Tag Archives: learning technologies

Project-based learning – complementary to FE re-sits

It’s an odd metaphor that repeating something results in improvements, yet paradoxically the re-sit in FE of English and Maths seems to – arguably – cause more problems than solutions. For repetition to yield improvements, the conditions need to be appropriate, and in education, least of all FE, conditions are far from appropriate and the numerous variables are complex and messy, which is why educational research is so awkward.

I’m interested in project-based learning as a pedagogical vehicle, so read Tom Bennett’s blog post on it with an open-mind. His is an admirable reputation in education at the moment: informed critique of dubious ideas with guile and intellect. I’m glad there’s a Tom Bennett: it’s entirely necessary to shoot down dodgy knowledge in our age and whenever I’ve read him, he does so with aplomb and humour. He seems like a good bloke and all that.

My view of project-based learning is of its capacity to represent an alternative framework of provision in FE to the English GCSE.

To my understanding, project-based learning (PBL) has the hypothetical capacity to

  • drive content of personal interest to the individual
  • allow for investigative, discovery-based approaches
  • promote the creation of products over the consumption of them
  • be multimodal in the presentation of work
  • be organised as portfolio, allowing for the creation of artefacts
  • allow for technologically-supporting and disseminating approaches
  • complement vocational courses of study
  • enable a mastery-based approach to process and content, aligned to vocational models
  • be evaluated in different ways than standard exam-based, summative assessment

In an ideal world, students are motivated and curious, which may well be necessary mechanisms to PBL (if not all pedagogical strategies). I’ve attempted PBL approaches before with students, with mixed responses that I’ll elucidate on shortly. However, a few things first about PBL.

Organised inappropriately, PBL can centre around a premise of highly student-centred activity based on conditions that are likely to fail. Mitra’s SOLE approach is confused as PBL, where students are given a central question, some resources (‘the internet’) and are let loose like eager beavers to find the answers. Mitra’s studies of kids in the Indian slums given access to computers and the internet (‘Hole in the Wall’) remind me of when people say “x is the fastest growing economy in the world”, where x is a recently emergent industrial society that’s recently discovered oil, so is bound to be fastest growing from a position of 0.

“Kids in the slums learned quickly from the internet and were self-directed. Much more than…” What? Having no access to any education?

Our students (in FE) are stuffed from learning in school: crammed full of it, institutionalised upto their ears, assessment-fatigued and textually-jaded. Many are academically celibate. Opportunities for new paradigms of learning may well enthral them, but left to their own devices many will flounder because of these reasons, rather than fly with the wings of opportunity.

Anyway, I’ve always have difficulty with some research report which says ‘you learn a lot more…[ this way, or that]’ as if ‘learning’ was a countable noun that was so easily measured. This is the basis of much research, including the EEF report that Bennett criticises. You can tell early on in his blog that he’s not a fan, because his approach is to treat pbl to a line in hilariously snarc-astic language that assuages me to agree with him. Fair enough.

The EEF report was centred on Year 7 students and schools placed under strict research guidelines in order to control the comparisons, including time-apportioned to the study. A key thing here: the definition of PBL, drawn by literature review, is thus set in stone (rather than fluid and responsive) as it needs to be for the purpose of the study. PBL in my mind is more adaptable to a teacher’s personal approach and knowledge of their students. Tom criticises PBL entirely based on the report, because it is not structured around delivery by a subject specialist.

But hang on, why shouldn’t it be, even if the EEF say it’s so? My approach to PBL would have drafting, focused feedback on improving literacy and reviewed feedback ascertaining changes shared with students to gauge their own improved quality. There would be loads of subject specialism, thank you.

This would hinge on the initial input of a teacher-specialist delivering conventional grammar lessons, before students take to projects in lessons (with the expectation of those grammatical structures as implemented).  This isn’t so different to reading Steinbeck and writing an essay on it, where the text (and the questions) is the vehicle for the training of communication skills.

