2e Tech by Marlo PayneThurman

Project-based Learning and
Educational Technology

September, 2014


I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

— Confucius

Both Confucius and Socrates taught us that learning is the culmination of inquiry and critical thinking. John Dewey, an early 20th-century learning theorist, reaffirmed this definition by telling us that “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Yet, with ever-increasing academic standards and requirements for evidence-based teaching measured through assessment, little room is left for today’s students to really engage in real-world thinking or problem solving in the classroom. However, I see one educational practice, project-based learning (PBL), implemented through well-planned educational technologies, as a possible light at the end of a very dark tunnel for our most asynchronous, gifted learners.

What is Project-based Learning?

The early roots of project-based learning were in training physicians, having them learn by working through actual clinical cases. According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a not-for-profit organization committed to expanding the use of project-based learning, PBL is defined as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Essential elements of PBL, as described on the BIE website (http://bie.org/about/what_pbl), include those shown in the following table.

PBL Element

Promotes Students’ Learning by…

Significant Content

Teaching, in a problem-solving context, important knowledge and skills derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects

21st-century Competencies

Explicitly teaching and assessing competencies valuable for today’s world, such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation

In-Depth Inquiry

Engaging students in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers

Driving Question

Focusing their project work by means of an open-ended question that captures their task or frames their exploration

Need to Know

Using an Entry Event to generate student interest and curiosity, creating in them a desire to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products

Voice and Choice

Giving them some choices about the products they create, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on student age and PBL experience

Critique and Revision

Providing opportunities for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry

Public Audience

Giving students a wider audience for the results of their project work than just their classmates and teacher

Let’s look at an example. How might PBL change the way a unit on healthy eating is taught?

In a traditional learning environment, students might read a book chapter or listen to a lecture on the value of good health, nutrition, and exercise. Students might even do a “project,” such as planning a menu for a healthy meal.

With PBL, on the other hand, the project is the center of the learning. The students might, for instance, be asked to work directly with their school’s cafeteria and physical fitness instructor to implement more healthy lunch choices. Or they might modify the layout and use of the school’s recreation facilities in order to give all students increased opportunities for exercise.

How Educational Technology Can Support PBL

Under a PBL model, educators carefully design projects using academic curriculum content, matching projects and outcomes to specific curriculum standards. They then implement the projects with pre-determined measures to assess progress.

When PBL is delivered through educational technology, the technology has the potential to evaluate and report on the students’ progression through academic standards. It can also offer students authentic, real-world, hands-on learning opportunities. In PBL, students use technology tools, like other professionals do, to exchange ideas, conduct research, and create and publish their work. Even more exciting, the technology can also offer simulation of real-world situations that would otherwise be inaccessible to most students, providing them with opportunities to safely try out new ideas and test outcomes.

Think back to our previous example, the unit on healthy eating. Using technology, students could research world hunger. Or they could use simulation, much like other professional researchers do, to propose and implement models that offer nutritional supplementation options for third-world countries. Not only, then, do students learn in an authentic way about adult life, their discoveries could actually lead to meaningful contributions.

For More Information

For more information, great ideas, and even a few educational technology tools using PBL, please visit the following websites.


After doing a review of the literature on PBL, it is clear to me that a lot of research remains to be done on its effectiveness, particularly in these areas:

  • Teacher and student experience
  • The implementation of 21st-century skills through PBL
  • Whole-school PBL models
  • The effects of PBL on critical thinking.

Nevertheless, I found that PBL is one of the only alternative educational models that combine the intelligent design of relevant, content-driven education with technology in a way that meets today’s expectations for outcomes and evidence-based teaching. As such, PBL along with the use and development of supporting educational technologies actually has the potential to play a significant role in education reform for the future, especially for learners like our 2e kids, who don’t fit into the box.

Imagine it — a learning system where our gifted and twice-exceptional students can actually progress through academic standards, at their own pace, in a meaningful, real-world way, driven by their interests. Then, in the end, they would still be able to demonstrate their mastery of academic content while also having the opportunity to find ways to participate in the adult world — something that I fear our current educational system might no longer be preparing children to do. Excluding children from participation in adult life until they are 18 years old should never be a goal of education in my opinion. This needs to change, and I see that PBL has at least some of the answers towards a solution.


The following references were used in preparing this article.

  • Markham, T., Larmer, J., & Ravitz, J. (2004). Project based learning handbook: A guide to standards-focused project based learning, 2nd Ed. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.
  • Ravitz, J. (2010). Beyond changing culture in small high schools: Reform models and changing instruction with project-based learning. Peabody Journal of Education, 85, 290-313.
  • Ravitz, J. (2008). New Tech High Schools: Results of the national survey of PBL and high school reform. Buck Institute for Education: Novato, CA.
  • Ravitz, J. Hixson, N., English, M., & Mergendoller, J. (2011). Using project-based learning to teach 21st century skills: Findings from a statewide initiative. Vancouver, BC.

A Researcher’s View of PBL and Educational Technologies

Two years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jason Ravitz, a leading researcher at the Buck Institute for Education. Here are some of the highlights of our discussion about PBL and educational technology.

  • Teaching and education should be driving the field of educational technology instead of it being the other way around.
  • In PBL, the design of each new project requires a tremendous amount of data and research. Furthermore, the supporting educational technology must also be designed specifically around content, allowing the technology to both facilitate the project and provide learning opportunities about technology.
  • Using games-based applications in education could be really powerful, but most developers in the field of educational technology believe that the shift for teachers from learning through work to learning via play is probably bigger than most are willing to make. As a result, very little new gaming technology is educationally centered.



Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S., is a school psychologist, education consultant, and member of the 2e Newsletter Editorial Advisory Board. She specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals from around the country who are gifted yet asynchronous. Marlo operates the Brideun Learning Communities, which designs custom play-based therapeutic programs and, in addition to her private practice, she provides consultative support to new 2e program start-ups. Marlo holds a board position with the United States Autism and Asperger’s Association, is the director of the U.S. College Autism Project, and teaches a course in the Special Education Department of the University of Northern Colorado.

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