Using OER for Project Based Learning

Teacher Editorial | By Janet Remus (BOLT student)

The Problem

Today, educators are constantly told that they need to employ teaching strategies that are more engaging and applicable to their students’ lives beyond the classroom.  Using worksheets and lecturemobile-phones are practically considered taboo, as we move from teacher-directed approaches to learner-centred approaches.  Project Based Learning (PBL), which the Buck Institute for Education defines 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 engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” seems to offer a great alternative to traditional teaching methods.

While I personally don’t believe that lectures and projects can’t peacefully co-exist in the same teaching environment (perhaps another blog topic for another day …), I do see the benefits that PBL can offer my students.   For instance, projects can help students to develop critical thinking and problems solving skills.  Furthermore, they can promote collaboration and they allow my students to see where they may use the skills they are learning ‘in the real world’.

One More Problem

However, as a teacher I have faced one further problem when it comes to implementing projects in my courses:  It takes time and creativity to develop projects that meet the outcomes of the curriculum that I am required to teach, and I don’t always have this time or the creativity.  As Glenn (2016) explains, “PBL in its current form is too ‘do-it-yourself’” and that “even after significant training it can initially take three times more time to plan and organize projects than teaching with a traditional lecture and test format.”  For this reason, I can certainly understand why PBL hasn’t really caught on in many classrooms despite the general push in its direction.

Project Search to the Rescue

Yet, I couldn’t help but think of how Open Educational Resources (OER) could help make it easier for teachers to use PBL in their classrooms and potentially solve this problem. McGreal (2015, p. 2) defines OER as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”  Through the sharing made possible via the internet, teachers could share projects that they have developed, making it easier for teachers new to PBL to implement them in their courses.  These teachers could then pay back the favour or pay it forward by sharing other projects that they have developed or the modifications that they have made to already-shared projects.  Think of all the time and energy that could be saved!

So, can you imagine how thrilled I was to discover that an online repository of Projects already exists? The repository is called Project Search and it is hosted on the Buck Institute’s website.  Project Search is very easy to use as it allows teachers to search for projects by source, subject or keyword.  It then will bring up a list of projects that are rated Beginner, Experienced or Expert.  If looking to do an interdisciplinary project, all the subjects that the project covers are also listed.  Although, the site is American and the Common Core Standards that each project meets are listed, these can still be handy to Canadian teachers as we can easily see if these standards are similar to those in our programs of study.

Each listed project is then linked to the website of the institution which developed the project.  Developers included organizations such as NASA, High Tech High, the West Virginia Department of Education and other public schools and boards in the United States.  While often the project was simply described on the developer’s website with some additional resources such as PDF’s or videos, I didn’t see anything that would stop a teacher from using the project and also modifying it to meet their needs.  So, although adaptable lesson plans aren’t included, it was still possible to change a project to suit a teacher’s needs and on the Project Search webpage it does say that the projects may be adapted.  For this reason, I would consider Project Search to be an OER.  In contrast, Crowdschool, which Glenn co-founded, does offer teachers lessons plans that can be more easily re-mixed.  However, these projects must be purchased from their developers, so I don’t feel that Crowdschool is truly an OER in the same sense that I consider Project Search to be.   Adding lesson plans in the form of word documents is one enhancement that could potentially make Project Search even better.

Furthermore, it is easy to see how PBL could lead to “production of learner-generated content” which Hegarty (2015) lists as one of the eight attributes of open pedagogy.  As students complete projects, their teachers could easily facilitate the sharing of them using various media on the internet, including YouTube, Instagram and Podcasts.  However, I feel that it would be imperative for teachers to ensure that students’ privacy is protected when sharing student work online so that government policies, such as FOIP in Alberta, are followed and more importantly, so that we can protect our students’ privacy.  For this reason, a closed forum may be needed to share student work and the identity of the students would also need to be kept private.

Moreover, it is important to teach our students digital citizenship when sharing projects.  For instance, students should be taught etiquette if commenting on others’ work and also to be aware that simply copying another student’s project and submitting it as one’s own, is a form of plagiarism.  However, these issues have always existed in education; they just may be exacerbated in the digital world in which we now live.

Conclusion

OERs offer a great solution to time-strapped teachers who seek to implement PBL into their teaching environments by allowing the sharing of project ideas. Specifically, Project Search is a resource that I highly recommend.  In fact, I was able to find quite a few projects that I could easily adapt to my own Physics course.  Additionally, I would like to see the sharing extended to students, so they have the opportunity to learn from each other as well, although I caution teachers to ensure that our students are able to do so in a way that protects their identities and teaches them digital citizenship.  What are some practical ways of ensuring our students’ privacy and teaching digital citizenship that you have found helpful when encouraging them to share their work online?

References

  1. Buck Institute of Education. What is project based learning (PBL)? Retrieved from http://bie.org/about/what_pbl.
  2. Glenn, P., (2016). Why project based learning hasn’t gone mainstream (and what we can do about it. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-04-23-whyproject-based-learning-hasn-t-gone-mainstream-and-what-we-can-do-about-it.
  3. Hegarty, B. (2015). Attributes of Open Pedagogy: A Model for Using Open Educational Resources. Educational Technology, 4.  Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ca/Ed_Tech_Hegarty_2015_article_attributes_of_open_pedagogy.pdf
  4. McGreal, R. (2014). Discussion paper on Open Educational Resources for Alberta Education. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Retrieved from: http://cde.lms.athabascau.ca/pluginfile.php/50745/mod_book/chapter/13493/676rory.pdf

About the Contributor

Janet Remus is an online Math and Science teacher with the Alberta Distance Learning Centre where she has taught for three years.  She is enthusiastic about teaching and learning even more about PBL and OER.  She is grateful to the teachers she had as a student who introduced her to project based learning.

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