Chapter 2: Overview of IT-assisted PBL

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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.

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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 2: Overview of IT-assisted PBL

This chapter contains an overview of project-based learning in an information technology environment (IT-assisted PBL). It also discusses "sage on the stage" versus "guide on the side."

What is Project-based Learning?

The historical newspaper example from Chapter 1 illustrates a number of the features that are common to many IT-assisted PBL lessons. However, it is important to understand that there is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes project-based learning (PBL). Almost all teachers make some use of PBL, and the projects they use vary widely in form and content.

In this book we are focusing specifically on PBL which is designed to be carried out in an IT environment. Sometimes the focus of the lesson will be mostly on IT. Most often, however, students gaining increased IT knowledge and skills will be but one of the lessor goals of the lesson.

Project-based learning is sometimes called problem-based learning, and vice versa. In problem-based learning, the focus is on a specific problem that is to be addressed. For example, the problem might be to clean up a polluted stream running through one's city, or saving an endangered species of plant or animal.

Project-based learning is a broader category of instruction than problem-based learning. While a project may be to address a specific problem, it can also focus on areas that are not problems. A key characteristic of PBL is that a project does not focus on "learning about" something. It focuses on "doing" something. It is action oriented. In the historical newspaper example, students are doing research, doing writing, doing peer feedback, doing the design of a historically authentic newspaper, doing desktop publication, and doing a presentation to the whole class.

The next two sections of this chapter list and discuss some of the general characteristics of PBL. Half of the characteristics are classified as being from the student point of view, and the remainder are listed as being from the teacher point of view.

PBL From Student Point of View

PBL can be analyzed from the student point of view. (Of course, some of the items in this list might as well be under the Teacher Point of View. Some of the characteristics include that PBL:

  1. Is learner centered and intrinsically motivating.
  2. Encourages collaboration and cooperative learning.
  3. Allows students to make incremental and continual improvement in their product, presentation, or performance.
  4. Is designed so that students are actively engaged in "doing" things rather then in "learning about" something.
  5. Requires students to produce a product, presentation, or performance.
  6. Is challenging; focusing on higher-order skills.

Each of these six ideas is briefly discussed in the six sections that follow.

Learner Centered, Intrinsically Motivating

Collaboration and Cooperative Learning

Incremental and Continual Improvement

Actively Engaged Students

Product, Presentation, or Performance

Challenging; Focusing on Higher-Order Skills

PBL From Teacher Point of View

PBL can be analyzed from the teacher point of view. Typically, a project extends over a significant period of time, perhaps from several week to an entire school year. Thus, a PBL lesson can be viewed as a unit of study. Some of the characteristics include that PBL:

  1. Has authentic content and purpose.
  2. Uses authentic assessment.
  3. Is teacher facilitated--but the teacher is much more of a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage."
  4. Has explicit educational goals.
  5. Is rooted in constructivism. (A social learning theory.)
  6. Is designed so that the teacher will be a learner.

Each of these six ideas is briefly discussed in the six sections that follow.

Authentic Content and Purpose

Authentic Assessment

Teacher Facilitated

Explicit Educational Goals

Rooted in Constructivism, but Uses Multiple Methods of Instruction

Teacher as Learner

Didactic Versus Constructivist Teaching

This section summarizes some of the differences between the didactic and constructivist models of instruction.

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the late 1700s. It led to a mass movement of people from the farms into the cities. As families were attracted to the cities in order to work in the factories, the problem arose as to what to do with the children.

A solution to this problem was to develop public schools and to require all children to attend. The schools that developed had many characteristics of factories. Students were assumed to be nearly alike. All students in a class were assumed to be ready to learn the new topics specified in the curriculum. The teacher presented the information to be learned, drilled students to facilitate memorization, and tested the students. This type of teaching is often described as didactic instruction or direct instruction.

This didactic factory model of education gradually spread throughout the world. It has persisted for nearly 200 years and is still the dominant model of instruction in most schools. This form of instruction is often characterized as the teacher being a "sage on the stage."

Constructivism is a learning theory that assumes a learner constructs new knowledge, building on whatever base of knowledge the learner already has. Constructivism is a relatively new learning theory, although it is rooted in the work of Dewey and Piaget done many years ago. Constructivism is based on our steadily increasing understanding of the human brain--how it stores and retrieves information, how it learns, and how learning is built on and extends previous learning. Instruction based on constructivism is often characterized as the teacher being a "guide on the side."

