ICT-Assisted Project-Based Learning
College of Education
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon USA 97403
First draft 9/13/05. Revised 10/14/05.
Each country’s educational system has many different goals. Each country wants its children
to become fluent in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Each country wants its educational system
to help preserve the country’s history, culture, and values. Each country wants its children to
become responsible adults that contribute to the future prosperity and strength of the country.
Schools tend to be slow in adjusting to change. When changes in culture, national goals, and
the world are slow, educational systems can easily adjust to the changes. However, when
changes occur more quickly and are complex, they are a challenge to a country’s educational
Science and technology change the world. Over the past hundred years, there has been
substantial progress in transportation, communication, agriculture, medicine, genetics, and many
other areas. The changes have been large, and the pace of change is increasing. These changes
affect the people and educational system of each country.
Many of the changes that are now going on affect the whole world. For example, think about
improvements in transportation during the past century. Airplanes and larger, faster ships, and
improvements in ground transportation have made possible a steadily increasing amount of
global trade. People and goods routinely move from country to country. There is worldwide
competition in the production and distribution of agricultural and manufactured products. The
prosperity of each country depends on how well it can function in this global marketplace.
Now, consider Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The pace of change in
ICT has been very fast indeed. We can see this in the widespread use of cell telephones, the very
rapid decrease in the cost of long distance phone service, and the Internet. This has added a new
dimension to the global marketplace. People can compete for certain types of jobs located many
miles from their homes—without leaving their homes or local communities! Moreover, people
located throughout the world can collaborate on projects and other work activities—again,
without leaving their local communities.
As each country looks to its future, it needs to think carefully about global competition made
possible by the steady improvements in global transportation and by the very rapid
improvements in ICT. What changes might be needed in a country’s educational system to better
prepare its citizens to be responsible adults, contributing to the prosperity of the nation and its
This paper explores possible answers to this question from a Project-Based Learning (PBL)
point of view. Much of the emphasis of this paper is on roles of ICT in PBL.
Introduction to Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
ICT is both quite simple and quite complex. As an example of its simplicity, a young child
can easily learn to turn on a cell telephone and call a person located thousands of miles away.
This does not require any formal schooling.
However, the technology underlying the world’s telecommunication system is very complex.
A very large number of people make a living designing, constructing, and maintaining this
system. The system is highly dependent on computers, fiber optics, and satellites.
Now, consider digital still and digital video cameras. As with film-based still and video
camera. A young child can learn to take pictures. No formal schooling is required.
However, there is a huge difference between the quality of results produced by a beginner
and that produced by a person who has had extensive training, education, and experience in still
and video photography. Photography is a complex discipline, and it takes many years for a
person to build a high level of expertise in solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks
encountered in this discipline.
For still another example, think of a scientist, mathematician, or engineer working at a
professional level. This person now routinely uses a wide range of ICT tools to solve problems
and accomplish tasks. This person need not be a computer scientist. While the person routinely
uses computers, the person’s greatest knowledge and skills are in solving the problems and
accomplishing the tasks of his or her discipline.
It takes many years of formal education and experience to become a high level expert in any
academic discipline. In every such discipline, ICT is a useful aid to solving problems and
accomplishing tasks. However, learning to use ICT tools in only a modest part of acquiring
needed expertise in non-ICT disciplines.
Our educational system—especially our higher education system, now has many years of
experience in preparing discipline-specific experts to learn to make effective use of ICT within
the disciplines they study. The approach that is proving most successful is to thoroughly
integrate use of ICT within the various academic disciplines, and to focus the discipline-specific
education on problem solving and higher-order thinking. Project-based and problem-based
education are often used.
Introduction to Project-Based Learning (PBL)
PBL is a multi-goaled learning activity that goes on over a period of time, resulting in a
product, presentation, or performance. In a school, a project may take days, weeks, or even
months. Typically, PBL has milestones (intermediate goals) and includes quite a bit of formative
assessment and feedback to students as the project proceeds. A project may be focused within a
specific discipline such as history or biology, or it may cut across many different disciplines.
