INTEGRATED TECHNOLOGY WITH PROJECT BASED LEARNING                                  

A Review of Case Studies that Integrated Technology with Project Based Learning

Isaura Herrera

Lamar University

Abstract

The purpose of this document is to review several case studies that tested the integration of technology with a project based learning approach in K-12 schools and higher education in the United States, North America and other continents around the world. More specifically, this document focuses on what succeeded or failed during the process of the integration. The term “technology” has various definitions that will be defined within each case study. In most cases, technology will refer to information technology such as the Internet or technology productivity tools such as computers or both.

        Keywords: technology, project based learning

A Review of Case Studies that Integrated Technology with Project Based Learning

According to Merriam-Webster.com, the term “technology”  has three definitions: (1) “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area or a capability given by the practical application of knowledge,” (2) “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge,” and (3) “the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor.” For the following case studies, the second definition will be used to define the integration of “technology” within the various project based learning environments mentioned in this document.

Literature Review

Under the eSkwela Project, community-based e-learning centers are being rooted in major areas in the Philippines “to conduct information and communication technology (ICT)-enhanced alternative education programs to re-engage free of charge, out of-school youth and adults” (UNESCO, 2009, p. 3). With the use of e-learning materials, blended and collaborative instruction, and performance-based assessment in a problem-/project-based learning environment, the project seeks to “bridge the widening digital divide and social chasms” between those who are educated and those who are not (p. 4). At the heart of the eSkwela Project is its instructional model, consisting of three elements: 1) “computer-aided learning via interactive e-learning modules and use of a customized Learning Management System;” 2) “teacher-facilitated instruction as aligned with the pace and need of each learner;” and 3) “collaborative group activities and projects” (p. 8). During its implementation stage, the ongoing project found that although the e-learning modules were widely used as the main ICT-based material in the eSkwela sites, a large number of teachers failed to continue using the LMS after the first few months of operations (p. 18). In response to these concerns, alternatives such as the redesigning of teacher training programs, performance evaluation mechanisms, and module guides for ICT integration, and the improvement of a “more robust and integrated” LMS are being considered (p. 18-19).

A major research program on ICT and the quality of schooling within project based learning environments was undertaken by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Center for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) in response to the developments of instructional reforms in twenty-two participating countries (Venesky, n.d., p. 1). Specifically, there was a group of schools that noted significant changes in pedagogical practices with the introduction of ICT, but argued that it was an “enabler not the driver of the change” (p. 8). Aurora Primary School in Finland engaged in a series of activities which could not have been done without ICT but they argued that improving educational quality topped the need for improving technology. Similarly, in a Finnish secondary school, the teachers felt that their pedagogy was not particularly technology-led, even though many used ICT to support project-based and collaborative work. They suggested that it was difficult to separate the use of technology from the overall pedagogical orientation of the school. In Canada, a teacher felt the same way. These examples suggest that ICT is an enabler of change where the change is consistent with the orientation of the school. This view places teachers and their beliefs center stage, with technology in a supporting role.

Within the same research program by OECD’s CERI, teachers in a Netherlands secondary school had adopted a project-based approach, but those who developed the projects tried to ensure that most of the information needed could be found in encyclopaedias and other sources because of fears about the reliability of access to the Internet (Venesky, n.d., p. 13). They also arranged that students would not be offered two projects involving the use of the Internet in one term so as to minimize the disruption caused by the unreliable connection (p. 13). Other studies within the research program show that both high- and low-achievers could gain benefits from the integration of ICT in a project based learning environment. For high-achievers, the open-ended nature of project work allows them to accomplish more and remain challenged; for the low-achievers, the project work allows them to gain satisfying results at their own pace (p. 31). However such benefits were more associated with project-based learning, rather than with the technology of itself (p. 31).

At Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County, Virginia, sets of iPod touch devices, Nintendo DS consoles, laptops and tablets provide teachers with various options for implementing instructional strategies (Fritschi & Wolf, 2012, p. 21). Some teachers use a wide range of devices in one class setting by developing different centers or activities that cater to the needs of individual students (p. 21). Others opt to use the devices for project based learning and collaboration among students (p. 21). The benefit to this approach is that teachers have the flexibility to use different kinds of mobile technologies, depending on grade level and content area (p.21). However, students do not have 24/7 access to the devices, so they have restricted opportunities (p. 21). In contrast, a mobile learning program would allow students to have access throughout the school day and to take the devices home (p. 21).

