Project-Based Learning | Feature

Tech Tools That Inspire PBL in High School

Whether you call it project- or problem-based learning, these technologies will help your students get authentic experience in a blended environment — and help your teachers to track their progress.

"When will I ever use this?" This cringeworthy comment slipping from a teenager's lips can swipe away the sense of accomplishment felt by a teacher who has spent a week crafting a lesson that she thought would have staying power. If you cringe too, it may be time to lock onto the practice of PBL, which is variously referred to as project-, problem- or inquiry-based learning. Where blended learning gives students some flexibility as to where and when they do their work, PBL offers them a choice of what they do. And when students pick the activities they're going to work on (within parameters established by the teacher, of course), how many of them will openly criticize their own choices? In PBL classrooms, students aren't learning simply to pass a test; job one is applying creativity and taking ownership of their own education. As a rework of the old saying goes, teach a student to add, and he'll get through a quiz for the day; show him how to calculate profit and loss, and he'll be pitching his next new idea for a lifetime. Here are 10 technologies to help you implement PBL in your classroom.

Web-Based Career Readiness System
"Here in Navasota we want our students to be 'life ready,'" said Navasota Independent School District (TX) Superintendent Rory Gesch. That means preparing students for careers to which they are well-suited. Navasota received its first real dose of PBL magic in 2012 when an AP statistics teacher, Josh Wilkerson, set his students to work on a project that hit close to home. In the summer of 2012, Grimes County, where Navasota is located, suffered through devastating wildfires that destroyed 32 homes. The stats class undertook a student-led comparison of the use of volunteer versus service fire personnel to understand where the community felt the biggest impact. Working alongside experts brought in from Texas A&M University, students interviewed fire victims, workers and community service people to put together a presentation that they shared with the school board as well as the city council.

Along with regional planning among superintendents and the opening of a school specifically for at-risk students in the district, that project sparked another kind of fire: a desire among Navasota administrators and teachers to move into PBL. Spurred by the desire to redefine its career and college readiness focus to meet the needs of the community and align those needs with Texas standards, the district purchased the Web-based WIN Learning Personalized Career Readiness System.

Navasoto ISD Statistics Teacher Josh Wilkerson and his students share their engagement in a project that analyzed response to local wildfires.

That set of applications includes WIN Strategic Compass, which allows students to explore potential career paths, identify interests and put together a career plan based on employment trends for the next five to 10 years. An initial review measures a student's "career readiness" and identifies gaps in skills such as reading for information and applied math. The goal is to help the student see the relevance of his or her own education. The software also has lessons for soft skills such as communication, teamwork and critical thinking.

Mobile Devices
Does putting computing devices into a list like this seem obvious? According to Ronnie Gonzalez, chief administrative officer and director of technology and communications at Navasota, choosing a mobile device isn't about the tool. It's more about enabling "kids to create and have access to information." His district is attempting to implement a plan by which each classroom has multiple types of devices so students can choose the right one for the job.

The core classrooms where PBL is in full swing are outfitted with a three-students-per-device ratio. Students can choose from six to eight Chromebooks and two to three iPads, and they have access to mobile carts. To fill out the inventory of devices, several schools within the district also have bring-your-own-device programs, and PBL classrooms are put at the head of the line for upgrades to ample wireless connectivity. Navasota, which has a 74 percent free and reduced lunch population, found that more than 80 percent of its families have access to Internet at home. To promote hybrid and flipped activities, the school has a computer-lending program that allows students to check out devices.

To help with the proliferation of technology, the schools hired tech teachers to work alongside the classroom teachers. And to prepare middle schoolers for the amplification of device-oriented PBL, the district has added what Gesch called a "fifth core" to the curriculum for grades 6, 7 and 8. Alongside English, math, social studies and science is the subject of technology.

At Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, history teacher Matt Baird called his high school's 1-to-1 program "radically democratic." Information "doesn't necessarily flow from the teacher to the student and then back to the teacher in the form of a test. Information is something that can be gathered, used and utilized by students in the way it is in the real world," he explained, adding, "It's not an awful lot of people who take standardized tests for a living. We don't really want school to be a proxy for real life. We want school to look like real life as much as possible."

Collaboration and Course Management Tools
The Science Leadership Academy has adopted Google Apps for Education to enable its students to collaborate on papers and presentations. For course management the school has chosen Canvas by Instructure, where teachers can put up assignments and students can access them. Baird has used the online service's asynchronous discussion forum and he's testing out the wiki feature; but since this is the first year it has been in use, "we are still exploring its capabilities," he noted. Also, now the school is trying out SLATE, from a start-up also based in Philadelphia that promises to integrate applications already in use, such as Canvas and Google Apps and plenty of others through single-sign-on as well as APIs and dashboards that enable the sharing and reporting of data across programs.

All of these online services ultimately are intended to facilitate communications among teachers and students and among teachers themselves to track student progress. Taking a lead from the math department at the Academy, the history department is creating scaffolded standards that it wants its students to be good at — the use of primary sources, the ability to present information clearly or to make a connection between a historical event and something in their current lives. Then each quarter, the students undertake projects that call on those standards. The systems in place form a feedback loop to help the teachers monitor progress and expose gaps where they need to pay additional attention in the classroom.

Feedback on the Run
What's a behavioral management application like ClassDojo doing on a list of useful tools for PBL? As Alfred Solis, director of innovation for the Buck Institute for Education, explained, teachers are using the Web-based program to give students points or stars for certain behaviors. "What if those behaviors happen to be aligned with good collaboration, critical thinking or communication — and those are being assessed live by the teacher as they're being observed while [the students] are working in teams? That could be a great project tool to give that student or that team instant feedback from the teacher."

Extra Credit
Develop a Technology Mindset

When Alfred Solis, director of innovation for the Buck Institute for Education, speaks to teachers about PBL, he encourages them to develop a mindset for how to look at technology. That means applying the following "filters," as he calls them:

  • Is the software accessible? Whereas in the past, this may have referred to getting access to software outside the firewall, the current equivalent is mobility. What features in the software show up in the mobile version and can those be "designed around"?
  • Is it worth investing time in? Early adopters try out new things all the time. Startups need people to validate their products. So ask yourself, "Is this a product I want to spend time helping to shape?"
  • Is it intuitive? If a program isn't easy enough to pick up and use without much training, it may bog down students when they need to be focused on content, Solis noted.
  • Is it affordable? That used to mean "free," said Solis. His thinking has shifted on that. Now it means, is the company producing something that you think is worthwhile enough to invest in monetarily?
  • Does it scale? PBL and blended learning aren't just about use in the classroom, Solis pointed out. So does the program under consideration have tools for analytics and management, "in order to make sure that it's easy to administer when it comes to multiple users and potentially giving parents access to it"?

Grading 'Essential Questions'
Tenth-graders studying world history at Benton High School (MO) under Robert Nash may create iBooks on their school-issued MacBooks to synthesize the American and French revolutions and life under dictators into a format appropriate to a children's story. They may create documentaries to explore how technology affects relationships among people. These are not forms of learning that fit well into a standard gradebook application. When the district social studies department, led by Nash, moved to PBL for grades 7 through 12, he had to jerry-rig a previous application better suited to multiple choice tests.

Acuity, adopted about two years ago from CTB/McGraw-Hill, was the first program Nash had come across that was suited to capturing achievements in the open-ended types of activities that students undertook as they moved through PBL units. Now Acuity has been updated to work with performance-based tasks, comparable to the ones showing up on the Common Core online assessments. "It's been a long journey," Nash said, but Acuity is "going to lend itself to what we want to do." The benchmarks developed by the district ask the student to respond to "essential questions," which Nash says cover "real-world situations, issues, questions that the normal person should have some knowledge of, some experience with, and be able to solve in their daily lives." To answer these questions, the student needs to apply real-world skills and knowledge gained through PBL. The goal, said Nash, is to transform the district's assessment tasks to look more like the ones being introduced by Smarter Balanced.

