A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Technology and Education Reform: Technical Research Report - August 1995

8. Technology Supports for Project-Based Learning

In the introduction to this report, we presented a reform-oriented model of constructivist learning. Authentic, challenging tasks embedded in long-term projects were at the heart of that model. We argued that centering instruction around meaningful tasks would create pressure for the other kinds of reforms that educational researchers advocate--specifically, for collaborative learning, heterogeneous groupings of students, teachers acting as facilitators rather than lecturers, multidisciplinary curricula, longer blocks of time, and more authentic forms of assessment.

Our premise in designing this study--in selecting our schools and sample classrooms and in developing our observation and interview protocols--was that technology could provide significant supports for the implementation of this particular model of constructivist learning. In this chapter, we examine the evidence for that hypothesis.

Ways in Which Technology Supports the Model

Authentic, Challenging Tasks--Both observational and interview data from our case studies provide confirming evidence for the proposition that technology is an important enabler for classes organized around complex, authentic tasks. When technology is used in support of challenging projects, it in turn can contribute to students' sense of authenticity and to the "real-life" quality of the task at hand. As one teacher put it, students need to feel that they are "using real tools for real purposes." Being able to access the tools that are used by professionals for similar tasks allows students to aspire to a level of work and quality of product that more closely reflect what they see and know of the outside world. Bay Vista students, for example, used HyperStudio to create multimedia reports that included not only text but also digitized photographs and sounds as well as artwork. At the School of the Future, students in an architecture and design class used computer-aided design programs to plan and design a home for a hypothetical family with specified needs and financial resources.

By the upper elementary grades, students evidenced an awareness of the standing of the technology they were using with respect to a professional community of practice and a preference for working with the same hardware and software tools as professionals:

The kind of musical [technology] that we have here is the stuff that professional musicians dream of . . . . They're wishing they had this kind of technology. It costs literally thousands of dollars.

--Fifth-grade student

We should be able to learn to use [commercial technology] more, because if we learn how to use it, it is going to be as easy as the school equipment, and it will be higher technology. You'll be able to do more, do more things, and be more flexible.

--Fourth-grade student
Bringing the outside world into the classroom through the use of telecommunications adds another dimension of authenticity to schoolwork as students are able to link with real people and places, as well as public databases (e.g., NASA, NOAA), as information sources. Maynard Computer Mini-School students, for example, experienced an increased sense of communication with external communities not only by obtaining information from external sources but also by creating documents describing school activities for their Gopher server and their own World Wide Web home page:
It only takes a little mouse. Click on that and you've got the whole world on the computer.

--Fifth-grade student
Exhibit 9 provides three examples of challenging, authentic projects supported by technology.

Exhibit 9

Examples of Authentic Activities Supported by Technology

Multicultural Heroes Project

In a fifth-grade bilingual class at John Wesley, students engaged in a year-long project in which they developed multimedia descriptions of the lives of minority group members who had achieved prominence within the students' local community. The project was motivated by the lack of curriculum materials focusing on Latino role models written at a level appropriate for students just transitioning to using English in the classroom. The project involved identifying local Latino, African-American, and Vietnamese leaders (including politicians, businessmen, researchers, and educators), conducting and videotaping interviews, and composing written highlights from the interviews. Technology made it possible for students to aspire to producing, and making many copies of, multimedia materials with a quality of appearance that would tempt others to purchase them.

The City Building Project

Each year, students in this mixed-age (8 to 10) team-taught class spend a good part of their year on a project designing a city of the future for the urban area in which their school is located. Students divide into neighborhood groups that must work together to decide what will be built in their area of the city. Each child is responsible for an individual parcel within the neighborhood. Students also have membership in city commissions (e.g., Environment, Building and Safety), which may pass regulations that apply to all of the neighborhoods. In the case of a controversial issue (e.g., treatment of the infirm elderly), students may develop a survey and administer it to their classmates to determine public opinion.

