Thursday, June 16, 2011

Authentic Problem-based Learning May Be Easier than You Think

The back page of the May 2011 issue of Campus Technology has an interview with Michael Wesch. The last question the CT reporter asked is, "What can institutions do to teach 21st century skills?" Part of Michael's answer was, "The worst thing we could do at the moment is to make the technology yet another assignment for students to complete, to get their grade and move on. We have to help them see the technology as essential to learning, collaborating, and accomplishing their real goals."

Unfortunately, I think many times students take courses where they have to complete a digital media project of some sort and, rather than seeing the project as a way to build the 21st century communication skills that they will need for their professional careers, the really do see the projects as just something to complete for a grade.

Perhaps what is missing in these assignments -- the reason students see them as just course projects and not as opportunities to build critical 21st century communication skills -- is an authentic context.

So, how do you frame problem-/project-based assignments so that they are seen in an authentic context? How do you pull students in to the learning process so that they see the benefit of learning to use digital media to communicate complex ideas? Might it be easier than we think? Might it be as simple as just giving them an authentic audience for their final product?

When students complete a project for "the instructor" to evaluate, they really are just completing the project for a grade. If they were to complete a project that would not only be evaluated by the instructor, but would ultimately be viewed (and informally evaluated just by virtue of being available) by other professionals in the field, doesn't that automatically change the context?

What if education students posted their lesson plans so they were available to everyone with Internet access? (An added bonus would be a counter attached to each post so they could see if others were finding and using their materials.)

What if science students blogged publicly about their research projects and the results they observed?

What if students knew that their instructor was going to invite other professionals in the field to review their projects? Or, what if students could themselves invite other professionals in the field to review and provide feedback on their projects?

Providing an authentic audience opens up a whole new world to students, validating and adding a new dimension to their work. Even something as simple as giving them access to post their work on a public-facing YouTube channel can provide the necessary access to authentic audiences that would change the whole context of the assignment (for an example of student reactions to posting their projects on YouTube see

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