Chapter 1: Introduction and a PBL Example

| Home | Week by week outline |Readings & Bibliography | Reading Assignments | Homework Assignments | Assessment |

Moursund, D.G. (1999). Project-based learning using information technology (Selected Chapters) Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

The materials that follow are from a next-to-final version of the above named book.


Chapter 1: Introduction and a PBL Example

Chapter 2: Overview of IT-assisted PBL

Chapter 3: Some PBL Lesson Topic Ideas

Chapter 4: The Case for PBL

Chapter 7: Assessment in IT-assisted PBL

Appendix C: Overview of Problem Solving

References and Resources


Chapter 1: Introduction and a PBL Example

This chapter begins with a very brief introduction to information technology-assisted project-based learning (IT-assisted PBL). It then presents an example of an IT-assisted PBL lesson. It concludes with a brief discussion of some possible goals of an IT-assisted PBL lesson.

Problem or Task Team

PBL focuses on a problem to be solved or a task to be accomplished. The single most important idea in solving problems and accomplishing tasks is building on the previous work of yourself and others. When faced by a challenging problem or task, you make use of the knowledge, skills, and aids that have been developed by other people, as well as your own knowledge, skills, and previous work.

This idea is illustrated in Figure 1.1. In this figure, a person or a group of people (a Problem or Task Team) that wants to solve a complex problem or accomplish a complex task draws upon three major categories of help.

Figure 1.1. The components supporting a P/T Team.

One of the major goals of education is to help students learn to solve complex problems and accomplish complex tasks. Students need to receive substantial instruction and practice in functioning in a Problem or Task Team (P/T Team) environment. IT-assisted PBL is specifically designed to help students learn to function in this environment. Appendix C of this book explores problem solving and the P/T Team in more detail.

The word "Team" was carefully chosen. Even if there is only one person on the team, the team draws on a wide range of resources that have been developed by other people. We know a lot about how training, experience, and practice help a team to become more effective. In this book we focus on IT-assisted PBL as a vehicle for helping students learn to work effectively in a P/T Team environment.

The P/T Team is a unifying idea in education. Each component of education can be analyzed from the point of view of how it contributes to an individual or a group of individuals functioning in a P/T team environment. Moreover, we can see how progress in developing better mental aids, better physical aids, or a better educational system can all contribute to increasing the capabilities of a P/T Team.

Sample PBL Topic--Historical Newspaper

This section contains a brief description of an IT-assisted PBL lesson. This lesson focuses on a research, writing, and presentation task to be accomplished. The lesson can be adapted for use with students of widely varying abilities and at various grade levels. The difficulty or challenge of the task to be accomplished can be adjusted to the knowledge and skill levels of the students.

This IT-assisted PBL lesson will create a classroom environment in which the teacher will learn alongside the students. As you read through the lesson plan ideas given below, think what you might learn from your students as they carry out the PBL lesson.

The class is divided into teams of three to four students. Each team is to:

  1. Select an important historical date (or event) between 50 and 150 years in the past.
  2. Select a city.
  3. Produce a newspaper that might have been published and distributed shortly after the historical date in the city selected, The newspaper is to be desktop published in a historically authentic style. The team will select a name for the newspaper. Collectively, the team is responsible for the overall quality of the design, layout, desktop publishing, and content of the text and graphics in the newspaper.
  4. Each team member is to select a particular content area/section for the newspaper and is responsible for writing the content of a specific section of the newspaper. Some possible examples of content areas/sections of the newspaper include:
    • The historical event itself. News about this event, editorials about this event, and human interest stories about this event.
    • World News.
    • National News.
    • Local and Regional News.
    • Sports.
    • Music.
    • Arts.
    • Literature (for example, a book review of a recently published book).
    • Science in the News.
    • Ads
  5. Each team member is expected to provide formative evaluation feedback on both the content and the writing being done by each other team member.
  6. Each team will publish eight copies of their newspaper. (This is enough so that each team member gets a copy, the teacher gets two copies, and there are a couple of copies for circulation to the other members of the class.)
  7. At the end of the project, each team will do a presentation to the whole class. It will cover both processes carried out by the team and the product produced by the team.
  8. Students will be assessed in five major areas.
    • Historical research (20%)
    • Writing (30%)
    • Cooperative/collaborative project work in a P/T Team environment (20%)
    • Desktop publication (15%)
    • Final presentation (15%)