With one computer for every two students in the class, students are able to use technology when they feel it would support their assigned tasks. Students use word processing software in writing their city plans and descriptions. A drawing program (Canvas) is used when they need to design objects and buildings. HyperCard stacks and animations are used to illustrate the work of the various city commissions and neighborhood groups. Spreadsheet software is useful when it is time to calculate the effect of a decision under consideration on some variable (e.g., the effect of a building height limit on the number of residents that can be accommodated) and to graph survey responses. A portion of the city-building activities were videotaped and edited to produce QuickTime clips for a multimedia record of the project.

A Student-Run Manufacturing Company

Students in this middle school industrial arts class form companies and produce products such as wine racks, cabinets, or folding wooden stools for sale. Students elect company officials and divide into work teams to enact the various operations of a company. Many of the team activities are supported by technology. For example, the Finance Team uses computer spreadsheets to find the lowest-cost materials and to create financial statements for the company. The Research Team uses drafting software in drawing up design plans. The Marketing Team uses the word processor in creating advertisements and product descriptions. A videocamera is used in creating commercials for the product; the commercials are then aired over the school's broadcast system. Most products require use of a computer-controlled lathe or mill. Final production is conducted assembly-line fashion, with the parts laid out in specific locations and some students acting out the parts of robotic arms to place the parts on the line. Products are sold within the school community. Students buy and sell stock in the company, and after the products are sold, stockholders get their share of the profits.

Our emphasis on the way that technology can enhance the authenticity of classroom projects is not meant to imply that using technology will necessarily make a classroom assignment authentic. Authenticity lies more in the goals and content of the activity, as designed by the teacher, than in the use of technology. Our observations across sites gave us the opportunity to contrast skills learning and technology use in isolation with the exercise of the same skills in the context of meaningful projects. Tasks that were grounded in activities that were challenging and made sense to students had a positive impact on their motivation, understanding, and achievement. For example, fifth-graders working on the Multicultural Heroes project at John Wesley (described in Exhibit 9) used word processing to write a series of letters to local businesses requesting donations of goods and services (e.g., camera microphones, printing) and/or participation (e.g., allowing themselves to be interviewed). As they wrote at the computers in pairs, students engaged in lively discussions regarding both the form and content of the letters, seeking out one another's input and revising as they went. They put careful thought into how much and what kind of information to include (e.g., "We have to tell them who we are...") as well as how to present their requests in the most compelling fashion. The activity continued over multiple sessions across several days, culminating in the printing and the actual mailing of the letters. In contrast, at another site, middle school students participated in a 50-minute word processing class that during one class period focused on the writing of business letters. The teacher instructed the students to "just make up" the content (e.g., a request or a complaint to a fictitious business), placing the emphasis of her instruction and feedback on proper formatting and on the mechanics of using a word processor. Many students were at a loss for what to write as they struggled with the task of generating content in the absence of a meaningful context. Some students were visibly bored by the activity, and there was little discussion between students regarding their work.

Longer Blocks of Time--Project-based work generally extends over more days and requires more time in a single day than do more traditional lecture, textbook, or worksheet-based classroom activities. Our observations in classrooms at the case study sites would suggest that when projects are supported by technology, there is even greater pressure for extending the time devoted to a given project or unit of study. Several teachers remarked that once they started using technology in their classrooms they had to increase the length of their rotations. Moving onto computers, pulling up the appropriate files, and accomplishing significant work takes time, and teachers found themselves restructuring the way they use time in the classroom to make it possible.

Another way in which technology use tends to lengthen the amount of time devoted to a given project is the ready availability of a convenient electronic record of prior work. When students have their own folders on a computer, they can easily go back to their work and revise it or amplify it. The pride they take in their technology-based work appears to increase the likelihood that they will revisit it and the capabilities that technology affords for easy modification of one's prior work support the inclination to revise and refine.

Multidisciplinary Student Exploration--In the course of our classroom observations, we saw many multidisciplinary projects. At the School of the Future, for example, middle school students combined art, mathematics, and social studies activities in the course of designing, analyzing, and developing plans for homes for hypothetical families with specified needs and limitations on income. Third- and fourth-graders at the Progressive School take part in a year-long project in which they design a "city of the future" for their metropolitan area (see Exhibit 9). Their science, mathematics, language arts, social studies, and visual arts instruction are all interwoven and embedded in city-building activities.

