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How to use Project-Based Learning approach to build learning environments

If you’re geeking about pedagogies, you’ve probably heard of the Project-based Learning or PBL approach. If not, don’t worry. We’re going to explore how you can use this approach to improve the way you teach & design your courses.

If you're geeking about pedagogies, you've probably heard of the Project-based Learning or PBL approach. If not, don't worry. We're going to explore how you can use this approach to improve the way you teach & design your courses.

The way we learn today evolves due to the rise of the internet, social apps, and digital media. The digital revolution helps disrupt the old education system and change it in new, practical ways.

There's never been a better time until now that knowledge is easily shared and distributed. Since the rise of online learning is here, how can we assure we're creating high-quality courses for our learners? How can we transform our students' abilities from zero to one?

What is PBL?

PBL is not a modern approach. John Dewey outlined the learn-by-doing concept in his book, My Pedagogical Creed in 1897 where most believe this is the true birth of Project-based Learning.

PBL has been a popular trend in the 21st century. Teachers are not the only ones who are implementing it in their classrooms. There's an increase of instructional designers, course creators, and professional trainers who are using PBL on their courses, training, workshops, and even in the workplace.

So, what is it all about?

You can find hundreds of meanings that explain this approach if you go into the rabbit hole of the web. I've done it and let me summarize what I found. 

Project-based Learning is a method of designing your curriculum around projects that requires students to apply & acquire key knowledge & skills through an engaging experience.

Projects are different from PBL. It's not just “doing projects”, it focuses on the process. The heart of PBL is collaboration and learn-by-doing. Having these two ingredients allow students to gain the 21st century's four competency skills: Collaboration. Creativity. Critical Thinking. Communication.

The 7 Key Elements of PBL

The big question in integrating PBL in your courses is the quality. How can you make sure you are designing a course with a high-quality PBL approach. PBL Works, one of the experts in this field shares their Gold Standard PBL or the 7 essential project elements to ensure that your curriculum is high-quality. 

Challenging Problem or Question

The PBL approach starts with a prompt or a real-world problem or question. It can be related to your students' interests or realities to motivate and challenge them all throughout the project.

Sustained Inquiry. PBL allows students to develop critical thinking by asking questions, finding resources, and applying this information to the project. Teachers or instructors don't need to have all the answers but rather guide or facilitate than teaching the class. This element creates a space for discovery, collaboration, and teamwork.

Authenticity. The project should adhere to real problems that are currently happening in the local or global communities. Authentic means being real, solving real problems, and having a real impact.

Student Voice & Choice. One of the reasons why this approach works is because students are given a space to think critically and voice out their opinions, choices, and findings without being judged. This can be applied through open forums and focus group discussions.

Reflection. PBL Works quoted John Dewey's writing, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Since PBL is a process-focused approach and the metric of success relies heavily on what students learned during the process — a reflection or feedback can be integrated into every stage. It helps balance the students' mindset to get to the finish line while enjoying the learning process.

Critique & Revision. Real-world projects are not linear — and so PBL. This element teaches students to accept constructive feedback from peers, instructors, experts, and other stakeholders. Feedback can be guided by rubrics, models, and formal protocols.

Public Product. Product in PBL means a presentation, a mock-up, a prototype, or any kind of representation of their project results. Oftentimes, products are presented among the class. But if you want to set the bar up, you may invite outsiders such as parents, experts, authorities to see what the students have come up to.

With these 7 elements in mind, you're now able to picture what a high-quality PBL design looks like. You unlocked half of your learning journey on how to use this approach.

Though it isn't just that. Let's now dive into the “How”.

Project-based Learning vs Traditional Teaching Method

How does PBL look like? Real-world Examples

PBL is used in different scenarios. Here are some of the real-world examples of PBL.

  1. PBL in classrooms. The Water Quality Project and Projects that work: Mission to Mars.
  2. PBL in the field. Student Farm
  3. PBL in the workplace. Project-based Learning is similar with what we call Design Sprint that most tech teams used. 