The EEF report based its study on school-contexts and Year 7. There is an entirely separate argument here about whether PBL is more appropriate to one age group or context than another. I think it’s a strategy that requires intrinsic motivation, for sure, and Year 7 students may well have that more than post-16 students (or not).

What is reasonable to assert is that different aged students in different contexts require different models of learning. PBL may be more akin to HE study, making it a pedagogy fit for the FE transitional context.

I have no particular gripe with chalk-and-talk knowledge transmission. But I know it has its’ limits with re-sit students arriving (apprehensively) to a classroom from a studio or workshop. Being a compulsory re-sit in a post-compulsory sector, can students be given some license to engage with curricula content (‘vehicle’) of whatever shape, as long as there is a literacy development programme in place? ‘Independent study time’ is routinely in place in FE colleges everywhere.

I don’t consider PBL as ‘independent’, but the concept of taking some tools (grammar constructs) and completing work to a deadline, furnished with supporting instruction of research and presentation skills (how to use technological tools to search, select and share, i.e. video, powerpoint, textual formats) and tailored to individual choice (personal choice of subject matter), with a dialogue that helps guide the entire process (‘Can you tell me why you have included that detail? How about using x to fit with the narrative of your study? Is there an alternative view of this subject? You might want to look again at the section on…&etc’).

Sounds a lot like FE-styled approaches (except the re-sit ones). It’s called Heutagogy in some areas and – while an iffy word to some – represents a plausible direction of travel for Tertiary Education.

So, we know the EEF has fairly narrow defined prescriptions of what PBL is.

Let me conclude by discussing the pbl approach I tried with my FE students. I’ll be honest, the way I’ve presented it here didn’t work well. Tom suspects that “the least able lose out the most” (don’t they nearly always?). Tom also suggests an “enormous upheaval” in terms of curriculum cost.

So, in my case I arranged our 35 week re-sit to be organised as two separate 90 minute classes, instead of one three hour intensive lesson (standard in some FE colleges). One of those 90 minute lessons would focus on syllabus, with the other focused on PBL, particularly with technological support, alongside grammar drills and sessions.

I explained the aims of the year to students in September, that each week we would meet in the computer suite once, where there would be grammar sessions and project time. I invited them to consider their projects and how these would or could be presented, so in varying sessions I introduced them to Padlet, Twitter, Prezi, WordPress, Glogster, Book Creator apps, Explain Everything, Evernote, Wix and Dropbox. Students could work individually or in collaboration, but the condition was focused development towards targeted outcomes – integrating formulated language structures, meeting deadlines, drafting, being responsive to feedback, taking ownership of language mistakes where identified.

One student started on her own company website as her project, modelled on professional ones but with input augmented from her course and small-scale own business practice, with another student electing to support her. In terms of content, it stretched the project a bit, but their enthusiasm was notable and paid dividends to the main syllabus.

Two other students wanted to investigate Gun Crime (as there had been a mass shooting in America at that time). Rather than the free rein of PBL set out by the EEF, I gave guiding questions continually to frame and shape the process, inviting statistical representation, supplementing the research with a news article, presenting different attitudes about the issue, arguments from pressure groups and lobbying organisations, organised and challenged by their own views.

Another pair of motor maintenance students investigated the Volkswagen emissions controversy that was in the media spotlight then. Another student, lost for an option, explored a career path of his choice, researching opportunities, identifying and explaining routes into it; imagining himself an employer, he wrote a mock-interview script with a potential candidate, which he presented in roleplay with a peer and left to the group to decide the employers decision.

Of course, not all students were so ‘engaged’ and some spent the time perfecting thrilling spinning movements on desktop chairs. Herein a problem with flexibility, but it’s certainly not a problem exclusive to pbl.

Despite lessons being workshop-like and supported with starting drills and resources based on straightforward grammar and vocabulary activities, they lost shape and structure after about two months, but this wasn’t really due to pbl.

