Project-based learning

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This article provides a short introduction to project-based learning in the framework of more open-ended projects that are typical of socio-constructivist approaches (based on Synteta, 2002). Please, see project-oriented learning for a short general overview of all project-oriented approaches.

If you are interested in the history of project-based teaching, read Michael Knoll's The Project Method: Its Vocational Education Origin and International Development.

1 Introduction

The notion of project is central to socio-constructivism and other related activity-based approaches. A project allows learners to identify and formulate their own problems. The goals they set as well as the unexpected discoveries they will make during their interaction with the environment serve as guides (Collins et al, 1989). It is therefore important to divide scenarios into sequences and to divide problems into sub-problems so that learners perform only one task at a time and that these tasks are flexible enough in order for learners to be able achieve them whatever their basic level. Project-based learning is a model which distinguishes from traditional teaching since the focus is put on the learner and his project. Learners have the opportunity to work more autonomously and build their knowledge.

Projects as a methodology are not a new concept; in the United States pioneers were John Dewey (Dewey, 1966) and William H. Kilpatrick (Kilpatrick, 1918).

The project method is a genuine product of the American progressive education movement. It was described in detail and definitively delimited for the first time by William Heard Kilpatrick in his essay, "The Project Method," which became known worldwide (Church & Sedlak, 1976; Cremin, 1961; Kilpatrick, 1918; Röhrs, 1977).


Recently, however, historical research has made great progress in answering the question of when and where the term "project"-"progetto" in Italian, "projet" in French, "projekt" in German, and "proekt" in Russian-was used in the past to denote an educational and learning device. According to recent studies, the "project" as a method of institutionalized instruction is not a child of the industrial and progressive education movement that arose in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Rather it grew out of the architectural and engineering education movement that began in Italy during the late 16th century (Knoll 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Schöller, 1993; Weiss, 1982). The long and distinguished history of the project method can be divided into five phases:

1590-1765: The beginnings of project work at architectural schools in Europe.
1765-1880: The project as a regular teaching method and its transplantation to America.
1880-1915: Work on projects in manual training and in general public schools.
1915-1965: Redefinition of the project method and its transplantation from America back to Europe.
1965-today: Rediscovery of the project idea and the third wave of its international dissemination.
(Knoll, 1997)
For over 100 years, educators such as John Dewey have reported on the benefits of experiential, hands-on, student-directed learning. Most teachers, knowing the value of engaging, challenging projects for students, have planned field trips, laboratory investigations, and interdisciplinary activities that enrich and extend the curriculum. "Doing projects" is a long-standing tradition in American education. (Markham et al. 2003, 3).

In Europe, some of the known researchers are Makarenko (1888-1939), Freinet (1896-1966) and the (Groupe Français d'Education Nouvelle, 1982)). In the 1990’s with the rapid growth of telematics, PBL is being revised and redefined as it is an approach that supports many of the tasks that teachers face today such as incorporating authentic assessment, infusing higher-order thinking skills, guiding students in life choices, and providing experiences that tap individual student interests and abilities.

1.1 The context

These design ideas are based on various socio-constructivist schools of thought (Bruner, 1973), but can also be found in other modern instructional theories (Ausubel, Novak and Hanesian, 1978 ; Reigeluth, 1999). We consider socio-constructivism as an understanding of learning that stresses the importance of constructing knowledge based on previous knowledge and interaction with the social environment, e.g. theories that have followed from constructivism (Piaget), socio-culturalism (Vygotsky, 1962) and situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Secondly, we perceive socio-constructivism as a set of pedagogies that use strategies like project-based learning (Thomas, Mergendoller and Michaelson, 1999), problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, case-based learning or action learning. We call these new pedagogies « activity-based », since the students learn with interactive technology (instead of from) and since the teacher has to design, to facilitate and to monitor student activities. While each of these designs has different pedagogical objectives, we believe that all good pedagogical designs should include somewhat structured pedagogical scenarios and that the teacher's role is crucial. In this perspective, the modern teacher has to fulfill a triple role of facilitator, manager and « orchestrator » and he needs adequate supporting environments since such designs can become very complex and costly.

