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Project-oriented learning makes tech integration happen naturally

Don't swear at technology integration. Use project-oriented learning, and it will happen naturally

Ms. Jones has been teaching English for 10 years, and the community loves her. She's creative, energetic and great with kids. However, she frustrates her principal. Last year, he purchased six computers for her classroom and sent her to a week-long workshop on integrating technology. Still, the computers sit idle most of the time. Ms. Jones says she doesn't have time to cover the state-assessed English curriculum and teach technology.

Tech savvy principals are often frustrated in their instructional improvement efforts. They run workshops, fund technology purchases, and pay for teachers to attend high-tech conferences, but it's all too common to see little bang for these big buck expenditures. The secret to solving this problem may lie in the expectations administrators have for instruction and assessment in their buildings, and little to do with hardware, software and training.

Barbara Means' vision for student-empowering technology use promises a solution that is rooted in project-oriented learning. As Means spelled out in her book, The Connected School: Technology and Learning in High School (John Wiley & Sons, 2001), effective use of technology by students:

  • emulates the ways professionals use technology
  • requires significant amounts of time for completion
  • gives students latitude in designing their own products and in determining when and how to use technology
  • involves multiple academic disciplines
  • provides opportunities for student collaboration with peers and outside experts.

All of Mean's characteristics describe effective instruction. Good teaching is good teaching whether or not we use technology, but technology tools open a wealth of possibilities and enhance traditional instructional approaches. When a principal views teaching and learning as an exercise in problem solving and communicating ideas, examples of effective technology integration proliferate. Principals can reach their goal of increased technology integration by re-framing the problem. By putting the horse-project-oriented learning-in front of the technology integration cart.

Lead by Good Example

When River Hill High School in Howard County, Md., opened in 1996, the community wanted more than high SAT and AP scores. Parents wanted their students prepared for a technology-rich workplace, and they wanted their children to be able to think, problem solve, and communicate effectively. At root, a constructivist learning philosophy emerged. Students are active learners, teachers are facilitators, instruction is project-based, and assessment and instruction are blended. In this environment, there was little need to beat the technology integration drum. Instead, teachers and students turned to the power of technology on their own to bring their projects and presentations to life.

Teachers did not naturally embrace project orientation. Sticking to tried and true methods served as a refuge for many. Students' projects in River Hill's early years were simplistic, hurried, and peripheral to core curriculum goals. Then the concept of portfolios as a means of alternative assessment caught teachers' imagination. Slowly but surely, teachers and students found meaning in their use of portfolios.

Today, every teacher requires students to maintain a portfolio in every course. Portfolios contain a minimum of three projects, and they must be tied to the state's core curriculum. Technology integration is not a requirement, but portfolio artifacts exude technology. Many portfolios are electronic in nature. Students use these portfolios as juniors to practice and develop interview skills. Senior year requires them to participate in a school-wide portfolio exhibition, complete with visual displays, speeches and reflective essays.

Portfolios as alternative assessment tools that display what students know and are able to do in each course at River Hill High School are a way of life now. Project-oriented learning flourishes. Technology integration is ubiquitous not because technology was forced. Instead, technology integration flows naturally from excellent instructional practices where students embody Means' vision of student-empowering technology use.

R. Scott Pfeifer,, is a principal at the River Hill High School in Howard County (Md.) Public School System.