The Progressive School, School of the Future, John Wesley, and East City High School ACOT program all had explicit policies of designing multidisciplinary courses. Other schools implemented multidisciplinary, thematic instruction more on a project or class-by-class basis, but such activities were still common at our case study sites. (5)

We would be hard-pressed to say that the use of technology prompted this interdisciplinary approach; it seems that the multidisciplinary aspect of these activities was more a by-product of the authenticity and complexity of the tasks (real-world tasks do not come in discrete academic subject matter categories) rather than of the fact that technology was used. The city-building project, for example, existed as a multidisciplinary curriculum prior to the teachers' incorporation of technology into project activities. In contrast, the home planning project at the School of the Future was more directly inspired by a piece of software dealing with multiple aspects of home planning and design. In either case, the use of real technology tools supports a level of task authenticity and complexity that is strongly correlated with multidisciplinary work.

Changed Roles for Students and Teachers--When students are using technology as a tool or a support for communicating with others, they are in an active role rather than the passive role of recipient of information transmitted by a teacher, textbook, or broadcast. The student is actively making choices about how to generate, obtain, manipulate, or display information. Technology use allows many more students to be actively thinking about information, making choices, and executing skills than is typical in teacher-led lessons. Each child can be involved in independent or small-group work with the technology. Moreover, when technology is used as a tool to support students in performing authentic tasks, the students are in the position of defining their goals, making design decisions, and evaluating their progress.

The teacher's role changes as well. The teacher is no longer the center of attention as the dispenser of information, but rather plays the role of facilitator, setting project goals and providing guidelines and resources, moving from student to student or group to group, providing suggestions and support for student activity. The majority of classroom time may be devoted to independent and collaborative projects. As students work on their technology-supported products, the teacher moves through the room, looking over shoulders, asking about the reasons for various design choices, and suggesting resources that might be used. Such changes were reflected in teachers' reports that technology use increased the amount of collaboration, students' regulation of their own learning, and students' teaching teachers, (to be discussed in the next chapter).

Across the case study sites, there were numerous reports that technology had a significant impact on both teacher and student roles:

I truly think that technology has forced us to rethink the way we relate to kids in the classroom. It changes kids' roles so that they become more active and provides them with more kinds of exciting activities, which in essence become more challenging.

--Middle school teacher

I was definitely a sage on the stage when I started and taught math for 12 years, and I was the center of the curriculum and the center of learning, I thought. And as soon as I got computers, I found out, you know, I really don't need to be up there showing them everything. There's a lot of things they can learn on their own. In fact, they're better at learning things on their own and discovering things.

--High school teacher
Teachers who make extensive use of cooperative learning and project-based work develop skills as intellectual "coaches" and undertake a new role as the activity designer and facilitator rather than the chief "doer" or center of attention. Their role is by no means a passive one, however (Means and Olson, 1994), as illustrated by the example in Exhibit 10.

Project-based work and cooperative learning approaches prompt this change in roles, whether technology is used or not. However, technology use is highly compatible with this new teacher role. Several teachers reported that technology led them to give their students more control after they witnessed what students were able to do with technology and how they were willing and able to take responsibility for teaching themselves and one another. Technology facilitates a change in the teacher's role also by making it easier to act as a diagnostician and coach for the cognitive aspects of task performance. Technology can help to make the students' thinking processes more visible to the teacher, something that does not happen when students simply turn in a completed assignment for checking and grading. As teachers observe their students working with computer applications, they can see the choices each student is making, stop and ask about the student's goals, and make suggestions for revisions or different strategies. It is easier also for the teacher to take momentary control of the computer to demonstrate what is meant.

Exhibit 10

Teacher as Facilitator of Technology-Supported Projects

During one of our observation periods, Mr. G., the teacher of the fifth-grade bilingual class engaged in the Multicultural Heroes project, initially worked with a group of students reviewing the videotape of an early interview. Encouraging students to reflect on the adequacy of the questions they had asked, he got them to think about their interview from the perspective of what an audience would want to know (e.g., "She said that she dropped out of school. What more would someone want to know about that?"). Next, he moved to a group practicing their interviewing technique using each other as mock subjects and supported their role play, helping them learn how to serve as helpful critics for each other's performance. Intermittently, he helped students with their use of the computer for transcribing key portions of completed interviews.