“The reason that Dewey, Papert, and others have advocated learning from projects rather than from isolated problems is, in part, so that students can face the task of formulating their own problems, guided on the one hand by the general goals they set, and on the other hand by the 'interesting' phenomena and difficulties they discover through their interaction with the environment” (Collins, Brown and Newman, 1989, p. 487). Powerful pedagogical designs that aim at the development of general problem skills, deeper conceptual understanding and more applicable knowledge include, according to van Merriënboer and Pass (2003, p. 3), the following characteristics : “(1) the use of complex, realistic and challenging problems that elicit in learners active and constructive processes of knowledge and skill acquisition ; (2) the inclusion of small group, collaborative work and ample opportunities for interaction, communication and co-operation ; and (3) the encouragement of learners to set their own goals and provision of guidance for students in taking more responsibility for their own learning activities an processes.”. See also combined complex instructional design models like 4C/ID.

1.2 Definition

Project Based Learning is a teaching and learning model (curriculum development and instructional approach) that emphasizes student-centered instruction by assigning projects. It allows students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products. More specifically, project-based learning can be defined as follows :

  1. Focuses on the central concepts of a discipline
  2. Engaging learning experiences that involve students in complex, real-world projects through which they develop and apply skills and knowledge
  3. Learning that requires students to draw from many information sources and disciplines in order to solve problems
  4. Learning in which curricular outcomes can be identified up-front, but in which the outcomes of the student's learning process are neither predetermined nor fully predictable
  5. Experiences through which students learn to manage and allocate resources such as time and materials

(Moursund, 2002; J. W. Thomas et al., 1999)

Rooted (at least it’s design of the curriculum, instruction and assessment) in various constructivist schools of thought (Perkins, 1991; Piaget, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978), constructionism (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai & Resnick, 1996), cooperative or collaborative learning (Dillenbourg, 1999), and generally active learning, has strong theoretical support for successful achievement. Still, we have to note that PBL is not a pure constructivist model but uses also multiple methods of instruction, among them direct, explicit, (didactic) instruction (Moursund, 1999). PBL can be found under the name of project method, project approach, knowledge in action, learning or education by project, intentional learning (Scardamalia, Bereiter, McLearn, Swallow, & Woodruff, 1989), learning by doing, design experiments (Brown, 1992), to name a few.

1.3 Main features

Although PBL is popular as an approach, it lacks from a universally accepted model or theory and one can find in literature a diversity of defining features (W. J. Thomas, 2000a). In order to capture the uniqueness of PBL and to screen out non examples of it, Synteta (2001) made the synthesis of the features described in literature (Reginald & Laferrière, 1999; W. J. Thomas, 2000b), and ended in the following: PBL emphasizes activities that

  • are central to curriculum,
  • long-term (more than a couple of class days and up to semester),
  • interdisciplinary,
  • have a driving question that is challenging and constructive,
  • are student-centered and
  • are based on collaborative or cooperative group learning,
  • are integrated with real world issues and practices,
  • have productive outcomes,
  • have an impact on “life skills” like self-management, group process, and problem-solving skills,
  • and use cognitive tools, usually technology-based (Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Soloway, 1994; Marx et al., 1994).

According to these criteria, there are not PBL instances (Synteta, 2002):

  • the projects that are not central to curriculum but serve as a complementary practice,
  • projects that don’t have an intellectually challenging driving question,
  • projects that can be carried out with already-learned information or skills,
  • projects that are scripted (P. Dillenbourg, 2002),
  • projects that focus on simulated and not realistic questions.

1.3.1 Project vs Problem Based Learning

We have to clarify here, that with the abbreviation of PBL, we refer to Project-Based Learning and not to Problem-Based Learning. They both have roots in constructivism, as they engage students in authentic student-centered tasks to enhance learning, and the line between them is frequently blurred, as they can be used in combination and play complementary roles, but they are not identical approaches (Camille Esch, 1998 cited in (Schneiderman, Borkowski, Alavi, & Norman, 1998)).

Project-based learning focuses mostly on a production model. Students start by defining the purpose of creating the end-product, identify their audience, they research the topic, design the product, do the project management, solve the problems that arise and finish the product followed by a self-evaluation and reflection (Crawford, Bellnet website, Autodesk website, Blumenfeld et al. cited in (Schneiderman et al., 1998)). So, the driving force is the end-product, but the key to success is the skills acquired during it’s production.

