One thing that I have learnt over time is that there is no silver bullet in education. However, there are some things that work better than others. The problem with this though is that you do not always know what the ideal solution is until you are in the midst of learning and teaching.
I have taken a range of ICT-based electives for a few years now. From Pulp Publishing to Multimedia. One of the biggest changes that has occurred during this time has been a transition from teaching ICT to teaching through ICT. One of the consequences of this change has been the search for the best way to teach technology without actually teaching the technology. One of the answers that I have found is the notion of Project Based Learning.
I first stumbled upon Project Based Learning via a post from +Rich Lambert looking at the difference between Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning. After exploring a range of free resources provided by BIE, such as Rubric for Rubrics, and incorporating some of these into my teaching, I got to a point where if I really wanted to see its worth, that I really needed to enter into it in a more whole hearted manner. I had already seen some of the issues associated with Inquiry Based Learning as the school actually prided itself on being an inquiry school with various ‘critical’ friends, such as Jen Wilson and Kath Murdoch.
I just needed a little bit of encouragement and that came in the form of a post ‘PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle‘ from +Bianca Hewes. I always felt comfortable with structuring an inquiry unit. However, some of my early experiences with inquiry had petered out in the middle section and dragged at the end. Hewes’ post provided a wide array of resources and was the impetus for throwing myself into the wolves once again. To relinquish control in the hope of empowering students in their learning. I decided that the best place put PBL to the test was in my Year 9 Elective entitled Digital Publishing.
Context & Background
Small businesses, home office workers and social organisations often find it necessary to prepare their own advertising flyers, promotional pamphlets, menus, display notices, catalogues, timetables, tickets, letterheads, business cards and web pages. However, the question that people often ask themselves, how can it be done easier and quicker? Students in Digital Publishing will explore different information and communication technologies and reflect upon their potential. This elective will culminate in the creation of the Year 9 Yearbook.
Blurb from the Year 9 Elective Handbook
If you ask anyone, Digital Publishing is the subject where the students make the Yearbook. What that actually means, no-one really cared too much. So, Just as +Anne Mirtschin describes trialling gaming because she wanted to see their potential, I wanted to trial getting the students to produce real and authentic publications from scratch to see what would happen if students were given control over an authentic task. So other than creating the yearbook, I really had a blank slate on which to work upon. Spurred by +Jim Sill‘s call during his keynote at the Melbourne Google Education Summit 2013 to allow creativity in the classroom and let go, I let go – a bit.
Publishing with Purpose
I started the class off with a focus on publishing with purpose. One of the challenges that I had spent hours racking my brain trying to come up with an authentic task for students to complete in order to learn and explore the different ways we can publish digital content. A few years ago, when the focus was on the tool, not the task, I had methodically gone through a range of applications and programs with the students. Although some students got something out of this, surprisingly, there was little engagement overall. I therefore came up with the idea of creating a publication for students and staff focusing on programs and applications to use when programming.
In unpacking this task, students grappled with a number of challenges and issues, such as:
- What programs should be reviewed
- What should the structure of each of the reviews be
- What program should be used to create the publication
- How would the publication be organisation
Each of these questions was discussed by the class in a communal manner. Once this was done, each of the students chose their own program and went about exploring.
There were quite a few issues that arose out of the process, such as some students taking more responsibility than others, as well as a lack of care and consistency for the end product. In addition to that, some students took the task as being able to find other examples of tutorials and ‘borrow’ from them.
Some of the reasons for this were that students did not believe that anyone would actually use the document, even if it were shared with staff and students, because if people really wanted to find such information then they could look it up themselves. Another issues was that I took on the responsibility of being the project manager and bringing the end product together. I think that this was the biggest mistake, because many students showed little care for what they submitted, believing that I would fix up any mistakes.
After my mixed experiences with exploring different types of publishing, I took a different tact with the Yearbook. Instead of controlling the structure of the project, I stepped back. I handed control over to the class and instead of being the focus of the lesson, I stepped aside and simply added comment as a kind of devil’s advocate, querying decisions and posing questions when students stopped talking.