Project on environmental issues, for example, cut across many different disciplines such as
science, history, business, and politics.
Project-based learning is learner centered. Students have a significant voice in selecting the
content areas and nature of the projects that they do. There is considerable focus on students
understanding what it is they are doing, why it is important, and how they will be assessed.
Indeed, students may help to set some of the goals over which they will be assessed and how
they will be assessed over these goals. All of these learner-centered characteristics of PBL
contribute to learner motivation and active engagement. A high level of intrinsic motivation and
active engagement are essential to the success of a PBL unit of study.
This paper does not explore problem-based learning. While it has many characteristics
similar to those of project-based learning, there is a significant difference. In problem-based
learning, the focus is on solving a specific problem—often a problem posed by the teacher. Such
problem-based learning is often used in business education and medical education.
ICT-Assisted project-based learning is merely PBL done in an environment that included
ICT. I use the term ICT very broadly. ICT includes calculators, computers, telecommunication
systems, the Internet, the Web, digital still and motion cameras, digital devices for
composing/creating, editing, storing, and playing music and videos, robots, computerized
instrumentation and automation, and so on. ICT draws upon such broad disciplines as Computer
Engineering and Computer and Information Science.
ICT brings some valuable new dimensions to PBL. It helps to create a teaching and learning
environment in which a person can learn a great deal about ICT and make extensive use of their
ICT knowledge and skills. It helps to create a learning environment that is authentic—like the
world in which adults work and carry on their other adult activities.
For example, we know that a school, town, or university library is an important component of
an educational system. We know that libraries vary widely in size, and that they are expensive to
create, operate, and keep up to date. Now, however, we have the Web. The Web can be thought
of as a global library. It is already the world’s largest library, and it is continuing its rapid
growth. No matter how small a school is, students can have access to this large library.
The Web is not the same as a school library or a town library. In some ways it is better, and
in some ways it is worse. However, because of its size and because many people can make
simultaneous use of any item in this library, it is a very valuable aid to education. Thus, a
modern education includes learning to make effective and routine use of the Web.
It is quite easy for a person to learn to use a browser and a search engine to find information
on the Web. Indeed, children can learn this more easily than they can learn to use a card catalog
and to find materials stored in a physical library. However, there are a variety of Web-related
educational problems. For example:
1. A poorly constructed search may produce millions of “hits.” What does a
child do when faced by millions of possible sources of information about a
2. The contents of a physical library are usually screened by a librarian or
library committee. The contents are selected so they are appropriate for use
by the intended audience. That is not the case for the Web.
3. Professional librarians have had extensive education and experience in
finding and retrieving materials in a library. When we give a child access to
the Web, we tend to think that the child has magically gained the knowledge
and skills of a well-trained librarian. That is simply not correct.
The Web provides an excellent example of both the simplicity and complexity of ICT. It is
quite easy to learn to use the Web. It is quite difficult to learn to use the Web well enough so that
it is a routine and powerful aid to solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks within a
specific discipline. It takes considerable knowledge of a discipline—as well a education in use of
the Web within that discipline—to be an effective user of the Web within a disicpline.
It is common when doing PBL to make use of library resources and other information
resources. ICT-Assisted PBL is a learning environment in which students are motivated to learn
to make effective use of the Web to help solve the problems and accomplish the tasks of their
The World is Growing Flatter
Thomas L. Friedman is a writer for the New York Times, and he has won three Pulitzer
Prizes for his excellent writing. Freidman’s recent book “The World is Flat: A Brief History of
the Twenty-first Century” makes it very clear how computers and communication systems are
changing the world. He gives numerous examples of how people are competing for jobs
throughout the world via ICT, without leaving their home countries or perhaps even their home
towns. In essence, ICT is making it easier and easier to “telecommute” to jobs throughout one’s
country and throughout the world.