This is a very open ended assignment. More detail is needed before students can get started. Here are some examples of the types of questions that need to be addressed:

There are many other questions that might arise. The teacher may deliberately choose to not answer some of them. For example, "How long does the newspaper need to be? How long does my article need to be?" From a teacher point of view, you want the individual teams and the individual students to push themselves. Indeed, you might promote a spirit of competition between teams. You want an appropriate balance between quality and quantity. You want the articles to have authentic, well researched content. You want each individual student to expend sustained effort throughout the project. Some students will write multiple articles. Others may spend a great deal of time of researching and developing a single article. Some teams will spend a lot of time preparing their presentations and may "wow" the class.

A major PBL lesson should end with the whole class participating in a debriefing session. What were the good and not so good features of the project? What would make it a more valuable learning experience to individual students and to the whole class? What new projects are suggested by the work that has been done?

Many PBL lessons can be used year after year, perhaps with only minor revisions. A good PBL lesson may have off shoots, or variations, that can be used in future lessons. Here are several extensions and/or variations on the lesson discussed above.

  1. The teacher selects the historical event and each team develops a newspaper for that historical event and time period. The teacher may select an event within "recent history" so that students can interview local citizens who were alive at the time of the event. This would give students the opportunity to practice the study of oral histories.
  2. Each student is to write two or more articles for the team newspaper. One article is to discuss the historical event and one article is to be on a different topic that the student selects.
  3. After all of the newspapers have been completed, the whole class works together to produce one long newspaper (with a new name) that contains all of the articles developed by the class. Each student gets a copy to take home.
  4. Instead of doing a formal presentation to the whole class, each team develops a Poster Session Presentation. This is akin to the Poster Sessions that one often sees at a conference. Each team develops a large display that is representative of their project. Team members might bring in historical artifacts or develop replicas of historical artifacts. Teams then interact with small groups of students who visit and explore each Poster Session Presentation.
  5. Suppose the historical event that is being written about is of historical significance in several countries. (Wars, for example, have this characteristic.) This same assignment could be carried out simultaneously by students from several different countries. Then, a major component of the overall PBL lesson would be to compare, contrast, and understand the differing points of view represented by the student writers from different countries.

Needed Hardware and Software

This book focuses on PBL in an information technology environment. The suggested classroom activities can be carried out using whatever information technology is available in the school, home, and community environment. A school need not have the latest, greatest, and best IT facilities.

However, there is an underlying hardware and software goal that this book supports. Students need to learn to make routine, everyday use of IT as an aid to carrying out projects. The general type of hardware and software needed and/or that students should be routinely using include:

o The generic tools such as word processor, spreadsheet, database, paint, and draw software. Generic tools cut across all academic disciplines, much in the same way that reading, writing, and arithmetic cut across all disciplines. The needed generic tools may be in an integrated package or as individual pieces of software.

In many classrooms, some of these facilities are not yet available. However, that should not be used as a barrier to engaging students in IT-assisted PBL. The key idea is that whatever the students have available can be used in PBL. While part of an IT-assisted PBL lesson may focus on the hardware and software, the more important and long-lasting learning components focuses on topics that are relatively independent of any specific hardware and software.

Some teachers feel that a student must learn a great deal about a particular computer tool before beginning to make use of it in project-based learning. This book takes the opposite tack. With a minimum of knowledge about a compute tool, a student can begin to use it to carry out a project. The project then serves as a motivation and provides an authentic context for learning more about the tool. Learning about the tool and using the tool to carry out a project are thoroughly integrated.

