a somewhat similar offering at the university in my community, but with several key differences.

    A – students are seniors, in a Capstone course focused on business consulting.
    B – the professor is well known in the community and actively solicits participating businesses before the students show up
    C – the services offered are tightly focused on business planning, development, and marketing
    D – the students present their “consulting report” at an event that is attended by their peers in the business program as well as the business owners they worked with.

    Having witnessed this in action, I think it still has some issues, but it’s an awful lot better that what the Letter Writer describes!

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Technically most of us are new seniors as of this quarter -but most of us have at least a year’s worth of classes to go, at full time schedules. (And part of that is not every class is offered every quarter.) This is an IT Bachelor’s, though, not business consulting.

  113. madge*

    These answers are fascinating, and the complete opposite of my experience. I started a business 10+ years ago and a woman came in one day, explained she had a design project assignment from Local University and would we like some marketing materials? We were new, chatted with her a bit before saying yes, and she did a fantastic job. Had she not moved away, we would have hired her for additional projects. I would think many new (<<key part probably) small businesses would welcome the project just to see what it's about. We usually give random people starting out a chance if they come to us with a cool idea (and pay them, obviously); it's a fantastic way to breathe fresh air into a project or event.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: part of my problem, besides having to do all the leg/keyboard work, is we don’t GET paid. To me, it teaches the small businesses and other organizations around the campuses to rely on students needing grades to get at least the basic work done, rather than PAYING for it.

      1. madge*

        Right, you wouldn’t get paid because it’s a class project, and you don’t have the experience yet to command payment (we did thank the 21yo student with merchandise; they weren’t allowed to accept cash).

        I don’t see this as egregious. We’re in an industry that a lot of people want into. My partner and I both chose to work for free to get experience (while holding down full-time jobs) and our establishment and growth would not have happened as quickly without that experience and that relationship. It doesn’t make sense for all industries, and certainly not larger businesses where five committees would need to accept you, but if you have to do the project, try focusing on learning about/from the people you meet in those businesses. No competent business owner is rubbing their hands together nefariously plotting to get free work out of students (two of our locations are in college towns).

        1. Firm Believer*

          I agree with you wholeheartedly. My class project was the closest course I had to real world experience and it was a great learning experience. In no way did anything I created warrant payment and it’s a little arrogant to assume that any business is going to receive lifechanging work from a college student with little to no real world experience. It’s not working for free it’s a class project, just using a real life business as the assignment.

        2. Nanani*

          The problem is that the prof should be setting this all up, because it’s not a business class, it’s not a community outreach project, it’s an IT CLASS.
          The students are training in the product they’re making and the prof is isntead making them flap around doing things he should have set up for them in all reasonable alternatives people have proposed.

        3. Candi*

          On this site, there have been plenty of businesses that would exploit students needing to do this project instead of hiring contractors or freelancers to do the same job -even though the students’ work does not come with a warranty.

    2. anonforthis*

      It’s nice that your business is willing to help students and new people in the industry, but I’m not sure how common it is that a bunch of students can rely on the fact that they will definitely find a business who will accommodate them like this. Maybe it’s a local thing? Idk. It’s just not a well structured assignment on the professor’s part. I understand that he wants to assign something practical, but he still needs to systemize it. At minimum, I wonder if he gave students a list of resources like people are doing here, like contact info for the local chamber of commerce, Taproot, Upwork etc

  114. DataDataData*

    I took web/ux coursework in grad school and while I did have some weird projects, we were always given fake business profiles and the teacher or their aid would act as the go-to in terms of questions. The university IT had a relegated private space where we could build and work on different assignments, whether it was a page for ourselves that was built like a portfolio or something like this… I also worry about the future implications of this. Say you DO get to do the project for a place that either is or becomes better known. Group projects in college can either go smoothly or… no so well. What happens if the outcome is not what the business hoped for/wanted? Now your name, albeit a college student but still, will be attached to that work. On the other side, if it goes well and they are super happy then how are negotiations going to look if they are hiring for your role come graduation? At one point they were able to get your work for free, what is keeping them from bringing you in at a lower rate/position than you deserve? Working with clients is what work study or proper internships (yeesh, paid please) are for.

  115. LifeBeforeCorona*

    You may find that companies that are solicited in this way will in turn contact the university and ask if the professor’s coursework has been updated in the last century. The last time I had to cold call businesses was in 1986 when my high school’s yearbook sold ad pages to local businesses.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: Small businesses vs big, multi-campus university? It might work, but I have my doubts.

