PBL Online Curriculum: An Oxymoron?

7/22/2013 12:00:00 AM
I came across this article the other day, “Learning.com Launches Project-Based Online Curriculum.” Being a strong advocate for Project-Based Learning, I was both curious, while at the same time, appalled. Using the word “curriculum” alongside PBL seems like an extreme contradiction. However, I thought it was worth a closer look and so I ventured over to learning.com to see how it worked.

There is very little information regarding what the actual units or projects are based on, just general statements around pretests, projects, and reflections. You must inquire further to get a look at the actual product. At a glance, it appears to follow a general outline of a PBL unit, however, there seems to be a huge emphasis on technology skills. Most of the pre-test section focused on assessing students’ technology skills and the project section was very vague. While this is not a bad thing, we all know not all projects are about the technology tool, but the authentic outcome, and this is where I start to cringe.

For me, true Project-Based learning revolves around students and their need-to-knows. You start with a great essential question and then let student voices guide the direction of your driving question or questions. Also, your outcome is generally something that requires teamwork and collaboration in order to achieve an authentic purpose. There is no way to “can” this process or to regiment it into a prescribed curriculum. Project-based learning is often messy and doesn't fit in a box.

However, there are many teachers who are uncomfortable with this very loose and open-ended teaching method and are much more comfortable with a teacher’s manual and pacing guide. In that sense, maybe this is a good first step. If using an inquiry-based online curriculum helps students sharpen their technology skills and allows teachers to experience a less teacher-directed project, than it might be worth a closer look. It is a step to creating more customized learning experiences for students and may be moving some classrooms in the right direction.

I believe we will see many more of these types of "project- based curriculums" being offered to educators. Everyone is looking for the quick fix. For me, it still comes back to crafting a mix of student voice and passion based learning that creates an incredible project-based learning experience for students. I’m just not sure that can be bottled, packaged, and sold.

Your thoughts?

cross-posted at Innovate, Create, Educate

Kami Thordarson is a graduate of the 2011 MERIT program through the Krause Center for Innovation and has led classes on project-based learning, digital storytelling, and design thinking. She is the Innovative Strategies Coach for the Los Altos School District. Read more at Innovate, Create, Educate.
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