Problem-based learning uses an inquiry model. Students start with a given problem, make a plan for gathering information, pose new questions and summarize their research by presenting their conclusions (Duch, Delisle, Hoffman and Ritchie, Stepian and Gallacher cited in (Schneiderman et al., 1998)). In this case, the driving force is the problem given and the success is the solution of it (Vu, Van der Vleuten, & Lacombe, 1998).

In that sense, Project-Based Learning is a broader category than the Problem-based one (Moursund, 1999), as the first includes always inquiry and might in cases address a specific problem but not the other way around.

1.3.2 Actors

Roles of actors are also particular in PBL. Project-based learning is a structure that transforms teaching from "teachers telling" to "students doing". Students become active problem-solvers, decision and meaning-makers rather than passive listeners, they collaborate or cooperate forming groups, organize their activities, conduct research, solve problems, synthesize information, organize time and resources and reflect on their learning. Teachers change their role “from sage on the stage to guide on the side” and assume the role of cognitive and meta-cognitive coach (by asking, monitoring, probing, managing, group regulating, keeping moving) rather than knowledge-holder and disseminator. Project serves as the initial challenge and motivation (appealing to be explored, setting up the context of learning).

1.3.3 Identity

In addition, the concept of identity is essential to pbl. This means that the learner has the opportunity to try out various identities while engaged in a project. The learner is also surrounded by other identities, those of the other participants. Identities will vary by expertise which supports the learner's progress. The interaction of identities of varying expertise in part comprises legitimate peripheral participation, as is found in communities of practice(Lave & Wenger, 1991).

1.3.4 Assessment

Generally, with its innovative approach to learning, PBL also requires an innovative approach to assessment, which is challenging. It requires varied and frequent assessment, including teacher assessment, peer assessment, self-assessment and reflection. Using technology as a tool and constructivist learning as the methodology, assessment of learning is not a separate process after learning has occurred, but rather learning and assessment are coterminous (H. D. Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999).

1.3.5 Implementation Levels

Activity-based, collaborative, and construction-based pedagogies can be implemented at three levels: (1) the micro-level, i.e. smaller pedagogical scenarios or projects which can be components for larger projects, (2) long term projects, i.e. project-based classes and (3) the general study environment favoring student initiative and community building on which we will come back later.While micro activities (lasting only over a single or a few lessons) can not reach the same goals as true project-based teaching, they nicely can complement traditional instruction and are often the only realistic alternative in today's organization of the school and university system.We now will examine particular instructional design issues, first at the level of smaller scenarios and then for larger project-oriented classes.

See also: project-oriented learning for a wider discussion of different frameworks.

1.4 Efficiency, effectiveness and affordability

Researchers have investigated the impact of project-based learning (and related instructional approaches) in a wide variety of educational contexts ranging from early childhood education to medical and legal education. They have generally been shown to be effective in increasing student motivation by engaging them in their own learning, in improving student problem-solving and higher order thinking skills (Stites, 1998). It promotes meta-cognition and self-regulated learning by asking students to generate their own strategies for problem definition, information gathering, data-analysis, and hypothesis-building and testing, comparing these strategies against and sharing them with other students' and mentors' strategies. Teaching with the project-based method enables students to work cooperatively with peers and mentors in a student-centered environment where learners are encouraged to explore various topics of interest. "The collaborative nature of the investigation enhances all of these valuable experiences ... as well as promotes a greater appreciation for social responsibility (Scott, 1994)". Hence, it also provides opportunities for interdisciplinary learning by engaging students in applying the content of different subject areas during the various phases of the project. PBL helps students develop real world skills like the ability to collaborate well with others, make decisions and take initiative, and face complex problems. After completing a project, if students are asked to create a self-evaluation of the project, like writing a meta-report, this enables the students to focus on their learning process and allows them to see their progress. Self-evaluation gives students a sense of accomplishment and further instills responsibility for learning. And by documenting the learning process it also makes it easy to distribute results to bigger audiences, with all the obvious advantages.