      I agree on the professor needing to get with modern times.

  116. Rarely do I post*

    This professor’s approach also bypasses vetting of the companies and staff from a safety/liability standpoint.

  117. Rey*

    In my recent master’s program, the professor used their considerable network to recruit community partners who needed work done. They managed the overall relationship with the partner, and usually the project they needed was actually divided into parts or portions to be done by different cohorts in different classes. (I.e., a local nonprofit needed a program evaluation of a new outreach program. One semester focused on just writing up the program evaluation plan. The next semester conducted the actual research (interviews, surveys, etc.) The third semester analyzed the data. This all worked because each year of the master’s program had 100 students max, maybe less, and the professor’s workload allowed this kind of involvement. If I understand correctly that OP is an undergrad, and likely has classes that are much bigger, the professor is highly likely to get companies that are completely made up and the students are likely to do work that will never be used by any companies that might be real. OP is right, this entire thing is certifiably banana crackers.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: For other classes, I have SQL database and ethical hacking (which course name does not include the word hacking). The hacking lab alone can take 2-4 hours when it doesn’t have a research element.

      It was the physically going in to businesses (during a pandemic) that I felt was bananacrackers, but it’s interesting what people are pointing out as other bonkers elements of this setup.

  118. Some thoughts*

    Barring making up a company, and putting aside my beliefs on working for free, perhaps a local BNI group or even a group on social media would be useful? I’m in a few local Facebook groups for business owners. Even Reddit could have some groups to look for.

  119. Lobsterman*

    As a person in an academic orbit, I’d bring this to your advisor and to the department chair.

    1. AnonRiver*

      It falls under academic freedom. Plus, universities frequently encourage students to volunteer their time for learning experiences, even outside of clinicals/internships/etc; it’s seen as a positive. I’m not disagreeing with the OP and bitterly remember having to do a project like this as an undergrad over a decade ago, but, as a prof now, every department chair I’ve ever worked for would stand by the instructor and tell the student to go do the project. I would not advise the student to blow this up through the department chair. Rather, leave scathingly honest feedback in the end of course evaluation.

      tl;dr College rules don’t apply to real-world “don’t work for free” rules, and a department chair won’t care what AAM and people here think about a hands-on PBL course project.

      1. pancakes*

        Students aren’t categorically exempt from any and all labor laws. This is what responsible messaging around this looks like:

        To be clear I’m not saying these two examples are necessarily optimal, or easy for students to make sense of — but you can’t simply say college is not “the real world” in terms of labor law or students’ rights.

      2. Lobsterman*

        The concept falls under academic freedom. The implementation does not – whatever happens, you’re not supposed to set your students up to fail.

  120. Chickaletta*

    Not to mention, this is highly insulting to the professionals who are paid to do this for a living. This professor is assuming that a group of inexperienced students are a substitute for them.

    I think it would be awesome to have a group of students from another class be assigned to approach this professor and ask if they could teach his class for a semester as a grade. I wonder what he’d think…

  121. Sad Desk Salad*

    I’m on the board of a small nonprofit, and we have had students do work for us like this. I’m not talking about high schoolers just looking to fulfill their volunteering requirements to graduate, but very specific work like web design, bookkeeping and–in the case of one very enterprising engineer–rebuilding part of our animal shelter to make it more accessible to the outdoors for our residents. However, any cold approach took place over email (our shelter isn’t really open to the public most of the time, anyway, and there’s no receptionist), or was done by very long-standing volunteers that we already knew and worked with. So, it’s not to say it can’t (or shouldn’t) happen; both the shelter and the students benefited from the exchange. But the cold approach this student is describing is hopelessly outdated. I hope they are able to find another way to fill the requirement; nonprofits especially need hands on deck, and they could potentially make a huge difference.

  122. Panhandlerann*

    The university I taught at had an office specificallly charged with setting up such relationships with local/regional businesses, nonprofits, and such. These things don’t just happen! Students normally can’t just set these opportunities up (unless they have family connections or something, as the OP mentions). The professor is being extremely naive and unrealistic.