The Acuity platform actually includes close to 500 performance tasks across all grades, as well as item tasks that number in the thousands and can be compiled into formative assessments; but the district may end up weaving together teacher-developed tasks with ones provided by the software. That work will begin first at the middle school level and move up to the high schools after changes in end-of-course and advanced placement exams are subsumed into the social studies program.

Virtual Labs and Probeware
It makes sense for the chemistry students in Cara Hale-Hanes' classes at Long Beach Polytechnic High School to study water. As residents of a beachside city in Southern California, they have the ocean as a neighbor; and they're currently living in a drought situation. She runs a three-week blended project, "Water, water everywhere and not a drop to spare," to help students put into action the theories they've been studying in previous weeks. Rather than sticking to a chemistry book, Hale-Hanes uses virtual labs and scientific equipment to help the students go deeper in their understanding of the concepts.

As a precursor, students use a virtual lab developed for Carnegie Mellon University's ChemCollective to perform experiments that help them learn how to identify acids and bases and also detect and figure out how to remove substances that dissolve in water and become contaminants. Then they work through a virtual lab, "Our Acidifying Ocean," put together by Stanford University, to explore the chemistry of ocean acidification and its impacts on sea creatures using interactive models, a virtual lab bench and a microscope measurement tool.

Although device and bandwidth equity issues prevent Hale-Hanes from completely flipping her classroom, she blends online activities done before and after school with in-class discussions as much as possible to fill gaps created by student absences or other needs.

The unit culminates in students designing a water system for a community that has almost no water. Hale-Hanes said that she poses students this problem: "How are they going to get the water that's dirty to be potable so they can supply water for this population?" That requires testing the local water for the given community and then sharing the results with the larger scientific community.

To work on this unit, students use scientific equipment from Vernier, such as pH sensors and LabQuest, an interface that can be stand-alone or can display data generated by the sensors on a computer. Students also uses test kits provided by the World Water Monitoring Challenge project to conduct testing of their buffers for pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature and turbidity.

But technology doesn't replace a nimble teacher. Recently, bemoaned Hale-Hanes, the district had no Internet access for a day, putting the kibosh on using virtual labs. "I knew enough about where I wanted to go in my project that I could quickly come up with an alternative plan," she said. The following week, her PowerPoint presentation of the results of pKa testing didn't work. And even more recently, her students broke probes. She had to regroup teams of students who wouldn't normally work together to get through the rest of the labs for that day with the few remaining probes. "You have to be very adept," she said. "You really have to be on top of your planning and your game."

Still, she insisted, the benefits outweigh the hardships. "If you asked me, will my students from two years ago remember the project, I don't know the answer to that. But I can tell you that when students have gotten inspired, it has usually been something that has been more in-depth like this. It's not usually a unit that we took a test on. It inspires students to pursue science, because they see how it's relevant. They see how it ties to the world — and how it ties to their world."

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Extra Credit
10 Blended Learning Resources for High Schools

Blended Schools Network offers "packages" of online classes to deliver to students as whole classes, supplemental instruction or mix and match. The lessons can be run through Canvas by Instructure or Blackboard, and teachers gain access to professional development via face-to-face, blended or online formats.

Who can argue with "Completely free, forever"? Khan Academy has more than just the videos; "coaching" resources include planners, student progress tracking, mechanisms for personalizing lessons and ample reporting.

Amplify and Education Elements can (metaphorically) move into your school and help with the hard parts of implementing blended learning for PBL: professional development, designing personalized curriculum, identifying vital learning resources and handling management and reporting., Storify and all provide ways for teachers and students to gather and curate content into meaningful compilations that can be shared with others.

YouTube Education, Vimeo Education and TED-Ed are go-to sites for informative lesson videos, inspiration and repositories for publishing what you and your students are creating in class.