Student-led Project-based Course Design

Published: 09 March, 2015

My teaching style definitely leans towards the use of projects to teach students technical and management skills so last year, my first year back in teaching since 2009, I designed a set of courses for senior students that would allow them to create and run their own projects over the course of the year. This year I have implemented those courses and have found that while some of the anticipated issues have not eventuated most are very evident.

The Idea and Rationale

Last year I inherited a course called "Computer Applications" that focused on teaching very structured approaches to using software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and basic image manipulation. Students were essentially led through assessment tasks after extended practice and, I felt, they were not learning anything of any depth or value. They achieved a set of credits but very little actual knowledge or ability to apply the skills in different contexts and it was difficult to see how the course aligned with the New Zealand curriculum. I was also bored silly.

After discussion with students and setting a few projects across different age groups (Year 10 to Year 13) I decided to redesign the courses so students would have the freedom to choose projects in a context of personal interest using technical skills that they actually wanted to learn. I moved to achievement standards from the Technology curriculum, specifically a mixture of Generic and Digital Technologies standards. Structurally the courses would be based completely around these projects with my role being three-fold: 1) help students scope projects, 2) help students manage their projects and learn relevant process and project management skills, and 3) introduce and develop technical skills as required by students. Assessment would happen across the entire year as students independently developed evidence within their projects. Students would need time to develop project ideas and then suitable time to work through them to produce evidence suitable for assessment under the Technology Achievement Standards being used.

My Expectations

The immediate risk with these courses was the high levels of student buy in needed for them to succeed. I would need to provide them with a solid 8 - 10 weeks (essentially the first term of the year) to explore and develop project ideas as well as developing basic Design skills such as brief and conceptual development. This left terms 2, 3 and what we could get out of term 4 for project work and skill development. My primary concern was around a distinct lack of embedded school-wide knowledge and skill around the Technology curriculum, especially at the senior levels requiring a lot of basic skill development alongside technical skills.

In general I expected to see:

  1. higher levels of engagement with projects once they were in progress
  2. a wider range of contexts more appropriate to the age of the students
  3. students begin to take ownership of their assessment with better self-assessment of their current level
  4. more student frustration around technical skills, or more specifically the lack of them relative to the project vision

Immediate Issues

A number of issues appeared almost immediately in the first term focused around technical skill and understanding (or lack there-of) of the Design process. Students struggled with the idea of choosing their own projects and were certainly ill-equipped to formally develop a project by exploring different contexts as the Technology curriculum requires them to do. Learned helplessness was evident in students requesting that I complete tasks for them to move their project forwards and the expectation that the teacher is all-knowledgeable was apparent in students' expectations that I could answer all technical questions across all project ideas. Students were, in general, confused as to why they needed to analyse an issue before coming up with ideas and the majority of students simply wanted to start building and figure it out as they went.

Teaching and Learning

A simple five stage Design process is the fundamental structure of my courses, as it was in my business, providing a process for students to follow and a simple project management methodology. My formal teaching split into two parts: 1) introducing students to and developing their skills in applying a Design process and, 2) developing technical skills to support their specific project requirements. The first was relatively simple and for many students it has, eventually, become a natural way of structuring a project, especially if they are working with real stakeholders and once they have learned that projects become easier with structure, but the second proved to be a much higher workload and source of frustration than expected.

Students given the freedom to develop their own projects eventually tend to do exactly that leading to a wide range of contexts and subsequently technical requirements. As many students expect the teacher to be the source of all knowledge a lot of work is required to teach them to look for other sources. A classroom can quickly become disrupted as students, relatively engaged in their projects, become frustrated by a lack of teacher contact and, in their view, a lack of technical support and begin to move off task. My initial intent was to group students based on their technical requirements and provide ongoing workshops to develop skills as needed but in reality this has proven difficult to implement. Students are less than patient, especially when engaged, and often an individual's technical requirements are out of synch with other students. Individual projects have led to a need for individual learning. 

Subsequently my focus in the classroom has been to:

  1. Help students develop project ideas (i.e. get them engaged)
  2. Demonstrate Design Thinking in action by applying analysis and conceptual skills with them
  3. Offer examples of external resources so they get an idea of how to access and use resources beyond the teacher
  4. Offer a wide range of tools (usually open source) so that they can learn to make their own choices based on project requirements
  5. Offer specific technical knowledge for students as they explore a new technology (starting as young as possible)

Unexpected Benefits

My concerns about achievement aside there are some notable student successes already evident:

  1. The freedom to explore projects of interest and a wider range of tools (notably a 3D printer, Arduino electronics, 3D modelling and e-textiles) have engaged a wider range of students than expected and taken the direct focus off of the computers and put it on to projects
  2. The freedom to choose different contexts and produce original work has led to unexpected (often to both student and teacher) learning opportunities for students
  3. The course has quickly moved from a Digitial Technologies course to a more generic Design course
  4. Students have had the freedom to explore financial success alongside and, on occasion link it to, academic success

My Concerns

While students are learning at a rate I am more than happy with I am increasingly concerned that much of the learning is not aligning with the Technology Achievement standards I have available within the course  and that the level of the students is not aligned with their expected level based on their chronological age. While I would be happy with many of the students' progress if they were interns and the learning, especially the technical and Design skill development, is excellent I expect this apparent lack of formal achievement will be an issue within the school environment towards the end of the year. Of course, the students may develop to a point they do align with the standards as the year progresses so my role is now to stay the course and trust in my course design and expected learning outcomes.

I am also concerned that schools are actually ill-equipped to deal with students who are engaged in projects outside the formal school structures or who want to explore learning outcomes that do not align with the expectations of NCEA and timetabled learning areas. Challenging those structures is often not a great idea for a teacher or a student and yet seems to result in excellent and unexpected results. Again, it may be a case of trusting in my course design and in the school in general as seeing what eventuates towards the end of the year and with students as they move towards the end of their secondary education. In the end I am focused on developing students who can identify opportunities, provide working solutions, have the technical skill to back up their conceptual work and can make a living from it all while having a positive effect on the World around them. After all that is what a Designer does and it's pretty much all I know how to teach.