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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.
Many teachers ask, "Where can I find some good ideas for PBL lessons?" In brief summary, good ideas and suitable topics are everywhere. Look at what is current and relevant to the lives of your students. Look at the big problems facing the world now and historically. Look at the problems faced by your students' parents. Look at the major content ideas that you want to cover in your curriculum. This chapter will help you to find ideas for PBL lessons.
Chapter 6 discusses the development of an IT-assisted PBL lesson plan.
Which comes first--an important curriculum ideas that might possibly be well taught using it-assisted PBL, or an IT-assisted PBL lesson idea that might possibly be adapted to one's curriculum?
Most teachers work in both directions. In brief summary:
The previous chapter summarized characteristics of a good PBL lesson from the point of view of a student and from the point of view of a teacher. In brief summary, the content should be authentic, challenging, and learner centered. There should be a focus on students posing and then working to solve challenging problems or accomplish challenging tasks that will help develop their higher-order thinking skills. Keep these ideas in mind as you examine the topic ideas given in this chapter.
To the extent possible, you want your students to have ownership of the projects they undertake. You want them to define a problem or task in which they have a heartfelt need or concern. You want them to be intrinsically motivated to work on the project. Thus, at the beginning of a project, you want to provide your students with adequate time and appropriate guidance as they make the choices that will define their project.
The upside of students being intrinsically motivated is that they may well accomplish far more than you would have imagined. They will push themselves; they will grow; they will achieve their potentials.
However, there are possible downsides. For example, one section of this chapter discusses a project in which students explore architectural and environmental barriers to learning. Suppose that your students find that their classroom and school are beset by major architectural and environmental problems. What happens if your students call a press conference, write a letter to the school board and the mayor, or enlist the aid of a lawyer (perhaps a parent of one of your students) in bring suit against the school district?
Both the upside and the downside potentials should be openly discussed with your students. You may well want to establish ground rules about allowable actions on the part of your students. The development of such ground rules can be a whole-class component of the overall project.
The remainder of the chapter provides some examples of PBL lesson ideas that a number of teachers have successfully used.
The Holiday Greeting Cards project involves preparing and mailing out a large number of holiday greeting cards or letters to one's friends and acquaintances. Spend a minute thinking through this project. It involves things such as:
Notice that many of the steps require careful thought. The overall project requires planning and allocation of resources. What will it cost? How long will it take? How much individual personalization is desirable, and how will it be achieved? When do the envelops need to go into the mail? This project requires a sustained effort, perhaps over a considerable period of time.
There are variations on the project that make it still more complex. For example, suppose that collectively, the students in the class are going to develop a holiday newsletter, with each student writing a piece of it. This adds a new dimension of collaborative writing and desktop publication.
One important role that the teacher plays in a PBL lesson is helping students see the parallels between the project and similar real-world projects. There is a strong parallel between this student mailing activity and what a business does as it prepares and sends a mass mailing to its customers. The mailing may be for billing of customers, or it may be advertising products and services.
The preparation and implementation of mass mailings is such a routine component of business that many business employees work full time on these tasks. This is an area of business that has been highly automated. The databases are stored on computers. A computer program checks the mailing addresses and ZIP codes against a master file provided by the Postal Service. Bills are generated by computers. Advertising materials are developed using computers for writing and design, and are then published using desktop publishing hardware and software. Materials are printed using high speed presses. Envelops are stuffed using automated equipment. The Postal Service makes substantial use of IT in processing and delivering the mail.
Here are a couple of variations on this project:
Take a look at the classroom in which you teach. It is also the classroom in which your students learn. Is this classroom well designed for teaching and learning? Is it a pleasant place to be? You and your students spend a lot of hours in this classroom. What would make it better?
The term "environment" has many different meaning. For example, the term is used in talking about nature and about water pollution. It is used in talking about a social environment of a community or a school. And, it is used in talking about a physical or architectural environment.
This specific example focuses on the architectural environment, including such items as access, heat, light, and space. A school and its classrooms, playgrounds, and other physical environment should be designed to help the school accomplish its mission.
How are teaching and learning affected by the architectural environment of a school? For example, is learning adversely affected by poor lighting, extremes of temperature, or furniture arrangements? What is a good architectural environment to facilitate teaching and learning?
Questions such as these can be used as the basis for a variety of interesting and challenging PBL lessons. Here is an example of a sequence of related PBL projects.
B. How much and what kind of light is appropriate? How can a classroom be designed to facilitate use of media such as television, computer projection devices, and computers?