  123. squeakrad*

    I am an adjunct instructor at a university business department. Many of my students are IT, decision science or other related majors. Here in San Francisco at least, we would never expect students to go into a business without an introduction from the university especially with Covid if she was still a concern. But I often do however is assign students to research a company that might be able to use their services and if they are small and local, to contact that company in whatever way seems fit. The fact that the professor is so out of touch, listed goodwill as a small company to investigate, and didn’t do the basic work to see if any of these businesses already had websites seems very lazy if she was still a concern. But I often do however is assign students to research a company that might be able to use their services and if they are small and local, to contact that company in whatever way seems fit. The fact that the professor is so out of touch, listed goodwill as a small company to investigate, and didn’t do the basic work to see if any of these businesses already had websites seems very lazy to me. Regardless of whether the students get experience or credit etc., they are still students and all but the best top of the class students will need some coaching, preparation and scaffolding to be able to do this kind of outreach.
    And as I work for a large public university, it is very possible that this kind of assignment would be seen as putting the university at risk. Suppose the website gets hacked, or information is stolen from the business? We are very careful about not asking students to do real world projects without a great deal of guidance.

  124. Ursula*

    I had to do this in college. I think the key here is that it should be for a government or non-profit- places you can actually volunteer for. Then all the professor has to do is say, find an org and talk to their volunteer coordinator to see if they have this sort of need. For a private business, yes the prof should absolutely be a middleman, but that’s not really needed if they can just do it the same way anyone volunteers.

  125. cheeky*

    Oh god, nightmare assignment for students and the target businesses alike! I’m so sorry, LW!

    1. Candi*

      *LW here: Thanks.

      After seeing a lot of the comments here, I wonder if the uni knows anything about this project other than he runs it.

  126. Bob*

    It wasn’t for college but at a job but I have shuddering flashbacks to a similar thing.
    In my former neighborhood of Cap Hill in Seattle, Office Max opened a small location that was supposedly centered around small businesses (there are a lot in that area). Outside of the normal office supply stuff it offered, we had a person whose whole job was to coordinate with these local businesses their needs for a discount.
    When we opened, my boss had me and a co-worker spend hours upon hours visiting these shops to try to coerce them to try us instead of whomever they had (if anyone at all). It was so awkward to go in, ask for the most senior person there at the time, give a vague pitch (as it was individually catered, we really couldn’t sell it on details), and get the information to pass on to the person who would be making the “deal.” The small businesses didn’t want it at all.
    If we didn’t get a name and number, it was assumed we were goofing off.
    It was awful.
    The whole store crashed and burned, closing only six months after opening. The whole set of first hires (of which I was included) left within the first month.
    The person who was the contact for the deals spent the first week in her office doing mostly nothing and soon cut to like 2 hours a week there. It was assumed she’d be very busy. Instead she was very bored and angry to be wasting her time.

  127. Allison*

    My senior design project was like this, except our professor had recruited contacts/companies for us to do projects for them. I doubt any of the software we created was used long-term since there wasn’t a transition to an IT team of any kind. Most companies and nonprofits don’t want software they can’t maintain.

    You might check out and see if there’s a chapter nearby that can help connect you to a nonprofit to help

  128. Other Duties as Assigned*

    This is the wrong way to go about finding firms willing to cooperate in these sorts of class projects.

    I participated in something similar in a graduate-level marketing class that specialized in service industries, non-profits and public sector organizations. It was taught by a VP of marketing from a large local firm. The difference in our case was that the instructor provided a list of local companies willing to participate; each would basically get a marketing audit. She’d taught it for several years and the class had garnered a reputation in the local business community for quality work. As a result, she had a list with more companies than we had student groups. At the end, the group would present their findings to the client and later present the findings and client reactions to the class. That’s how this should work.

    In my later teaching career, our media department had an undergraduate advertising class that would split up into groups to do marketing research and a full ad campaign (print/radio/tv/digital), but they all worked for the same company. At the end, execs from the firm would attend and each group would present their findings and show their final media productions. Again, the professor used her network to identify and recruit the clients.

  129. Elaina*

    Connect with your local Chamber of Commerce. When I worked for Chambers, we’d frequently get high school students reaching out about projects. Most of the business community enjoyed helping and mentoring.

  130. DiplomaJill*

    Graphic designer (former life)/ digital project manager (current life) here — this is an actual job actual companies sell. No valid business is going to want inexperienced undergraduates doing this for them.

    1. Candi*

      Unless they’re inexperience or cheap.

      LW* here, and that’s part of my worry. This trains the very small businesses to look to the college and this prof for freebie work, instead of contracting for paid work -that comes with a warranty!

