The principal of the elementary school I attended as a little kid was obsessed with the baking-soda-and-vinegar-volcano “lab.” You know that activity– you spend a ton of time building a volcano out of clay (for best results, add little trees, dinosaurs, etc.), you dump baking soda and vinegar into the hole, and you get to make a mess. It was awesome, and resulted in years of colorful first-grade misconceptions about the chemical structure of lava. Obviously, the real “enduring understanding” of that lesson is supposed to be about chemical reactions: when you combine two substances you can sometimes end up with a very exciting new situation.
This spring, a small team of us at New Tech Network conducted a little volcano experiment of our own. We took two relatively familiar ingredients and combined them to develop and launch two fully online project-based learning courses, offered to students across our national network of innovative high schools. In each course, students were challenged to collaborate virtually with classmates around the country to solve authentic problems.
Student teams developed news reports to unpack and analyze unemployment data in their respective regions, planned and mapped sustainable school gardens for elementary schools in different climate zones, and designed and tested parachute prototypes for emergency disaster relief. Just like in our face-to-face schools, learning was driven by student need-to-knows and an authentic purpose, but all of the work was done online, using Echo, our learning management system. And just like in the volcano activity, combining these ingredients led to messy and exciting consequences– and lots of surprising and unexpected lessons.
I don’t want to sugar-coat this– none of us had ever done this before, and our staff, students and teachers struggled. Kids got frustrated when they couldn’t coordinate with teammates across time zones, teachers got discouraged when students’ virtual project presentations crashed and burned, and our national staff had many “how-the-heck-is-this-going-to-work” moments? But students also shared how much the courses taught them about working with people from different communities and using technology to collaborate. They commented about how the projects challenged them to manage their time and communicate problems and tasks really clearly– and how much these skills would benefit them in life beyond high school. Our teachers frequently reflected on the transformations taking place in their face-to-face classrooms as result of their experiences teaching PBL online.
This process has been bang-your-head-against-the-wall-frustrating and heart-exploding-exciting all at the same time. We all get to spend time exploring questions that feel entirely new: What does a developmental rubric for Virtual Teamwork look like? How do we help a 14-year-old develop the kinds of life and work skills that challenge us in our 30s and 40s? What can we learn from our pilot to make the experience better next year? How do we plan and innovate at the same time?
I’m excited about what we’ve learned from our first implementation, and am looking forward to continued learning and refinement in the years to come. I’m also incredibly grateful that this work has given me an opportunity to put on my Curious Second Grader Hat, and remember that new combinations of familiar ingredients can create all kinds of magic.
About the Author: Sarah supports New Tech Network’s team of digital facilitators in the design and development of project-based online courses for students. In 2011, Sarah joined New Tech Network as part of the Network’s virtual professional development initiative. Prior to joining New Tech, Sarah developed curriculum and professional development resources for Teachscape, Kaplan K12, Scholastic, WIDE World, Harvard Law School, and the Smithsonian Institution, and taught bilingual third and fourth grade on the Texas/Mexico border and in New York City. She holds a BA in American Studies and Spanish from Smith College, and an EdM in Technology, Innovation, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.