Project-based learning isn’t a new concept for K–12 education. Even John Dewey, a philosopher and education reformer from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, advocated “learning by doing” to help students develop skills in place and apply critical concepts outside the classroom.
Research supports the positive impact of a PBL approach on student learning and retention, but the time required to develop new teaching frameworks and a lack of technological resources necessary to underpin PBL success at scale hamper widespread adoption.
Still, the use of instructional technology continues to increase in K–12 classrooms. A recent National Science Board report indicates 78 percent of educators say they have on-demand access to digital cameras; 51 percent use interactive whiteboards; and 68 percent report that their school meets or exceeds the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum internet bandwidth recommendations for K–12 institutions.
With technology options diversifying and with more districts willing to embrace the project-based learning model, the two can help support better outcomes for students. Here’s how.
Boosting Academic Rigor with the PBL Approach
The increasing adoption of project-based lesson plans comes with a higher need for academic rigor, says Edward Whritner, PBL Coordinator for the Mancos (Colo.) School District Re-6.
Schools must translate multistage, multitech projects into common learning outcomes that can be measured and then analyzed for key educational metrics.
These rigorous expectations are partially defined by the increasing need for 21st-century, digital-workplace skills. As noted by Bloomberg, less than half of all U.S. workers ranked at top levels for skill mastery. This connection between tech literacy, problem-solving and independent learning can inform key outcomes for PBL projects at all levels of education. Educators need to ask: Can students apply what they’ve learned to areas outside the confines of the project? Do they remember critical skills after being evaluated?
Technology forms the other essential aspect of PBL rigor: Always-connected, interactive solutions can both standardize the PBL process and record critical data about student collaboration, interaction and overall participation, providing teachers key metrics for evaluating student performance and effectively communicating with parents.
Common Tech Tools for PBL Success
While there’s no single “right” way to approach the project-based learning model, common technologies that now underpin core success include:
- Laptops: Mancos schools have gone one-to-one with Chromebooks, Whritner notes. Chromebooks’ lower prices are one factor that make them an accessible way for schools to connect PBL initiatives with actionable outcomes.
- 3D printers: In a recent PBL project, Mancos students visited a local skate park and, afterward, used 3D engineering software and printers to create a new design for the park. They presented their redesign to the city council and are applying to the Tony Hawk Foundation for funds to build it. As Whritner points out, PBL allows for variation: a Mancos physics and engineering teacher owns the 3D printing technology used to complete this. While commonality is critical for PBL projects to succeed, carbon-copy lesson plans are not.
- Interactive whiteboards: Interactive whiteboards make it possible for teachers to centralize key project data after students have been out in the field for projects like the one at the skate park. The whiteboards not only are a way to provide virtual and video experiences, but they also offer teachers flexibility in how they present information to an entire class or to individual students.
- STEAM toys: Lego blocks, the popular childhood toy, is also a solid STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) tool for PBL. Lego education programs “provide K–12 solutions that use the physical Lego bricks kids know and love to build different robotic creations that they can program to perform different tasks,” says Aaron Maurer, STEM lead for the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency in Iowa. His students are working on a project to reduce the amount of ocean plastic consumed by sea turtles, creating functional prototypes with Lego Mindstorms Education EV3, and using cloud-based conference technology to connect with sea turtle hospitals around the country. Other great STEAM tools include littleBits and Teq.
- Virtual reality: Distance and budgets can sometimes limit where academic experiences can happen. Virtual reality headsets are an option to reach beyond those limitations for valuable, immersive and experiential learning without breaking the bank.
PBL Needs Community and Administrative Buy-In
Tech-based PBL “opens the doors to school/community connections,” Whritner says. He points to one project involving signage for a local business: Students needed to visit the business site in person to take accurate measurements, design sign templates with modeling software and then produce professional-quality stencils and graphics using laser printers. Connecting with the “authentic audience” by actually visiting the local community where the business is located aligns with students’ natural learning strategy, which relies on relevant experience over rote learning, Whritner says.
It’s worth noting that the connective, collaborative environment required for successful PBL deployments isn’t possible without strong administrative support. Just as digital technology initiatives fail in businesses without C-suite buy-in, schools need committed administrators to help teachers develop new lesson plans, diagram technology implementations and ensure outcomes align with district, state and federal education goals.