Driving Question: How does technology change the game in project-based learning?
Suzie Boss is an education writer and consultant who focuses on project-based learning as a strategy for improving teaching and learning. She is the author of Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World and co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She blogs for Edutopia.org and is on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education.
During a recent visit to a high school that embraces 21st century learning, I watched a team of students deeply immersed in a real-world project. Their challenge: How to make the local bank branch more environmentally sustainable while staying within a budget?
Earlier, students had used online resources to investigate a variety of green design solutions. They crunched the numbers, producing spreadsheets that compared not just short-term costs but also long-term energy savings of various approaches. Now they were using a program called SketchUp to produce a 3-D model that offered detailed views of the redesigned building from the exterior (featuring drought-resistant landscaping), interior (right down to the color of floor covering made from recycled materials), and bird’s eye perspective (showing rooftop rainwater-collection features). They knew this would be a handy visual aid when it came time to present their recommendations to the client.
When I asked one of the students how he learned to use SketchUp, he glanced up from his laptop and said simply, “Just by using it.”
In project-based learning, that’s exactly how technology integration should happen.
This wasn’t a “SketchUp project,” any more than it was a “spreadsheet project” or a “PowerPoint project.” It was an authentic challenge that required interdisciplinary problem-solving and connected students with an audience beyond the classroom. Students chose to use online modeling software, among other tools, because 3-D graphics offered an excellent way to make their thinking visible. Technology was integrated not for show, but because it helped students meet their project goals.
Focus on What’s Essential
When considering the role that technology should play in project-based learning, teachers need to be clear about the essential learning functions that tech tools will serve. Rather than building a project around the latest or greatest gadget, teachers are better off starting with the academic content and 21st century skills that they want students to understand and apply. Only then are they are ready to consider tech tools that will enable students to meet those goals. In many instances, the right tech tool takes learning deeper, allowing students to analyze information, create and share original content, or accomplish other project results that would be hard to do otherwise.
For teachers, this means asking yourself some key questions at the project design stage: Are student collaborators likely to be contributing to the project at different times or from different locations? If so, a wiki offers a good choice for organizing content that is contributed asynchronously by multiple users. A shared online calendar will help team members keep track of project deadlines and stay accountable to each other, even if they don’t meet face-to-face every day.
Will students need to consult with content experts from outside their school? Skype in the Classroom enables students to videoconference with people from anywhere in the world. This easy-to-use tool eliminates geographic barriers and sets the stage for cross-cultural communication.
Will students use the writer’s workshop model or iterative design cycles as part of the project? Collaborative tools like Google Apps for Education or Microsoft SkyDrive and Office Web Apps enable users to store their work in the cloud. That means students can exchange peer feedback and track edits on shared documents.
Projects of the 21st century variety often put students in the role of innovator, challenging them to think creatively about solutions. Here, too, technology should serve key learning goals. Students might want to try a tool like Skitch, for instance, to share virtual “napkin sketches” of raw ideas. If they’re more inclined to brainstorm verbally, they might use Wallwisher to post virtual “sticky notes” summarizing their creative suggestions. Why not just brainstorm as a group? Teachers tell me that some students censor their creativity for fear of peer criticism if ideas seem too “wild” or unorthodox. Technology creates a safe space to let the imagination off leash. Later in the project, there will be plenty of time to evaluate and test ideas, discarding those that aren’t practical. At the brainstorming stage, though, the more ideas, the better.
At the research stage, students may need to conduct field work. Here’s a chance to have them use their mobile devices for making observations or gathering digital data.
When it’s time for students to offer each other critical feedback—another essential part of the learning cycle in PBL—a wide range of tech tools can be harnessed. Students might use a tool like VoiceThread to record brief audio critiques of each other’s work at the draft stage, when there’s still time for revision and improvement. Teachers can listen to the recordings to make sure students understand what it means to be a critical friend.
The sheer abundance of tech tools and mobile devices may seem daunting, but there’s no need to overload a project with technology. Keep your focus on those essential learning functions. And don’t expect to be an expert in every new tool that comes along. Be selective, but also be ready to entertain students’ suggestions about which tools will help them meet their project goals. Before starting a new project, you might survey students about which tech tools they already know how to use. If you have budding filmmakers, capable app developers, or active bloggers in class, tap their expertise as peer leaders on project teams.
Walk the Talk
Teachers who want to expand their familiarity with technology can apply the same approach that worked so well for students on that bank redesign project: Just learn by doing. Try a few Web 2.0 tools that are new to you as part of your own professional learning. See which ones deliver learning functions that you don’t want to be without.
Here are just a few examples:
- Use the Twitter hashtag #pblchat to connect with other teachers who are engaging in project-based learning. (If you aren’t yet on Twitter, set up an account at www.twitter.com) A weekly chat takes place each Tuesday evening (6 p.m. Pacific, 9 p.m. Eastern), focused on a specific topic relating to PBL. You also can tag your tweets with #pblchat anytime to connect with the growing community of PBLers who connect in the Twitterverse.
- QuadBlogging (http://quadblogging.net/) is a site that lets you connect with three other teachers from around the world so that your students will have authentic, responsive audiences for their online publishing. Designed by an educator from the United Kingdom, QuadBlogging has been an Internet sensation, connecting some 100,000 students from 40 countries in its first year.
- Edmodo, a social media site for education, has an active PBL community where teachers share resources and project ideas, connect with colleagues, and invite feedback on student work. Sign up for a free teacher account and then join the PBL community (http://www.edmodo.com/home#/publisher/biepbl).