Cape Breton University
Classroom instruction is ever-changing as new, and old, learning theories gain more traction within education. Project-based learning is an instructional design practice that gets discussed widely as a concept, however many educators require more insight into the theory and its logistics in order to consider implementation, or perhaps, to do so effectively. Historically, it has been noted that there is a “lack of a uniform vision” when it comes to project-based learning which has created uncertainty around usage of the teaching model (Condliffe, 2017). This work sets out to learn more about and inform in regard to project-based learning, specifically within a scope of online learning, through a literature review. Information from a wide range of sources have been compiled to assess both the benefits and challenges of project-based learning, the impact of project-based learning in e-learning as well as the resources that will be of effective assistance to educators. It was found that project-based learning provides the opportunity for students to nurture and optimize lifelong skills, however, it is not a one size fits all model and therefore will not reach every type of learner – a continual challenge throughout education. Transitioning to an online learning atmosphere was also considered in terms of following a project-based learning experience, which many teachers found a useful tool in motivating their students.
Project-based learning, education, learning theory, discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, problem solving, online learning, technology, problem-based learning, experiential learning, teaching practice
Whether it be moving to online learning as a rapid pace response to a pandemic or recognizing the opportunity for necessary adjustments to learning and curricula, education is changing at a greater rate than ever before. The role of teacher and student is shifting with its surroundings, creating momentum for further consideration into varying learning theories and instructional design strategies. A particular educational phenomenon that has been gaining traction and formulating a buzz around it is project-based learning, but what is it really? Project based learning can be defined as “an active student-centered form of instruction which is characterized by students’ autonomy, constructive investigations, goal-setting, collaboration, communication and reflection within real-world practices” (Kokotsaki, et al., 2016). Many educators know or are familiar with the basic concept of project-based learning but not explicitly how to apply it to their practice or what that would look like. With an everlasting need for further professional development opportunities, instructors are largely left to their own devices to learn about and integrate various learning strategies into their practice to continue to be adaptable and develop over time. This can often lead to either inaction entirely or inaccurate attempts at implementation, so again it is stated: project-based learning – what is it really?
What is Project-Based Learning?
The idea of project-based learning gets shared and discussed liberally across the field of education. A study through Cambridge University for one, narrowed in on project-based learning as an opportunity that “allows students to investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas.” The work went on to say that within this model students “learn by doing and applying ideas” (Blumenfeld & Krajcik, 2006, pp. 318). By this definition, students are more so placed in the driver seat of their own educational experience providing them the skills, ability and most importantly, the room or freedom to work out real-life problems. Others have described project-based learning where “students work in groups to solve challenging problems that are authentic, curriculum-based, and often interdisciplinary. Learners decide how to approach a problem and what activities to pursue” (Solomon, 2003).
A seemingly burning question with project-based learning is how it differs from other considerably similar practices. Is there really a difference or can it be concluded that several theories have nearly identical goals, practices and outcomes but simply different names? Project-based learning seems to align itself well with other independent, problem based practices such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning and discovery learning. The Educational Psychologist referred to the various instructional methods as “differently named but essentially identical approaches” (Clark, et al., 2006).
Inquiry-based learning can be described as “an approach to solving problems and involves the application of several problem-solving skills. Inquiry-based learning emphasizes active participation and learner’s responsibility for discovering knowledge that is new to the learner” (Pedaste, et al., 2015). The source went on to acknowledge the self-directed nature of this model as well as highlighted specific student tasks such as forming hypotheses, all of which coincide with how project-based learning has been defined. In short, problem-based learning is highlighted as providing “independent, self-directed study” (Wood, 2003). Furthermore, discovery learning can be described as learning that happens by discovery, which prioritizes reflection, thinking, experimenting, and exploring” (Balim, 2009). Knowing that project-based learning has been defined as providing students the opportunity to “drive their own learning through inquiry, as well as work collaboratively to research and create projects that reflect their knowledge” (Bell, 2010) it can be said that all of these practices alike place a constant significance on independence from the instructor as well as problem-solving and inquiry on the part of the student.
The Journal of Social Sciences studied two groups of students, one group learning through project-based learning activities while the other learned through inquiry-based learning activities. The results of the study found that “project-based and inquiry-based learning activities were appropriately efficient and effective. The students in 2 groups did not show different learning achievement, science process skills and analytical thinking” (Nuangchalerm & Panasan, 2010). The study suggests that the two practices can be used rather interchangeably and the same results can be expected which ultimately suggests that the two practices, and likely the others as well, are quite similar in practice. Furthermore, research can be found using the various terms of inquiry simultaneously rather than comparatively, insinuating greatly that the concepts share a significant likeness.
Benefits of Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning, like any learning theory or practice, can be controversial. There are both believers and naysayers in regard to project-based learning but it cannot be denied that when done well, there are benefits to this methodology. Instructors who abide by project-based learning feel that a more traditional approach could impede on a students’ natural inclinations and creative thinking. It has been stated that “instructional guidance that provides or embeds learning strategies in instruction interferes with the natural processes by which learners draw on their unique, prior experience and learning styles to construct new, situated knowledge that will achieve their goals” (Clark, et al., 2006). The statement suggests that students could be placed at a disadvantage if a classroom environment, specifically one that does not utilize project-based learning, does not nourish a students’ ability to create their own learning journey that is unique and effective to themselves.