Similarly, some teachers feel that they must know a great deal about a wide range of computer tools before beginning to engage their students in IT-assisted PBL. Indeed, many teachers find that this is a convenient excuse for not getting started in use of IT-assisted PBL. Many other teachers have found that once they get started (no matter how small their initial IT knowledge) they learn on the job. They learn from their students and they learn by doing. This book strongly supports such an approach!

In PBL, a great deal of peer instruction occurs. This is especially true in an IT environment. All students can and should learn to help their peers and others to learn about IT and how to make use of IT in carrying out a project. Indeed, peer instruction and peer assessment can be a component of every IT-assisted PBL lesson.

Goals of IT-assisted PBL

An IT-assisted PBL lesson has multiple goals. Typically, these include:

  1. Expertise. The project has a goal of students gaining increased knowledge and skill within a discipline or an interdisciplinary content area, Often students gain a high level of expertise within the specific area that they are studying. A student may become the most knowledgeable person in the class on a specific topic. Indeed, a student's level of knowledge within a narrow domain may come to exceed that of the teacher.
  2. Research. The project requires use of research skills and helps students to improve their research skills.
  3. Higher order thinking skills. The project is challenging and has a focus on students improving their higher-order thinking skills,
  4. Doing a project. The project helps students increase their knowledge and skill in undertaking a challenging project that requires sustained effort over a considerable period of time. Often a team of students work on a project. Students learn to take individual and collective responsibility for the team's successful completion of the project. Students learn from each other.
  5. Information technology. Students increase their knowledge and skill in making use of information technology to carry out the work in a project. A project may include a specific goal of students acquiring new knowledge and skills in information technology.
  6. Self and peer assessment. Students gain skill in assessing themselves and being accountable for their own work and performance. They learn how to assess the work and performance of their peers and how to provide effective feedback to their peers.
  7. Portfolio. The project results in students producing a product, presentation, or performance that is of "portfolio quality." The project may become part of the student's portfolio for the school year, and it may even become part of the student's long term portfolio.
  8. Engagement. Students are actively and appropriately engaged in carrying out the work of the project; the students are intrinsically motivated. This is a process goal. As a teacher, you might make daily observations of students being on task, of exemplary cooperative behavior, and of disruptive behavior. You might require that your students keep a daily log of their specific work on and contributions to a team project, and turn this log in once a week.
  9. Community of scholars. The entire class--student, teacher, teaching assistants, and volunteers--becomes a community of scholars, working together and learning from each other. Often this community of scholars expands to include parents, students from outside the class, and others.
  10. Big idea. The project may include a focus on big ideas and continuing themes being emphasized by the teacher, school, or school district. For example, communication, math competence, and interdisciplinary problem solving may be goals in every project.

A good IT-assisted PBL lesson is apt to include all 10 of the goals listed above. These goals, along with any other major process and learning goals in the lesson, provide a framework for evaluation and for assessment. And, don't forget that you should have personal learning goals in every PBL assignment. At the end of the lesson, spend some time analyzing what you learned during the lesson.

Some Additional Important Ideas

This section contains a brief introduction to three additional PBL ideas. These topics are treated in more detail in later chapters of this book.

  1. Project-based learning is learner centered. Students have a significant voice in selecting the content areas and nature of the projects that they do. There is considerable focus on students understanding what it is they are doing, why it is important, and how they will be assessed. Indeed, students may help to set some of the goals over which they will be assessed and how they will be assessed over these goals.

    All of these learner-centered characteristics of PBL contribute to learner motivation and active engagement. A high level of intrinsic motivation and active engagement are essential to the success of a PBL lesson.

  2. PBL is problem or task oriented. In very simple terms, much of education concerns helping students to:
    • Gain some basic knowledge and skills.
    • Learn to solve challenging problems and accomplish challenging tasks using their knowledge and skills.

