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Living in Beta: PBL and Technology

blog_newImmersed in the talk of technology at this year’s ISTE conference, I have been thinking a lot about the role technology plays in Project Based Learning. Technology is best taught and learned when a project task requires the specific function the technology offers. So, for example, I am motivated to learn the iMovie software when I need to put together a video compilation for my daughter’s graduation. Similarly, I become highly motivated to use a new Uber App when I have to travel to a new city where I don’t want to drive. So it makes sense that PBL and technology are natural complements and that students learn to use technology as it becomes necessary during a project.

The best-designed projects ask our students to do the work that adults do when accomplishing real world tasks. We serve them well when we teach them to use tools that are industry standard to accomplish these tasks. Of course teachers will need to manage the work space and work process closely to attend to safety concerns, and to scaffold learning when prerequisite background knowledge is a factor.

 

blog_beta_2However, often our students, being digital natives, will be at least as savvy as adults are at learning these new skills. Rather than students’ perceived lack of abilities being a limiting factor, often it is the adult who is hesitant to try out new technologies and so scales back on what can be accomplished. I believe PBL teachers must be fearless, optimistic, curious and above all, have a sense of humor as they design and launch student projects. Possibly the single most important trait they need to embody as a successful PBL teacher is the proclivity towards trying something new and co-learning with their students.

Being open to public, collaborative learning might sound straight forward, but in practice it is not easily achieved. It requires not only a confidence in one’s skill and knowledge base (showing a gap in one’s abilities exposes you to possible student and parent skepticism), but also requires that you are flexible enough to change your game plan on the spot and organized enough to plan for contingencies. But when teachers dopt this mindset, student learning will not be limited to the technology ‘knowledge base’ of their teachers – which for even the most tech-savvy among us cannot keep up with the vast, ever growing technology options.

Letting Students Take the Lead
IMG_3081As an example, our 6/7th grade team was teaching an interdisciplinary project in which students were tasked with creating an online textbook representing varying historical perspectives. None of the three teach
ers had previous experience with a website that would serve that function. So they designeda variety of individual and group student leadership roles including a web design task force. One of the teachers worked closely with a half dozen students who either had strong computer skills or who had a passion to learn those skills to investigate how the online writing could be published. Along with one particularly game teacher, the website student task force became our collective experts and marshaled us expertly through the process.

The nature of students, learning, schools, and technology are continuously changing. Never again will we live in a time where authentic Project Based Learning can be completely nailed down before its launch and we can say “this is how it is and will be.” We will never catch up to the burgeoning array of authentic 21st century tasks and the technology available to best address them. We just need to learn to ride the wave. Or as Mathew Hepfer tweeted at this summer’s ISTE conference, “become comfortable with living in beta to model creativity.” So let’s embrace the Beta!

 

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