Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Student Creators: How to Contribute to the Internet

When students are given the opportunity to create content for the Web, they also discover a whole new dimension in education.

June 1, 2000

When young people help to create content for the Internet -- when they experience being active participants, contributing to what there is online -- they are more likely to see the Internet as a resource that they understand and use effectively. By contrast, when people, especially the young and underrepresented, do not have a chance to experience the Internet as something they have a part in shaping, they miss out on being more closely connected to a wealth of resources, information, interaction, and opportunities for growth that can help them to cross over the digital divide.

There are many people and organizations that connect otherwise underserved young people to the Internet by providing opportunities for them to develop their own online content. The links below provide examples from three organizations -- Plugged In Enterprises (PIE), iEARN, and ThinkQuest -- that take different approaches. All three demonstrate some common and important features on involving young people in Web development: They encourage project-based learning, build upon collaboration, connect students with real audiences, value youth expertise, and provide needed support for learning.

Project-Based Learning

Long-term, multi-dimensional projects provide extensive opportunities for young people to draw on the resources of the Internet and to learn about the Internet itself.

Project-Based Learning at Plugged In

Plugged In Enterprises, a Web-development business run by kids ages 13-17, develops projects for clients ranging from Pacific Bell and Hewlett-Packard to local community groups and nonprofit foundations. The nature and length of the projects can vary from a week to several months, depending on the client's needs. In all cases, the teens create Web-based products to be used by the clients in their regular business. The project-based nature of the work definitely helps the young people "excel and really grow," according to Laura Yasuda, Plugged In Enterprises manager, "because they can actually apply the skills they've learned to real life."

Teens at Plugged In Enterprises have developed many Web sites for businesses and community groups, including the following:

  • The Community Partnership Agreement (Pacific Bell)
  • (an "online community resource for East Palo Alto")
  • The Kid Survey (funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation)

Project-Based Learning at iEARN

Long-term, interactive, Web-based projects are at the heart of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network). According to the iEARN online handbook, the program seeks "to enhance learning outcomes by engaging students in interactive, curriculum-based projects."

Students around the world use e-mail and the Internet to gather information, explore a topic of interest to them, and share the products of their inquiry. Projects are organized by curriculum area: arts/literature/language arts, social studies, math/science/environment, and interdisciplinary. "These projects may start in one particular curriculum area," says Edwin Gragert, iEARN USA's director (and a 2008 Daring Dozen honoree), "but they all end up interdisciplinary." Students studying global art, for example, delve into history, social studies, health, economics, and other areas.

Because iEARN projects share a common goal of making a difference in the world, students might develop a publication to provide information on environmental health, create a Web site to share children's folk games from around the world, plant trees to improve the environment, or conduct a letter-writing campaign to affect a local construction decision.

The iEARN Projects page has numerous other examples of students' work.

Project-Based Learning at ThinkQuest

The annual ThinkQuest Internet Challenge is an international contest for students, aged 12-19, to develop interactive educational Web sites. Developing these sites becomes a project that students work on in teams over long periods of time. As stated on the ThinkQuest Web site, "Central to the ThinkQuest philosophy is the notion that people learn best by doing, especially if what they are doing is interesting and if the product of their work will be used by and have value to others."

The ThinkQuest Library has a searchable collection of student-created Web sites.

Collaborative Learning

In all of the programs we highlight here, young people work together toward shared goals. In addition to collaborating with each other, they interact closely with adults to learn the tools they need to create effective Web-based products.

Collaborative Learning at Plugged In

Yasuda describes PIE as "a teen-run Web business" in which the members form a cohesive group with a common interest in serving their clients. The projects themselves are a sort of collaboration between the clients and the PIE team, with ideas and drafts going back and forth between PIE and the client until everyone is satisfied with the final product. On a typical Web site project, the PIE teens create mock-up pages, the client organization decides which pages to approve and what to change, then PIE moves into a production phase to complete the project.

Another way that PIE work is collaborative is in the pairing of participants with each other. When a new person is interested in joining PIE, he or she is paired with a senior member to learn the ropes. Participants who stay with PIE usually continue to work on projects in pairs.

Collaborative Learning at iEARN

iEARN's own materials say it clearly: "The heart of iEARN is for students and teachers to collaborate on projects." The interactive nature of projects is not to promote collaboration for its own sake but is intended to promote active learning among students. iEARN-USA 's Gragert explains, "We want people to get used to collaborative learning because in our mind that's how you learn better -- when you work together."