Catch other examples from Cohortland's previous event with expert, Kyle Wagner, where he discussed how PBL works with a very simple exercise. You can also find resources that will help you in designing your course.

Why is it the best approach for cohort-based courses?

A cohort-based course (or CBC) is a modern approach to physical classrooms turned into online learning but with a more robust, learner-centric approach. It's the new format most creators use due to its ability to transform students' skills from zero to one.

Same with PBL, CBCs are centered to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce. The student's success after graduation is so obvious that course creators couldn't help but integrate it into their online courses and bootcamps.

How to use PBL in your learning environments?

After showing you some examples of PBL, it's time to show you how you can use it. It's not a rocket science approach--it's more of experimenting, enjoying the process, and being passionate about teaching your students.

I gathered ideas from Edutopia and Freshgrade, mixing them together with my personal experience. Here are practical and simple ways to start creating your learning environments with PBL:

1. Define the problem or question.

Like any other project, PBL starts with defining a problem to solve or a question to be answered. Teachers identify a topic and ask open-ended questions to involve their students in formulating a problem statement. It creates project ownership which can motivate students to finish and work on the project. Since PBL is authentic, the problem should be realistic and relatable to your students.

For cohort-based courses, you can do this too. You can give prompts and divide your students into 4–5 teams depending on how large your cohort is.

2. Gather data and ideas through inquiry process

Give your students the time to research their topic, refine the problem, gather real-world data through an inquiry process. You can organize a focus group discussion or brainstorming session where each team can practice asking the right questions that will refine their problem.

3. Assess the Project Outcomes

How do you want your students to present their outcomes? Or what learning outcomes do you want from this project? In other sources, this was placed in the last part, however, I think it is helpful to identify the project outcomes first before designing the curriculum.

This is where you create rubrics, criteria, to assess the completion of the project. Some examples are through:

  • Presentation,
  • Product Prototype/mockup,
  • Mastering the content,
  • Providing solutions, etc

It all depends on the problem, prompt, or questions you want to solve.

4. Design the curriculum

Now you have your problem or question, prepare to roll your sleeves and get ready to work in this step! Because PBL is interdisciplinary, design a plan that integrates relevant subjects for the topic. Here are some tips to design it better:

  • Involve your students in the process,
  • Provide a resource library and materials,
  • Create roles to increase accountability,
  • Ask for feedback,
  • Create milestones, and
  • Decide & stick on the timeline

In my previous work, we gamified the curriculum a little bit to make it more interesting. Instead of calling instructors as instructors, we called them Project Client. We called mentors Project Managers and students Project Associates. It creates the feeling of working in the real world! A little twist and fun make the difference.

Since this step will require you a lot of work, I suggest you design your curriculum using an all-in-one online platform to save time by automating repetitive tasks and collecting all resources in one place.

5. Implementation & Monitoring

Probably, this will take 50% of the process. As an instructor, your job is to guide and mentor your students throughout the journey. You may act as the Project client (or a manager if you don't have mentors) where you give your students prompts, ask open-ended questions to help them refine their projects, and lecture on theoretical concepts.

Sometimes, it's also helpful to invite experts during this stage. It helps students to create realistic solutions. You may organize fireside chats, Ask Me Anything chats, and 1:1 mentoring with each team.

6. Presentation & Reflection

Time to present what they have created! You may invite experts, other school staff, or even parents to judge and give feedback on their presentations.

Since PBL is highly-focused on the process, having grade cards (or the criteria cards) shouldn't be the only metric for a successful output. A reflection journal or essay where students write what they have learned during the process should be highly considered.

That's it! I hope this helps you in designing your learning environments using the PBL approach. If done rightly, there is a high chance to transform your students' skills from zero to one and help them acquire the 21st-century skills needed in today's workforce.

Further reading

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