You know, for example, that airline transportation is a global business. You also know that
sometimes an airline passenger’s luggage gets lost. However, did you know that workers in
England do a significant fraction of the worldwide business for tracking and finding lost luggage
As another example, think about making reservations and purchasing tickets for travel by air,
land, or sea. Many people now make their own reservations using the World Wide Web (Web).
Many others make reservations by use of telephones—and the agents they talk to are often
located thousands of miles away. India, for example, has many thousand of citizens who do this
type of work, serving customers throughout the world.
It is interesting to think about the nature of jobs to which one can telecommute. What type of
education helps a person prepare for such jobs? Which jobs requite a good knowledge of local
customs and culture, and which jobs can be filled by people from distant parts of one’s own
country, or from other countries? What jobs require a person to be bilingual or to have an accent
and some cultural knowledge similar to the people they serve?
From an educational system point of view, it is becoming clear that local educational systems
need to prepare students to live and work in a world that is becoming smaller. Steady
improvements in transportation, and the very rapid improvements in ICT, mean that students
need an education that prepares them to be responsible and productive adults in a world that has
more and more international competition for goods and services.
The educational system in Costa Rica has long recognized the value of project-based
learning. There has been substantial research to support the value of PBL. A summary of this
research is available on my PBL Website (Moursund, n.d.) The case for PBL is only moderately
strong if one measures success by student progress in passing standardized tests and in meeting
the traditional goals of education. However, there is much more to PBL than preparing students
to do well in achievement tests over language arts, math, science, and social science.
For example, we want students to learn to work together in groups that are facing complex
and challenging problems. We want students to learn to take leadership roles and to take the
initiative in helping to solve complex and challenging problems. Much of this learning is not
stressed or assessed through traditional methods of teaching and assessment.
We want students to learn to monitor their own progress, set their own goals, be responsible
for their own learning, and be intrinsically motivated. We want students to learn to be
responsible and productive adult citizens in a “flat” world, where telecommuting to work and
dealing with global markets are steadily growing importance. Much of this learning is not
stressed or assessed through traditional methods of teaching and assessment.
PBL as a Process Leading to a Product
PBL shares much in common with Process Writing. The roots of Process Writing as taught in
the United States are often traced back to the San Francisco, California Bay Area Writers Project
circa 1975. A six-step version of Process Writing is:
1. brainstorming ideas and gathering needed information;
2. organizing the brainstormed ideas and the information that has been gathered;
3. developing a draft;
4. obtaining feedback from oneself and others;
5. revising, which may involve going back to earlier steps; and
6. publishing (making the finished product available).
Process writing can be thought of as a project that leads to a publication. ICT is useful in
each of the six steps. We all know that one of the most important ideas in writing is “revise,
revise, revise.” Certainly, a computer and word processor are really useful in this step. We also
know that the use of computers in desktop publication changed the whole world of publication.
Essentially the same six steps hold for any project that leads to a product, presentation, or
performance. From a teaching and learning point of view, perhaps the most important
characteristics of PBL is that students are engaged in a learning environment in which they can
incrementally improve (through revision) their product, presentation, or performance.
Learning to access one’s progress and to make incremental improvements to one’s results is a
fundamental idea in many work situations. It is a goal of education that is not assessed through
traditional national assessment tests, and is not well integrated into the curriculum in most school
systems. Traditional assessment does not measure a student’s abilities in such incremental
Authentic Instruction and Authentic Assessment
The Agricultural Age began more than 10,000 years ago in the part of the world where Iraq is
now located. This led to considerable increases in worldwide population and eventually (5,000
years ago) to the development of reading, writing, and formal schooling. For thousands of years
thereafter, few people learned to read and write, and most people remained as illiterate farmers.
Agriculture is still an important part of the economy of almost every nation. However, the
Industrial Revolution began in England late in the 1700s. In England, the movement of large
numbers of workers and their families to the cities led to a problem of children working in
factories. This, in turn, led to the idea of creating schools for these children and to child labor
laws keeping young children out of the factory labor pool.