C. What classroom temperatures, air quality (for example, amount of air pollution), and ventilation (air flow) are most appropriate? How can one measure and monitor these variables?
D. How should a classroom be designed to make it easy for students to hear each other and the teacher, and to see visual media presentations and the teacher?
E. What are the special needs of students and staff who are physically challenged? Of course, access to the school building and classrooms is one consideration. But, there are also issues such as access to science laboratory equipment and to computers. The layout of furniture in a classroom may need to be adjusted to fit the needs of a wheelchair-bound student or a blind student.
F. What about safety considerations? Possible safety threats include fire, chemicals (in a science lab), students pushing and shoving in the hallways and on stairways, and very bad weather.
G. What about esthetic considerations? Are teaching and learning affected by wall color, interior decorations, appearance of the building, and plants/shrubbery within and outside the building?
H. For each of the above, what are the city, state, and federal building code and other legal considerations or requirements? What is the history of these codes and legal considerations?
B. Are there significant difference between cities, states, or countries in terms of the answers to 1) above?
C. What can we (the students in a class, for example) do to improve the architectural environment of our classroom and school? Who can we enlist to help us? What are sources of resources?
D. How can we (students doing the projects) effectively share what we learn so that it will help other students throughout our school, school district, state, nation, and the world?
The same general approach can be used to study the architectural environment of other buildings or of a city. Architecture is an interdisciplinary subject. Notice also that these architectural environment questions can be used in at a variety of grade levels and in different subject areas. Some of the students engaged in this type of project may decide that they want to seek further education and a career in architecture.
The natural environment provides many different interesting and challenging projects. Most often such a project will focus on a local, regional, national, or international problem. A local problem can be worked on by teams of students--including teams from different classes in the school, and teams from different schools. Statewide, national, and global problems can be worked on by teams from diverse locations.
The National Geographic Web Site offers a wide range of natural environment materials <http://www.nationalgeographic.com/main.html/>. It provides a good example of a commercial site that has a lot of content of interest to students and teachers. From the main menu you might want to look at Resources for Kids.
Water is a natural resource that can be the basis for a variety of IT-assisted PBL lessons. A particular location may have too much water (floods) or too little water. The water may be polluted. There may be conflicting demands being placed on the water, such as recreation, agriculture, and manufacturing.
Air quality is another problem area that can be the basis for IT-assisted PBL lessons.. Air pollution may be local, such as in a valley where air inversions trap automobile exhaust fumes. What are the levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants in your school or on your school grounds? Acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer are global problems.
Weather and weather forecasting can be the basis of a wide range of IT-assisted PBL projects. Weather forecasting is a high tech field, making extensive use of IT. How do we know about weather from 10's of thousands of years ago, before written records were being kept? What evidence do we have of global warming? What might be causing global warming, and what can we do about it?
PBL based on natural environment problems tend to have many characteristics in common. Here are some questions to ask at the beginning of the project:
These types of questions suggest that such projects require a substantial amount of research. Part of the research can be done through examination of historical and current records. Part can be done by interviewing people and representatives of companies. Part may require gathering empirical data.
Here are some common aspects of conducting empirical research;
Research done in the field is difficult and time consuming. When done as part of a comprehensive project, it can help students to learn a great deal about how people "do" science. Notice that the focus is on learning and doing science. The process may involve use of a wide range of scientific instruments as well as IT technology. Indeed, modern science is highly dependent on IT and on IT built into scientific instruments. But, the focus is on learning and doing science.
Chapter 1 uses an IT-assisted PBL historical newspaper lesson for illustrative purposes. This section discusses some additional ideas on history lessons.
To begin, let's go back to one of the first principles in designing curriculum. Every subject matter (every curriculum area) can be organized on the basis of the main (central, big, seminal, unifying) ideas. Identification of the big ideas is good starting point for the development of a lesson plan on a particular curriculum topic. Once you have a good understanding of the big ideas and the big sub-ideas in a specific curriculum area, you can then begin to thing about which methods from your teaching repertoire might best help students learn the curriculum area.
Historians develop their understanding of history by pursuing many different big ideas. For example, economics (business, trade, trade routes) provides a way of looking at history. Social units and social organizations (family, community, schools) provide a way to look at history. Dynamic leadership (individuals with unusually powerful leadership characteristics) provides a way to look at history. Big events (for example, the large increase in women working in factories that occurred during World War II in the United States) provide a way of studying history. And, of course, historians study the history of the development, implementation, and consequences of the big ideas in all fields.
