Our school had no Wi-Fi, but it was coming. The impact of the impending Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy was beginning to stir students and teachers, who were both eager and nervous about changes to policy and practice. Staff were concerned about student behaviour and academic dishonesty, and students were concerned about cyber-bullying and access to technology. School administrators were interested in student and staff input into the development of a school technology policy. The time was ripe for students at my school to have a voice in policy development. Problem-based learning (PBL) seemed the perfect vehicle for engaging this participation.
Problem-based learning involves using a problem to trigger students’ interest in a topic and to act as a motivator to learning and inquiry. It can lead to increased student achievement and improved attitudes toward learning. Originally a learning model developed by Dr. Howard Barrows at McMaster University for the study of medicine, PBL has been adopted in education because of its ability to foster 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and decision-making. Problem-based learning requires the teacher to move away from a teacher-centered approach and to act more as a facilitator or tutor supporting student exploration of a problem through inquiry.
In the PBL project I designed, students were encouraged to use an inquiry model to investigate and create meaningful suggestions that a school committee could examine prior to the development of the school’s technology policy. I wanted students to feel empowered by their own research data, so I approached administration to request their participation in a research poster presentation session where students would share their research findings on the implications of student access to Wi-Fi at our school.
After learning about the social science inquiry method, students focused on our learning goal, which was to explore the implications of the implementation of school-wide Wi-Fi. Students developed research communities and began discussing how Wi-Fi would impact stakeholders. Initially stymied with such an open-ended learning opportunity, students took time to query technology’s impact in schools and eventually began surfacing the challenges and obstacles for students, teachers and parents. This took a lot longer than I had expected; I had to recognize that PBL is a process that requires time and support. Focusing on our learning goal and not sweating the small stuff was key. Eventually, authentic research questions that connected students to their topics began to emerge. Students asked the following questions:
- What are the economic implications of a BYOD policy for students at our school?
- Can cheating be prevented when students have access to their own technology in the classroom?
- Can technology in the classroom improve teaching methods and increase student engagement?
- Will students experience an increase or decrease in cyber-bullying with greater Internet accessibility?
Students were supported with direct instruction on research methods and provided with tools like organizers to help them with their inquiries. Working collaboratively, students engaged in primary data collection and analysis using quantitative or qualitative methods. To further create a transparent and authentic learning experience, students co-constructed assessment criteria and engaged in peer assessment as a means to provide feedback prior to the development of the final research poster and session. My role was to support, ask questions, provide guidance and listen enthusiastically to their creative approaches.
The student research findings were not only relevant to the student body of our school, but were also in line with research on the use of technology in Canadian schools:
- Not everyone can afford a smartphone.
- Cheating is common both with and without a technological device.
- Fifty percent of students use an electronic device for schoolwork.
- Most students feel comfortable approaching an adult about cyber-bullying.
Students made the following suggestions to the administrator who visited during the poster session:
- Schools should provide access to technology for those who cannot afford it.
- Consistent guidelines about technology use should be reinforced to emphasize digital literacy and citizenship.
- Teachers need support to help overcome discomfort with technology and to increase their knowledge of how to use technology in the classroom.
My class was pleased by the fact that their voices were heard and satisfied with their ability to contribute to policy development at the school level.
Students’ responses to the PBL experience were positive and showed the intended outcomes of increased motivation, collaboration and critical thinking. In her final reflection, a student expressed her feelings of empowerment; she liked how the research “allowed me to present my ideas to a higher authority… and… to not only learn about the topic in question, but also help me improve my learning skills.” Another student noted, “It allowed me expand my arsenal of collaboration methods… and gave me a new respect for problem-based learning.” One student suggested that her greatest learning was “the ability to analyze and interpret the various aspects of a research topic.”
Although some students struggled, they still noted benefits of PBL. Issues around failing technology, absent team members and lack of time were noted as key frustrations. One student described how her group had to overcome the “problem of picking a specific topic” that could be managed in the given time. Another student stated, “Overall I found that the material and skills we have been learning in class is really what got everyone through the project.” Even when the task was challenging, students were able to apply their skills and knowledge to impact the BYOD learning environment for future students.
Implementing PBL requires planning and program consideration. Attention needs to be paid not only to skill development, but also to the development of content knowledge, with clear steps for students to collate and reflect on all the learning that goes on during the project. Teacher training and collaboration before and during the project’s implementation is also important. Without the support of my colleagues and administration, this endeavour would have been overwhelming.
For practical tips on implementing PBL in your classroom, check out Jennifer Nichols’ post, “10 Practical Ideas for Better Project-Based Learning in Your Classroom” on TeachThought: www.teachthought.com/learning/10-practicalideas-for-better-project-based-learning-in-your-classroom/
First published in Education Canada, September 2014
EN BREF – L’instauration de la méthode de l’enquête dans les écoles secondaires peut constituer un défi, mais lorsqu’un problème significatif se pose, tel le passage à une politique « prenez vos appareils personnels » (PAP) dans une école, l’apprentissage par résolution de problèmes (ARP) peut constituer le moyen pédagogique indiqué pour engager les élèves dans la co-construction de leur environnement d’apprentissage. Des élèves d’un cours de sciences sociales de 12e année ayant travaillé pour relever les défis de l’ARP ont vécu les avantages d’un engagement accru et d’une contribution significative à l’élaboration d’une politique au palier de l’école.
 Steven W. Whitcombe, “Developing Skills of Problem-based Learning: What about specialist knowledge,” International Journal of Continuing Education & Lifelong Learning 5, no. 2 (2013): 41-56.
 Clive Agnew, “Evaluating Changes in Learning and Teaching,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 25, no. 3 (2001): 293-298; Gabi Jerzembek and Simon Murphy, “A Narrative Review of Problem-Based Learning with School-aged Children: Implementation and outcomes,” Educational Review 65, no. 2 (2013): 206-218.
 Laura Greenstein, “Beyond the Core: Assessing authentic 21st century skills,” Principal Leadership 13, no. 4 (2012): 36-42.
 Dianne Looker and Victor Thiessen, “The Digital Divide in Canadian Schools: Factors affecting student access to and use of information technology,” Statistics Canada, no. 81-597-XIE; The Canadian Council on Learning, “The 21st Century Cheater: Academic dishonesty in Canada’s schools,” www.ccl-cca.ca/ccl/Newsroom/Releases/20100706AcademicDishonesty.html; Omar El Akkad, “Canadian’s Internet Usage Nearly Double the Worldwide Average,” The Globe and Mail, March 8, 2011, www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/tech-news/canadians-internet-usage-nearly-double-the-worldwide-average/article569916/
 Eric Pawson, E. Frounier, M. Haigh, O. Muniz, J. Trafford and S. Vajoczki, “Problem-based Learning in Geography: Towards a critical assessment of its purposes, benefits and risks,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30, no. 1 (2006): 103-116.
 William Alexander Moylan, “Learning by Project: Developing essential 21st century skills using student team projects,” International Journal of Learning 15, no. 9 (2008): 287-292.