Because of problems on the TechLearning blog with commenting, I am cross-posting this over here so you may comment on my blog if you are not able to comment there. (I wasn’t able to directly comment this morning on Dave Jakes’ post from yesterday, so I’m following his lead.)

I’m a staunch advocate for project-based learning. As teachers, we need to be regularly facilitating student work on projects using real-world tools, as they collaborate with others in face-to-face as well as distributed work environments. Students need access to a diverse array of resources to accomplish their defined tasks, and need to work under deadlines. The real world is full of groups working on project teams, and part of the solution to fixing the disconnect between 21st century skills which employers say they want, and the skills emphasized in our schools, is operationalizing a learning culture in our classrooms which regularly involves project-based learning.

One of the biggest challenges to embracing project-based learning as a teacher, however, is the formidable task of structuring, monitoring, managing and evaluating student work. It is MUCH easier to simply lecture to students and deliver content, rather than manage a project-based learning environment. Often (as Darren Draper reminded me at NECC07) educators are focused on “doing what is convenient, not what is best for students.” As Dr. Tim Tyson exhorts us, however, we should be focused on maximizing student achievement, but that focus has virtually nothing to do with the emphasis of NCLB and high-stakes accountability. My understanding of maximizing student achievement includes inviting students to engage in potentially relevant, meaningful work in project-based learning contexts. Certainly our students need to take tests and score well on them, but there is SO much more we must do and on which we must focus in our schools than simply minimum standards for student performance established by the state.

My question, given this context, regards the most effective (and cost-effective) tools for helping teachers facilitate project-based learning. What are they? What is on the PBL software facilitation menu today? I learned about Project Foundry (commercial software) last summer, but I have more recently discovered a series of open-source project management tools that could be potentially used in school contexts for teachers facilitating PBL activities. The ones I have found to date include:

I’ve started a social bookmark list for “project management” via Diigo, which also cross-posts to my social bookmarks. I’m looking for more tools like these which are web-based, and include Gantt chart functionality similar to Microsoft Project. A couple of questions for you:

1. Are you aware of other software options which should be included on this list?

2. Are you personally using or aware of other teachers using project management software currently to facilitate student PBL activities?

Dean Groom has created a PBL group over on Diigo which I’ve joined, which looks like a great place to continue this conversation as well and share resources.

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22 Responses to Tools for facilitating PBL?

  1. Romi Rancken says:

    Have you checked Zoho Project? Free for 1 project, which can be divided into subprojects if you wish.


  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    No I hadn’t seen Zoho Project before, Romi. THANKS. This is exactly the sort of web2 resource I am looking for to manage PBL. Outstanding.

  3. I’ve included my highlights and comments on your blog entry, Wes.


    Tools for facilitating PBL? » Moving at the Speed of Creativity

    * The real world is full of groups working on project teams, and part of the solution to fixing the disconnect between 21st century skills which employers say they want, and the skills emphasized in our schools, is operationalizing a learning culture in our classrooms which regularly involves project-based learning.

    * educators are focused on “doing what is convenient, not what is best for students.”

    * we should be focused on maximizing student achievement, but that focus has virtually nothing to do with the emphasis of NCLB and high-stakes accountability.
    o So, you’re encouraging teachers to do what they’re told explicitly NOT to do, which is to leave the bounds of the District’s scope and sequence? How is this a “real world” piece of advice? You’re exhorting them to expressly go against the direction of their supervisors. Revolution makes for great television and epic movies, but this is America…someone has to do the hard work! comment by Miguel guhlin

    * Certainly our students need to take tests and score well on them, but there is SO much more we must do and on which we must focus in our schools than simply minimum standards for student performance established by the state.
    o However, minimum standards ARE NOT what our schools are preparing kids for. Instead, they are working to improve student success according to district-approved resources. It is irresponsible to urge teachers to forget what they’ve been told to do by their organization simply to achieve 21st Century skills that pundits want them to have. comment by Miguel guhlin

  4. Wesley Fryer says:

    Amy Strecker reports New Tech Foundation schools do all PBL learning and use Lotus Notes to manage projects across the school- this National School Board publication (PDF) gives more details. Thanks Amy! 🙂

  5. Wesley Fryer says:

    Miguel: I added my response to your Diigo comments here– but I will repost here in the comment thread for those who either don’t have Diigo installed or are using a web browser that doesn’t currently support the Diigo toolbar.

    Wow, this is pushback I did not expect but is welcome, Miguel. I’m not encouraging anyone to stop taking mandatory tests and stop preparing for them. I think blended learning environments and PBL contexts are the way we should help students not only obtain the content area knowledge and skills they need, but also the 21st century skills they need.

    I’m not encouraging teachers to be revolutionaries here in the context of refusing to do something they’ve been told to do. Certainly we need kids to learn the skills in the formal curriculum. We need to do that via PBL. I’m prepared to not only advocate for that here, but in the near term DO this as a classroom teacher myself. (Details to follow before long.)