The schools that were created had many of the characteristics of a factory. This “factory-
like” type of educational system helped students to gain the knowledge, skills, punctuality,
reliability, discipline, and other characteristics needed to be good factory workers.
Unfortunately, now, more than 200 years later, “factory-like” is still a good description of
many schools and education systems. This is true even though we are now about 50 years into
the Information Age.
Each country is faced by needing an education system that fits the Agricultural Age,
Industrial Age, and Information Age aspects of its current and future society. Educational
systems throughout the world are struggling to adjust to this challenge.
During the past 5,000 years there has been a large accumulation of practitioner-based and
researcher-based knowledge about teaching and learning. The book How People Learn: Brain,
Mind, Experience (Bransford et al, 1999) is available free on the Web and provides an excellent
overview of some of this progress.
Authentic assessment and authentic instruction constitute one of the really important
educational ideas that have been developed in recent years. The idea is simple enough. The
content and process of teaching and learning should be authentic in the sense that it is like the
“real world” outside of school in which students will eventually apply their learning. Assessment
should be authentic in that it measures performance of a “real-world” nature that one finds
outside of school.
Let me give an example. When I am working, I have access to a good computer that is
connected to the Internet. I frequently interact with my colleagues and students via email, and I
frequently access information on the Web. I make routine use of a word processor, spelling
checker, grammar checker, spreadsheet, graphics software, a browser, a search engine, and Web
Much of the work that I do can be considered as projects. For example, I spend lots of time
writing books, developing and maintaining Websites, preparing classes that I teach, consulting,
and preparing talks and workshops. Each such activity is a type of project.
Now, suppose that you want to give me an authentic test that measures my professional
knowledge and skills. It would need to be a hands-on test within the environment in which I
work. Also, you would want to examine a portfolio of my previous work. (About 20 of my books
and about 200 articles are available on my Professional Website (Moursund, n.d.)
Think about this in terms of school. Do students in your schools routinely get assessed in a
“hands on ICT” environment? Do they have electronic portfolios in which they can show how
well they are able to do some of the things they are learning to do?
Authentic instruction, authentic assessment, and electronic portfolios are all important
aspects of ICT-Based PBL.
Individualization of Instruction
We know that two people (even identical twins) are not exactly alike. A person is a product
of both nature (biology) and nurture (environment, experiences, education). People vary widely
in their cognitive abilities, interests, motivation, and persistence.
The educational theory of constructivism is that one constructs knowledge and learns by
building upon their current knowledge and understanding. No two students have the same
knowledge and understanding. Thus, each student is faced by the need to construct new
knowledge and understanding, with the aid of instruction that is not specifically geared to his or
her current knowledge and understanding.
A factory-like educational system tends to place students into groups. Methods of grouping
vary. For example, students may be grouped by age, reading level, or math level. Within a group,
the curriculum content, instruction, and assessment tend to be much the same for all students.
Such grouping processes are efficient from a factory-like and staffing point of view.
However, they are far from ideal from a student learning point of view. Examine the diagram in
Expertis e Scale Illustrating Lower-Order
and Higher-Order Knowledge and Skills
Low er-order Higher-order
Nov ice Current Level of Exp ertise of World
Figure 1. Lower-order and higher-order knowledge and skills
This diagram illustrates two important ideas. First, it shows an expertise scale—the
knowledge, skills, and performance of a student in a particular topic area relative to others.
Informal education, formal education, and experience help a student to move up this scale. A
student’s educational progress can be measured by the student’s progress in gaining increased
expertise in a variety of different disciplines.
Second, the diagram illustrates lower-order and higher-order knowledge and skills from an
individual student point of view. From an individual student point of view, lower order is what
the student already knows and can do, while higher-order is what the student is trying to learn.