Few teachers teach in a purely didactic manner or in a purely constructivist manner. Almost all teachers make use of both approaches, switching from one to the other as seems appropriate at the time. However, didactic and constructivist represent two quite different philosophies of instruction and theories of learning. The following tables are designed to stress differences between these two approaches to teaching and learning. This table is an extension of ideas presented in Sandholtz, Ringstaff, and Dwyer (1997, p. 14). The topics listed have been grouped into three tables: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. There are substantial overlaps among these three categories, so in many cases the assignment to a particular category is somewhat arbitrary.


Educational Component
Didactic curriculum
Constructivism-based curriculum

Concept of knowledge

Facts. Memorization. Discipline specific. Lower-order thinking skills.

Relationships. Inquiry and invention. Higher-order thinking skills. Represent and solve complex problems, drawing on multiple resources over an extended period of time.

Information technology as content

Taught in specific time blocks or courses that focus on information technology

Integrated into all content areas, as well as being a content area in its own right.

Information sources

Teacher, textbooks, traditional reference books and CD-ROMs, use of a limited library, controlled access to other information.

All previously available information sources. access to people and information via the Internet and the WWW.

Information processing aids

Paper, pencil, and ruler. Mind.

All previously aids to processing information. Calculator, computer.

Time schedule

Careful adherence to prescribed amounts of time each day on specific disciplines.

Time scheduling is flexible, making possible long blocks of time to spend on a project.

Problem solving. Higher-order thinking skills.

Students work alone on problems presented in textbook. Problems are usually of limited scope. Modest emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

Students work individually and collaboratively on multidisciplinary problems. Problems are typically of broad scope and students pose or help pose the problems. Substantial emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.


Focus on a specific discipline and a specific pre-charted pathway through this curriculum.

Curriculum is usually interdisciplinary, without a pre charted pathway. Different students study different curriculum.


Educational Component
Didactic instruction
Constructivism-based instruction

Classroom activity

Teacher centered. Teacher driven. Teacher is responsible for "covering" a set curriculum.

Learner centered. (Student-centered.) Cooperative. Interactive. Student has increased responsibility for learning. Collaborative tasks. Teams.

Teacher role

Dispenser of knowledge. Expert. Fully in charge. Gatekeeper.

Collaborator, facilitator, learner.

Teacher-student interaction

Teacher lecture and questioning, student recitation.

Teacher works with groups, facilitating PBL.

Technology use

Computer-assisted learning (drill and practice, tutorial, simulations). Tools used for amplification.

Communication, collaboration, information access, information processing, multimedia documents and presentations.


Lecture/demonstration with quick recall student recitation of facts, seat work, quizzes and exams. Single discipline-oriented. "Sage on the stage."

Guide on the side. Mentoring. Discovery-based learning. Peer instruction. Inter discipline-oriented.

Parent and home role. Community

Help on or encourage doing homework. Support "traditional" education.

Parents and students learn from each other. Parents contribute to projects. Home technology supplements school technology.

Physical layout of classroom

Chairs arranged in rows in a fixed format. Chairs may be bolted to the floor.

Movable furniture to facilitate easy regroupings of furniture and students.


Educational Component
Didactic assessment
Constructivism-based assessment

Student role as a learner

Listener (often passive). Quite, well behaved. Raises hand when prepared to respond to a teacher question. Studies directed toward passing tests and completing required work.

Collaborator. teacher, peer evaluator, Sometimes expert. Actively engaged. Active learning. Problem poser. Active seeker after knowledge. Students learn as they help each other to learn.

Demonstration of success

Quantity and speed of recall.

Quality of understanding.

Use of technology during assessment

Allow simple tools such as paper, pencil, and ruler. Sometimes allow calculator.

Students assessed in environment in which they learn.

Student work- products

Most student work -products are written and private, shared only with the teacher. Occasional oral presentation.

Much of the student work-products are public, subject to review by teachers, peers, parents, and others. Multiple forms of products


Norm referenced. Objective and short answer. Focus on memorization of facts. Discipline specific. Lower-order thinking skills.

Criterion referenced. Authentic assessment of products, performances, and presentations. Portfolio. Self assessment. Peer assessment.

The next two chapters discuss possible IT-assisted PBL lesson content areas and indicate how PBL can be used in meeting the goals of education.


  1. Select an example of PBL that you have experienced as a student or facilitated as a teacher. Describe this example of PBL and analyze it from the point of view of the student-oriented and the teacher-oriented characteristics of IT-assisted PBL described earlier in this chapter. What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Analyze your own teaching from a didactic versus constructivist point of view. From your point of view, what are the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches to teaching? In your teaching, how do you capitalize on these strengths and avoid the weaknesses?
  3. Analyze your current curriculum, instruction, and assessment in terms of how well they contribute to your students learning to function well in a P/T Team environment. Suggest some changes that might contribute to your students gaining increased knowledge and skills in solving problems and accomplishing tasks in this environment.

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