  6. Wesley Fryer says:

    Miguel: If you have not yet listened to the Tim Tyson preso I’m citing here and agreeing with, I’d encourage you to take it in sometime soon. That will help provide more context for what I’m encouraging and supporting here.

  7. Wes,
    I’m going to push back in a different way 😉

    I don’t think these free tools are appropriate for PBL classroom management. They are too business-centric and complex. It also reinforces a “teacher as project manager” image that I think is ultimately a roadblock to PBL, not a solution. Mostly, all you’d end up doing is convincing teachers that once again, PBL is too hard.

    The “hard” part of PBL may not be fixable (is that a word?) with technology. The teacher needs to step out of the central position, the students need to become local experts and manage themselves. They don’t need more software to track that they have to finish a podcast by Wednesday.

    If you were really desperate to manage projects with technology you’d be much better off with a shared calendar and task list.

    Don’t mean to be “Debbie Downer” here, but I think this solution is more complex than the actual problem.

  8. Wesley Fryer says:

    Sylvia: I appreciate that perspective, and you may be right. I have used rubrics previously to facilitate PBL but not actual project management software. I’m considering utilizing some type of project management software this fall for some teaching I’m going to do and am considering these options. I probably need to give Project Foundry a try. I’m looking forward to attending this year’s Constructivist Consortium and am sure I’ll emerge from there with more ideas as well as tried approaches from other teachers. I think the proposition of using project management software is a bit at odds with constructivism, but my own experiences with PBL show that some structure, monitoring, deadlines, and outcomes measurements can be important. I’m looking forward to actually DOING PBL this fall with students rather than just talking about and advocating for it.

  9. Wes, I’ve listened to the podcast by Tim Tyson; my objections to the exhortations in this post remain.

    Project-based learning is a wonderful approach to teaching and learning. There are many such approaches, including the use of technology to differentiate instruction. However, what practical advice do you have for teachers who are required, on pain of written reprimand, to prepare students by adherence to a district’s curriculum scope and sequence?

    And, what practical advice do you have for administrators who set out to improve their financial status, to handle the mundane work of the education but are now caught in the crossfire of pundits preaching a reformed education system without a thousand babbling heads?

    While PBL is a worthwhile approach, it’s adoption is not widespread in American public schools. Instead of preaching to the choir about pie in the sky ways to approach pedagogy, what advice is to be had for helping the current system meet the requirements under which it labors and, upon achieving success, scaffold progress to the next level?

    “Pushback…it’s not for conformists.”

    Miguel Guhlin


  10. James Sigler says:

    The Project Foundry says that it is aligned to best practices for PBL. I’d sure like to know what those are. In the spirit of inquiry learning we need some examples to deduct how PBL will work in our classrooms. Edutopia gives many great examples of PBL. I’d like a template of some sort to help me plan a PBL project.
    Trackstar or Webquests might be a quick and simple way to start.

    Everyone has cut their teeth on simple projects, they can use technology tools to help them organize their research, notes, and timetables. It seems like a collaborative wiki would work really well for this if the students are taught how to use it. A group blog could then be used for group reflection, progress notes, and feedback.

    A Moodle might help keep all this together.

    Do the some the tools you’re talking about pull all these parts together? The technology tools should help make the management of PBL easier for the teacher and more meaningful for the students, not just more complicated.

  11. […] Tools for facilitating PBL? » Moving at the Speed of Creativity Blog entry on project based learning and project management software / tools / resources from Wes Fryer. (tags: pbl projectbased education resources) […]

  12. Wesley Fryer says:


    My most practical advice for teachers, especially those new to technology integration, is probably in my workshop and presentation curriculum “Powerful Ingredients for Digitally Interactive Learning”. For school administrators, my best practical thoughts are currently aggregated on the wiki curriculum for “Lead Differently: Digitally Informed School Leadership for the 21st Century.”

    Why do I sense a change in your tone and your outlook on topics like school reform and PBL? I need to spend some more time reading what you’ve written lately on EduWrite as well as Around the Corner. You seem to dismiss PBL because “it’s adoption is not widespread in American public schools.” Differentiated instruction and student-centered learning is in short supply in many of our Oklahoma schools too. Should we abandon the goal of finding practical ways to move towards these learning objectives and environments simply because today, they are “not widespread?” Your critical comments in the Diigo thread of this post seem to suggest you think we should give up on the goal of supporting 21st century skill development in schools, because that is something pundits champion who are disconnected from the real world. Is that really your position? I don’t think it is, but I must say I am surprised by the tone and the overall negative vibe I’m getting from you on this thread.