  131. Erica*

    Software developer here: The businesses that would go for this offer are very likely to be quite inexperienced with tech (either they don’t have the knowledge to e.g. set up a Squarespace site, or they want something bespoke and ambitious that they don’t know is bespoke and ambitious.) The students are also likely inexperienced with running real world projects with multiple stakeholders and a non-technical boss. Put those two together and you have the perfect recipe for vastly underestimating how long anything will take.

    Quintuple your time estimates.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here. Most of the businesses wind up being little tiny businesses, just the owner or just the owner + a few workers. The biggest business was the guy whose son attends the university, and most of his workers are construction. Incredibly good at construction -those are gorgeous high-end homes- but according to my classmate, his dad doesn’t have anyone employed who has the necessary technical skills. (The dad also didn’t know that the person doing your hosting shouldn’t be the one with the legal ownership of the domain name -for a few weeks last fall, the update on the drama of them getting the domain name released was the high point of presentation day.)

    2. Nanani*


      Even if the students are great, any business in 2022 that doesn’t already have an out-of-the box site like square space, a facetagram page, or something, is not going to know what is reasonable to ask of students.

  132. Amorette Allison*

    Boy, am I old. We did this when I was in college, although it was not for tech support. Such a thing did not exist. Think days. Part of the program was selling ourselves to the businesses. We were doing ad campaigns, however, not anything that would seriously affect the bottom line. We were in a small college town and the businesses were usually fine with it. Some guys did discover the local biking shop did not want to expand their customer base. It would cut into their free time. They let them do an ad campaign for the class and evaluated it but the bike guys then just tossed it. I worked on an ad campaign for a shopping mall (this was the early 1980s) and they actually used some of what we came up with.

  133. Terranovan*

    Is it me, or would relying on the career center be a bad idea? We’ve read stories on this site about university career centers that advised students to make kitschy, unique resumes, make phone calls to follow up/check up on applications, and other advice even worse than this professor’s idea.

  134. Candi*

    LW* here: The Career Development and Education Center is great for putting on career fairs and applying to government jobs -they’ve got that set of resume skills down pat. They’re not so good for private sector jobs.

    I have no idea how they’d react to this.

  135. Nupalie*

    I’m surprised by the responses. I assign my water treatment degree students to find a water utility anywhere in the world for a project. The student does not perform work, but must interview someone at the utility at least 4 times during the semester to find out the plant size, specs, flow rate, disinfection method, customer base, operational strategies etc. 90 percent of the students end up getting a facility tour and 100 percent get a contact in the industry. I do offer to set them up with a water system in my own state if they are unable to make a contact…and I do send an email outlining expectations and limits (and thanking the utility) once the student has decided on a water system (I clearly state for example that the utility is committing to 4-5 phone calls of about 10-15 minutes each spread over 4 months.). Perhaps because there’s been a decade-long shortage of water employees…this assignment has been positively received by everyone each of the 6 semesters I’ve taught it. Note:. This class is 100 percent online and students from 5 different states could be in the same class.

    1. Candi*

      “The student does not perform work,”

      LW* here, and that’s the essential difference. We do perform work, work that freelancers, contractors, etc., get paid for.

      1. Nanani*

        if I had a nickel for every “this isn’t bad, it’s just like (insert completely different thing with one minor similarity)” I’d order pizza all week

        1. Candi*

          With another nickel for “this big major problem is just like this very minor problem”, you could get extra toppings.

    2. pancakes*

      I’m surprised that you’re surprised, because that is straightforwardly not the same thing at all. What you’re describing makes far, far more sense and is not haphazard, for a start. It’s a well-structured assignment and one you provide meaningful support for, including but not limited to making contact with the water treatment entities.

  136. ResuMAYDAY*

    I’ve had local college students contact me for their projects, the same way your professor is suggesting. I didn’t think anything of it, and have always taken the students up on it, and provided anything they needed. As a member of my local chamber of commerce, we’ve also had students contact the chamber, put out a notice, and any businesses who wanted this student work would contact them.
    I don’t think this is unusual, and the students have never had a problem completing their work, as far as I know. You can opt out of this, or make up a fake company but to me, you’re missing out on a good networking opportunity.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here:

      You’re assuming we get networking contacts out of this, ones that didn’t exist before the project. And usually that’s a big no.

