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This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Applying classroom learning to the real world can help keep students engaged. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses project-based learning. Hear about this student-centered learning practice that’s designed to teach concepts using real-world problems and challenges. Learn three steps to apply this in any subject area.

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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast today. If you’re looking for a new and interesting approach to working with your online students, you are in for a real treat! Today we’ll be talking about project-based learning. You might have heard of applied learning, real-world learning, civic learning. There are a lot of things in these categories that can be a little bit ambiguous, and we know it would be great to include them. But we’re not exactly sure how.

Today, we’ll talk about that project-based learning in a three-step process to keep it very simple, using some guidelines put out by Jennifer Jump in her “50 Strategies for Your Virtual Classroom,” and a few other resources as well. So, relax and enjoy the next few minutes while we talk about project-based learning, and you can think about how you might apply these in your own online teaching this coming year.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is really for everyone, even when teaching online. In fact, teaching online when you use project-based learning, you’re helping your students do things that are going to apply to the real world. Project-based learning is sometimes abbreviated PBL. So, if you’ve ever heard of that acronym, it’s a student-centered learning practice designed to teach concepts using real world problems and challenges.

A lot of people use it to create a situation where critical thinking skills can grow. And students can produce something that’s very high-quality, deeply engaging, and very much connected to what’s going on out there in the world. For adult learners, this is especially important because we’re thinking a lot about the career field that we’ll be using that learning in. So, project-based learning can be an excellent choice for online adult learners.

Now, if you think about various types of project-based learning, you could think about, let’s just say the elementary school that plants a garden. I used to teach music at an elementary school in Boise, Idaho, where there was such a garden, there were all kinds of plants, a lot of variety, a lot of choices, and the students cultivated them throughout the year. And, at some point, they had a harvest and would celebrate and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Another opportunity for project-based learning that I experienced when I was a young person was Junior Achievement. We would go into the business, study the business, learn about the business, walk around and be involved in the very real actions of that business, while we were in high school.

Maybe filming a documentary and sharing it out would be another example of project-based learning. There are a lot of ways to use project-based learning in your subject area, you think about what would be real world and applied and you bring in those opportunities.

If you think about it, students are going to be really turned on by this idea, because they’re going to know that this is really going to help them get where they want to go with what they’re learning, especially if these are courses in their major subject area. Project-based learning can be done well, it can also be done in a messy way that doesn’t really help your students very much. So, we want to make sure that you use these three ideas that are quite simple to help you think through your process.

Step 1: EXPLORE: Allow Students to Research Ideas for Projects

The first one is that you’re going to help your students EXPLORE. So, at this level students are going to research. They’re going to explore the information that they’ll need for the project, maybe they’re going to do some reading, some interviewing, some observing, some analyzing of pictures, viewing videos, discussing with others, and walking through whatever the environment is, or the ideas are.

Set Clear Expectations and Guidance

At this level, you would want to make very clear expectations for your students, you can do this in your online course through either written text, through a live synchronous meeting, or through some kind of asynchronous content, maybe that’s going to be an explainer video that you create to guide them through the steps of creating their project that they’ll be doing.

Whatever it is, you want to give them as much clarity as you possibly can. So, they have a lot of guidance to know when they have met the requirements, and what they’re supposed to be learning through doing this stuff. So, give them some guiding questions to help them think through their options and whether things will fit the project.

Provide Plenty of Practice and Discussion Time

And then lastly, give them a lot of practice time and discussion space to toss these ideas around and explore them and interact with each other and with you to get some feedback. The students will be discovering, questioning, gathering, identifying, navigating, responding and doing a whole lot more. So, they’ll be very engaged in the exploration phase as they select their project.

Step 2: EXPLAIN: Students Share Learning and Thinking

On the second phase of project-based learning, this is the EXPLAIN space. And this is where students will share what they’ve learned. So, they’re going to be doing some things in that explore phase, but in the EXPLAIN phase, they’re going to share out their thinking. This might be some kind of a presentation. Maybe it’s a summary that they write up or some kind of tutorial or video or guide that they’re going to create and give other people.