Particularly at the secondary level, a lot of education is based on preparing students for the future and becoming contributing members of society. Project-based learning supports this endeavour by providing students the opportunity to mirror the problem solving processes that will be necessary for students outside of the school setting. It provides students with the opportunity to take risks, pursue curiosity and find solutions within a controlled environment. Researchers of the method have even gone so far as to say that “people who use self-discovery in learning turn out to be more self-confident” (Balim, 2009) and that project-based learning can “improve critical thinking skills and also creative thinking” (Yustina, et al., 2020).
Challenges of Project-Based Learning
The Journal of Educational Psychology conducted a study to determine the degree that a discovery-based lens on education and learning ultimately benefits students. The results found that “unassisted discovery does not benefit learners, whereas feedback, worked examples, scaffolding, and elicited explanations do” (Aldrich, et al., 2011). What this means is that students, left to their own devices [unassisted] could be unsuccessful with such a model without the structure that is often provided through a more traditional learning approach. The necessary processes that the study highlighted such as feedback and examples, however could impede on the overall purpose or nature of the project-based learning and the overarching element of drawing on individually unique experience and research in order to problem solve. Another study went so far as to say that “not only is minimally-guided learning ineffective for most learners, it may even be harmful for some” as well as stating that “minimally-guided learning does not enhance student achievement any more than throwing a non-swimmer out of a boat in the middle of a deep lake supports learning to swim (Clark, et al., 2006).
eLearning as an Emergency Response
Online learning has become even more prevalent across the globe in the last two years as required to respond to an ongoing pandemic. Education systems everywhere struggled to adapt their instruction to provide for their students online as a result of not being able to teach in person for months, and in some locations, over a year. To say that education as a whole was unprepared for such a situation would be an understatement. Online learning was present prior however not widespread enough for the average teacher to understand the requirements or intricacies of teaching online or for students to learn online. In An Overview of Online Learning, it is described as “learning and other supportive resources that are available through a computer” – notice that an instructor is not mentioned at all in this brief definition of online learning. Furthermore, the text states that “the computer displays material in response to a learner’s request. The computer prompts the learner for more information, and presents appropriate material based on the learner’s response” (Carliner, 2004). The absence of mention of any instructor and student relationship shows a great inadequacy within online learning. Rightfully so, knowledge of online learning has developed significantly to where it is today. It must also be noted that “well-planned online learning experiences are meaningfully different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster” (Hodges, et al., 2020). This is a significant point to consider as online learning, despite being practiced more avidly during a pandemic, should not take the form of solely responding in a state of emergency. Online learning still requires meaningful interaction and thoughtful instruction and assessment, just as the in-person classroom does. A research study on the effects of transitioning to online learning found that it was more than just a “technical problem”, the transition from in-person to online was a “pedagogical and instructional challenge”. “Technology is a means of delivery. Successful efforts to move schools outside traditional classrooms and buildings require close collaboration between teaching teams, content, and technology” (Yustina, et al., 2020). It is imperative to not get caught up primarily on the use of technology and lose sight of the pedagogical requirements that support effective online learning.
Teachers and parents alike “expressed a significant need for help to keep students motivated and engaged in learning activities” (Hira & Anderson, 2021). As a response to all-time low rates of motivation in students during the transition to online learning in response to pandemic, many educators turned to a project-based focus on their instruction. Project-based strategies are known to embody “several factors considered central to motivation in online learning” (Hira & Anderson, 2021). A study assessed several classes from four different schools who all practiced project-based learning prior to moving to an online platform. The study found that teachers had to, inevitably, adjust their project-based learning practices however it was still beneficial, perhaps even more effective, within the online setting. Teachers needed to “reframe” their project-based learning practices “so that students could work on projects that were still of interest to them but were also feasible given the constraints of remote learning” (Hira & Anderson, 2021). Educators within this study found that the project-based lens did ultimately increase motivation as well as overall learning due to heightened student engagement and individual meaningfulness of activities.
The following is an introductory list of technological resources and platforms that are in support of a project-based learning approach to education. To support the future application of the listed programs below, a summarization of each is provided. All sources are applicable and accommodating towards an online learning environment.
Online professional development courses are available through Intel (n.d.), a well-known international technology company. These courses are a resource for educators, rather than students, in preparation for implementing a project-based learning focus into the classroom. Being faced with classroom scenarios through the courses allows instructors to experience the features and benefits of the learning approach and support them in utilizing self-directed learning in their own learning environment.
A variety of project-based learning assignments are provided as resources to educators to get them started with implementing the practice into their classroom (PBL Works, n.d.). Additionally, the website provides discussion boards and further insight into how to proceed with project-based learning, the role of both the educator and the students as well as evidence of success with project-based learning in action.
