Is Technology an Essential Component of Project Based Learning?

This past week, I led the first of a number of workshops that I will be facilitating on using the iPad to promote Project Based Learning. You can view the Haiku Deck that I created for this presentation together with some supporting links on the Frisch Tech Boot Camp Blog or by scrolling to the end of this post.

First there is a question that I have been struggling with.

Is technology an essential component of project based learning?

On the one hand, many definitions of project based learning focus on "21st century skills" (I hate that term) which inevitably leads to technology. For example, see the following from the Buck Institute for Education.
In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking).
I understand how colloboration and communication can be enhanced by technologies like Google docs, blogs, and wikis but are these really 21st century skills? Critical thinking is certainly quite important when trying the evaluate the ever growing flood of information available online but was critical thinking not equally important before the advent of the Internet?

I think back to Nehama Leibowitz, one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century, and her five common practices as listed in Yael Unterman's wonderful biography of her:
    1. Thou shalt not lecture.
    2. Thou shalt not allow students to write while the teacher is speaking.
    3. Thou shalt not ask factual and rhetorical questions.
    4. Thou shalt not limit the types of activities and questions used.
    5. Thou shalt not give introductions.
Many of these rules certainly could be applied to Project Based Learning as they are designed to promote Socratic debate and critical thinking.

Going back even earlier in time, the hallmark of Jewish learning has always been personified by the Beit Midrash where pairs of students work through Jewish texts together usually accompanied by loud discussions and arguments. Think of the din one hears when entering the Apple Store only focused on Hebrew and Aramaic texts instead of Macs and iPads and you get the idea. You can listen to an excellent podcast from the BBC describing this, The Story of the Talmud. Certainly this time-honored, distinctively Jewish method of learning is personified by communication and colloboration between learning pairs designed to foster critical thinking.

It is clear that Project Based Learning and the skills it seeks to foster are not specifically "21st century skills". So what has changed in PBL with the advent of technology?

I believe that technology has enabled three significant enhancements in Project Based Learning.

1. Availability of Information

The hallmark of a good PBL assignment is the resources that the teacher collects to help the students in their self guided learning. With the Internet, there are just so many more resources available for students. Yes, books are still important and I conduct most of my projects in the library for that reason. I want my students to utilize digital and print resources. But there is just so much more online. And when there is nothing on the level of the student, say you want the student to study a Hebrew text which they cannot decipher on their own and which does not have a good translation, one can create Flipped Classroom videos for the students to watch when working through their assignment. This is often superior to a classroom lecture, since students can pause and replay as many times as needed, and it allows the teacher to create videos of different texts for different groups of students in order to differentiate the instruction without having to run around like a mad man to each group to explain the text.

2. Variety of Creative Tools

Usually my projects culminate with a product that the students have to create. This can be a poster, painting or diarama. But with technology one can add so many more options. They can record a podcast or edit a video. They can create a digital animation or make a high quality presentation. (I tend to frown on PowerPoints which are often uninspired, but like Prezis and Haiku Decks which focus more on the visuals.) They can even mash-up the two with both a physical and digital artifact. Let me explain with an example.

Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary and yesterday I took my six year old daughter to the store to help me pick out a card for my wife. (When she gets the one with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, she will understand why.) My daughter was fascinated by the many singing cards which combine the typical graphics and text of a greeting card with an embedded computer chip to play a song or sound. However, none of these cards were for anniversaries. So when we got home, my daughter took out paper, scissors, glue, and crayons to fashion an old fashioned card. I then showed her how to record her voice saying happy anniversary using Audiboo, an amazing iOs app. We then pasted the link from the recording into to generate a QR code. We printed this code and glued it to the card. Tomorrow morning, my wife will have a gorgeous hand made anniversary card which, when she scans it, will play my daughter's recording. Shhhh..... Don't tell her. It's supposed to be a surprise.

Any project could have this type of mash-up with a physical artifact and a QR code posted on it leading to a digital component as well. I plan to do this to make an interactive timeline this year in my room of the kings mentioned in the book of Jeremiah with QR codes linking to various digital artifacts collected and curated by my students. This is a Project Based Learning assignment combining low-tech and hi-tech which could not have been possible before a few years ago.

3. Public Audience

The final difference between PBL today and PBL prior to the 21st century is the size of the audience. When students create for an audience beyond the classroom walls it can lead to a more sophisticated project as they recognize that they are working not just for a grade but are contributing to a wider community. This was true even before the 21st century with such time honored traditions as the author's tea or science fair where students presented to their parents, other teachers, and friends. But how many people could this audience entail? It was still limited based on geography, publicity, and other mitigating factors. With the Internet, the audience for a project based learning assignment can be THE WORLD. One cannot discount how interaction between our students and other students, teachers, or outside experts throughout the world can transform the depth of their projects. Not only does it add to the relevance of the project, but it can create a feedback loop as people throughout the world comment on the project, requiring the students to respond which further deepens their knowledge and understanding about the subject matter. Here is an example of one such assignment by Aaron Ross where students from Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ presented their findings on kashrut to similarly aged students in a non-Jewish private school in Denver, Colorado who had just finished learning the history behind the Chanukah story and wanted to know more about Jewish laws.

So on the one hand, Project Based Learning is a time-honored tradition in Jewish education which has been around for centuries if not millennium. At the same time, with the advent of 21st century technology, the breadth of information available, the many creative tools, and the opportunity to present to a public audience has dramatically enhanced this methodology.

Give PBL a try in your classroom and share your experiences in the comments to this blog. Below is my Haiku Deck on various Project Based Learning tools for the iPad as well as some links that I have collected.

Useful Links