Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Real Projects with Real Challenges (and Kicks)

Nothing could be hotter in Web 2.0 instruction than "Project Based Learning". While neither one would satisfy purists, I have redesigned two American Government projects this semester loosely based on this approach. Relative to what I have offered in the past, they are much more student directed, collaborative, and packed with technology. And they were cool enough to submit with my successful ADE application.

I described the Civil Rights / Liberty Project in "Larry's Adventures in Wikiland, part one" and then evaluated it in part two. I am currently wrapping up my Simulation Project. At this juncture, I have some general conclusions to share:

* I am not remotely interested in hearing a guest speaker or curriculum coordinator taut project based learning unless they have designed at least one and come down into the trenches to guide a group of learners through the experience. If not, these "visionaries" have far more to learn than teach.

* Projects (if they are going to be worthwhile) are very labor intensive upfront. Naysayers will love hearing this as it serves as grounds for them not to go near the stuff.

* Both of my projects would have benefited from collaboration in the planning and execution stages. Project learning cheerleaders will love hearing this because they extol collaboration. (Which is fine if someone else in your department is remotely interested in project based learning).

* It is impossible to debug the project in the design stage. You simply have to go through the pain of a steep learning curve with your first group of co-learners.

* Anyone with an ounce of credibility will acknowledge the pluses and minuses of these projects.

The Negatives

* As I reported in The Digital Natives Aren't Restless, conducting projects with Web 2.0 technology doesn't assure participation. During the wiki project, groups complained about deadbeat members and during the simulation there were students who simply did not post content to web sites.

* The set-up and orientation for online work was far more daunting than I imagined. Keep this in mind when you launch tech projects. All kinds of little bugs appear forcing the teacher to be resourceful with work-arounds.

* Because I enjoy designing systems, I have a tendency to over-complicate in the planning stage. I am learning to simplify and allow the students to complicate with their own ideas.

*Due to my own curiosity and naivete I used WikiSpaces for one project and Google Sites for the other. Thus I went through the set-up headache twice. Next time I will probably use one application for both enterprises.


* You really do get to see another side of your students. I get so tired of English teachers who talk about the "good" kids (The avid readers who arrived to their classes with strong writing skills). With tech projects previously unseen talents for communicating emerge.

*It is quite possible to develop tech aptitude without "teaching" it per se. Once the applications are in place, the kids do a nice job helping each other with bugs and inventive solutions.

*Perhaps because it is new to me, evaluating the projects seemed
less like work. The projects contain terrific variety and many are creative in terms of layout and design. The time did not drag as it does when I check "papers." Tonight I carefully checked thirty web sites. I've also come away with a vivid impression of each student's work.

It's great to be able to switch into a one-on-one mode with students, guiding them and making suggestions. The process lends itself to email. The students who are engaged can take their ideas as far as they wish. I've shared a few tech tips along the way. I have a greater sense of guiding through a shared mission, like a coach.

I remain very enthused about the projects and have every intention of developing them and expanding their use into other courses. But I also wish to firmly communicate that this is heavy lifting. Teachers need more than encouragement and tools to engage in project design. They need time, modeling, training, and support. We don't need cheerleaders.


Ann Lusch said...

Okay, now that I've been encouraged by words like "daunting," "labor intensive" and "heavy lifting," I simply have more questions. What if a hypothetical teacher were considering (considering, mind you) embarking on some kind of project adventure in a course next fall? What if this teacher is someone who hasn't even learned yet how to create a hyperlink? Who only speaks PC and is mystified by ithis and ithat?

Is this possible?

What would be the first steps? And how much do you think this not-entirely-tech-savvy but willing-to-do-some-heavy-lifting teacher could accomplish without having to run to the in-house tech gurus every day?
Just wondering!

Detroit Sports Dork said...

aml, you always have terrific questions that help me think through issues.

I have some suggestions for starting down the path I am wandering.

*Choose a curriculum area that you are itchy to overhaul, anyway, so that you don't feel that inevitable first-time tech issues aren't messing up something that used to be cool.

*Don't put yourself in the position of teaching much of the tech. You'll be hip deep even if you take something very familiar.

*Speaking of familiar, favor it. At our school a critical mass of kids have now experienced Google Sites and Blogger, so they can help each other.

*Talk to another teacher about the pitfalls of of the application before blundering ahead (as I have done).

*As part of your heavy lifting set up a prototype for the students which will be useful for teaching the kids and learning the stuff yourself.

*Consider having the students create something that can be shared with or taught to an audience beyond the class. (highly motivational).

*I either set or had the groups set a timelime for when different phases should be done. This really helped with accountability. But be forewarned (the project based learning gurus never tell you this), students are as likely to let down or b.s. their peers as their teacher.

Hey, I think I have just outlined a future blog! Thanks.

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