The emphasis on collaboration also is related to iEARN's mission of engaging students in projects intended to improve the health and well-being of their world. The kinds of environmental, political, and social issues that projects address cannot be solved by individuals working alone. By their nature, they require that people work together. "Ultimately, the goal of our network," says Gragert, "is so that kids, when they hear about something happening in the world, don't go to the thirty-second sound bite on TV." Instead, they go to e-mail and contact other young people they've gotten to know around the world. "So that as adults, when some crisis happens in the world, they don't go to the guns, they go to collaboration."

Collaborative Learning at ThinkQuest

Although the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge is a "competition," its design explicitly rewards collaboration among participants. An individual cannot submit a contest entry. Teams of two or three students enter the competition and must work together to shape their sites. According to Robert Sibley, ThinkQuest educational projects manager, close to one-third of the teams in the 1999 Internet Challenge were multi-national, with students from more than one country working together. Even the teams within a single country often include students from very different places. For example, a student from rural Alaska collaborated with students from a science and technology high school in Virginia to create a site called The Soundry that won the Best of Contest award in 1998.

The criteria for judging entries favor teams that bring together students across distances from diverse backgrounds and with different levels of technological access. Specifically, the first two criteria reward teams for their "diversity of computer and network resources among student team members" and for how much "team collaboration" they demonstrate.

The ThinkQuest Internet Challenge pages contain information about the competition along with the full set of criteria used to judge student entries.

Connecting with Real Audiences

A powerful aspect of project-based learning comes from doing authentic work, creating something that serves a purpose and has a real audience beyond the classroom. An outside audience with a genuine interest in seeing and using what the students develop provides motivation and a purpose to help students create more meaningful work.

Connecting With Real Audiences at Plugged In

Having a real audience "makes a profound difference, as opposed to just making something and putting it in a closet," explains Yasuda. "You're making something and everyone can see it. It's out there. Businesses are actually using their work." PIE participants have a specific purpose for learning about a new technology or a different approach to Web design. "They're really savvy," says Yasuda. "Students are very interested in the Web. Even when they aren't working, they come in after school and surf the Web or play games. ... Becoming involved in developing things definitely makes them even more curious and more interested in technology. ... They see something, and they say, 'Oh, I wonder how they did that. Maybe we should try this.'"

Connecting With Real Audiences at iEARN

iEARN participants, to a large extent, determine their own audience. Whether the projects are about children's games or about the effects of war, all involve students actively interacting with the world outside the school, gathering information, and putting the products of their learning back out into the world for others to use. For example, in the Kindred Project, students collect oral histories, pictures, and other artifacts that tell the stories of their own family's history in the twentieth century. These are collected and shared on the Web and in a book to be compiled by students. In another project called Faces of War, students share information and art work "that looks at the lives of ordinary people around the globe thrown into traumatic circumstances."

Kristi Rennebohm Franz, a teacher working with iEARN who was interviewed as part of a PBS series on the digital divide, points out that having an audience for student work through iEARN projects has a positive effect on their learning to write. "When I first started going online with these children and collaborating with other primary teachers on iEARN, we discovered very quickly that the opportunity for children to [write] to each other online ... was providing them incredible motivation to work hard on the writing skills that we were doing in the classroom. ... They had the audience, they had a purpose for writing because they knew someone was going to read their writing, and they had an expectation that they would get a response back -- these are all important parts of the writing process."

Kristi Rennebohm Franz's classroom Web page shows some of her students' work.

Connecting With Real Audiences at ThinkQuest

Teams of young people creating Web sites for the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge know that their sites must be informative, interactive, and have at least the potential to appeal to a large audience in order to have a chance of earning an award. One of the criteria for judging entries rewards teams who create sites that either have been or are likely to be "highly used by others." The entries that students create have enormous educational value, providing so much information on topics ranging from origami to fractals that the collection of student-created ThinkQuest sites averages over 35 million page views per month.

The ThinkQuest Rules site has the full set of criteria used to judge ThinkQuest Internet Challenge entries.

The ThinkQuest Library has a searchable collection of student-created Web sites.

Valuing Youth Expertise

Successful projects build on what engages and excites students. Student creators draw on their own experiences and help to shape topics. Through developing materials for the Web, young people become experts who can teach others about their topic and about the computers and software they use.

