3 free technologies to take PBL to the next level

Any teacher who has tried to design an authentic project can tell you that it takes significant time, energy and community outreach. These technologies can help PBL!

With more than 20 years in the classroom and at schools, I have always aimed to inspire students and teachers to make learning authentic and relevant to the community and student interests, especially through project-based learning (PBL).

Throughout my career, I’ve seen the extraordinary opportunities that students receive when they’re guided by truly talented teachers–like Christie and Tom Wolf from New Technology High School in Napa, Calif. The Wolfs teach a biology unit on GMOs that concludes with students setting up informational booths at a local gourmet food court and speaking with tourists about genetically modified foods and farming methods.

And then there Lisa Anderson at Napa Junction Elementary School. She invites local doctors to help design a medical intern project, for which fifth-graders must use symptoms to diagnose the likely diseases affecting a patient. Afterward, those students present their findings to an audience of adults, including the doctor.

Video: Medical Intern PBL

Projects like these challenge and delight students, creating specific content mastery that students can recall in highly technical terms years later. It’s common for students to find career inspiration from these school experiences.

However, any teacher who has tried to design an authentic project can tell you that it takes significant time, energy and community outreach. It can be an extremely heavy lift for busy classroom teachers, many whom report that they would do more projects if they had help with the preparation and collaboration process.

3 Free Technologies to Solve Common PBL Pain Points

Pain Point #1: There are community members in the audience on presentation day, so you need to get to every group.
Teachers find that student presentation days can run longer than expected because precious time is lost in between presentations. If you’ve invited the mayor to your presentations, or you have a real doctor in the room giving students feedback, then you want to make sure that your timing is right.

Let’s say that you are a Google Apps for Education school, and that every student has a Google account. Maybe on presentation day a team of students plans to share its Google slides and a few pictures. Although it’s very easy to have the teacher’s computer hooked up to the projector or flat panel–allowing students to log into their accounts on the teacher’s computer that transition still costs about 90 seconds. Sometimes more. If your class period is 50 minutes long, you’ve now lost more than seven minutes to transitions if you have five groups presenting.

Sure, there are work-arounds, such as asking the students to share links to their documents to the teacher to eliminate the sign-in process. But we know how that goes: There are always a couple of last-minute add-ons to a student presentation when a file was not shared properly, or a question from the audience at the conclusion of the presentation necessitates the student needing to bring up additional information or evidence that he or she didn’t plan on sharing.

In light of these collaboration hurdles, I’ve seen great success with the NovoPro digital streaming device, which is being donated to teachers and schools who apply for a grant. The grant, the NovoAssurED Ambassador Program, and the application are available to any K-12 educator seeking to collaborate in the classroom.

This hardware allows up to 64 student devices, regardless of platform, to connect to the teacher’s device, regardless of platform. That means Chromebooks, iPads, Android and iOS smartphones, netbooks, and every type of computer can be connected. With the push of a button the teacher can put the student device onto the projector or flat panel screen. The teacher can even share four student devices on the screen at the same time. Guests in the audience can join in the collaboration and share information the same way.

This device allows the teacher to share files, websites, videos, and more to every device in the room. It’s super easy to use and free – with no hidden costs–to teachers who apply for the grant. The application takes about 15 minutes and can be found here.

(Next page: 2 more technologies for PBL)

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