The most complete research on PBL effectiveness has been done from (W. J. Thomas, 2000b)) in the framework of his dissertation that concludes that: a) PBL is challenging to plan and enact, b) PBL depends a lot on the scaffolding provided to students to learn how to learn, c) there is indirect and direct evidence that PBL is a more popular method than other instructional strategies, as both students and teachers believe that is beneficial and effective, d) there is some evidence that PBL compared to other learning methods, enhances the quality of students’ learning, increasing their capability for applying what is learned in novel problems, e) finally, there is ample evidence that PBL is effective for teaching students complex processes like planning, communicating, problem solving and decision-making, but there is no comparison with other methods.

Unfortunately, there is only evidence for most of the advantages mentioned above, given the complexity of PBL coupled with the diversity of defining features and the lack of a universally accepted model or theory. In addition, it is difficult to isolate the effects of it. Some of the reasons are, that it is applied most of the time with other strategies, limits with other similar approaches are blurred (like problem-based learning), it is implemented differently in different contexts and most of all, standard achievement tests cannot measure the higher order thinking skills developed (Stites, 1998).

1.5 Difficulties

Although PBL is considered to be a profitable learning strategy, its implementation faces several challenges (Kehoe, Guzdial, & Turns, 1998; Means & Olson, 1995; Synteta, 2001; W. J. Thomas, 2000b; Synteta, 2003) as projects are complex endeavours involving many different activities. In particular,

Students have difficulty to:

  • Initiate inquiry; have coherent research questions,
  • Define a research project; good research design and appropriate methodology,
  • Direct investigations; find resources,
  • Manage complexity and time; keep deadlines, estimate time needed to do a task,
  • Collaborate and give feedback; articulating the work of others and give regular feedback. Known problems concern planning, operationalisation and monitoring (J. van der Veen, B. Collis, & Jones, 2001),
  • Follow-up the project; revise products, thing that requires critical thinking skills and cognitive self-awareness (Schneiderman et al., 1998).

In addition to the difficulty of setting clear goals for various phases, students have trouble relating data, concept and theory. A teacher should orchestrate a project into several more or less sequential scenarios who in turn can be broken down to smaller phases. This will insure that learners will focus on smaller sub-problems, will do things in the right order (e.g define research goals in the beginning of the project and not in the middle).

On the other hand, teachers have difficulty to:

  • Design a PBL course; design projects that support learning of specific concepts and skills and sustain such highly demanding pedagogical approaches like PBL,
  • Follow-up several projects; monitor progress, give feedback and support where and when is needed and generally classroom management,
  • Use technology especially as a cognitive tool; incorporating technology is challenging,
  • Design assessment; assessment that require students to demonstrate their understanding.

1.6 Interventions and the role of technology

Many researchers believe that PBL is a beneficial learning model and in order to remediate it's pitfalls have run intervention research proposing various strategies to support and improve it.

(Krajcik et al., 1998) and (M Guzdial, 1998) use the term “scaffolding” and (Scardamalia et al., 1989)) the term “procedural facilitation” to refer to their intervention strategies.

(Barron et al., 1998)), propose to introduce explicit design requirements within the project that prompt students to generate and pursue productive questions. (Blumenfeld, 1991)), propose to help teachers develop “driving questions” that will ensure that student will encounter with complex concepts and principles and develop CSILE, a computer-supported intentional learning environment to provide temporary support for young learners who were observed to face difficulties asking questions and directing their inquiries.

(Hmelo, 1998)), focuses on providing scaffolds for collaborative group work and (Barron et al., 1998) on providing scaffolds for student self-assessment. (W. J. Thomas, 2000b)) in the conclusions of his dissertation, says that there is evidence that PBL is relatively challenging to plan and enact so teachers will benefit from a supportive context for it’s administration. According to (Kehoe et al., 1998)), the combination of supporting learning and doing is critical to successful PBL.