      We’re IT students, and most of the people the students wind up working with do not have the connections to help us get IT jobs, or jobs associated with our minors. Many of them are tiny, independent businesses that don’t have larger industry, company, family, or other contacts that would be useful to the IT job seeker.

      1. ResuMAYDAY*

        Hey I was just offering a positive spin on the situation. Too bad all the BUSINESS OWNERS in your area are below your standards.
        Good luck overriding your professor!

        1. Batgirl*

          I don’t think it’s necessarily looking down on people to not want to do free work for them.

          1. ResuMAYDAY*

            I’m responding directly to this: “…most of the people the students wind up working with do not have the connections to help us get IT jobs, or jobs associated with our minors. Many of them are tiny, independent businesses that don’t have larger industry, company, family, or other contacts that would be useful to the IT job seeker.”
            OP is a student who really has no idea who that business owner is, or to whom they are connected. These business owners (people who spent years/decades in the trenches) were written off as being low-value based on what this student considers to be a worthless or non-existent network, but there’s no way this student could possibly know that.

            1. madge*

              Thank you. That line was so tone-deaf, it was painful to read. We’re in a similar position as you – we’ve allowed students to do projects knowing they may or may not be useful. We have multiple locations but we’re still a small business. A close friend is in tech, created a fairly popular app/startup, and is casual friends with a major tech figure who has been parodied on Silicon Valley. Our business is focused on a luxury product and we have several customers who have become friends outside of the business over the years. Names most people would recognize. And we are not unique in that regard. But keep thinking we aren’t useful because we’re aren’t large. We’ll save our connections for people who aren’t condescending.

            2. Nanani*

              OP is a non-traditional student with plenty of time in the trenches, actually. Please take a look at this real world you seem so confident about.

          1. ResuMAYDAY*

            I offered a real-world point of view and was flippantly shot down. The OP, self-described as being 19-22 years old, has written off their entire business community as not being important enough to offer anything of value. Meanwhile, no one expects these student projects to set the world on fire, except the students. This person’s level of self-importance is off the charts.

            1. pancakes*

              None of us here are writing from someplace other than the real world, and the student is going to be far more familiar with their particular local business community than you are. It isn’t self-important for anyone to not genuflect to your suggestions the way you’d prefer, for reasons that have nothing to do with age.

              1. ResuMAYDAY*

                Oh, come on. Genuflect? Of course not, but I also don’t think my experience (based on *exactly* what the OP was asking about) deserved to be dismissed. But if the only options available are genuflexion or dismissal, then I’ll take genuflexion.

    2. anonforthis*

      Did the students actually do free work for you though?

      I think it’s okay to do informational interviews with companies but it sounds weird to just show up to a company and ask to work for free. I’ve never heard of this.

      1. ResuMAYDAY*

        Partially. One group of students set up a client satisfaction survery that they sent out to a thousand of my clients, then compiled the results and made business recommendations from those results. The survey was good, and I appreciated having the results. However, the recommendations didn’t make sense for my business, which they should have discoverd when they interviewed me before the survey was sent. That factored into the grade they received.
        Another group offered to redesign my website with better tracking, and lead capturing tools. The format they chose was too cumbersome on the potential clients – filling in a lenghty form online for the purpose of cutting out the initial conversation with a live human (me or my assistant). So while the end product looked slick, it didn’t go live. If it had, it would give the impression that my clients’ expensive resumes would be written by a robot, or some far away person making pennies on the dollar.
        I accepted being part of these projects knowing the primary purpose was for the students to learn, more than me getting a shiny new thing. So when I wasn’t able to use either shiny new thing, it wasn’t a big deal to me. The deliverables didn’t fail because of the work the students did but rather, the work the students didn’t do. They didn’t ask me enough questions upfront.
        However, there were a few great people on both teams who stayed in touch with me, and I was able to help them with their job searches long after their projects were completed.

  137. AnonRiver*

    Ugh. Over ten years ago, a professor assigned this as a class project in one of my organizational communication classes. Four of us had no idea what to do, and the fifth convinced her dad to let us “consult” on how to hire for his small company. It was embarrassing to be a bunch of sophomore undergrads presenting to a 40-year small business owner how to improve his interviewing practices. I learned nothing from it. If we hadn’t had someone who knew someone, I have no idea what we would have done. I wasn’t from the town (I commuted an hour each way), didn’t have local connections, and worked full-time at a big-box retailer; I was tempted to drop the class and change my major, to be honest.

