Learner-Centered Instruction Promotes Student Success


Northface University Prepares Its Computer Science Students for the Workplace With Real-World Projects

As work moved from farms to factories in the Industrial Age of the early 1900s, there were significant changes made throughout all aspects of society, even in education. The one-room schoolhouse was replaced over time with an assembly-line model where students moved from teacher to teacher and room to room (Reigeluth and Garfinkle 1994). Efficiency was king. Now, many educational scholars and economists argue that, once more, our society has undergone massive changes, shifting from an Industrial Age to an Information Age (Reich 1991; Reigeluth and Garfinkle 1994). Survival in today’s economy requires workers who have strong critical-thinking, interpersonal and foundational skills (SCANS 1991). Our educational system is continuing to search for ways to effectively respond to the changing needs of today’s global economy. Increasingly, project-based learning is used as an instructional approach to prepare students to succeed in today’s dynamic workplaces.

Project-Based Learning Overview

In project-based learning, instruction and learning both occur within the context of a challenging project. Just as workers would encounter complicated tasks in the workplace, in a project-based learning environment, student teams are presented with complex problems that focus and act as catalysts for what they need to learn (Thomas 2000). The project, which could entail multiple problems, stimulates the learning process and gives it context. Typically, projects extend over time to act as interactive vehicles to help students acquire new, necessary knowledge and skill sets (Thomas 2000). Rather than working on a small project for a week, projects build upon each other and can carry over from semester to semester as they facilitate the learning process.

Few industries are as demanding and dynamic as information technology (IT). Yet traditional U.S. computer science programs often fail to produce the quality and quantity of IT professionals necessary for the marketplace (Datz 2004; National Science Foundation 2003). A survey of the curricular and instructional approaches of several top U.S. computer science programs found that most curricula were outdated and taught in a decontextualized lecture-lab fashion. Communications with IT employers found that it takes anywhere from six to 18 months to train new computer science graduates to work productively on development teams, regardless of where they graduated. CTOs and CIOs are in dire need of employees who can communicate well, think critically and collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds (U.S. Commerce Department 2003). Employers recognize that these soft or “value” skills are just as important as technical skills in the IT industry (Datz 2004).

In 2001, Northface University (NU) was established to address the skills gap that existed between computer science education and industry needs. Its market-driven curriculum, coupled with a project-based learning environment, prepares students to enter the IT workplace as productive software developers from the first day of employment. NU enrolled its first cohort of students in early 2004, and by the middle of this month will have close to 200 full-time, on-site students working toward graduation with a bachelor’s in computer science (BSCS).

NU, partnering with IBM, Microsoft and several large employers of IT professionals, offers an accelerated program (a BSCS degree in 28 months) with students in the classroom from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., five days a week. However, students do not just shuffle from classroom to classroom listening to lecture after lecture. Instead, students learn and are assessed in complex project environments with an innovative instructional approach that allows them to develop both strong technical skills, as well as the critical value skills related to effective interpersonal and collaborative communication.

The Northface Instructional Approach

NU provides a unique educational program designed to better prepare students to make real contributions in entry-level positions. This makes how we teach our students as important as what we teach our students. The instructional approach used at NU is fundamental to the success of the program and its students. The approach is a powerful combination of instructional design theories, learning theories and core instructional values. Some of the distinctive elements of our instructional approach include a focus on:

  • Project-based learning - Learning is organized around projects that provide a real-world context and framework for learning. While other programs may use some small projects within a course, NU has built its curriculum around robust, challenging projects that extend across quarters, synthesizing learning from multiple domains.

  • Experiential learning - Experiential learning is the process where learners actively engage in creating their own knowledge; experience is the teacher. Students learn by doing - rather than by listening - in a hands-on, meaningful and highly applied environment.

  • Collaboration - Because collaborative, interpersonal and communication skills are highly valued in today’s workplace, NU’s instructional approach immerses students in a series of increasingly difficult projects while working in teams.

  • Competency-based learning - Well-defined competencies are critical because they determine what will be taught and how it will be assessed, they communicate what knowledge and skills learners must attend to, and they indicate to potential employers the concrete skills that the graduates possess.

  • Integration - Content, projects and courses are tightly woven together. What students learn in class feeds into what they are doing on their projects, increasing relevance.

  • Learner-centered environment - In contrast to a traditional education, which tends to be very teacher-centric with instruction designed around faculty interests and teaching styles, in a learner-centered environment, student needs and learning styles drive the educational process.

  • Communities of learning - NU’s instructional approach encompasses multiple learning communities. Students not only interface with their peers, but also with instructors, mentors and business communities through various projects.

  • Cognitive apprenticeship - Experienced faculty and mentors coach students throughout the program. In such an apprentice-style environment, students not only learn to work, but, more importantly, also think like professionals.

Use of Real-World Projects

One of the defining features of the NU instructional approach is the use of real-world software development projects. These include “local projects” where students work on developing applications related to our digital learning environment or on developing tools such as those for information modeling. Students then advance to work on “community projects” for nonprofit or charitable entities, building much-needed applications to support their work. Lastly, students engage in “enterprise projects” with Global 1,000 companies such as IBM and Microsoft. Each of these types of projects allows students to develop their skill sets as they work on different projects and take on various project roles.

The project complexity is naturally scaffolded, transitioning from being more instructor-structured in local projects to being less structured in later enterprise projects. For example, the client for a local project may be the instructor who has very specific requirements that are carefully designed for students to demonstrate specific competencies. Within this structured, mentored learning environment, students collaborate in small teams to solve complex projects using many of the professional conventions and standards (e.g., the consultant bid process, requirements sign-off, status updates, project management timelines, software development roles, etc.) used in the real world.

