I’ve long been an advocate of project-based learning, or PBL. Done properly, it can be much richer in terms of learning opportunities, and more fun. I believe it is entirely applicable to the teaching of the new Computing Programme of Study, for the following reasons.
First, though, a definition of project-based learning. What I mean by that term is the setting of a problem that has several potential dimensions. For example, the problem might be along the lines of:
How can we reduce the number of road accidents in the area?
To address that will require any or all of the following:
- Collaboration with others
- Drafting up plans
- Writing a personal safety app, perhaps using pseudocode in the first instance
- Presenting and obtaining feedback on the ideas/plans/app
- Prototyping of the app
- Presenting findings and recommendations
Road safety is a potentially very rich topic for project-based learning in computing and ICTI can think of more you could do with this suggestion, but that’s enough to be thinking about for now!
What I do not mean by the term “project-based learning” is telling the kids to do some research about the Vikings and then turn it into a PowerPoint.
OK, so now that we’re on the same page, what are the main advantages of the PBL approach?
The projects can be real, or at least realistic
The example given above is a prime example of this. Road safety is an issue, so a project that successfully addresses it can have real-world application immediately. See 7 Ways to make IT real for more on this.
Pupils learn on a need-to-know basis
That’s the way people learn in real life, surely? If you wanted to create a pop-up message in a program, you’d find out how to do just that. You wouldn’t try to learn the whole programming language “just in case”. Similarly, in the scenario posited above, pupils would learn what they needed to know in each of the areas suggested as they needed to know them. Then later on, they would build on their knowledge and understanding as they need to do something different or more complicated.
The approach amalgamates computing and digital literacy
At least, it has the potential to. In order to develop a suitable app, to take the road safety example, pupils would have to carry out surveys to find out what people thought they wanted, then draft something that would work not only in a technical sense, but in a usability sense. There’s no point in having a fantastically brilliant program if its user interface requires a degree in Computer Science to use!
It requires peer collaboration
If the project idea is rich enough, pupils will have to collaborate with others in order to be able to cover it adequately. Assuming you don’t give them two years to complete it, that is.
The approach lends itself to working with external people and organisations
Again, take this road safety example. It lends itself to inviting in the local police safety officer to give a talk or, better still, put on a mini-exhibition and run some activities on a road safety theme, in order to set the scene. Perhaps once the project work is well under way, pupils could give a presentation to the road safety team at the local council, to obtain feedback on their ideas.
There’s more time for depth and breadth
Although mini-projects have a place (not least to give pupils the experience of doing project work), as do extended projects, I prefer ones that last around six weeks, ie half a term. That length of time gives plenty of scope for the pupils to get their teeth into it, exploring some aspects in depth, and/or casting their net wider than might be possible if they had only a week or so. That’s also where peer collaboration comes in of course.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
This to me is one of the key things that PBL addresses. Knowing how to write an app, or carry out a survey and analyse the results in a spreadsheet, or design a user-friendly interface are all useful skills to have. However, it’s possible to acquire a high level of skill in each of those (and other) areas, and still not be able to create a program that is both useful and usable in a particular situation. That is the main problem with breaking down the curriculum into a fine-grained list of all its component parts. You can easily end up with pupils who have mastered a kind of shopping list of skills without having the foggiest idea of how they all fit together.
The work is more interesting
Why? Because it's extended, so kids can really get their teeth into it.
Project-based learning is not without its challenges, of course. See 9 Challenges of Project-Based Learning.
An earlier version of this article was published in 2013.