    The terms lower order and higher order are often applied to these two overarching goals in education. Both are essential to being an educated person. Thus, educators and others are concerned about the relative emphasis to place on each as well as which comes first. The general conclusion of educational leaders is that most educational lessons should contain an emphasis on both lower-order and higher-order knowledge and skills. That is, lower-order knowledge and skills should be gained in the context of solving challenging problems and accomplishing challenging tasks.

    In a PBL lesson, a unifying goal is for students to work on solving a challenging problem or accomplishing a challenging task. Every PBL lesson should include an emphasis on higher-order knowledge and skills.

  3. Authentic assessment is an important component of PBL. Students need to have a clear understanding of the goals, evaluation, and assessment for a project. Learning about goals, evaluation, and assessment is part of the process of learning how to undertake projects.

    It is important to distinguish between feedback or formative evaluation, and assessment. During a project, students may receive formative evaluation (feedback) from themselves, their peers, their teacher, and from other sources. This feedback helps students to learn and helps students to produce a high quality final product, presentation, or performance. While some teachers will make use of this formative evaluation information in grading a student (assessing a student), others will base assessment mainly on the final product. Most often a student is assessed both on process and product. Keep in mind that a good learning environment allows students to experiment, to try things that may not turn out to be successful. A good assessment system should encourage and reward such trial and error, rather than punish it.

PBL Research and Testimonials

Chapter 4 discuss the research and theory underlying IT-assisted PBL. The research and underlying theory are strong, but they are not overwhelmingly strong. Moreover, IT-assisted PBL presents many challenges to teachers and to our educational system. Assessment is a major issue, and Chapter 7 is devoted to it. Many teachers find that they need inservice education help in order to increase their comfort levels in initially beginning to use IT-assisted PBL.

The general material of this book has been presented in a number of workshops for inservice teachers. These presentations never fail to evoke testimonials from teachers who make use of PBL in their teaching. Invariably, several teachers in the workshop will tell the group that use of PBL is an important part of their teaching repertoire and that they will never go back to "traditional" teaching. Often their testimonials are impassioned--the teachers have become true believers in this style of teaching.

Many teachers are teaching in environments that place a heavy emphasis on students doing well on national or state tests. Often these tests emphasize lower-order knowledge and skills. Teachers know that they can help their students to achieve higher test scores if they specifically teach to the tests. They also know that much of this test-oriented knowledge and skill does not stick with the student--that is, it has little lasting value. Veteran PBL teachers feel that their students learn and retain the basics because they are learning and practicing their basics in an authentic environment. There is a growing collection of research that supports this contention.


  1. Many people benefit from keeping a journal as they work their way through a book such as this. In the journal, they reflect on ideas that occur to them as they read the book. For example, as you read this first chapter, did you think about how PBL was used when you were a elementary or secondary school student? If you are currently a teacher, did you think about how you have made use of PBL in your teaching?

    A. Start a journal. Begin your journal by discussing the idea of P/T Team. Does this seem like an important idea? How would you convince a parent or a school board member that this is an important idea in education?

    B. Make some entries in your journal each time you read a chapter or part of a chapter. From time to time you may want to go back to earlier entries and write in additional comments.

  2. Think about a PBL lesson that you experienced while you were a student. Describe the project and analyze it, giving its strengths and weaknesses. What did you learned by doing the project? Why are you able to still remember this project from the past?
  3. Analyze the historical newspaper project given in this chapter. What are its strengths and what are its weaknesses? Suggest some ways to overcome the weaknesses.
  4. Consider the 10 general IT-assisted PBL lesson goals given earlier in this chapter.

    A. Which of these 10 general goals would you emphasize as goals in the historical newspaper project given in this chapter? Name one or more additional major goals that seems appropriate to you.

    B. For the goals you pick in 4A, what percentages (totaling 100%) would you assign to each? How would you actually do these assessments? Explain how your assessment methods will be valid, reliable, and fair.

| Home | Top of page | Week by week outline | Readings & Bibliography | Reading Assignments | Homework Assignments | Assessment |