Moreover, technology often puts teachers in the role of learner alongside their students. This is a big change from the traditional role of the teacher as the one with all the knowledge and right answers. Instead, students are given the chance to see their teachers struggle with the acquisition of a new set of skills. Teachers who are not threatened by this change in roles report that the experience sensitizes them to the learning process in unexpected ways, giving them new insights into their students as learners. Engaging in the process of exploring technology with their students further provides teachers with an opportunity to demonstrate aspects of problem solving and learning that are rarely made visible in more product-oriented classrooms.

In addition to helping the teacher with technology, students also support the teacher by providing help to their peers. Students who are technology savvy are usually eager to share their knowledge with others. In our observations of technology-using classrooms, we saw numerous examples of students acting as peer coaches for each other, offering advice when a peer had trouble achieving a desired result with the software. Such advice giving was continual when students worked together in small groups, but was quite common also among students working individually on computers. Student coaching roles were generally not something that teachers had set up in any formal way, rather they emerged naturally as part of the parallel technology-based activity in the classroom. Several teachers remarked that the technology stimulated much more advice seeking and giving among students and that this propensity toward collaboration carried over into non-technology-based activities:

It's a much more facilitating atmosphere because kids help each other so much on the computer. It changes the style and tone of the classroom a lot.

--Elementary school teacher
Collaborative Work--Our classroom observations and teacher interviews identified many technology-supported projects in which students worked in teams. In the industrial arts class at South Creek Middle School, for example, students work with technology in teams that set up a company to design, produce, and sell a product (see Exhibit 9). The Research Team uses drafting software to draw the product designs. The Finance Team uses computer spreadsheets to identify the least expensive source of materials and to create financial statements for the company. The Marketing Team creates product descriptions and advertisements using the word processor. The instructor believes that participation in this kind of teamwork is a critical aspect of preparing students for the workplace because "this is what industry is moving towards."

The Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) system used in classrooms at Nathaniel Elementary was designed to support knowledge building through student collaboration in developing and discussing curriculum knowledge. The CSILE software supports students entering their ideas in "notes" and responding to each other's ideas in "comments." Notes and associated comments are linked and disseminated. Students think about arguments made by others and contribute their own ideas. Over time, they learn to cite other students' entries in the process of making their own arguments. As described in the next chapter in Exhibit 12, this technology supported the Archeological Dig Project, in which students were assigned to cooperative groups with responsibility for working on different aspects of the culture for a hypothetical society constructed by the class. Student groups used CSILE to exchange electronic notes with other groups, disseminating their ideas and making sure that the work being produced by the various groups was logically compatible.

Beyond this collaborative software and the larger projects expressly designed for execution by groups such as those described in Exhibit 12, we observed many classrooms in which students wrote collaboratively at the computer in pairs or small groups. The public display of text, the legibility of print, the use of the keyboard as an input device, and the ability to print out multiple copies are some of the capabilities that appear to support collaborative writing at the computer. Working collaboratively, students could subdivide the complex task of composing, allowing individual students to concentrate on one aspect or another and supporting the creation of a better product than a single student could produce alone. Often, one student would concentrate on producing ideas while another did the actual input. In other cases, one student would generate ideas and do keyboard entry while another student or several reviewed the ideas, offered suggestions, and pointed out needed corrections in writing mechanics.

Teachers reported that technology-based tasks can be excellent vehicles for prompting sustained interaction among students. In a fourth-grade class in which native Spanish speakers were transitioning to the use of English, the teacher reported that some students felt more comfortable working in English when they could work in pairs at the computer. We observed two students in this class working their way through a piece of tutorial software, which was written in English. They took turns reading entries, correcting and assisting each other with the more difficult words. They discussed the multiple-choice questions posed by the software and jointly arrived at choices before entering them. The teacher reported that some students who would not speak to her in English would work with an English-language program and speak English with a peer tutor. Several teachers at different sites with local or wide area networks reported that the ability to communicate over a network opened the door to exchanges between students who otherwise might never engage in dialogue. The barriers sometimes associated with differences in age, grade level, gender, and ethnicity appear to be diminished in this context.