With a typical mixed cohort, typical re-sit FE problems arose: namely, attendance and workload-pressures of the students’ main vocational courses. Splitting the course across two days meant students had double opportunities for absence and took the choice of which lesson to attend. We ended up, sometime down the path, using the pbl-based lesson to consolidate the lost time on the syllabus lessons to ensure readiness for controlled assessments. However, I would stress that this was always a fail-safe mechanism in my planning from the start.

Students who felt prepared for the assessment through good attendance had the freedom, then, to personalise the curriculum time with their projects.

This is by no means an illustration of the perfect project-based curricula, but I’m lead to write about it because of the EEF report, which fixes it to defining constraints that I consider unhelpful to its potential.

If the PBL products my students made could be accredited, they could result – I believe –in work akin to the level of essays on Of Mice and Men, but richer, more dynamic. Why not? Isn’t it better than repeating a formula that hasn’t worked, despite repetition being a route to mastery.  Re-sit students deserve the opportunity for differentiated practice. With the appropriate conditions (clear outcomes and experienced guidance) PBL can represent that.






Filed under English re-sit, FE, Learning technologies, Uncategorized

Mobile learning for FE praxis

mol“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S.Eliot

(For case study, scroll to bottom of page. Theoretical preamble precedes…)

Mobile learning has become a vogue term, often misappropriated as the use of devices in classroom settings. This is the premise of Jocelyn Wishart’s article for the Mobile Learning journal I edited across the last year with Dr. Ben Bachmair of Kassel University. Jocelyn proposes mobility on the grounds of Sharples (2007), who conceived of it as closer to a verb – mobile, as in activities in the field.

I tend to agree. According to Ben’s 2010 forecast of its potential (written with Norbert Pachler and John Cook) mobile learning is the interrelationship of artefacts accessed and produced by mobile devices that is not necessarily derivative of formal education, but of cultural practice. This positions mobile learning in line with Sharples (2007) view: the assimilation of informal learning contexts negotiated through cultural reference points.

To my understanding and hopes, mobile learning is active and in the field; the classroom is a static residence where reflection can be constructed. The mobile device is a communication vehicle between and within sociocultural systems and structures.

All very high-falluting, but yielding greater potential to what can be done with devices when considering Situated Cognition (Seely Brown), which is based around real-world contexts as more authentic ways to learn than being stuck in a classroom – which is, I’d argue, really quite ‘ersatz’. I for one recall endlessly staring out of the window, distracted. This served to inform several years of travel in my twenties, in erudite hunger for meaningful experiences in the real world, rather than seeing it out in some office. I suspect many students want the same. Maybe mobile learning, in FE/HE, can support one’s assimilation to the world, after so many years of institutionalisation.

A firm understanding of pedagogical theory can support practice (as praxis).

Collaborating with Ben, we devised a template for presenting Mobile Learning scenarios based on Activity Theory, with a practical focus on purpose (object), ecology (real world context), agency and meaning-making (human capacity to act on the world) and technology needed to orchaestrate activity. In the counterpoints to culture, I consider the use of other figures, as relevant to learners recreational mobile uses: in short, ‘experts’ (not necessarily teachers) in the field.

I wonder about the final one: is there a gimmick-value to technology?  It should probably only be used when it allows for extra affordances, which can be numerous. Further, it may replicate real-world  use, particuarly for skills training, like in FE.

Cochrane  has critiqued the straight transference of classroom learning pedagogies to  mobile devices, which seems a little harsh. Keith Turvey presents a new paper exploring some of the emergent difficulties and questions regarding the Mobile Complex. Importantly, he draws on research from the Higher Education Academy and how schools negotiate the ever-changing world around us. The problems (opportunities) are:

  • learner empowerment;
  • future-facing education;
  • decolonizing education;
  • transformative capabilities;
  • crossing boundaries; and
  • social learning.