It could be some kind of, as I mentioned before, like a documentary, or another type of walkthrough. So, maybe it’s even a guided experiment, that would especially work well in some of your science-based classes. So, think about how students will explain out what they’re learning.

And then you’re going to give them a framework to share that material. So maybe you’ll have a week that’s set aside just to share that learning. Maybe it’s a showcase, or some kind of an event. If it’s asynchronous, you especially want to be careful to hype it up, make it exciting, and help students know when they will share this out, and in what way they will be evaluated. Encourage them to discuss it with each other and also collaborate with each other. Some project-based learning can be done really well in groups. So, you might think about this as a type of group opportunity.

And then students are going to take action in this phase by filling in the gaps for others, bringing all the information together that they’re thinking about, and sharing it out, organizing the information in some way, and teaching it or telling it to others or presenting it.

Step 3: APPLY to Other Activities or Projects

The last step in this project-based learning cycle is APPLY. So here, students are going to take what they learned and apply it to additional activities or projects. Now, it could be that this is the phase where they’re going out and doing some kind of civic engagement or service learning. So as the instructor, you want to set clear expectations for this part of the application activity, give some evaluation tools before they get started. Help them to know when they’ve done enough or met the requirement or done things in a way that helps further their learning.

Then give some feedback, find a way for them to get peer feedback, get feedback from you. And if they’re doing something out in the world with employers, maybe they’re going to get some kind of employer feedback on what they’re doing.

Students at this stage are going to create a project or maybe a creation of some kind, they’re going to do an experiment or collect data and share it out or respond creatively. If you’re in an arts class, for example, maybe this is where they’re going to write their song and perform it or get into that performance situation and then report back. If it’s a business class, maybe this is where they’re going to go shadow someone in the workplace and learn through doing that and they’re going to share that back.

Whatever it is, these three different stages of the project, the explore, explain and apply, will help you to kind of come full circle and help your students use project-based learning effectively. This is just one way to really engage your students in their online learning. It takes it home for them, it makes it real. So, they’re not just learning about it in the online space, but they’re taking it out into the real world and they’re applying whatever it is they’re learning from you.

It’s a great instructional strategy, helps your students to explore what they’re learning at a much deeper level, and figure out if it works for them how they’re going to actually do something with this learning. It also helps you to see the connection between your classroom and the rest of the world, especially the students’ worlds where they want to go out and get their careers or enhance their careers. I highly recommend trying project-based learning. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of ways we could refer to this. It could be applied learning. It could be service learning; a lot of things are really similar to this.

There are some websites out there that might give you some great ideas. If you’re teaching younger folks, if you’re teaching elementary, junior high and high school students PBL works.org has a section on remote learning. There’s a hyperlink in the notes from today, so check it out.

There’s also a really great section on the edX courses site with some project-based learning courses that you can try for professional development. You could poke through those and find some ideas as well. A great project they have there as an example is to create an iOS app from start to finish, excellent project-based learning opportunity.

There might be an opportunity to use project-based learning with big data, or analytics, deep learning in some kind of a capstone project, or machine learning. There are a lot of opportunities in the sciences and technology fields for project-based learning.

What about in your communication or writing courses? Maybe you want to have students go out and apply those skills by creating a campaign or writing a summary of something they’ve experienced or interviewing someone and writing it up, there are a lot of opportunities there as well.

So, regardless of your subject matter, many different opportunities could emerge that you could apply in the classroom and have your students go out and try on. I hope that this is a great area for you to explore and expand for your students and try in the online space.

I look forward to hearing back from you about how it goes. Maybe you already have some experience here that you can share out with us or maybe you’re going to try this for the first time. Either way, feel free to stop by my website, BethanieHansen.com/request, and share some comments about how it’s going for you in your journey towards project-based learning. And in the year ahead, I want to encourage you and invite you to try this out at least once in one of the courses you’re teaching and see how it goes for you and your students.

Thanks for being here. Thanks for taking this journey with us to find some application that will make learning relevant for our students and connect us to the real world and help the learning to come to life. Best wishes in your best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.