Technology Pushing Schools To Embrace Project-Based Learning

Many schools across the country are using new technology in the classrooms to meet the growing needs of the 21st century — and that includes a project-based learning (PBL) model, which focuses instruction on real-world challenges and requires collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.

In the United States, many schools are blending PBL with technology. Recently, a team of students from the local ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) Leadership High School in Albuquerque, N.M. developed a plan for a local bank that had a limited budget to make one of its branches more environmentally sustainable.

The students used SketchUp software to create their designs, which included 3-D renderings of floors made from recycled materials and a roof that would capture rainwater. Before presenting their final plan, the students gave bank officials a digital tour of the new building and showing off various design options, writes Ron Schachter of District Administration.

Suzie Boss, author and educational consultant, said PBL becomes all the more powerful when students enhance their work with appropriate software programs or web-based tools. According to Boss, teachers and students now are able to use many educational and digital tools that enable a new level of collaboration, analysis, and presentations.

Google Docs is one tool that allows multiple users to work together on a single document. It has become a staple in many schools, while Skype has emerged as a path to communicate visually with other classrooms and experts worldwide.

Currently, students are making productive use of less familiar web-based tools. For example, students create slides and video using Animoto, and Padlet serves as a graffiti wall that lets users share ideas, videos, and links. Delicious provides a communal repository of website links and a class can render sophisticated mathematical drawings with Geometer.

The availability of tools likes these opens the door for students to “take on real challenges,” said Marcie Hull, the technology coordinator for the Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia high school focusing on STEM.

The New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996, provides intensive professional development for teachers, including summer workshops and monthly onsite visits that emphasize making the most of educational technology in PBL.

The organization also offers its own online learning management system, Echo, which includes tools such as Google Apps for Education, a project management program, and an online grade book with rubrics for assessing student outcomes. The schools, which are part of the network, can consult each other or even collaborate on classroom projects through tools such as Skype.

“The big thing about New Tech is that they provide consultants and coaches,” said Peg Maddocks, the executive director of NapaLearns, which promotes PBL and raises funds for five districts around California’s Napa Valley.

NapaLearns finances the $400,000 annual fee for New Tech Network’s services at two high schools, four middle schools, and—beginning this year—four elementary schools. The Napa Valley district hires its own full-time PBL/technology coaches for the high schools and part-time coaches in the middle and elementary New Tech schools.

According to Napa Valley USD Superintendent Patrick Sweeney, all of the district’s 30 schools will adhere to the New Tech model by the 2016-2017 school year.