    As a senior, a different professor had groups of us build fake businesses from the ground up over the course of a semester and create policies, marketing plans, logistic plans, hiring guides, etc. I took more from that one project than I did from about three full years of college, let alone pretending to be a consultant and wasting the time of a real company.

    1. Batgirl*

      Yes this kind of thing always ends up tapping into the network of privilege. Half the class go work for Uncle John and Cousin Jane (fruitlessly, but they get the rubber stamp they need) and the people whose relatives work on factory and shop floors get told they don’t have any gumption.

  138. Candi*

    Before I forget AGAIN:

    Alison, thank you for publishing this! I’ve got lots of great suggestions from this, and lots of commiseration as well. :)

  139. Tegan Keenan*

    I’ve worked in communications for nonprofits for 20 years, local government for 5, and owned a small business for 10. There are a couple of private colleges and a state university in the immediate area. In my community, this students-doing-free-work-for-businesses thing is shockingly common. The part that is MOST shocking to me, however, is the number of nonprofit executives, elected officials and other small business owners I’ve worked for/known who *think this is a good thing.* It’s always presented as a way for low-resource businesses to get their marketing/research/IT needs taken care of. It requires an inordinate amount of time from the business and the end product is not what the business actually needs.

    I cannot count the number of times I’ve been cold-called by students (primarily when I owned the small business). I also can’t count the number of times I’ve been chastised by a supervisor or the Chamber of Commerce for saying I don’t want to do one of these projects. Thankfully I have the day off tomorrow and am missing the 5-hour tour and feedback session the rest of my team is conducting with a local college group that is doing a project for us and that my boss has already invested more time in than if he had done the project by himself.

    1. Candi*

      LW* here. THANK YOU for this. This is part of my personal problem with this -businesses counting this as a good thing.

  140. anonforthis*

    This is so weird. I think I know what the prof is *trying* to do, but just wandering into a business that didn’t plan for you to be there and making them your client is wtf. My masters program did something like this for our capstone, but it was pre-organized and we were allowed to select from an list of volunteering companies with already designated points of contact.

    Another thing the professor can do is have students arrange informational interviews with the businesses where they ask about their operations and then create their own projects (ie a marketing plan, business plan etc) based on the interviews which would be graded and maybe presented to the class. However, the project would just be for the class, not the business.

  141. Ukacademic*

    Academic who teaches web development here. In our working with members of the public like this would require ethics and data protection approval and possibly a risk assessment before starting. These take time…

    100% agree to use fake companies. We do other work with industry partners but this is all via my network and before we start I make sure that none of the work is critical to the organisation. Students get ill , groupwork is tricky and there are so many things that can go wrong so it is really important to set expectations up front.

  142. Geek of G*

    I work at a community college that sounds like it might be in OP’s county, and has a big IT program. The instructors send out a request for projects around campus, and student groups end up working with instructors in other areas who are developing classes, or promoting a major, or research projects. It helps that the IT profs talk over the potential projects with the other instructors to see if they’re about the right “size.”

  143. Part Time is Best Time*

    So, my school did this and it was great. But, they sourced the clients for us. It’s better than using fake company profiles because you learn the skills of interacting with the clients and sussing out their requirements. If your teachers are going to insist on doing this style of real project-based learning, then they need to get the clients together for you. It provided me with real, tangible skills and projects I could put on my resume that helped me get hired fresh out of school. I hope you are able to use your projects on your resume to get an internship/co-op or job.

  144. Batgirl*

    Yeah the whole thing reeks of being dated and not bothering to keep up with norms; gumption, doorstepping, using young people as free labour…

  145. tinybutfierce*

    Woof. I bet your professor has also done a great job of collectively annoying a number of professional freelancers in your area who are now having to deal with variations of “well why should I pay you Reasonable Rate/at all when I can get it done for free?”

    1. Candi*

      LW* here: That’s part of what annoys me. We’re doing stuff freelancers get paid to do.

      Another part is the poor freelancer who has to come in after the student work done. My classmates are doing good work, but the freelancers will still have to pick up the project in the middle instead of building from the beginning.

  146. Lady Pomona*

    I wonder if these profs also advise graduates to show their “gumption” by marching into a company’s headquarters and demanding an interview on the spot? ;>

  147. Just my 4 cents*

    I would suggest looking at local non-profits. We are often in need of assistance in various areas. Plus, you won’t have to worry about whether it is legal to do “volunteer” work for a for profit company in an area that should be paid work. There are PLENTY of animal shelters, service agencies, etc. who could use help with website, IT or communications!

  148. G. Porcupine*

    This was a requirement for a class I know of at my alma mater, but the professor had recruited from campus organizations, small businesses, etc. and had proposals in-hand to pass out to students. I know he did, because I wasn’t a student — I was working for my alma mater & was passed his request in my role, and wrote the proposal. He wanted to be sure the class was receiving real-world experience that was actually class-relevant, AND he didn’t want perplexed sophomores attempting to find appropriate projects without guidance — he wanted them to see what actual proposals looked like, etc. etc.

    Seems more pedagogically sound to me that way, but what do I know?

    In this case I advise 1 of 2 things: either find a local small nonprofit and email them — I did this in grad school when I was questing after a thesis project and I still do occasional work for them today — or do what others have said and make up something.

  149. Former PR Student/Work for Free-er*

    I’m actually fine with and a big proponent of doing real, practical work in college. I had several classes in my PR track that recruited clients for us. We interviewed the client, learned of special events they had planned, and built entire campaigns around their mission, values, and needs inclusive of pitching local reporters. The portfolio I built from that classwork helped me land all my internships and my first real job out of college, and it felt especially impactful to help these local organizations. I think they were all non-profits so we were doing good, and I ended up interning for one of them after the class wrapped.

    That said, every single time a project like this was classwork, the clients were recruited by the professor/university and presented to us. I can’t remember now but I feel like we even got to pick or at least rank our top choices, so there was some choice and ability to chase our own passions within the groups we could choose from. I can’t imagine as a very shy, very young student with no practical experience being told to go solicit the participants in our programs on our own.

  150. Esmeralda*

    The project idea is not the problem. Many senior design or capstone courses do something like this (logistics major, engineering majors, design major, communication major, etc). The advantage of working with a real client, rather than a dummy, is that students learn how to deal with clients, have to solve real problems etc.

    The issue is expecting the students to find the clients. A well designed course of this type will have clients already vetted by the instructor / academic program, both so that students are focusing their time on interacting with the client, creating the product, instead of on selling and marketing….when they don’t yet have anything saleable or marketable. And also so that the client understands the scope and kind of work students can do.

    These can be exceptionally rewarding experiences for students. But not the way this prof has “set up” the assignment (scare quotes because the prof has done zero work to set up anything).

  151. Web of Pies*

    As a graduate of a program which also was like “find your own jobs” and even had a professor say “it’s not my job to teach you [thing he assigned us to do]”, LW has my sympathies. I strongly dislike these services because they severely undercut rates for everyone, but LW might have luck bidding on projects via Upwork or Fiverr. (And actually get paid.)

    That said, it is irresponsible for the professor to throw them to the wolves without properly setting up expectations/training them…how many of these student groups are used or taken advantage of by their clients? I’d wager many of them; this will result in a lot of folks thinking this is what the working world is like.

    I do think working with actual clients is super useful though (when students are prepped appropriately), because 1. they’ll be held at least somewhat to real-world standards/accountability, and 2. they might experience variables they wouldn’t in the classroom. For instance, I ran a program like this where illustration students were pitching designs for our publication, WHICH THE PUBLISHER SHUTTERED DURING THE PROJECT. I was like “welp, this is what publishing is like, sometimes your magazine evaporates with no warning. We’re going to pivot to having you do this for another title” and that felt like a good reality check for them.

  152. Stephanie*

    I had to do this very thing for a class back in library school. We had to find a local organization or non-profit and identify a problem with how information was flowing internally and then come up with a solution. I hated it.

  153. Danniella Bee*

    I am almost done getting my master’s, and I have completed two of these types of projects so far both were for non-profits. We were instructed to “network” and find clients that way. It was a huge stressor. Luckily, one of my group members works for a non-profit and we found clients using that network, but all communication was done online via email and zoom. The idea that you would just walk into an office as a large group is insane.

  154. NeedRain47*

    We did this in grad school (I have an MLS) for a web development course. One of my group members had a connection with a small nonprofit so we went with that. Also in consideration were a small local art collective and an individual running an online small business. This was actually the worst nightmare project of my entire school experience b/c reasons, but it would have been worse if anyone suggested we go anywhere as a group or approach any total strangers.

