How Project-Based Learning (PBL) Helps Empower Digital Citizens

Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

How Project-Based Learning (PBL) Helps Empower Digital Citizens

Posted in Evolving Ed | September 10, 2020

Digital Citizenship: Key “Soft Skills” for a Digital World 

In Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Joseph Aoun identified four main cognitive capacities that will become increasingly critical in the 21st century economy: critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility. This seismic shift in higher education mirrors the shift underway in K-12 education, a shift to new skills and flexible learning settings and styles that has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As traditional cells, bells, and rows of desks are challenged and replaced by a Hybrid Education model that incorporates setups and strategies from both the online and in-person instructional worlds, 21st century skills that are robot-proof, or uniquely human, naturally accompany the transition. Digital citizenship, with its emphasis on safety, security, empathy, and critical thinking, is a perfect framework for helping students succeed in this new world; likewise, project-based learning, or PBL, with its focus on meaningful and relevant instruction and assessment, is a perfect marriage with the soft skills of digital citizenship. 

Project-Based Learning is a 21st Century Assessment Strategy 

Project-based learning is not about “doing a project” in the traditional sense. Remember when the teacher would split you up into groups and have your group “do a project?” Chances are you were completing a group activity, but not engaging in true project-based learning. In a true “main course” PBL setup, the project is the unit of instruction, from cradle to grave. It is totally immersive, with one of the goals of using such a strategy being to engage students so thoroughly that they find themselves in the flow of the project, not the drudgery of an assignment. 

Additionally, PBL is such a great authentic assessment strategy, because students are applying and doing the content, not passively receiving and regurgitating it. Best practices for PBL assessment include, but are not limited to, using project products and outcomes to assess mastery of standards and 21st century skills, a balance of individual and team assessment, structured group protocols and guided activities that incorporate frequent and meaningful feedback, and the use of standards-aligned rubrics for both formative and summative assessment of project objectives. Ultimately, these are practices that help empower students for performance in the digital world and to be better digital citizens because they focus on knowledge synthesis, empowered collaboration, individual and team accountability, technical skills, and more. 

Project-Based Learning is Centered on Student Voice and Choice 

The backbone of student engagement is a combination of attention and commitment. Imagine the effect on students when you present them with choices, allow them to drive the learning process, and even put them in charge of assessment components, particularly self-assessment and team feedback. 

Here’s a perfect example: You want students to be engaged in an environmental science unit. Will lecturing for three days about water quality bring about optimal results? Showing a video on the evils of environmental degradation? No!  

Imagine the effect if you were to present students with a choice board in which they were allowed to study an aspect of water quality that they want to study, design their own experiment using water from a local source—a classroom faucet, a sink at home, or a creek near the high school—and report their findings to the city’s water department? 

Being a digital citizen is more than just knowing how to maintain a safe presence on social media. Being a digital citizen is also about being empowered, constructing knowledge, and being a good communicator. Project-based learning, not interminable lectures, is a better way to achieve those outcomes, particularly in a Hybrid Education environment. 

Project-Based Learning is a Positive Strategy 

A positive or affirmative strategy is one that teaches students what they should do instead of what they shouldn’t do. It’s like the age-old question addressed by every parent: Should I engage in positive reinforcement or some form of punishment to get results? PBL is definitely an instructional strategy related to the former, not the latter. Working in a project-based environment, students are actively shown what they should be doing: focusing on practical outcomes that lead to real contributions to their families, their schools, and/or society as a whole. It’s a strengths-based approach. 

Project-Based Learning Presents Solutions in Full View of the Public 

As mentioned, digital citizens are communicators, and a key component of true project-based learning is cultivating the ability to communicate the rationale for the project, the overall process, and, most important of all, evidence-based solutions to the problem under study, to a larger audience. The digital world is increasingly open, crowdsourced, and centered on communication. True PBL prepares students for this world. 

In the water quality investigation example above, findings and/or solutions could be reported to the local water department (or city council, or an environmental group, etc.). Students in a civics class could study the structure of a local election and make recommendations to a panel of concerned citizens. A world language class might present the results of a culture project in a series of meetings sponsored by the local library. The possibilities are endless—even amidst COVID. In fact, a Hybrid Education environment might present the perfect scenario for a presentation, as students would be able to hone their communications skills simultaneously in-person as well as online. 

Project-Based Learning Can Work Seamlessly with Your Learning Management System (LMS) 

Because true project-based learning is not a one-off experience, and should take place over the course of an entire unit of instruction (or longer), your PBL needs a hub for all activity. In a Hybrid Education world, that makes your learning management system (LMS) more critical than ever. 

Suzie Boss, with John Larmer, identified several tools that belong in your “PBL briefcase”: cloud-based tools, a digital classroom, crowdsourced websites, project management software, digital bulletin boards, and more. These are all tools that should be able to integrate seamlessly into your LMS, making it easy and accessible for students, families, and teachers to use. In navigating the LMS and using these tools appropriately, students become stronger digital citizens every day. 

A Better Instructional and Assessment Strategy for Changing Times 

Project-based learning facilitates student voice and choice and empowers their growth as digital citizens.  Through PBL, and energized by the performance of your learning management system as the hub of all project-based activity, you are not only strengthening your system of Hybrid Education, but preparing students for their future as communicating, contributing, empathetic digital citizens. 

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