Among the intervention strategies that have been proposed, the use of technology was central :

(Blumenfeld, 1991; Means & Olson, 1995). Evaluations of K-12 instruction have shown strong evidence of learning gains associated with PBL plus technology (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV), 1992). (Kehoe et al., 1998) also clearly state that “… technology can play an important role in structuring and supporting effective project-based learning …” after long experience with “Team Facilitator” (team planning through web), CaMILE (Collaborative and Multimedia Interactive Learning Environment), Reflective Learner (web environment that supports students in writing learning essays using prompts) and STABLE (SmallTalk Apprenticeship-Based Learning Environment, a web-based case library of exemplary projects). (Brown & Campione, 1996), say that technology has also the value of making the knowledge construction process explicit, thereby helping learners to become aware of that process. (H. D. Jonassen et al., 1999), state in their manifesto that tools that meaningfully engage the learners should support constructivist environments and that technology-based environments can effectively support these activities. (Krajcik et al., 1994), state that technology makes the environment more authentic to students, because among others the computer provides access to data and information and expands interaction and collaboration with others via networks. A long technical report (USA department of education, 1995) concludes that: “… some aspects of the model (PBL) maybe directly stimulated by technology – notably an increased level of collaboration, heterogeneity of roles, and greater complexity and authenticity in assigned tasks. Other tasks …are often reinforced by technology use. …”.

But technology-based learning environments can and should support advanced knowledge acquisition. And that can be done by providing environments and thinking tools that engage constructivist conceptions of learning (Kommers, Jonassen, & Mayes, 1992). Thinking tools are technology systems or applications that extend the intellectual functionality of the learner by engaging the learner to tasks that facilitate knowledge construction (e.g. semantic network software, expert systems, databases and microworlds). Even simpler Internet tools add critical and valuable dimensions to a PBL experience. The management issues, for a start, that a teacher can face as the classroom-learning manager of a networked project can be dealt with easier than the ones on an "old-fashioned, low-tech" project (in case that teachers cannot meet the students frequently). Another advantage is that the dissemination of the projects is open to bigger and different audiences. More specifically, students have the opportunity to peer, review and browse other similar projects, motivating them and supporting them in the accomplishment of their own project. Most important, the web can be used as a communications and collaboration medium to build ongoing dialogs between the project authors and their audience, especially their teachers. These “author-mentor” dialogs can be planned and organized to motivate students and establish increasingly high standards. A networked project typically involves students in distant locations cooperating to research, exchange information, and learn from one another, although the distant partners may include experts. Students may conduct research, perform experiments in their own community, and report their findings. They may pose questions to experts or exchange information with their peers. (J. van der Veen et al., 2001) focuses also on the important support that telematics (as they call them) can provide to group-based learning. All the above advantages of a networked project are not without cost. We shouldn’t forget the disadvantage of it’s distant nature compared to face-to-face communication. To remedy, teachers have to put special attention on details such as meeting deadlines (e.g., using reminders), regular animating the course, and finally, being ready to help and being flexible. Students on the other hand, in order to conclude their projects and enhance their learning, it is important to be able to share project results, to be able to reflect on their work, and stay in touch. In the directions of (W. J. Thomas, 2000b) for future research in PBL, we distinguished two needs, a new theory of learning and instruction that will provide principles for guiding authentic inquiry, knowledge construction and autonomous learning and models for designing efficient and productive projects. In conclusion, for PBL success we have to focus on the following points: careful management and orchestration of instruction, multiple scaffolds during students inquiries, careful and continuous monitoring. Technology can help, as it supports very well features that are important in PBL, like student-autonomy, group work, scaffolding on-demand, and many others.

2 Scenarization

Effectiveness is not guaranteed if the teacher simply asks students to do projects, to engage in writing activities, to learn together or at least to profit from each other's ideas. We assume that the risk is quite high to observe that students cannot start, get lost or are otherwise unproductive. We therefore suggest to create semi-structured pedagogical scenarios that define an orchestrated sequence of learning activities. Such a scenario is often called a « script » in the literature, and in particular, in the field of Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) that Dillenbourg, Schneider and Synteta (2002) define as a story or scenario that the students and tutors have to play just in the same way as actors play a movie script. Such pedagogical scripts can become very sophisticated : for each phase, the script specifies the tasks that students have to perform, the composition of the group, the way that the task is distributed within and among the groups, the mode of interaction and the timing of phase. Phases are ordered and connected, i.e. outputs of one phase become inputs of the next phase.

