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4 easy ways to boost project-based learning with tech

By Jerry Fingal
November 19, 2018
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When it comes to project-based learning, digital tools offer a turbo boost.

Project-based learning (PBL) the practice of letting students research, create and present findings based on a topic of their choice — is certainly not new. But augmenting this age-old classroom activity with technology increases authenticity and amplifies learning.

PBL used to involve trips to the library, letter-writing, field trips, guest speakers and classroom presentations. Now it’s Google Expeditions, virtual reality, real-time Skype sessions, Flipgrid and videoconferencing.

When you bring technology into the picture, you really do get a different learning experience, says Suzie Boss, a project-based learning expert and member of the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education.

“Technology allows for types of connections, creation and collaboration that you just can’t do when you’re limited to your own classroom and learning doesn’t extend beyond the walls,” she says.

Learning goals first, technology second

Digital tools might have transformed PBL, but they’re still secondary to the learning process.

“One of the big things we try to get across to teachers is that it isn’t about the tools. It’s really about what are the learning goals,” Boss says.

Each phase of students’ projects – from the launch to research, compilation, feedback and presentation – involves learning goals. Digital tools just facilitate that learning.

“All along the way are opportunities to be really specific about, ‘OK, what kind of learning is going on now and what are the tools that are going to help with that?’” she said.

Here are four ways to extend PBL with digital tools:

Fire up the inquiry. At the beginning of a project, the learning goal is all about inspiring curiosity and getting students interested in what’s ahead. A Google Expedition or Skype session with an expert can get that going.

Use the tools of the trade. In the research phase, encourage students to adopt roles appropriate to their project. If a project calls for the approach of a journalist or historian, students should assume those roles and use the digital tools of the profession, such as documentary tools, video cameras and primary source documents.

“You think about those disciplines and you get your kids the same tools that the experts use in that research phase,” Boss said.

Facilitate fast feedback. Once the research is completed, students move into “that creative process where they’re coming up with a solution or something that’s going to demonstrate what they know or what they’ve figured out,” Boss says. It’s this stage where feedback is important. Sites like Flipgrid, a video discussion platform, are helpful. Explore sites that ensure your students get immediate and helpful feedback.

Share with an authentic audience. When presenting their projects, the goal is to connect with an audience beyond the classroom. Leave the old-school stand-and-deliver-to-the-class PowerPoint behind. Invite a live audience via videoconferencing or allow students to show their learning by publishing a blog or creating a podcast.

“It goes well beyond that ‘OK, I’m going to stand in front of my class and show you what I’ve learned’,” Boss says. “It’s really ‘I’ve done something important; I’ve solved a problem that I care about, and the digital tools available to me as a digital citizen allow me to get my idea out into the world and to engage with a real audience.’”


Start small and use what’s familiar

Not every teacher is ready to dive in completely with every tool. For less tech-savvy educators, the tools themselves can be a barrier to PBL. Teachers should use tools that are familiar to them so they’re not spending a lot of class time learning to use technology.

Take Google Docs, a tool most teachers and students know how to use. It’s solves many of the challenges of working as a collaborative team. “You don’t have to reinvent it for every project and think ‘Oh gosh, I have to have the latest and greatest.’”

For teachers who are wondering if PBL is a good fit, Boss recommends finding the opportunity to see it in action.

“Go be in the audience for a student group that’s presenting its final work,” she said. “And really ask the kids some hard questions and see what they learned as a result. I think they’ll be amazed with how well students can think on their feet and share their ideas. And immerse yourself in the online content. There are some great videos that show projects from start to finish.”

Ready to plunge in to digital age PBL? Discover tools, assessment strategies and promising practices for authentic student projects in Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss.