Instructional Technology/Project Based Learning

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Project Based Learning Definitions

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE)[1] defines Project based learning (PBL) as "a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks."[2]

PBL is not a new idea. It has roots that go back to the late 60's and 70's with open classroom theory and industrial education. In this day and age where teachers need to teach multiple things at various levels, a project based approach makes sense for a majority of teachers. PBL promotes ways to introduce a wider range of learning activities into a normal classroom setting. If done correctly, learners will take on the responsibility of the learning and discover connections to other leaning opportunities around them. PBL also takes into account the learners own background and uses their prior experiences to make the learning more concrete.

PBL Benefits to Students

When PBL is used in the classroom it makes students switch from their usual mindset. The students are presented with a real life problem to work through to solution. Many times they are required to come up with a few plausible fixes for a problem and told to justify which one they find to be the best. Students that go through this process come away with a more developed knowledge of subject matter, higher levels of confidence and greater technical and collaborative skills. Studies have shown that students who complete a course enriched by using PBL are more likely to develop higher levels of critical thinking and problem solving skills than their traditional classroom setting counterparts. Leadership and collaborative skills also seem to be higher when PBL lessons are used. [3]

According to the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory benefits of project-based instruction include:

  • Preparing learners for the workplace by exposing them to competencies such as collaboration, project planning, decision making, and time management
  • Teachers often see increased motivation through higher levels of attendance, participation, and homework
  • Learners have greater collaborative opportunities to construct knowledge
  • Increases in social and communication skills
  • Learners are able to see connections between disciplines
  • Increased problem-solving skills
  • Increased learner self-esteem
  • Learners use individual learning strengths and diverse approaches to learning
  • Provides real-world experiences to learn and use technology[4]


Criteria For PBL Programs

BIE published a list of distinguishing criteria of PBL. It appears to be a pretty good list and points out what PBL should encompass. Here is what BIE's list looks like:

  • Put the students at the center of the learning process by recognizing their inherent “drive to learn.”
  • The project work is central rather than peripheral
  • Stress issues that lead students to in-depth exploration of topics
  • Require the use of essential tools and skills, including technology, for learning, self management, and project management
  • Specify products that solve problems, explain dilemmas, or present information generated through investigation and research.
  • Include multiple products that permit feedback
  • Use performance-based assessments that communicate high expectations, various skills, and rigorous challenges
  • Encourage collaboration through large or small group student-led presentations and class project result evaluations
  • A definite beginning, middle and end
  • Real world problems [5]

A typical PBL project for high school students might be to design a future school. In doing this, students would be introduced to various advanced math and engineering concepts. An elementary project might consist of building and racing electric cars to learn lessons about energy and efficiency. All projects should give students hands-on, serious, authentic experiences.

Using Multiple Intelligences in Project Based Learning

John Dewey theorized that learning should not only prepare one for life, but should also be an integral part of life itself. Simulating real problems and real problem-solving is one function of project-based learning. Students help choose their own projects and create learning opportunities based upon their individual interests and strengths. Projects assist students in succeeding within the classroom and beyond, because they allow learners to apply multiple intelligences [6] in completing a project they can be proud of. Our society values individuals who can solve problems creatively, using multiple strengths, so why shouldn't we encourage students to do the same?

However, traditional teaching strategies tend to focus on verbal/linguistic and mathematical/logical intelligences alone. This can create frustration for people who are comfortable with less traditional learning modalities, such as kinesthetic, visual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, or naturalist. Project-based learning allows the teacher to incorporate numerous teaching and learning strategies into project planning and implementation. Assisting learners in developing all of their intelligences will make learning a part of living, not just a preparation for it.

The Role of Technology

Without computers PBL would be very different and much more difficult. Learners use word processors and databases to help them categorize, analyze and keep track of data. They use the internet, email and online forums for research, communication and collaboration with the outside world. The collaboration element has probably the biggest benefit to any learner. It allows them to talk to numerous experts about a variety of subjects. If used correctly, then learners share information with each other and in doing this, further their own learning. Without these technological advancements the learners working knowledge base would not be as plentiful.

Added, technology PBL can enhance the relevance of classroom projects, and foster multidisciplinary exploration, where various activities and subjects are explored and integrated in the project. For example, concepts from Maths, Fine Arts, and Physics can be applied to projects in architecture and design. The collaborative approach to designing PBL instruction can enhance motivation and achievement, as well as promote active learning and effective communication.

PBL Research

Regie Stites of SRI, International, wrote that researchers have investigated the impact of project-based learning (PBL) in a wide variety of educational contexts ranging from early childhood education to medical and legal education. [7]

Stites mentions that the points below "should be kept in mind when considering the findings of research that compare the relative impacts of PBL and more traditional learning activities on student achievement":

  • Project-based learning is typically implemented in the context of comprehensive educational reforms and therefore it is difficult to isolate the effects of PBL on student learning.
  • Project-based learning and closely related instructional strategies (such as problem-based learning and the project approach) are implemented differently in different contexts and therefore it is difficult to compare results across cases.
  • Project-based learning is linked to a theory of learning (constructivism) that entails a shift in learning objectives (stressing higher order thinking skills and performance-based, authentic assessments) and therefore standardized achievement tests may not be the best measures of PBL's impact.

The online magazine Edutopia [8] published an article in 2001 listing several of the studies that has been completed in the area of project-based learning. The studies in the article shows that PBL can improve students’ skills in the areas of communication, teamwork and problem solving and improve in core academic areas. [9]

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