    As you know I deeply respect and appreciate your role in the trenches of educational administration, and your context (like everyone else’s) is very different than mine. I do like pushback because often it is the catalyst for personal growth. You quote “Pushback…it’s not for conformists.” Indeed. PBL is not the learning approach for conformists in an educational environment dominated by high stakes accountability either. I am an advocate for moral education, among many other things, and at its extreme I think a scripted curriculum and scope and sequence guide which provides zero autonomy for the teacher as an instructional leader, and encourages teachers to view their role exclusively as focused on test scores, is an immoral one.

    Are you suggesting I should stop advocating for PBL? In this post, I am searching for tools which can, at a practical level, help teachers facilitate PBL. I want these not only to share and advocate for their use, but also because I am personally interested in using them. Is this a fruitless enterprise for me and other US teachers bound to comply with NCLB, in your view?

  13. Suzie Boss says:

    Thanks for opening this important conversation. Miguel’s comments bring up a key concern that continues to hold many teachers back from even trying PBL, let alone making it the centerpriece of learning. In researching our new book (Reinventing PBL, published by ISTE), we looked for the conditions that allow the project approach to succeed. Supportive school leadership is certainly critical. Although some teachers carry out wonderful projects “under the radar,” the ones who thrive do so with full support of administrators. (Or as Vicki Davis told me, “We aren’t renegade teachers.”)
    So, how do you get school leaders to support you? Show them how a well-designed project starts with big learning goals in mind–getting right at important content and making it memorable. Show them the research base for PBL (especially strong for helping students in mathematics). And make sure those who create policies are invited when your students talk about or demonstrate the results of their real-world learning. Nothing is more convincing.
    In terms of project management, we have seen many examples of technology tools that can help. (Our Appendix categorizes tools in terms of Essential Learning Functions.) But what’s most critical is for students to learn project management as a life skill. Sylvia’s right: This is a role students need to take on. Of course, they need support to grow into it. But many teachers also need help in this area. (How many teachers ever took Project Management 101 as a preservice course?)
    Again, thanks for bringing attention to this conversation. And please add our blog (http://reinventingpbl.blogspotcom) to your list of links. Our goal is to keep this conversation going–so that more students will have the opportunity to benefit from all that PBL offers.

  14. tom says:

    About tools, I kind of agree with Sylvia. I manage various kinds of projects at our school, some have no student involvement (strictly admin), some are all student, but extracurricular. For the first time, I’m introducing an extracurricular project into classroom instruction. In each case, I choose the tool according to the task at hand.

    Web 2.0 tools help sometimes, sometimes not. Factors include the level of activity, number of people, the degree of collaboration, and the amount of content. For my new extra-/intra curricular project, even though one of the outcomes is a multimedia archive, I’m still not sure online management won’t add an unnecessary level of work for the students. However, when I’m the manager and have to be in charge of something complex, I rely on Basecamp, wikis, and everything I can squeeze out of Outlook.

    About the integration of PBL into the classroom, I think it’s analogous to the integration of ICT. Both are about using the tools to accomplish something beyond simple tool use. PBL doesn’t need custom designed “PBL projects.” Lab experiments, library research, anything that requires several steps and several resources –and that the students have to do anyway– can be a project, and can benefit from skills and tools like defining a goal and objectives, gathering resources, time management and other GTD stuff, communicating about the project (process) and about the product (outcome).

    Teachers are doing project work all the time, but like Suzie says, they haven’t had project management presented to them as such. Helping them formalize what they know and are trying to learn could then help them model skills to students. And maybe even clear their desks and email inboxes!

  15. tom says:

    Just wanted to modify my previous comment. When I said “PBL doesn’t need custom designed ‘PBL projects.’” I meant that PBL can happen with or without inserting the cool projects that all of us want and should try to do.

  16. […] Tools for facilitating PBL? » Moving at the Speed of Creativity […]

  17. Greg Sanders says:

    I think that project-based learning has a great potential. I try to implement it with my students. We’re currently using Wrike. It integrates with e-mail and lets organize tasks in different ways, but the best thing I love about it is that students immediately get how to use it.

  18. Wesley Fryer says:

    Greg – thanks for letting me know about Wrike. I hadn’t heard of it before. Do you have links to any projects your students have created using Wrike to stay focused and organized, or have links to projects created by other classes who have used Wrike?

  19. Greg Sanders says:

    Well, unfortunately I don’t have any links for our projects. They are off-line mostly. But here’s the link to some canadian project, that I know is using Wrike too.

  20. Sal says:

    You can also take a look at DeskAway – its web-based, has a free version, and includes charts, timelines for project reporting. Take it for a spin!

  21. John says:

    Another web-based project management service to add to the list is Intervals. It focuses primarily on time tracking and task management and includes lightweight project management features.

  22. […] some good feedback on) different project management software tools back in April in the post “Tools for facilitating PBL?” I think online software programs which facilitate PBL and its assessment (Project Foundry is an […]

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