3 Hallmarks of Digital Project Based Learning

(Written by Donna Savarese and Melissa King, BIE)

blog_hallmarks_2What happens when a group of middle school students is asked this simple question: Which location has the most bacteria? They learn, among other things, how much bacteria their own hands contain! That was the recent experience of a group of 7th graders in a K12 online class after testing bacteria from places like doorknobs and refrigerator handles.

Our company, K12, has learned some effective ways to implement Project Based Learning (PBL) in an online learning environment. K12 works with students in online and virtual settings and incorporates authentic experiences as much as possible. Learning is sparked thanks to real-world content and scenarios. For example, an inquiry-based question such as “How do we prevent Lyme disease?” can become a multi-disciplinary investigation that includes the following: data collection and statistical analysis (math); ecosystems, life cycles, and disease transmission (science); community health services, public perception, and regional history (social studies); and mass media reporting, communication tools, and research-based writing.

In an online setting, PBL can be high quality. The project might happen this way: The online teacher introduces the topic. Students take the topic to a new level, as learning in the home environment allows students to engage in hands-on experimentation. Given a kit with supplies available 24-7, online students can immerse themselves in projects and aren’t limited to a finite school day to conduct projects and investigations. Of course, doing a project is not only about doing a hands-on activity. Projects in an online setting can include a challenging question, student voice and choice about types of projects or areas of investigation and public presentations of their learning. To bring PBL to students via online learning, we suggest some best practices that can help support PBL in the digital era.


Three Hallmarks of Effective Digital PBL

  1. Extended Study. Digital engagement offers opportunities for extended inquiry, a key feature of Gold Standard PBL. Recently, K12 sixth graders, intrigued by the rock cycle in a K12 earth science class, were inspired when their teacher shared beautiful photos of rocks and minerals, leveraging a webcam to display examples from her own rock collection. Students investigated the geology of their own communities and shared the results of their inquiry with one another in the online classroom. Some students took this a step further by taking trips to mining and science museums focused on geology.
  2. Project Management Skills. Online courses delivered in the digital space, with a 1:1 computer/student ratio, also build essential skills that facilitate problem-solving in real-time. Students become adept users of current technology, such as mapping software, office productivity tools, web-based resources, and “sandboxes” with open-ended simulation environments. In the online environment, educators are skilled facilitators, guiding students to work autonomously. These project management skills are highly valued in the workplace, where people often work on teams and in projects.
  3. Peer Collaboration. Online students are the primary drivers of self-directed inquiry, while online teachers encourage and help facilitate participatory activities with peers, such as interactive whiteboards (synchronous) and online discussion boards (asynchronous). Consider a project based on this query: How can we ensure that people stay warm when their source of heat is insufficient? In discussion forums, students create and respond to posts and share relevant materials in a variety of ways: via Webcam or YouTube videos, Flickr, video and audio recordings, slide presentations, images, and links to other web pages.

As peers from diverse locations connect, they further broaden their perspectives, define the problem, and expand their awareness of regional issues. An increased respect for shared community values develops that transcends students’ own sense of time and place. Analyzing findings, peers confer and exchange ideas synchronously and asynchronously, challenging each other to support their reasoning and interpretations. This reinforces the importance of scientific accuracy and mutual respect, as students pursue reasonable solutions to the problem at hand.

This systematic approach, characterized by three hallmarks of digital PBL, combine a solid content foundation and rich digital experience, creating an effective path for 21st century PBL. We are continuing to work on determining optimal ways to meet the challenges of PBL in an online context. We are eager to inspire a conversation and lead work to ensure that high quality Project Based Learning can happen in online and virtual school environments to reach all students.

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