It is easy to see that history is a relevant component of every discipline taught in schools, as well as being an important subject area in its own right. Think about some non-history discipline that you teach. Identify one of the big ideas. Then think about the history of that big idea, and how the big idea changed the discipline and/or the world. You now have the basis for an interdisciplinary project!
For example, in biology courses and in health courses students learn about germs. Aha, a big idea. How has medicine been affected by our steadily increasing knowledge of micro-organisms that cause disease? What were the major historical developments? How have vaccines changed the world?
History projects require careful research based on multiple sources of information. If recent history is being studied, interviews with participants and/or others who were alive at the time provide important information. There may be photographs, audio recordings, and video recordings. Historical documents and artifacts from the specific time period may bring a perspective that is quite different from what one finds in books and articles written years after the time period.
A historical project might culminate in a written document, an electronic multimedia document, a performance, or a presentation. Each can be an excellent way to share one's findings and analysis.
Many teachers make the mistake of having a history PBL focus mainly on the use of IT, rather than on the history being studied. For example, a history or social studies teacher might give the assignment, "Create an interactive hypermedia stack that contains at least eight cards and is about the development and initial use of vaccines to prevent disease." This is an assignment about creating an interactive multimedia stack--it is not a history assignment.
Contrast this with having a focus on historical research based on multiple sources of information and multiple perspectives. Students learn to learn history, and they learn to do history research. They learn that the results of historical research can be presented in a number of different ways. One form of presentation is an interactive multimedia stack. This form of presentation has strengths and weaknesses relative to the large number of other forms of presentation and representation that are available. The specific form of representation and presentation that one uses for a historical study should take into consideration the intended audience and the intended purpose of the study.
A number of math educators support the idea of using a constructivist approach to math education. The Standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics place a major emphasis on student generating and testing hypotheses, doing math explorations, and learning to solve a wide range of problems using mathematics as a tool.
IT brings new dimensions to math education. Four examples include:
One of the big ideas in mathematics is that most of the math that is taught in schools is rooted in historical attempts to find solutions to important problems faced by people. For example, geometry and trigonometry are rooted in earth measure, surveying, map making, and keeping track of one's location during an ocean voyage. This suggests that for any particular topic being studied in math, the following two questions can be asked:
The first question is critical to constructivism-based teaching and motivation. Students build upon their current knowledge. Different students form different answers to "What good is it?" Much of the motivation for learning is internal--intrinsic motivation. If a student is unable to develop internally satisfying answers to "What good is it?", learning will be severely hampered. While a teacher can talk about the possible value of a particular topic in mathematics, the teacher's answer will often be different that the answers that students develop for themselves.
The second question is important because mathematics and information technology are inextricably intertwined. Each is a source of problems for the other, and each is an aid to solving the problems in the other. That is why college majors in Computer and Information Science are required to take a lot of mathematics coursework.
These two questions can serve as the basis for a year-long project in which students work together to produce a document (print or electronic) that answers the questions. The intended audience may be the students themselves as well as students who will take the course in the future.
The examples given so far have been discipline oriented. The remainder of the examples in this chapter focus on IT tools. A project might focus on specific tools, or specific tools might be one of the focuses in a non-IT curriculum area.
Here are two big ideas in the publication world:
It is important to recognize that desktop publication of hard copy materials and the electronic publication of interactive materials are each complex and large fields of study. A large number of people make a living through their expertise in these fields. There are hundreds of books and an extensive research literature to support these endeavors. A good summary of key ideas is given in Yoder & Smith (1995).
The complexity of the desktop publication and interactive electronic publication fields creates a major challenge to teachers. Students enjoy having access to the power (the adult tools) for desktop publication and interactive electronic publication. They are quite willing to learn by doing, to learn by trial and error, to learn from each other. They are not bothered by the fact that the teacher does not know all about these exciting, rapidly changing areas.
But, what is the role of the teacher? How does the teacher develop lessons, provide feedback, help students learn, and assess student learning when the teacher has quite limited knowledge and skills in these areas? These questions are addressed in more detail in Chapter 7, which covers assessment. Keep in mind that one of the goals in an IT-assisted PBL lesson is to create an environment in which the teacher will learn. Develop lessons where the major focus is on the subject matter content area (the non-IT curriculum), where you have a high level of experience and expertise. Make it clear to the students that you and the students are learning together--that this is a unique opportunity for all of you to work together in a community of learners.
The Web is a worldwide digital communications system. Email has become an everyday tool of many millions of people. Audio and video messages are now digitized and transmitted over the Web. Students from throughout the world can interact with each other using these various forms of digital communication.