  155. Landsbetween*

    I don’t understand what exactly the issue is here? Some high school classes do the same thing around here. The teacher is clearly trying to get them to work with places like small pizza or boba shops or nail salons or like a local Red Cross or chamber of commerce. It’s really not unreasonable to have the kids go in and ask how best to get in contact with the manager or owner if it’s not obvious otherwise, and then pitch them on doing business.

    Of course it would be better to have a list of vetted businesses/non-profits or for the professor to be clearer about what types of businesses or groups he wants them to talk to. But I don’t really get what the issue is about going and talking to people, especially in the types of small businesses the professor seems to be recommending. I used to do phone follow-ups with small businesses for a utility (not marketing or anything, like actual important stuff) and it was so hard to even get in touch with those folks by phone, much less email. I don’t know why younger folks are so allergic to doing things in person or by phone. And I’m not 90, I’m 36. I do know the benefits of email and that you don’t get a job just by walking in, but sometimes it is helpful.

    1. Anonynon*

      Because we’re still in a pandemic! No one should be suggesting, let alone assigning, that groups of people should be walking en masse into multiple places of business, each of which—and each member of which—may or may not be following public health guidelines. Not to mention the fact that many small businesses are by nature places where risk is unusually high: restaurants (where people are unmasked by virtue of why they’re there), small storefronts (where it’s physically impossible to keep appreciate levels of distance), etc. Having multiple groups of people going into multiple businesses, and then all congregating in class, just increases the risk of the assignment causing an outbreak…which, aside from the obvious implications, would cost anyone involved at least one to two weeks of in-person work, further shortening the already-absurd timeline!

    2. anonforthis*

      There is nothing wrong with talking to people. What is weird about the professor’s request is he’s telling the students to provide unsolicited pro bono work to businesses that didn’t ask for it. It would make more sense for the students to talk to the businesses and write case studies or something based on the conversations, but that isn’t what the prof is asking.

  156. PlainJane*

    Yup, this sounds bananacrackers.

    Maybe there was a time when this worked–like before most small businesses were managed by people who had any knowledge of the digital world and would be grateful to have someone else do that newfangled thing.

    Maybe it would be more productive for each group to create their own company name, mission statement, artwork, whatever it is they’re doing, then each group manages another group’s “business.” (If the intention is to work with a business that is not your own creation and goals that aren’t necessarily your own.)

  157. anonforthis*

    I will say in terms of practical advice (since you won’t probably get out of doing this assignment), check out Taproot for pro bono opportunities. I’ve done two through that site.

    I also like others’ suggestions to contact the local chamber of commerce. This way you will be in touch with orgs who opted into this type of arrangement.

  158. Genxerouttatouch*

    So I’m willing to bet this professor began his educational career in the 90s – this is really spot on with a lot of the classes I had as a film production major. At the time, waltzing into business, mostly pre-internet, asking to help do a project for free actually worked. I did this a number of times. I’m willing to bet he just hasn’t caught up with the times – we have to assume that everyone has a digital filter / firewall they expect you to go through before interacting.

  159. Odette*

    I know that as an Accounting student, we did a lot of “create a company” type projects for our classes, and in my Marketing class, we even made up a product!

    I think this could be a great opportunity to help business students learn the website/IT side of business, as well as be a “faux business” that the IT students need for their projects. If it’s a graded project for all involved, which would perhaps include students providing some sort of “feedback form” for each other, I think this could be really well done!

  160. Mama Llama*

    Not sure if this was addressed in all of the comments above but the biggest flag for me (besides the annoyance of this professor not giving any structure to his assignment) is that you are working on a big project for FREE . It’s one thing to do a mock project with a mock company (which means that the professor would actually have to have some involvement in their coursework structure) but since this is ACTUAL work I have to think that’s a bad idea. Also if there is not oversight what happens if something goes wrong? Like what if the students see privileged information – obviously the company isn’t running background checks on these students. What if the company wants to retaliate for whatever banana crackers reason they see fit – who’s going to back up the students? And I’m pretty sure the school would have something to say about it then. And I’m sure I could come up with more issues.

    All this to say that you should go to your dean (if they are nice and will side with you not the prof) and it that doesn’t or won’t work go to your ombudsman who works as a neutral third party to resolve student issues/concerns. Hopefully somebody can nip this in the bud before it gets worse for all involved.

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