According to the report, Turning on Mobile Learning in Europe: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Jan Hylen (2012), many projects demonstrate how mobile technologies can be used to support interdisciplinary, student-centered, interactive, and inquiry-based learning activities (p. 20). For example, the Learning Ecology with Technologies from Science for Global Outcomes (LET’S GO) program was an international mobile learning project in which participating schools used low-cost laptop computers and mobile phones for field-based learning activities to teach students ecological science and scientific methods. Personal Inquiry (PI) was another mobile learning project in the United Kingdom that encouraged inquiry-based learning through the use of mobile devices. The PI project developed an approach to inquiry-based learning in which students aged 11 to 14 worked together to investigate a science topic through exploratory and discovery activities in the classroom and by using computers and mobile technologies at home. Results from one trial that compared data with those of a control class showed a positive effect on learning outcomes and sustained enjoyment of science lessons.

Furthermore, Hylen’s (2012) interviews with participants across the trials provided evidence of increased understanding of the inquiry-based learning process by students and teachers alike. Findings from the project suggest that teachers can be empowered to create, direct and monitor successful learning activities especially when children are equipped with tools to help them initiate, frame and conduct personally meaningful scientific investigations. Other comparative studies showed that technology-supported inquiry-based learning activities can “produce positive educational outcomes significantly greater than those of a control class,” “increase and maintain children’s enjoyment of science lessons,” “enable fluid transitions between individual, group and whole class activities,” and “support learning across formal and informal settings” (p. 20-21).

Nintendogs, another case study by Hylen (2012), was a small-scale game-based mobile learning project designed by teachers in two primary classes in Scotland (p. 21). The project used virtual pets created for Nintendo DS as the context for cross-curricular learning. The students developed writing and technology skills by composing stories about their dogs that were posted on a blog, practiced math skills by calculating how much of their budget they could spend on purchases and vet visits, and developed social skills by engaging in peer tutoring (p. 21).

Back in North America, Susan Hopper (2014), a doctoral student in the Department of Learning at the University of North Texas, reported that a Texas-based school implemented global projects to connect their students with many states and countries as a platform for integrating collaboration and communication skills, technology tools, and cultural diversity into an existing curriculum. The school introduced videoconferencing at every grade level K-8 in a school-wide initiative to bring the world to the classroom through the engagement of global learning projects with distant partners.

Similarly, a case study in Australia reports that undergraduate students interacted with representatives from different industries to obtain feedback at the initial phase of a design project (Lee, Nikolic, Vial, Ritz, Li, & Goldfinch, 2016). Students pitched their ideas to the industry guests at a virtual “trade fair” held within a video conferencing and three-dimensional (3-D) virtual world environment (Lee et al., 2016). According to Lee, Nikolic, Vial, Ritz, Li, and Goldfinch (2016), survey and assessment results attest to the participants' satisfaction as well as to the effectiveness of the approach in improving student self-efficacy and performance. Although the sample was limited and the context was singular, the results suggest that within the pilot scenario, by practice pitching their project ideas to the industry guests, students became more confident and honed their presentation skills in preparation for their pitches. Students also obtained objective feedback and fundamental support that helped reduce confusion and frustration. Their interactions with the experts provided motivation, context, and relevance for their projects. Larger scale studies are needed before conclusions can be drawn and before evidence-based guidelines can be generated as to what does and does not work well technically, pedagogically, and logistically.

According to UNESCO’s Shafika Isaacs (2012), mobile phones lend themselves to personalized, informal, self-directed, and situated learning. For mobile learning to grow and be institutionalized in formal education systems, Isaacs claims that governments will need to play a more proactive role in promoting the use of mobile phones for teaching and learning as well as for the administration and management of education systems and institutions. The purpose of public policy on mobile learning is “to provide a scaffold for the variety of mobile learning efforts at various levels in the education system” (Isaacs, 2012). Isaacs concludes that policies should create a supportive environment that enables the “explosive growth of personalized informal learning and allows the scaling up of project-based interventions” (2012).

An action research implementing project-based learning (PBL) with information and communication technology (ICT) in an English classroom was conducted by Ardi Marwan (2015), an author of The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology. Twenty-five students from a vocational higher institution were interviewed after the completion of three project activities over a six-week period. They were also observed while being exposed to a PBL teaching approach. Results of this study revealed that students could experience a more interesting and meaningful learning in a PBL English class. They were also becoming highly motivated to use English more intensively while exposed to this teaching approach. This research also proved that PBL with ICT could bring positive gains due to teacher’s pedagogical and technological beliefs. Thus, it concludes that teaching with PBL and ICT would bring about a positive change once supported with teacher’s beliefs about teaching and learning and ICT.

In this next study by authors of TechTrends, Qiang Hao, Robert Maribe Branch, and Lucas Jensen (2016), investigate the effects of precommitment on college students’ goal setting and academic performance, and students’ attitude towards precommitment-related activities. “Pre-commitment” refers to a procedure in which students set up learning goals, then report the comparison between their goals and actual learning progress to their peers and teachers by the end of the learning phase. A personal blog was used as the platform for participants to list their weekly goals. During the experiment, participants had to be frequently reminded to check each other’s goals. Hao, Branch, and Lucas concluded that future studies may consider taking advantage of social media platforms that can push information to students, such as private groups on Facebook, or Twitter with unified hashtags, which may further strengthen participants’ connections.