Research suggests that for most students, the black dot is the optimal level of instruction for the
student. Teach much below this level and a student is wasting time and may become bored.
Teach much above this level and a student is apt to be overwhelmed, tune out, or be forced into a
“memorize and regurgitate, with little or no understanding” mode of learning.
Teachers know this, and grouping helps to address this problem. However, grouping can still
not provide a level of individualization that produces optimal learning. Evidence of this is
provided by research on the effectiveness of one-on-one and very small group tutoring. Such
individual or small group tutoring is considerably more effective than large group instruction.
Computer-assisted learning and self-paced distance learning are two useful approaches to the
individualization problem. ICT-based PBL can provide another effective approach.
Appropriately designed and appropriately implemented ICT-Based PBL can provide a high level
of individualized and/or small group instruction.
Empowering the Learner and the Teacher
Some educational systems carry the factory-like model of education to an extreme. France,
for example is know for its school system in which there is a strong effort to have countrywide
uniformity in the teaching of a particular topic and when it is taught. In the United States, Direct
Instruction is a method of instruction designed for use in special education. The lessons are
highly scripted, with teachers being taught exactly what they are to say, how to say it, and how to
interact with students. My university, the University of Oregon, is a leading research center in
this area of education. Research supports the effectiveness of Direct Instruction in accomplishing
certain learning goals with certain categories of students.
From a teacher point of view, the two examples given in the previous paragraph are examples
of situations that do not empower teachers. They focus in both examples is on teachers being
“machine like” in implementing the curriculum developed by the experts.
The two examples also illustrate not empowering students. In recent years, I have noticed
that more and more of the preservice teachers I teach at the University of Oregon have adopted
an attitude that is summarized by: “Just tell me what to do and I will do it. Give me a detailed set
of instructions and examples of what you want me to do, and I will follow these instructions.”
From my point of view, these students have not learned to learn on their own and to take
initiative and responsibility for their own learning. ICT-Based PBL helps to create teaching and
learning environments that empower students and that help them to learn to take more
responsibility for their own learning.
Developing an ICT-Based PBL Lesson
An ICT-Based PBL unit of study has many of the goals of a traditional unit of study.
However, it also has a number of other goals that that are well suited to its environment. Figure 2
contains a table that teachers find useful in developing an ICT-Based PBL lesson.
Goals: Students will learn: Learning Assessing Points
1. The subject matter content of the project.
2. ICT as an integral part of the subject matter content
3. Some general (interdisciplinary) aspects of ICT.
4. To budget resources (including time) in doing a project,
5. To self-assess one's progress in doing a project.
6. To work as a team member (cooperative learning,
cooperative problem solving).
7. To be a project proposer, a problem solver, and a
creative, higher-order thinker,
8. To transfer previous learning into a new setting.
9. To learn to learn and to help others learn.
10. (Other, please specify.)
Total Points 100
Figure 2. ICT-Assisted PBL planning table.
There are a number of important ideas in this table. For example, notice the emphasis on
learning both a particular subject matter area (such as history, art, or science) and ICT as part of
that subject matter area. ICT is now an integral and very valuable component of each academic
discipline. That is, experts in the various disciplines routinely use ICT as an aid to solving
problems, accomplishing tasks, and making other use of their expertise.
ICT-Based PBL can provide opportunities to learn some aspects of ICT that are useful in
many other disciplines. For example, a project may include students learning to use a digital
camera, editing digital pictures, and integrating pictures into a current events document. This
knowledge and skill is useful in writing in any subject area, not just the specific area being
emphasized in the project.
Items 4 to 9 in the list are examples of possible goals that are all important in education and
tend to fit well into a PBL environment.
Item 10 allows one to add other goals. For example, perhaps a goal will be to have students
learn to create an effective oral presentation that makes use of multimedia. A lot of learning goes
on as students learn to develop a multimedia presentation during which each student does a
significant component of the presentation.
