Project Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional model that encourages active participation of students throughout the learning process. The Buck Institute describes PBL as, “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge” (http://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl).
As middle school teachers seek to create and facilitate meaningful learning experiences in all content areas through a lens of PBL, one of the recurring questions about implementation is, “What tools—specifically digital tools—are available, user-friendly, and effective for PBL learning experiences?”
There are many digital tools you might consider using! Due to the wide assortment that exists, it is recommended that you investigate and sample different options. As you analyze possible digital tools to use with middle grades students, consider the three Cs that are often associated with PBL: creativity, collaboration, and communication.
Using these attributes of PBL to inform your thinking may help you identify which digital tools are most useful and effective for the various PBL experiences in which you and your students are engaged.
Below are descriptions of several digital tools that teachers and students may use during PBL experiences that also reflect the characteristics of the three Cs.
Creativity and Communication Tools
One important piece of the PBL puzzle is the public presentation of student-created, unique products. Creativity and communication tools in PBL classrooms are those that allow for student expression of their projects, ideas, and products of PBL work. Many tech tools fall into the category of productivity or presentation tools. Here are a few notable mentions:
Prezi is a web-based presentation tool. It is a free and fairly easy-to-use tool for the presentation of written ideas, audio-visual products, and web-based creativity. Stocked with adjustable templates and the option for unique presentation building, Prezi is a digital tool for students seeking to showcase finished project work.
For classrooms that make use of Google tools, Google Slides are another creativity/presentation option for students engaged in PBL experiences. Similar to PowerPoint, Google Slides are web-based and allow for audio-visual imports and hyperlinks to other Google and web-based pages. Students can use Google Slides to present innovative products. It is also easily accessible on the web through a sign-in to Google Drive.
While Glogster requires a subscription, it is a web-based tool worth consideration. Students can gather evidence of their problem posing, research, planning, and unique product work and present it all for public viewing. Aside from the required subscription, Glogster is another easy-to-use creativity option.
Powtoons and Apple iMovie
For creativity products that involve video, options such as Powtoons and Apple iMovie (an app) are classroom-friendly. Powtoons is a free, web-based tool, wherein students can create their own cartoon-like video presentations. The final products are web-based, and can be easily paired with other presentation platforms such as Prezi or Google Slides. For Apple classrooms, iMovie could be a go-to for student-created audio-visuals. The trailer feature is a simple way for students to produce short, creative video spots.
Weebly is a free website-building option that students might use to create their own websites to showcase the questioning, research, and product components of their project work. Using a digital resource such as Weebly provides a certain real-world element to the PBL process—an important aspect of student work in the 21st century classroom.
Throughout work sessions during the PBL process, students will need opportunities for collaboration. Creating such opportunities is essential to foster a supportive learning environment as well as scaffold the development of skills and dispositions of effective team members and leaders. It is important for students to have input and access to the problem-solving processes and product creation that is a part of PBL work in order for them to develop ownership of their work and their learning.
The following are some classroom-friendly options for collaboration:
Padlet is a digital bulletin board. In a brainstorm or idea sharing session, it is a quick and easy digital positing place. It can be open and accessible to all with a link. There are options for viewing and editing privileges. It has the capacity to hold words, images, audio, and video. There is also a moderator feature for organization and management.
With its virtual sticky-note format, StormBoard is another effective option to encourage collaboration, especially during brainstorming sessions in the PBL classroom. It is free, user-friendly, and web-based. Students can use it to organize ideas during any phase of the PBL process.
Google Docs are accessible on the web through a sign-in to Google Drive. They are easy to import from programs such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint—two additional handy resources for PBL experiences. There are also Google Drive apps available for smartphones and tablets that help to promote collaboration in simple ways. For students who are reluctant to move away from computer-based programs and try web-based tools, Google Docs provides a perfect bridge.
The use of digital tools can serve as helpful scaffolds to support students’ adventures in problem solving, questioning, debating, experimenting, and creating on the road of exploration and discovery through PBL.
When thinking about and selecting tech tools for PBL or any teaching and learning framework, it is most important to keep students and learning outcomes as the central focus, integrating digital tools are ways to support and enhance the overall learning experiences of all middle grades students.