Participants in several studies conducted by Rachel A. Ralph (2016), an author featured in The Journal of Technology and Science Education (JOTSE), identified negative aspects of the use of technology for communication purposes required in group work. The foremost issue was team members who were not making significant contributions. There were a range of issues from students’ lack of contributions, to the lack of attendance that impacted the group's’ dynamics. In one study, students felt that team learning increased productivity; however, when using technology-mediated collaboration as opposed to face-to-face interactions, there was a breakdown in communication caused by misunderstandings. “Nonetheless, teamwork, whether positive or negative, is a part of the 21st century skills that encompasses project-based learning” concluded Ralph.

The findings of a study by Lih‐Juan ChanLin (2008) observed students’ use of technology during project-based learning activities in science. As part of the overall process of project-based learning, students used computer technology as a tool for collecting information, organizing it and presenting it to their peers. Students conducted research, interacted with peers, teachers, and the community, and displayed their understanding of knowledge through the
presentation of web-pages.  Students’ learning outcomes were observed based on their achievements in relation to developing skills and ability to synthesize and elaborate knowledge, to engage in scientific exploratory tasks, and to use the technology for supporting and reporting their research work. The results of the study indicated that all of the students achieved
their research goals. This study concluded that the teacher’s support in relation to providing coaching skills is crucial to students’ success in a project-based learning environment.

A study by authors, Barry S. Kramer, Andrew Walker, and Jennifer M. Brill (2007), explores the barriers associated with teachers implementing information and communication technology-assisted collaborative project-based learning (ICTCPrjBL) as a classroom teaching methodology with students. It appears that technological, training and connectivity barriers present obstacles for schools in Africa to participate in ICTCPrjBL with other regions such as North America and Eastern Europe. Consequently, schools in North America and Eastern Europe are limited in their ability to fully participate in ICTCPrjBL with African schools, narrowing the potential for cross-cultural collaboration and understanding.

Incorporating computer-simulation modeling into project-based learning may be effective but requires careful planning and implementation suggests Rogheyeh Eskrootchi and Reza G. Oskrochi (2010), co-authors of this next study.  “Simulations do not work on their own” (Eskrootchi & Oskrochi, 2010); the interactions between the student and the simulation needs to be structured. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of project-based learning in a technology-rich environment. A science project was developed and integrated with a simulation software package, Structural Thinking and Experiential Learning Laboratory with Animation (STELLA) to promote deeper understanding of land-use by students. Statistical analysis showed that students who participated in the manipulation of the experimental model of the watershed experiment and the STELLA simulation performed best on understanding the watershed concept.

This last case study describes how eighth grade students in one school learned to create multimedia mini-documentaries in a six-week history unit on early 19th-century U.S. history. Authors Pedro Hernández-Ramos from Santa Clara University and Susan De La Paz (2009) from the University of Maryland examined content knowledge tests, group projects, and attitude and opinion surveys to determine relative benefits for students who participated in a technology-assisted project-based learning experience, and contrasted their experiences to those of students who received a more traditional form of instruction. Results from content knowledge measures showed significant gains for students in the project-based learning condition and growth in their historical thinking skills. Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz also found evidence that students’ attitudes toward learning history and social studies, and toward working with others, were significantly more positively affected by the PBL experience compared to students in the comparison group. In addition, students rated the experience quite favorably, agreeing that the project helped their learning, that they enjoyed working on it, and that they felt they could apply the skills learned to future projects.

Discussion

Not only does the term “technology” have various definitions, the referenced case studies also evidence the various definitions for the term “project based learning.” Due to these variations in definitions of the terms and other discrepancies such as participants and contexts involved, the referenced case studies would be difficult to be compared and contrast in terms of their individual successes or failures or both.

Conclusions and Future Study

In summary, the general findings of this document conclude that there are no specific trends in successes or failures or both when comparing case studies that derive from all over the world. On the other hand, the referenced case studies agree with Ismail Thamarasseri (2014) and conclude that “technology alone will not result in higher achievement.” Furthermore, the ideal classroom for the twenty-first century calls for “an amount of collaboration, conscious design and technological innovation to make the classroom into a place of positive learning environment” (Thamarasseri, 2014). Technology cannot be a substitute for the teacher nor the teacher can be a substitute for technology.

The purpose of this literature review is to apply the lessons learned within each case study to my very own Project Based eLearning initiative and to improve the use of all forms of technologies before and during the implementation stages. This literature review should not be used as a sole source for information regarding the integration of technology in project based learning classrooms and other similar learning environments. It is recommended that an extensive amount of research and case studies be completed in addition to those referenced in this document.

References

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