The “Points” column provides some help in determining relative emphasis on the various
goals and it also helps in assessment. When teachers first begin to make use of ICT-Based PBL,
they tend to place too much emphasis on items 2 and 3. The project become one in which the
main goals are to learn to use computers. I believe that it is important for all students to learn to
use computers with a reasonably high level of fluency. Thus, I believe that ICT needs to be
specifically taught, with its own lesson plans, goals, and objectives. Such instruction should
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begin relatively early in a student’s school. ICT-Based PBL (and all other instruction students
are receiving) should build upon and give students experience in using this early ICT content.
ICT-Based PBL also provides a good environment for students to learn more ICT and to help
each other learn some more ICT.
ICT-Based PBL involves leads to a product, performance, or presentation—or, some
combination of these three. Assessment is typically quite different than the assessment used in
traditional instruction on core subject matter areas. In PBL, assessment by “walking around,
observing, and informal interaction with individuals and groups” plays a key role. This is quite
similar to the idea of management by “walking around” that is quite important in business.
During this formative evaluation phase of assessment, the teacher may well discover items
that need to be discussed with the entire class. For example, while observing one student’s
difficulties in using a computer scanner, the teacher may realize that the whole class needs some
instruction on this topic. The PBL activity is halted while the teacher presents such instruction,
and then the PBL activity continues.
At a later time during the project, the teacher may realize that most students have had little
experience in designing and doing a team-based multimedia presentation. This could lead to a
teacher–presented lesson on this topic.
In PBL, it is common to provide students some time management guidance through timelines
and milestones. For example, each team may be required to turn in a clear statement of the
project that it is doing and what role each team member will play, and this is due on a certain
date. Each team may be required to turn in a detailed progress report each week, discussing the
progress of the whole team, the contributions of each individual team member, major challenges
that have been encountered, and progress in overcoming these challenges. Each person doing a
project may be required to make daily or weekly entries into a journal, and this journal is then
read and analyzed by the teacher. This provides a good vehicle for the teacher to gain insight into
each student’s progress and to provide individualized feedback.
As noted in the previous section, PBL may include a goal of students learning to assess their
own progress and to take responsibility for their own progress and learning. For young students,
a detailed rubric is helpful. Thus, for example, young students might be told that they must have
at least three references and two pictures in the paper they are writing on a wild animal (where
each student gets to make their own choice of what animal to study). Older students might
merely be reminded that are to make appropriate use of reference materials and media. Younger
students might be told that a paper must be at least two pages in length, while older students are
merely reminded that the paper needs to be of a length to suitable accomplish the communication
A good project leads to a product, presentation, or performance designed for a particular
audience and to accomplish specific goals. For example, a project might be designed to address a
problem of loss of wetlands or loss of forests in a particular part of one’s country. The intended
audience might be government officials. Many students are intrinsically motivated by the
opportunity to “make a difference” in their community and country.
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It is desirable to have some members of the intended project audience be involved in making
use of the project results and in assessing the project results. This may involve bringing outside
experts into the school, or students traveling to make presentations to such outside experts.
ICT is now a routine component of the work and daily lives of many adults throughout the
world. A modern education needs to prepare students to be responsible and productive adults
citizens in such an environment. ICT-Based PBL can be an excellent teaching and learning
environment to help accomplish this educational goal.
Some of the most important aspects of ICT-Based PBL are that it helps to provide an
environment for authentic, student-centered education that empowers students and helps them to
become independent, self-sufficient, lifelong learners. Used in conjunction with the more
traditional forms of instruction and assessment, it can help to improve the education of students.
Bransford, John et al. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Accessed 9/5/05:
http://books.nap.edu/catalog/9853.html. The National Academy Press. See also: How students learn: History,
mathematics, and science in the classroom. Accessed 9/5/05: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10126.html.
Moursund, D.G. (n.d.). Professional Website: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~moursund/dave/index.htm.
Moursund, D.G. (n.d.). PBL Website: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~moursund/PBL/.