It will be of importance that new teacher training fits or reflects the possibilities afforded by mobility as the most ubiquitous tool of this era. Some evidence tells us that we teach others in similar ways to the way we learned to teach ourselves, so it is no bad thing, surely, to train others (as FurtherEdagogy has recently done, among others) to become au fait with mobility. Whatever the definition, mobility is here.

I think FE is strengthened in the UK by some freedom afforded it to embrace more innovation, which is encouraging as a sector. All of the above may seem quite high-minded (and just skims the surface of my research) acadamese, but these ideas are ripe for simple translation.

I finish by presenting a short description of my own mobile learning scenario with AS English FE students, using the template Ben and I designed:

(1) Headline and date –

Global influences on evolution of English Language mobile investigation, 17th June, 2014

 (2) Keywords

Cultural agency, Smart Phone Data collection, (digital) literacy

 (3) Author/s, copyright holder, facilitators (e.g. ‘teacher’), participating institutions (school, university, company etc)

(Left intentionally blank here)

(4) Time and place of realisation

 Liverpool docklands and Museums

(5) Leading education ideas and plot of scenario

 Inquiry-based approach with a talk (conducted as filmed interview following prepared questions by students) with museum curator discussing the changing regional accent.

Students then explored the museums recording photographs of curious language use throughout from the archives in the exhibitions and around the ports and docks. As records these artfacts were brought back to the institution later and uploaded to the class social network for discussion and further exploration in subsequent lessons and in discussion threads online.

(6) Learning aims and objectives achieved

This was a two-fold approach, consisting of preparation for A2 English language coursework choices, so was preliminary information-gathering. Content deriving from the trip (interview segments with the curator; photographic evidence from the museum) could be incoroprated into the subsequent research projects of the unit, which may explore Language Change or Regional Divergence.

It gave the students an insight into practical research methods and tools that can be used for these (phones as dictaphones, video cameras, cameras embedded into them, as memo-recording devices), as well as user-generated content they could drill further into, regarding etymology of the words and the influence of the docks on the English language.

(7) Target group and its views regarding the scenario

AS English group – all keen, naturally, having a sparkling, inspirational teacher! Lost notes from the day now, but their input was impressive, working without direction and stimulated by the visit (as many had never visited the city – despite its proximity).

(8) Institution of learning and curricular context

FE tertiary English

(9) Mobile devices or other technology deployed


(10) Cost and men/ women power, steps and necessary time for realisation

No cost for the museums, small costs for the travel, 1-day for the trip – extra time needed to disseminate results and construct further activity.

(11) Main results of realisation with main positives and negatives

Collaborative problem-solving between members over uses of equipment, curatorship of knowledge and communicating ideas, details of the talk and recollected vignettes of things they saw to the social network; project-based ideas stemmed from it in terms of research ideas for the coursework. An interesting result was the increased activity within the social network we use, as domain of activity. Beforehand, students waited for the teacher to post first, but this lead to some ownership and responsibility on their behalf and an increased sense of engagement and community of practice through the group. This was a shy group and they became emancipated and enagaging on the trip, asking the curator questions confidently and trying Sushi for the first time.

There may be some doubt regarding the ‘real-world context’ and ‘meaning-making’, but if compared to textbooks, videos in the classroom of guest speakers (at best), then I think this form was preferable to the students. Is a museum a more authentic representation of the real-world than a classroom? Regardless of obsessions with history and tacky souvenirs, I would have to say ‘yes.’

As Kierkegaard said: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” A conscious action necessary to learning is reflection; not best activated in the same environment day -after-day. Wherein the physical trip, situated in the memory and online in the network via their mobile artefcats, helps to contextualise the experience and stimulate reflection to events and conversations, beginning on the bus home and stretching to classroom-based discourse, if you like, or don’t bother if you didnae.

(12) Available report and artefacts (photos, videos, texts, images)

Not available here. Somewhere in the (mobile) cloud…!

“All that is mobile, melts into ether.” – Me.








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Filed under Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Pedagogical practice, Uncategorized