This Edutopia (2007) platform provides teachers with a plethora of project-based learning resources including case studies (categorized by grade level), lesson plans, research and articles on best practices within project-based learning.
The Global SchoolNet (n.d.) organization creates the opportunity for students across the globe to collaborate on project-based activities on a variety of content matter including mathematics, science and literacy/communication. The students will work together towards common goals, often to enhance or benefit society and their surroundings, while nourishing lifelong skills that will serve them within education as well as beyond.
A wide variety of simulations can be accessed for free through the Arthur Lakes Library (n.d.) website. The simulations and labs cover a variety of topics including science, health, mathematics as well as cross curricular activities. This robust list of resources was compiled through an Open Education initiative where the educational community came together to share and extend resources to one another to further educational access as a whole.
This application (Microsoft, 2022) allows students to post pre-recorded videos as responses within a discussion forum or as a final product for a project. Flipgrid is a great medium for online learning as it provides students the opportunity to present their work despite not being face-to-face. Students can then view their peers’ videos and give feedback, as can the instructor.
Project-based learning is grounded in empowering students to “drive their own learning through inquiry, as well as work collaboratively to research and create projects that reflect their knowledge” (Bell, 2010). The approach shares itself closely with other known and practiced instructional methodologies such as discovery and inquiry-based learning. These practices share many qualities and outcomes such as creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. Said features of project-based learning have been linked directly to increased motivation in students which makes it a feasible and effective option for students within an online learning environment in addition to the more traditional setting of face-to-face learning. With online learning it is imperative to engage students continuously in their work despite the lack of in-person communication. Like any learning theory, there are believers and there are naysayers, however for those that are inclined to pursue a project-based learning experience with their students, ample resources are available to assist both the educator in the instructional design process as well as the students in pursuit of their own unique learning endeavours.
Aldrich, N. J., Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021017
Arthur Lakes Library (n.d.). Simulations and Virtual Labs. [Webpage]. Open Educational Resources. https://libguides.mines.edu/oer/simulationslabs
Balim, A. G. (2009). The Effects of Discovery Learning on Students’ Success and Inquiry Learning Skills. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 35, 1-20.
Bell, S. (2010). Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 83(2), 39-43. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00098650903505415
Blumenfeld, P. C., & Krajcik, J. S. (2006). Project-Based Learning. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, 317-334. https://knilt.arcc.albany.edu/images/4/4d/PBL_Article.pdf
Carliner, S. (2004). An Overview of Online Learning. https://books.google.ca/books?id=cVzE-cy4GxkC&lpg=PR7&ots=Jrp2cCZsH2&dq=online%20learning&lr&pg=PR7#v=onepage&q=online%20learning&f=false
Clark, R. E., Kirschner, P., & Sweller, J. (2004). Why Unguided Learning Does Not Work. The Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. https://www.asec.purdue.edu/LCT/HBCU/documents/Analysis_of_the_Failure_of_Discovery_PBL__Experiential_Inquiry_Learning.pdf
Condliffe, B. (2017). Project-Based Learning: A Literature Review. MDRC. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED578933
Edutopia (2007, October 19). Resources for Project-Based Learning. https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-guide-resources
Global SchoolNet (n.d.). Our Mission. [Webpage]. http://www.globalschoolnet.org/
Hira, A., & Anderson, E. (2021). Motivating Online Learning through Project-Based Learning during the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic. IAFOR Journal of Education, 9(2), 93-110. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1291884
Hodges, C. B., Moore, S., Lockee, B. B., Trust, T., & Bond, M. A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. [PDF file]. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/104648
Intel (n.d.). Engaging eLearning Courses for K-12 Educators. [Web page]. https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/education/k12/teach-elements.html
Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3), 267–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/1365480216659733
Microsoft (2022). Flipgrid. [Webpage]. https://info.flipgrid.com/
Nuangchalerm, P., & Panasan, M. (2010). Learning Outcomes of Project-Based and Inquiry-Based Learning Activities. Journal of Social Sciences, 6(2), 252-255. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED509723.pdf
PBL Works. (n.d.). Buck Institute for Education. [Webpage]. https://www.pblworks.org/
Pedaste, M., Mäeots, M., Siiman, L. A., Jong, T., van Riesen, S. A. N., Kamp, E. T., Manoli, C. C., Zacharia, Z. C., & Tsourlidaki, E. (2015). Phases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational Research Review, 14, 47-61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2015.02.003
Solomon, G. (2003). Project-Based Learning: A Primer. [PDF file]. https://free.openeclass.org/modules/document/file.php/ENG155/Projects%20online/PBL-Primer-www_techlearning_com.pdf
Wood, D. F. (2003). Problem based learning. The British Medical Journal, 326(7384), 328-330. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7384.328
Yustina, Y., Syafii, W., & Vebrianto, R. (2020). The Effects of Blended Learning and Project-Based Learning on Pre-Service Biology Teachers: Creative Thinking through Online Learning in the Covid-19 Pandemic. Jurnal Pendidikan IPA Indonesia, 9(3), 408-420. https://journal.unnes.ac.id/nju/index.php/jpii/article/view/24706