As students gain the necessary technology and value skills to succeed on simple software development projects, the authenticity and complexity of the projects increases. Students participating on enterprise projects will have real clients with real needs that may not be clearly defined. Again, students collaborate under the guidance of IT professionals, using the industry conventions they had been exposed to on previous projects. By integrating the teaching of conceptual knowledge with the application of learning and the skills within real-world projects, students understand how topics and skills interrelate as well as how they unfold in a real-world setting.

Aaron Reed, a faculty member at NU, contends that project-based learning “bridges the gap between academic philosophies and real-world application [by giving students practical experience that] allows students to graduate with a much wider skill set, and enter the business world extremely well prepared in comparison to computer science students who are taught in a traditional academic environment.”

Key to NU’s project-based learning setting is our digital learning environment and applied technologies, or Data Integration and Social History (DISH) environment. The DISH environment is designed to form the foundation of the NU learning environment, and provides students with a comprehensive project work space in which to learn the software development life cycle for Microsoft, IBM and open-source foundational technologies. DISH is designed to support both Microsoft (.NET) and IBM (OSS, Java) foundations, as well as exemplify each technology in a series of real-world project examples.

Outcomes of Project-Based Learning

As well as being utilized successfully at NU, project-based learning has been used for years as an educational approach in fields such as medicine, business and engineering, and the outcomes and benefits are well-documented in professional and research publications (Ablanese and Mitchell 1993). For instance, research from Thomas (2000) shows that project-based learning provides:

  • Higher congruency with workplace needs;

  • A more sophisticated skill set and knowledge of subject matter;

  • Enhanced problem-solving and critical-thinking skills;

  • Better-developed collaborative and leadership skills;

  • Greater student interest, motivation and empowerment; and

  • A higher faculty satisfaction.

Because students have an opportunity to get into the trenches and confront the complex, messy aspects of real-world projects, students who learn in this type of setting have a more sophisticated understanding of the subject matter, as well as better technical and collaborative skills. As students face numerous ill-structured problems that they have to work through, their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills are significantly better than students who have learned in a traditional setting. One NU student reported: “I learned a lot about how to adapt to changing and uncertain circumstances.” This is important because employers want and need workers who can adapt and produce within an evolving workplace.

In addition, students in a project-based learning environment have more advanced collaborative and leadership skills than students taught in a lecture setting. Sam Puich, a NU faculty member who has taught for more than 13 years in a project-based learning environment, says that students who learn with projects gain better “problem-solving, group-dynamics and presentation skills.” He feels that students walk away from the experience with more confidence and assertiveness, as well as the ability to give and take constructive criticism. Students engaging in project-based learning also show more interest in the subject matter, are more motivated to learn, and feel more empowered - all because they are driving their own learning and see its immediate relevance to the real world.

Faculty also find these types of learning environments to be more interesting and rewarding to work in. Puich enjoys teaching in a project-based learning environment because students are “more in control of their learning. Students can set their own learning goals, proceed at their own pace, and learn from each other. Exceptional students don’t have to wait to learn. Students can push themselves to learn more and research topics and solve problems with the instructor as a facilitator instead of a presenter. I enjoy teaching a project-based learning class because I am not at the center, the learning is. It is also rewarding to see the students excited and having fun learning.”

In conclusion, as the Information Age continues to require knowledge workers who are capable of adapting to an ever-changing workplace, our educational system needs to prepare students to succeed in such an environment. Project-based learning is one answer of preparing students to succeed in the real world. It is an effective instructional approach that can equip graduates with the necessary value and technical skills to contribute to the workplace from day one. Graduates who have experience with project-based learning will not only survive at their first job - they will thrive.

At a Glance: Northface University

  • Northface University’s 50,000-square-foot state-of-the-art campus is located in South Jordan, Utah.

  • Northface University is accredited by the American Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).

  • The hallmark of a Northface University Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree is a project-based curriculum. No other college or university offers students 70% project-based learning.

  • The university accepted 250 students in its bachelor’s program in 2004 and will expand to more than 600 students by the end of 2005.

  • Northface University employer partners include IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Unisys, Beneficial Life and others.

  • Northface students complete 3,920 instructional and project hours. The 28-month program consists of 10 quarters of 10 weeks each. Students are in class 47 weeks each year.

Visit Northface University on the Web at http://www.northface.edu

To see a FAQ on the university click here.

To download the university’s catalog click here.


Albanese, M., and S. Mitchell. 1993. "Problem-Based Learning: A review of literature on its outcomes and implementation issues." Academic Medicine 68 (1): 52-81.

Datz, T. 2004. "Degrees of Change." CIO Magazine 15 October. Online: www.cio.com/archive/101504/school.html.

National Science Foundation. 2003. "The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential" Report. 14 August. Arlington, VA.: NSF. Online: www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2003/nsb0369/nsb0369.pdf .

Reich, R. 1991. Work of Nations York: Knopf.

Reigeluth, C., and R. Garfinkle, eds. 1994. Systemic Change in Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). 1991. "What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000." June. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Labor Department. Online: http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS/whatwork/whatwork.pdf.

Thomas, J. 2000. "A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning." March. San Rafael, CA: Autodesk Foundation. Online: http://web.archive.org/web/20040215185550/http://www.k12reform.org/foundation/pbl/research/paper.pdf.

U.S. Commerce Department. 2003. "Education and Training for the Information Technology Workforce." Report to Congress from the Secretary of Commerce. June. Washington, D.C.: Commerce Department. Online: http://www.technology.gov/reports/ITWorkForce/ITWF2003.pdf.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.