Another way in which technology can support collaboration is by providing a record of interactions, which can be used for student and teacher reflection on process skills. The CSILE teachers at Nathaniel used "dribble files" of student CSILE entries in lessons addressing collaboration.

We did mini-lessons on what was a helpful, thoughtful comment.... Then we had the data to look at and analyze and ask, "What did this tell us? Did it further the dialogue?" It helped us continue to support the dialogue on a higher level.

--Elementary school teacher in CSILE classroom
Video technology was used in a similar way in a team-taught class at Maynard Computer Mini-School. The teachers of a mixed fifth/sixth-grade class focused much of their attention during the first part of the school year on teaching students how to work together in collaborative groups. Different groupings were used for book clubs, research assignments, and other classroom work. Group interactions were videotaped, and the videos were used in teacher-structured processes of reflection on what worked and what did not work well within the groups.

Although technology appears to support the socialization of school tasks, as described above, we should note that the classrooms benefiting most from these technology capabilities were those in which cooperative learning skills were a focus and were given explicit training. Classes and whole schools participated in programs in which students learned expectations for interacting with each other, the responsibilities of differentiated roles for cooperative work, strategies for coping with conflict, and the qualities of helpful comments and constructive feedback.

Heterogeneous Groups--One of the by-products of collaborative work on complex tasks is the definition (or evolution) of differentiated roles. The Video Club at Bay Vista Elementary, for example, organized itself into production teams for the recording of school events. Each team consisted of a producer/director, who would oversee the entire production; a camera person responsible for operating the camera and taking care of all video equipment; and a production assistant, who would take care of the unexpected needs that arise during production. The production team for student-mounted events (such as the student news broadcasts at a local cable station) included script writers, production editors, "computer mavens" and artists who created titles and graphics, and "the talent" (students who appeared in front of the camera). Students took turns filling these roles for various events.

At John Wesley Elementary, the fifth-grade students working on the Multicultural Heroes project conducted their videotaped interviews in teams of three. One student was the interviewer, another student operated the video camera, and the third student took notes and served as a critical observer (interjecting questions or comments as needed). After the interviews were completed, the team worked together to transcribe their data at the computer. One student entered text at the keyboard while the other two operated the video recorder, assisted with spelling, and repeated words and phrases as they were being entered.

When complex tasks, collaborative teams, and technology are brought together, a great variety of skills are needed. Command of the subject matter, strategies for obtaining information and solving problems, communication and cooperative skills, and technology skills are all needed. Students who may not excel in one area are likely to excel in another. Especially when students are explicitly taught how to work together in productive teams, the teams evolve to function effectively, with students making diverse contributions.

In many classrooms, teachers purposefully composed groups of mixed abilities, ethnicities, and genders. In classrooms of mixed grades, the ages of students within groups also varied. Such heterogeneous groupings allow for multiple perspectives and diverse skills, enhancing the quality of project work and creating new avenues for individual specialization and peer tutoring.

Performance-Based Assessment--Educational reformers call for new kinds of assessment embedded within learning activities and capturing the kinds of skilled intellectual performances that are the real goals we have for our students (Frederiksen and Collins, 1989). Technology supports this practice when used in the context of meaningful tasks and projects because it provides products (student writing, multimedia presentations, computer simulations, spreadsheets) that can be stored, duplicated, shared, and discussed.

Classrooms in our case study sample, like many classrooms nationwide, were actively developing student portfolios, and much of the work that went into these portfolios was generated using technology. We were disappointed, however, in that most of the schools and classrooms had not gotten very far in developing criteria for assessing the material in student portfolios in a way that would permit evaluating student performance relative to a set of specific content standards or aggregating information about performance across students. In this regard, the classrooms reflected national trends.


On the whole, the site visit observations and interviews supported the contention that technology supports the implementation of the kind of constructivist learning activities described in our theoretical model. Some aspects of the model may be directly stimulated by technology--notably an increased level of collaboration, heterogeneity of roles, and greater complexity and authenticity in assigned tasks. Other aspects, such as involvement with content that incorporates multiple academic disciplines, may not be caused by technology per se, but are often reinforced by technology use.