Email is inexpensive and relatively reliable. It makes it possible to carry out collaborative projects with participants from throughout the country or throughout the world. The possibilities seem limitless. Here are two major categories of such projects:
Email-based projects can have a variety of goals. For example:
There are a number of software tools that are now considered to be "generic," or general purpose. Examples include word processor, database, spreadsheet, paint and draw graphics, hypermedia, and telecommunications (including email and the Web).
The International Society for Technology in Education has developed a set of National Educational Technology Standards for IT in K-12 education (ISTE, 1998b). These are available on the ISTE Web site (1998a). These standards include a focus on students learning to use the generic tools and then having the use of these tools integrated throughout the everyday curriculum.
In these standards, the expectation is that students will develop a reasonable level of functionality in using a wide range of generic tools by the time they finish the sixth or seventh grade. As such standards become widely accepted and implemented, teachers at the grades 8-12 level will be able to assume that their students are facile in using the generic tools.
This means, for example, that for any topic that such a teacher is teaching, the teacher can ask students to do projects exploring roles of the generic tools in solving the problems and communicating the results. To take a specific example, consider the set of graphing tools in a modern spreadsheet program. Study and research in many different subjects requires the gathering, analysis, and representation of data. Data might be represented by a pie chart, a bar graph, a line graph, a scatter plot, etc. For a given type of data, what form of graph best communicates the data?
What are students in other schools in the city, state, nation, and world learning about the generic tools? How do the standards being developed in the United States (or in specific states) compare with the standards being developed in other countries? How can one compare knowledge and skills that students in widely scattered locations are gaining? These questions can be the basis for interesting and challenging projects.
Any academic discipline can be analyzed from the point of view of the problems that it addresses and methodologies used to solve these problems. Every teacher teaches problem solving. Computers and other information technology are an aid to problem solving.
Appendix C of this book presents a general overview of problem solving. One of the most important ideas in problem solving is building on the previous work that has been done by yourself and others. Nowadays, the knowledge and skills may be embodied in IT hardware and software, and in the rapidly growing Global Digital Library.
The previous section of this chapter discussed generic computer tools. In addition to generic tools, there are special purpose computer tools that have been developed in each academic area. Within any course, students can work individually and collectively to identify these tools, learn their uses, learn how to use the tools, and study the impact that the tools are having on the course The professional IT tools of an artist and quite different from those of a musician or an engineer.
Here is a word of warning. If you assign such a project, be prepared to deal with student findings that part of what you are teaching is now out of date and may be irrelevant because of progress in information technology. For example, graphing calculators and computers with graphing software are very accurate and fast at graphing functions. What level of by-hand graphing skills should students be expected to gain in a math course? Or, consider computer-assisted design. This computer capability has almost completely replaced the types of skills that used to be taught in Mechanical Drawing courses at the high school and technical school levels.
Another example is provided by the IT hardware and software that has been developed by the music industry. Must is created, stored, edited, and performed using these facilities. This has transformed the music industry. Even elementary school students can learn to make use of these facilities. They can compose music either as a goal in its own right or as a component of a larger project.
IT-assisted PBL lessons can be developed in every academic area. Chapter 8 discusses the future of IT in education. The future that is envisioned is one in which IT becomes ubiquitous--everywhere available. IT becomes a routine everyday tool at work, at play, and at school. Interactivity, communication, Global Digital Library, and other IT-assisted aids to problem solving will come into routine use. IT-assisted PBL is an instructional environment that can help prepare students for this future world of ubiquitous computers.
Welcome to the Global SchoolNet Foundation (GSN) web site! You'll love this site if you want to:
We here at GSN spend lots of time locating and publishing projects from many different Internet venues from around the world. We offer a one-stop shopping center where you can find out what's happening on the 'net... from teacher-designed projects to major project producers such as NASA, MayaQuest/AfricaQuest, I*Earn, and others.
Like a literary timeline, this site travels from Early American and Colonial American writing up to American prose since 1945. Each of the eight period sections has a list of authors, with a biography and summary of works. Here is a companion source for the bounty of full texts found on the Internet, providing background to the texts, their literary setting, and contemporary works. It is an fine tool for teaching and studying American literature, either as a whole or by period.
The United States Department of State has assembled here a stunning resource for the study of environments, weather, and immediate challenges to our species and the natural world. State Department Press Statements and Fact Sheets introduce the site, which offers hundreds of photographic images of fires and weather from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and fire maps from the Forest Service. Currently, one of the pages is tracking Hurricane Pauline, with statistics and images. This site is a rich reference for science departments at colleges and high schools, as a continually updated visual and factual source to inform opinion and assist study of fundamentally important issues.
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