Pedagogical scripts are mostly sequential, at least from the student's perspective. However, it does not mean that these are merely instructions that the learners have to follow. Tasks can and should often be defined as mere goals, e.g. that at some point the teacher can ask students to hunt out and to formulate definitions of the objects they will have to study although the way they do it is left open. In other words, when designing and executing pedagogical scenarios the teacher has to respect a harmonious equilibrium between the freedom left to students that is necessary for intellectual development and motivation on one hand, and certain guiding principles on the other hand.

2.1 Scenarization of project components

Structured activity-based teaching involves sequencing scenarios and therefore breaking the « problem » into parts so that the students are challenged to master as many tasks as they are ready to handle. From a more abstract perspective, scenarios evolve in cycles, e.g. a typical teaching/learning phase has more or less the following elements (in whatever order) :

  1. Do
  2. Deposit
  3. Look
  4. Discuss

Resources, tools and products play an important role. Each time a student does something, there should be a product (even as small as a little message) that is deposited somewhere and that can be looked at and discussed. Below is an alternative but very similar loop showing that there are variants of the same principle: Things are looked at, things are produced and discussion happens. It is the principle of information seeking, production and interaction that counts.

  1. Look (discovery)
  2. Discuss (interaction)
  3. Do (production)
  4. Deposit (sharing)
  5. Feedback (discussion of results)

The teacher's manager role is to make sure that such loops are productive, e.g. that the students produce something, that it is task related, that they engage themselves in meta-reflection (look critically at their own work) and that they discuss and share with others. The teacher's facilitator role is to help students with their tasks, e.g. help them to select resources and tools, explain difficult concepts and procedures, "debug" when they are stuck etc. The teacher's orchestrator role is to implement (or most frequently also to create) the scenarios or scripts as they are also called. This means basically to define a scenario as a sequence of clearly identifiable phases in a way that learners focus on a smaller amount of tasks at the same time and that these tasks are not too difficult to be solved at some point.

Let's have a look at a simple example. Imagine that for a given purpose, students need references for a project. We can turn this into a pedagogical activity with a scenario that includes the following steps:

  1. The teacher introduces the theme, gives clues and asks students to consider the different aspects of the subject (Discuss).
  2. Students search the web with various search engines and bookmark the links they find interesting (Look, Deposit).
  3. Students then try to work out a certain amount of categories and sub-categories for this theme (Look, Do, Deposit).
  4. The results are put in common and a hierarchy is worked out (Look, Do, Discuss).
  5. The approved categories are entered in a common space (e.g. the classroom wall, a sheet of paper or an electronic links management system) (Deposit).
  6. Students classify, enter and describe their links (Do, Deposit).
  7. Teacher provides an evaluation (Discuss).

More such scenarios are suggested for example in the TECFA SEED Catalog in terms of scenarios (activities), its constituant elementary activities and supporting technology. As we said before, scenarios should not be "over-scripted", the student should in general be its own master of the tasks and tasks should have some flavor of authenticity. Along similar lines, the teacher should not directly interfere with student's products, but only give feedback and evaluation and let the student fix things himself. Defining a scenario therefore is a workflow design problem, but with the idea that pedagogical workflows are different from the ones in industry. In industry the goal is the product, in education the goal is apprenticeship, i.e. what the student has learnt from performing a set of activities

2.2 Global Story-boards

Global story boards are quite different according to level of education, field, total time, duration, etc.

Here is one possible blueprint of the scenario the students are confronted with:

  1. Familiarization with the project(s) content
  2. Familiarization with pedagogical goals (including content area(s), methodology-related know-how, higher-order skills, ...)
  3. Familiarization with (rough) timeline (i.e. deadlines for audits, sharing activities)
  4. Exploration/discussion of subjects and team-building
    • At the same time the working environment is introduced.
  5. Definition of individual (or group) projects including planning.
    • This usually requires at least 3 iterations
  6. Audits and sharing activities, for example:
    • students have to present literature reviews at the start and exchange links
    • constitution of a common dictionary
    • make comments to other projects
  7. Presentation of results
  8. Evaluation

Global problem-based learning models:

3 The role of Tools

As the above example shows, most activity-based, constructive and collaborative pedagogies do not necessarily need any special tools, but work can be made more efficient (after some adaptation period) and certainly more powerful by adopting some support technology. Walls in a classroom run out of space, paper is lost and collaboration within the classroom is under heavy time constraints and "home work" lacks the sort of support that classroom activities have. Content needs to managed, knowledge exchange must be organized, discussion tools must favor exchange of arguments, projects must run, and generated knowledge must be managed.

