Tag Archives: project based learning

Evolution, Part 2

There is a fundamental disconnect between the way students think, learn, and communicate and the way schools interact with them. Transforming our schools to be more student-centered through the use of effectively applied technology can make their education more relevant, their coursework more meaningful and allow both teachers and students to communicate more effectively.

In 1994 I was offered an opportunity to test this philosophy.  A new magnet program had just opened where I was teaching and it needed a new network administrator.  The previous two had not worked out and they wanted a teacher in that position, someone who understood a classroom and how technology should be deployed.  I jumped at the chance.

It took three years to correct the mistakes of the previous network admins and to implement some changes to both the physical plant and the way technology was administered in the magnet program.  I must say that the faculty was exceptionally supportive and pleased that a person with classroom experience was now in place and they afforded me every measure of professional courtesy and help.  The program paid for my technology training and I eventually earned Microsoft and Novell System engineer certifications. In 1997, after all my changes were in place I began my big experiment.

I designed a course where juniors and seniors could learn the fundamentals of networking and the intricacies of hardware and how it all ties in to programming. By the end of their career a network assistant could have a wealth of knowledge not only about servers but about computer code and the various solutions deployed in our program. I wanted these students to leave with a marketable skill and an industry certification to prove it. I also wanted students to learn, early on, the value of teamwork and dedication

Since 1997 the students enrolled in the CAT Network Systems Administrator Program have engaged in project based learning.  As Network Assistants, they have been an invaluable asset to the school while helping with technology issues.  They have also taken over running the different school websites.  With the continued improvement in technology the mission of the Network Assistants changed over time from one of break fix to one of development, innovation and creation.  This in turn opened a new world of opportunities as we are no longer limited to what we could do; we are only limited by time and imagination.

My students identify problems and design meaningful solutions that directly impact the quality of classroom instruction, communication and campus management. And, they have been doing so, in one form or another, for 17 years.  These students are actively involved in the campus environment, their projects are democratic, the activities are interactive and student-centered and involved in a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous. Each project team has to rely on and communicate with every other project team as often the different projects use some of the same technologies. They have to involve server and network administrators for server specific functions as well as the graphics team for any particular branding they want. Also, since projects are designed with specific audiences in mind it is imperative to involve the different stakeholders.

The course changes every year as the needs of the school, the personalities of the participants and the product technologies change.  This keeps it fresh, exciting and unpredictable. What doesn’t change though is my commitment to project based learning and the continued involvement of the students of the Center for Advanced Technologies. Applications to my classes are up again this year as they have been every year since I began the program.  We have also decided to make a fuller commitment to mobile app programming, over all three platforms (Windows Phone, iOS and Android), integrating apps with our campus solutions so we can remove all access barriers to our students and staff.  When BYOD comes (Bring Your Own Device) we will be ready.

If you would like to read some of my students’ thoughts on what it is like to work in this type of environment I urge you to visit here.

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Evolution, Part 1

Okay, I admit it I was a lousy teacher. Back in 1977 when I started in the classroom I was just plain lousy. My English students had that numb, blank “Ferris Bueller” look on their faces even as I tried to spin my most dramatic lectures on the symbolism of The Call of the Wild and the difference between a gerund and an infinitive. Yet, some of those same students were the most engaged and productive when they were in my Drama classes or involved in a student production.

Two years later I moved to a different school and took over the Journalism classes and student newspaper, which is what I had majored in. I still had the same anesthetizing effect in the regular English classes but those same students were again engaged, active and producing award-winning publications. I mean, I was stumped. I was teaching the way I was taught to teach. I was covering what I had to cover. I was following the prescribed methods and covering the essential questions and checking off all the benchmarks and standards. What was the difference between my methods? What was the spark that fully engaged these “young skulls full of mush” and got them to push themselves, just like my Drama students had?

By now you probably have recognized what would take me a couple of more years to figure out, that the student became fully engaged when they were involved with creating something of value. Students had voluntarily enrolled in the two, very different classes, so they could produce something of importance to them. And there was the answer. Not that they were interested in the subject matter, no it was so they could produce something of importance; something that could be read or watched and remembered. Something that would leave a mark on the school, that said “I was here and made a difference.” It is the same concept that drives athletics and competition but is so often overlooked in academics.

So I changed. I started incorporating more and more projects in my regular and advanced classes that allowed my students to create something and I made sure that we would not just use it as a classroom exercise. We produced literary magazines, created TV shows for the closed circuit campus system and started our own radio shows broadcast through a carrier wave system. All in an effort to better teach writing, grammar, media and journalism; and it worked. But I wanted more.

I wanted to know what would happen when a full year curriculum was taught with nothing but project based learning. No lectures, no tests, no quizzes and especially no daily worksheets. What would happen if I had students in this environment for a full year, creating projects of value and letting them perform as if in a real business environment. What would be created, what would they learn, and could it be built upon over the years?