Initially, I had thought that the yearbook would simply be a digital publication, a PDF publication, that students would get access to. With little money in the budget, I was unconvinced as to how we would get the yearbook published. However, the students had a different idea. They did some research, surveyed the staff and students in Year 9 and even made some calls to some companies. Next minute, they had teed up a trial and demonstration from Fusion Yearbook Australia.
Associated with this, the students had looked at some examples of yearbooks and brainstormed a list of things that they thought should be included. Once they had refined this list, they then divvied up the list amongst themselves, with students working in pairs. In addition to the various jobs, such as student profiles, elective reviews and organising photographs, two students were chosen to oversee the whole project, helping out where needed and making sure that everyone knows what needs to be done.
The students then proceeded through what Hewes’ describes as the ‘mushy middle’. One of the biggest difficulties faced was in gathering together all of the content and information. A part of the problem was that the photographs and reviews had to be gathered. In addition to this, just as with the first project, some students put in more effort than others. This led to a tight situation in regards to submitting the yearbook online on time, which meant that instead of having a few weeks to thoroughly edit and proofread the finished product as a class, this process was left to a group of dedicated few, who gave up their own time to make sure everything was as it should be.
Although I had always intended to implement many of Hewes’ initiatives, such as developing a comprehensive project calendar, creating a contract and constructing a self-assessment rubric, once I had relinquished much of the control to the students, they were sometimes hard to implement. Often, the class leaders thought that some of these things were a waste of time and were really about me taking back control.
Although running a class on passion led to some great initiative on behalf of some, it still had the problem of everyone being being passionate about the task, which was not always the way. I guess though that this is sometimes the risk, if you are not willing to fail, then sometimes you cannot really succeed. My only concern is that sometimes I felt that the class failed more than it succeeded.
Once the yearbook had been submitted to the publishers, the class came up with a list of suggestions for future students and this is what they came up with:
- Maybe use Microsoft Word, instead of Fusion, unless the Internet is improved.
- Spend less time planning what needs to be done and more time doing it.
- Find an ‘alternative’ to student laptops, as they are too slow and crash all the time
- Collect images from the start of the year, rather than wait until the end.
- Have people should take more ownership over editing of their own work.
- Be clear and consistent about the fonts, layouts and backgrounds used.
- Split tasks so that each individual knows what to do to help with accountability.
- Develop a ‘cheat sheet’ for students, which include jobs, layout and timeline.
- Have a weekly update as to where things are at and a list of any new jobs.
- Create clear descriptions and expectations for the different roles
Although I did not agree with all of their points of reflection, it was interesting what the students identified in their sometimes scathing review.
Learning is about Lessons Learnt
Some of the lessons that I learnt from the whole unit include:
- Be more stringent with timelines. That means not only providing the due date, but breaking projects up into its part and providing each of these a due date too. I had encouraged students to set both short and long term goals in regards to the project and was hoping that managing deadlines would be a part of this. However, some students are better at setting goals than others.
- Plant the seeds for the task earlier on in the year. That means that people need to be aware from the very start where to save photographs or submit reviews to.
- Be clearer with descriptions of the different roles and the project as a whole. It is funny reading back through Hewes’ post now, especially when she says things like, “I thought team contracts were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students.” I could not agree more. I did not implement them because I thought that the students would laugh at them, telling me that they were for primary classes. Whereas now I think that they were exactly what was needed, something that they could refer back to, a reference point, a set of expectations that everyone agrees to.
- Support the People, not the Project. I really did not know where to step in and when to stay out. I was so worried about it being the students work that I don’t think that I got involved enough. Although I helped a few groups solve some of their problems, I think that I could have done more equipping the leaders in the class by sitting down with them and not just discussing the project, but also helping them to better facilitate the project. Although they did a fantastic job, they still needed prompts and guidance and I could have done this better.
In the end, I am not sure that this is the best representation of Project Based Learning or if it really constitutes Project Based Learning at all, for the end goal/product was decided upon prior to starting. However, I learnt a lot about how students learn and look forward to running the class again this year.
Would love your thoughts and comments below, especially about how you think that the whole process could be improved.