What kinds of productions could typically happen in such a workflow approach?

  1. Gathering and distribution of information : teachers and learners share resources and the activities are designed to help them gather information and make it available to all.
  2. Creation of collaborative documents : here the students can write definitions, analyze cases, solve problems, write documents and create illustrated documents together around specific themes.
  3. Discussion and comments about the productions : learners identify together facts, principles and concepts and clarify complex ideas. They formulate hypotheses and plan solutions, make links between ideas, compare different points of view, argue, evaluate... ?
  4. Project management related activities : learners can decide work plans, share tasks and form groups, decide a schedule and so forth. Teachers can distribute and regulate tasks.

Internet technology supports most open-ended, creative and active pedagogies, as long as students can also be producers (not just readers and exercise button pushers). While there is an interesting number of enabling software and while activity-based (e.g. project or problem-based) scenarios are quite popular (Reigeluth, 1999 ; Wilson and Lowry 2001), they are not supported by the same number of technologies as the scenarios inspired by more traditional instructional design are. Exceptions like the Knowledge Forum System are rare. Besides commonly used tools like HTML pages and forums, there exist quite a number of interesting tools like participatory content management systems (e.g. Weblogs), and collaborative hypertexts in various forms (e.g. Wikis). However, we like to push one step further, i.e. provide teachers with a fairly integrated configurable platform of tools. Technical requirements for active and rich pedagogies are not extremely demanding, but interesting results could already be obtained by providing the following sort of functionalities :

  1. Access to rich information sources (not just stream-lined e-learning blocks) by various means, e.g. browsing, searching by categories or popularity, searching by keywords.
  2. Affordable interaction with various types of information contents (including annotation).
  3. Rich interactions between actors, that are facilitated by awareness mechanisms (who did what, what is new, etc.)
  4. Simple integration of these activities through a « place ».

Activity-based pedagogies assign a better diverse role to documents used. Learners generally select by themselves the documents they need from a larger choice (which includes the whole Internet). More importantly, they actively participate in the production of documents, some of which can be reused later on. Ideally, they also should be allowed to annotate documents, i.e. enrich them by their own experience. Writing in this perspective concerns producing short texts in various genres (questions, arguments, links, definitions, etc.). These learner productions plus interactions are meant to provoke various meta-cognitive mechanisms beneficial to learning e.g. conceptual change and deeper understanding (Klein 1999). In general terms, activity-based teaching needs mainly a computer as a facilitating structure, a thinking, working and communication tool instead of a content transmission device. Accordingly, most student and teacher activities should be supported by computational tools and lead to new « contents ». Within this perspective we can see that activities and roles are defined in a collaborative expressive digital media framework.

Other tools:

  • NoteStar Assist students with collecting group notes and citations for papers.
  • PBL CheckList
  • Think Tank is designed to help students (grades 3-8) develop a Research Organizer (a list of topics and subtopics) for reports and projects
  • Project Foundry A project-based learning management tool for students and teachers

4 The general study environment

The community factor is particularly important in open and distance learning situations. As formulated by e-learning practitioner Gilroy (2001) « E-learning should be first and foremost about creating a social space that must be managed for the teaching and learning needs of the particular group of people inhabiting that space ». While a large part of our knowledge comes indeed from formally planned learning scenarios, people learn a lot from informal exchange with fellow learners, with professors, experts, i.e. from exchange within tightly or loosely defined communities (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

It is very important that teaching should generate enthusiasm, enhance concentration and favor creativity, which are very distinct, but somehow interconnected phenomena. Rieber Smith and Noah (1998) convincingly argue that learning process itself -and not just the result- should be interesting, if one seeks higher motivation among learners. « Serious play » or « hard fun » are intense learning situations where learners are investing a lot of « energy » and time, that provide equally intensive pleasure at certain moments which have been identified as «  flow » or « optimal experience » by Csikszentmihalyi