Frequency of Technology-Supported Project-Based Learning

It is important to point out that although our case studies provided some rich examples of technology-supported classroom projects exemplifying the characteristics in our model, such activities were not the norm even in most of our case study schools. If a visitor were to go to one of these schools, chances are there would be interesting technology-supported projects going on in some but not a majority of classrooms at any given time.

There are multiple reasons for this. First, project-based teaching places tremendous demands on teachers. Teachers need to think deeply about the things that are most important for their students to learn and to design or adapt projects that will support learning those concepts and skills. They must learn to structure their classroom in such a way that different students or groups of students are working on different aspects of their project at any one time. To do so requires also that they teach their students how to work cooperatively and that they develop skills in supporting student interactions. They must learn to diagnose the thinking of individual students, even when those students are working in groups. And they must develop skills in supporting their students' thinking while still leaving the student the autonomy to explore and test out new ideas. This kind of teaching calls not only for a high degree of pedagogical skill but also for broad content knowledge and for continually tackling new material (Knapp, Means, and Chelemer, 1991). Schofield (1995) documents the stress this kind of change in teaching style imposes on even the enthusiastic teacher convert:

It was a ninth-grade class, and most of the kids in the ninth grade have already worked in a class where a number of things are going on at a time, so it didn't bother them at all. It drove me crazy, but I could see it was benefiting them. I felt torn. I wanted to be with this [person]. I wanted to be with that group. It was just a question of convincing my soul that when there is noise and everybody is doing something different, learning is taking place.

--High school teacher quoted in Schofield (1995), p. 109
Adding technology to the mix exerts yet another set of demands. We have argued above that the combination of technology and a project-based approach to teaching is powerful because it exerts pressure to rethink and restructure all aspects of the classroom. The other side of this double-edged sword is that teachers are being asked to make major, labor-intensive changes, and some if not many will be reluctant to do so. In Schofield's (1995) study of an urban high school in which few classes made use of technology, a teacher candidly expressed his reluctance to make the investment required to change:
I'm the old-fashioned type. I don't want to learn anything new....after so many years, you build up a file on your subjects.... For me to go into teaching computers... I would have to start all over. I would have to actually sit down and work everything out, and it would require a lot more work on my part to run a class the way I want it run.

--High school teacher quoted in Schofield (1995), p. 125
Technology-supported constructivist approaches are articularly energy-intensive for teachers who themselves have not been taught in this way and who need to acquire both the pedagogical and the technological skills required. Even when they have mastered the needed skills, many teachers find it difficult to sustain constructivist teaching approaches over time. At East City High School, one of the most project-oriented of our sites and a center for teacher development, several ACOT teachers expressed the need for periodic "rest" from these highly demanding pedagogical approaches.

Another reason why project-based learning is not more uniformly practiced in the classes at schools we studied is that there are circumstances under which approaches we have characterized as more "conventional"--practice on specific skills, teacher-led discussion-are well suited to the particular student and content at issue. By promoting the constructivist, project-based model of teaching, we do not mean to suggest that all instruction for every student should employ this approach all of the time. We would say, however, that every student should have ongoing, frequent exposure to this kind of teaching and learning and that every teacher should be capable of using this approach with facility. While many teachers are making great strides in increasing their use of project-based constructivist pedagogy, others remain unconvinced or uninterested. Introducing technology as part of the innovation does not make the model easier to implement, but we have seen that it can provide a powerful catalyst for taking on the challenge.

5 Multidisciplinary tasks appear to be more readily adapted at the elementary school level where there is typically greater flexibility in scheduling and a single teacher or pair of teachers (in cases of team teaching) is responsible for implementing the curriculum across most subject areas. An interdisciplinary approach becomes a greater challenge at the middle and secondary school levels, where different teachers are responsible for teaching different subject areas and the schedule is more divided along these lines. In the latter cases, it is necessary to build in time for teachers to meet and plan multidisciplinary projects. One option is to have students work on different aspects of the project in their various classes. Another is to alter the schedule, allowing for large blocks of co-taught project time.


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