Teaching with Tech

Technology-Driven, Project-Based Learning: A Model for Implementation

We were recently involved in a study of usability and impact of a digital storytelling tool for middle schoolers that yielded a model for implementing technology-driven, project-based learning in the classroom.

Here is the set-up. This digital storytelling tool — called Meridian Stories — challenged teams of students to create short video and audio narratives around curricular topics. For example, one challenge involved modeling the YouTube format 'Crash Course'; a second asked student to create fully produced storyboards around central characters in the book they were reading (The Outsiders); and a third asked student to re-produce existing essays digitally using text, voice, music and a few select images in strategic ways to reflect their understanding of the text.

So, this is a project that requires:

  • Collaboration — the students had to work in teams of 3 or 4.
  • Communication — the student teams had to produce a video or a scored/voiced visual presentation.
  • Creativity — All of the challenges required the creation of a script and many required more: characters, costuming, location shooting, editing and scoring.
  • Critical Thinking — The students had to research content and then, working together, re-narrate that content in their own words using images and words in a prescribed style.

As part of our research, we observed nine classrooms in action. Qualitatively, we focused on elements such as the degree of student- versus teacher-led interactions, and the extent and quality of collaboration among students. We also looked at the level of student engagement, their on-task versus disruptive behavior, and the leadership versus other roles of students within given groups. The clarity of the goals for the classroom period and the degree of accomplishment and sense of progress were also elements we considered.

There was surprising consistency across the different classrooms in terms of how the teachers approached this technology-driven, project-based initiative, allowing us to articulate a model that could be used by others. (The inter-relationship between content — the curriculum — and process — skills to explore the curriculum — is a theme throughout this model.)

  • ARRIVAL: Students arrive and sit with their teams, often with the desks facing each other. Computers stay closed.
  • INTRO: During the first five to 10 minutes the teacher communicates three things:
    • Clear benchmarks for the overall project and the day, sign off points and dates to match. These can be written on the board for the whole duration of the project and/or articulated verbally.
    • A focus on a singular aspect of the content for that day.
    • A focus on a single aspect of the process for that day.
  • IMPLEMENTATION: The teams are let loose to work for the remainder of the period at their own pace. It can take five minutes (or more) to fire up the computers and settle in. The teacher wanders around the room — along with the ed techs, if they are available — going from team to team to guide and advise. Their guidance is around content first, and then process/skills. Formalizing this — one round to be sure that students are exploring the content effectively, and then a second round to check on their collaborative and digital creation and production process — appeared to yield the most productive results, as based on our observations.
  • CLOSING: There is a five-minute wrap-up to allow students to shut down and set goals for the next class.

Here are some examples of how the teachers we observed put this process into action:

  • In one case (the essay prompt), the teacher focused on delegation of tasks: which words were the most important (content) and how they might want to use color and music to bring more emphasis to the content (process). She presented this information as a series of choices for the students. It was a perfect way to start as it gave the students a few clear things to think about as they dug into their work together. And the choices — the decisions that they needed to make — remained all their own.
  • In another class — the Storyboard Prompt — the teacher handed out a checklist that mixed content prompts ('Are you demonstrating character perspective?') with process ('Is there voiceover, and is it used effectively?'). Guidelines and clarity of purpose are essential.
  • In another class, the teacher adapted the Meridian Stories Process into a checklist and printed that out and had the students use that to guide their working process.

Technology-driven, project-based learning experiences will always involve a combination of independent initiative and guidance on two fronts: the curriculum and the processes (creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking) involved to effectively explore that curriculum. This classroom management model empowers teams to work on their own while ensuring that teachers provide the support needed, yielding an educational experience that is rich in both curricular learning and 21st century skill building.

About the Authors

Brett Pierce has spent most of his professional life at Sesame Workshop, serving as a Co-Executive Producer on media projects about early childhood education, ESL, math, science and conflict-resolution for youth around the world, including projects in China, Macedonia, Indonesia, Poland and the UAE. With two Masters Degrees (English — Middlebury; Education — Columbia), Brett is the founder and Executive Director of Meridian Stories, a digital storytelling nonprofit for middle and high schoolers. Brett teaches an annual intensive course at Colby College called 'Developing Media for Social Change.'

Charlotte Cole, Executive Director of Blue Butterfly Collaborative, leads the non-profit's work assisting producers in low-income countries in developing high quality, localized educational media. Formerly, as SVP of Global Education at Sesame Workshop in NYC, she oversaw the education, research, and community engagement activities of the company's international co-productions of Sesame Street in over thirty countries. Cole received her doctorate in human development/psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the editor of the publication, The Sesame Effect.