According to Feldman, Csikszentmihalyi and Gardner (1994), creativity should be studied and therefore facilitated by the teacher at three different levels : (1) the social field, e.g. a network of people who provide cognitive and affective support, instruction, evaluation, recognition, etc. ; (2) the domain (symbol systems of knowledge) ; and (3) the individual, i.e. intellectual traits, personal traits and cognitive structures. It is clear that education cannot influence all variables, but pedagogical design certainly can have a positive influence on individual dispositions that already exist. It can act upon conditions, i.e. on educational tasks and the general learning environment like the « class spirit » with the help of specially designed technology that we will introduce later on. By exposing students to open-ended, challenging, authentic and partly self-defined projects on one hand and by providing scaffolding and support on the other hand, the teacher does create situations where individual traits can be exposed and developed.

By taking into accout input from community of practice, flow theory, creativity theory etc. we can define a few desiderata for the design of portals as holistic learning environments:

First, the portal should be a rich information space for « domain support » and it should encourage students to add their own contribution. Such a space also encourages exploration. The typical tools used are links managers, Wikis, news engines and RSS feed that keep users up-to-date about articles posted to other interesting portals or individual Weblogs. Intellectual support is provided via forums, annotations and articles. Student productions are always accessible to all (including visitors) and therefore provide for recognition. In our experience, it has been shown that students are more likely to contribute to an environment if they own an identity. In the student's partly automatically generated home page on the portal one can see their contributions, read public parts of their personal Weblog and conversely each production in the portal is signed with a clickable link to the author. In addition, we developed a tool that allows to list and display in detail all student productions throughout the various tools. A successful teaching by projects pedagogy needs to provide strong emotional support and it is therefore important to encourage spontaneous, playful interaction and corners for humor that will augment quality of on-line life and contribute to class spirit. Tools like the shoutbox or a little quotation box can do wonders. Last, but not least, a personal Weblog (diary) can stimulate meta-reflection, in particular if the teacher requires that students write an entry after the completion of each activity.

Our observations lead us to conclude that pedagogical portals should also be designed in the spirit of true virtual environments that have drawn a lot of attention in the last decade. A pedagogical virtual environment (VE) consists in a constructed virtual information space built with the appropriate tools as outlined above. A virtual environment (VE) is also a social space, where pedagogical interactions take place.

5 Example cases of project-based learning

6 References

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  • Knoll, Michael (1991b). Lernen durch praktisches problemlösen: Die projektmethode in den U.S.A., 1860-1915. Zeitschrift für internationale erziehungsund sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung, 8, 103-127.
  • Knoll, Michael (1991c). Niemand weiß heute, was ein projekt ist: Die Projektmethode in den vereinigten staaten, 1910-1920. Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Pädagogik, 67, 45-63.
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  • Schneider, Daniel with Paraskevi Synteta, Catherine Frété, Fabien Girardin, Stéphane Morand (2003) Conception and implementation of rich pedagogical scenarios through collaborative portal sites: clear focus and fuzzy edges. ICOOL International Conference on Open and Online Learning, December 7-13, 2003, University of Mauritius. PDF.
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  • Synteta, P. (2001). EVA_pm: Design and Development of a Scaffolding Environment For Students Projects. Unpublished Master thesis, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland. PDF
  • Synteta, P.(2002). Project-Based e-Learning: The model and the mehod, the practice and the portal. Unpublished PhD proposal (Accepted oct, 2002), University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Synteta, P. (2003). Project-Based e-Learning in higher education: The model and the method, the practice and the portal. Studies in Communication, New Media in Education. pp. 263-269.
  • van Merriënboer, J.G. and F. Pass (2003). « Powerful learning and the many faces of instructional design : Toward a framework for the design of powerful learning environments », in E. De Corte, L. Verschaffel, N. Entwistle and J.G. van Merriënboer (Eds), Powerful Learning Environments : Unraveling Basic Components and Dimensions, Amsterdam, Pergamon, p. 3-20.
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7 Notes

This is more or less copy/paste text from Schneider & Synteta (2005 and our TecfaSeed Catalog. A better version will be written once we are done with describing other project-oriented / activity-based designs. DSchneider 12:45, 13 May 2006 (MEST)