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Connecting Project-Based and Blended Learning

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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This guest blog post was written by Brian Greenberg, Envision School's former Chief Academic Officer.

Don't listen to the current education reform rhetoric: There is more than one way to educate a child. In fact, sometimes very different approaches can yield terrific results when combined together.

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with project-based learning (PBL), but may be less familiar with the notion of "blended learning." Blended learning generally refers to incorporating online learning into traditional brick-and-mortar schools to create hybrid learning experiences for students. So how do the generally progressive ideals of PBL merge with the more reform-oriented blended learning approach? Beautifully, at least in theory.

Sal Khan of the much-acclaimed Khan Academy personifies the blended learning movement. His team's herculean efforts to record thousands of videos, create practice problems, and build sophisticated back-end analytics are opening educators' minds to what is possible with online learning. As with any innovation, there is a growing army of critics who accuse Khan of being just more of the same drill-and-kill pedagogy. They ask, "Where is the deep and engaging curriculum that Ted Sizer championed?" It may surprise readers to know that Sal Khan himself is an advocate of projects and hands-on learning, believing that using videos like his can free teachers' time and energy up for richer instruction focused on higher-order skills. So if Mr. Blended Learning embraces PBL, can the PBL community embrace blended learning, too?

As the former Chief Academic Officer of Envision Schools, I experienced the beauty and power of PBL. But I also saw how PBL could sometimes create content-area gaps for students because of the focus on depth versus breadth. Few teachers can master all the challenges of teaching state standards, designing engaging projects, assessing all students along the way, and intervening effectively when students don't master the material.

The Best of Both Worlds

But what if PBL teachers also had online resources to help students learn content and to provide better feedback on student outcomes? In this scenario, students might be learning content at home in the evenings or for some of class each day. The online learning would be highly personalized and adaptive, allowing some students to go deeper or faster and letting others go at the pace they need to ensure true mastery. This could also provide a more accurate daily picture of the content students had mastered and exactly where each student struggled. This blended learning approach can be seen in schools like Carpe Diem, SF Flex Academy -- and even in Envision's own summer school pilot, being documented right now on the Blend My Learning blog.

What most of these early blended learning models are missing, however, is application of knowledge -- the deep and meaningful learning that students experience when they synthesize content and apply it in novel, exciting ways. This is where great PBL comes in. I'd love to see Khan paired with awesome physics projects, for example. Complete four badges showing you've mastered certain content and "unlock" a project challenge. The software helps ensure you have mastered the content; the challenge lets you apply the learning and produce a beautiful piece of work.

Or flip it around: Present the challenge that engages students first and then elicit their desire to tackle the online learning. This is where the expertise of the leaders in PBL is so valuable. I'd like to see High Tech High, Envision Schools, the Big Picture Learning, and New Tech Network digitize their best projects and resources and make them "student-facing." The New Tech Network's Echo platform and the blossoming partnership between Envision Schools and Show Evidence are two promising examples of bringing the best of PBL to a wider audience. And Khan Academy's two million users per month demonstrate the power of the Web to spread good ideas and scale implementation.

The blended learning movement is still in its infancy and needs time to prototype, experiment, make mistakes, and figure out what works. It would benefit greatly from incorporating decades of learning from the PBL community around what engages students and leads them to producing the highest quality work. The PBL community, similarly, should embrace the power that blended learning offers.

The technology itself is not the game changer; it is the personalization that technology affords. Blended learning's greatest potential lies in the combination of immediate feedback to students, more personalized pacing, ability to make students responsible for their own learning, and ability to serve up the content when and how students are ready for it. If we can get this right, blended learning 2.0 could be a powerful way to run our schools -- where the best of online learning meets the best of project-based learning. I have to believe the results for students will be powerful.

Credit: Bob Lenz

Brian Greenberg is a former teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, founding principal of Leadership Public Schools -- Hayward, and Chief Academic Officer of Envision Schools. He can be reached at

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Paige T's picture
Paige T
Kindergarten Teacher, TN

I can see this blended approach being effective. Last year my class of 4 years olds completed a 2 month study on rocks (I teach "Project Approach"). The children asked to create their own website about rocks. In addition to adding new photos and information to our rocks website each week, the website password was also shared with parents. Thus, the children and their families added new and interesting items to our rocks website from their homes regularly. Although this is a more simplified and adapted version of the information in the article above, the example still communicates the ways that blending project work with technological applications can absolutely enhance student learning, as well as increase students' interests in a given topic.

Chris Fancher's picture

I'm entering my 4th year of PBL at Manor New Tech H.S. in Manor, TX. We use PBL 100% of the time, or so our information page says. But, even though every teacher in every subject is teaching PBL we know that you have to bring more to the classroom to make sure you are reaching the depth of the material. This is especially true in Mathematics were our students are really struggling. So, we create projects (incorporating the New Tech Network's version of the Buck Institute) and go project to project throughout the year, but we bring in additional materials/websites to enhance the student experience.
As a school within the New Tech Network (NTN) we go to PD's with other teachers around the country to discuss best practices within our content area. The math world within NTN is shifting to a Problem Based Approach, meaning a more focused, short (3 to 5 days), problem that can be addressed and scaffolded in a manner that should facilitate a better understanding of where a student's skills are at any point in the school year.
And so, marrying PBL or PrBL with outside resources really does bring the best of both worlds. I have used the computer-based learning program, for example, with my students. We need to realize that blending a student's experiences will be good for both the student and the teacher.

EarthScifan1's picture
6th grade science teacher of Students with Exceptional needs.

I also like this blended approach idea. I have not tried this. I think this could be a good addition to my classroom.Many of my students have learning challenges and as I learn more, this could be a good way to address learning styles in a diversified classroom. Where can I learn more about this? I am new to this blog.I look forward to learning and interacting with this community. Ia am a willing learner.

Karen's picture
Elementary Teacher

I am very interested in both Project Based Learning and Blended Learning. I have some liberty in my school in choosing how to implement instruction. I have "dabbled" in PBL, but I am excited to fully implement it this school year. Connecting PBL to Blended Learning will be an endeavor I will also try. I am looking forward to seeing the fruits of my efforts this school year. Given the state of Education, I believe that educators have to try many ways of instructions to meet the needs of our students.

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