Valuing Youth Expertise at Plugged In

Teens working for Plugged In Enterprises are both learners and teachers. They learn a great deal about technology through their internships, partnering with more senior members of PIE and taking classes with experts from Silicon Valley. In turn, they become the experts on technology in their own community and in their work with clients.

Particularly when the clients are from a local company or nonprofit, they may not be very familiar with what technology makes possible. "A lot of times clients come in and they don't know a lot about Web sites or how to develop and design them, or what kind of technology is even available; sometimes they don't even have e-mail," says Yasuda. "So, students take on the role of explaining what can be done and how it is done, what is doable and what is not doable, and what would fit for their particular needs."

Valuing Youth Expertise at iEARN

In iEARN projects, students become experts by actively working on real issues that concern them. For example, in the Wetlands project, students from four different countries collect local data and use their information to study human use of wetlands "and the implications of their use to the future of the local people and the whole planet." As Gragert explains, projects like this are intended "to demonstrate that when kids can work together, they can not only research the issue, not only analyze it in terms of economics, in terms of social studies, in terms of literature, but then actually take some recommendations out into the larger community so they can demonstrate that they in fact can impact their own future."

Valuing Youth Expertise at ThinkQuest

The high volume of use that ThinkQuest sites receive (about 35 million page views per month, on average, for the ThinkQuest Library of student-created sites) is testimony to how much valued expertise the young participants bring to the Web. ThinkQuest participants often indicate that the process of creating a Web site was so educational for them and generated so much feedback from others about the usefulness of their site that the process was valuable whether or not they won an award.

For example, three students (one from a rural school in Idaho, two from a suburban school in Virginia) created a site about nuclear physics that ended up being used as a companion to a course on quantum mechanics taught at the Virginia students' high school. In an article published in the fall 1997 issue of Curriculum/Technology Quarterly, the students wrote that the textbook in the course "does a good job covering equations and explaining the concepts of modern physics, but it neglects political controversies surrounding the technologies that the physics has made possible." Their ThinkQuest Web site served to expand what the course's teacher was able to offer, "adding the information we have collected from numerous sources to present up-to-date information and general information that cannot be found in any single textbook."

Providing Support

To undertake such a learning process, young people need extensive support from adults and other experts. This support must address not only technical and knowledge needs but also the emotional levels of learning and personal development.

Providing Support at Plugged In

Plugged In Enterprises has both a formal training component for its teen participants and extensive, informal support that comes in many forms. "We teach them basic Web design skills, like HTML or Photoshop, and basic graphic design principles," explains Yasuda, "and then we put them through an internship, about six to ten weeks. ... We pair the intern up with a more senior person [another teen who has been working in the program], and they work together. The senior person is put in a teaching, or mentoring position, where they teach the intern the basics, project management, how to work and communicate with clients."

In addition, PIE provides regular classes on various topics. Recently, a person from Netscape came to PIE twice per week to teach the teens JavaScript. "They get support from everyone -- from their peers, working together, the mentoring aspect, and also from us. We're always around teaching them, and we bring in experts who can teach them more advanced skills," Yasuda says.

Providing Support at iEARN

Most of the support for what students do in iEARN projects happens locally, with teachers guiding students through the process. iEARN provides an extensive network of teachers, students, and other experts who have experience doing these sorts of projects.

There are about 400,000 students involved in iEARN, with about eighty to ninety projects active at any one time. One of the real resources this network provides is access to a truly international community. According to Gragert, participants come from eighty-eight countries, and "most projects in iEARN are not started in the United States -- this is a very international network."

In addition to many more local conferences and meetings for face-to-face interaction and support, iEARN holds an annual conference for students and teachers from around the world. The July 2000 conference will be in Beijing, China, and the 2001 iEARN International Conference and Youth Summit will be in Cape Town, South Africa.

Providing Support at ThinkQuest

Most of the support for students working on Web sites for ThinkQuest happens locally. Each team must include one to three adult coaches who, according to the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge rules, "help with team formation, provide guidance and encouragement, and help students locate human, technical, and information resources in support of their efforts." Increasingly, ThinkQuest is emphasizing and strengthening its partnerships with international and local organizations that help to support a more diverse range of participants in ThinkQuest programs.

Noel White formerly served as a research associate at GLEF and is now a communications associate at WestEd in San Francisco.

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  • Education Equity
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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