The Case for PBL & Digital Tools

Global problems, like climate change, are more intricate than ever before and require global solutions. How can schools best prepare students to see themselves as effective agents of change in a world facing such daunting challenges? Management guru Peter Drucker writes that in order for people to believe they can effect change, they must be able to answer three questions. “What does the situation require?…How can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done?…What results have to be achieved to make a difference?” (Drucker, 2008, p.106). Answering these questions requires understanding different types of problems and knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It requires years of experience, so students should begin this exploration in educational settings prior to entering the workforce. Schools can aid in this progress by contextualizing learning to enhance three important themes: project-based learning for its focus on creating artifacts, collaboration across both social groups and disciplines, and the development of an iterative mindset.

First, project-based learning (PBL) contextualizes target knowledge within a larger challenge. Real-world problems do not consist of worksheets but involve producing an end result. PBL makes the target content a tool necessary to completing the challenge. By the end of a PBL unit, not only has the knowledge been learned, but there exists a finished product within which lies evidence of that knowledge in action. Studies have shown that learning through PBL positively impacts knowledge retention, deeper understanding, and problem solving, especially in STEM subjects (Finkelstein et al., 2010). Digital tools available on devices, like laptops or tablets, improve the design and documentation of projects while online communication technologies, like class websites or photo sharing apps can help students share their work locally, nationally, or worldwide (ChanLin, 2008). Presenting creations expands engagement beyond the classroom and motivation beyond grades (Walker & Leary, 2009).

Within PBL is the need for collaboration. Real-world problems require coordination between teams from different disciplines and collaborative school projects can mirror this scenario by extending across subjects and social groups. Collaboration is a skill. The earlier students participate in PBL group work the better they can cooperate and mediate amongst each other (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Even in the case of solo projects, peer review of others’ designs is important for students to experience providing, receiving, and interpreting feedback. Online collaboration tools like those mentioned above can engage teamwork in or out of the classroom across any distance.

Last, students must adopt an iterative mindset which sees failure as a learning mode. In the real world, “truth builds on failure as much as success” (NMC, 2013, p.2). Learning from mistakes leads to greater self-efficacy and PBL helps students gain this insight (Walker & Leary, 2009). Digital tools, like digital game-based learning, also offer students a low-stakes introduction to this concept over multiple subjects. When it comes to revising designs and documentation within PBL, digital tools are highly recommended as they allow for easier and faster iteration. This gets students over the inertia that can sometimes inhibit the editing process.

For ultimal impact on students, stakeholders must be ready to internalize and demonstrate these themes. Teachers must first and foremost model the very traits that will answer Drucker’s three questions. I summarize these as a curiosity and passion for learning combined with a spirit of inclusiveness grounded in the belief that we all have something to learn and something to teach. Teachers and administrators must know their own strengths and weaknesses as PBL requires coordination between teachers and departments. In the same way students are expected to learn through experience, the same goes for schools adapting to technology and PBL integration. Michael Trucano, ed-tech specialist at the World Bank, sees “successful systems as the ones that fail, learn quickly and make improvements based on what’s been learned” (“Teachers little helper,” 2018). Although due diligence is always needed to keep disruptions to a minimum, mistakes happen, and there is nothing wrong with students seeing this learning process.

Collaborative project-based learning and forming an iterative mindset can teach students to better understand problems and know how they can best contribute to finding solutions. Students can see themselves as agents of change and technology can be leveraged to engage, motivate, and support them in their development.


ChanLin, Lih‐Juan (2008) Technology integration applied to project‐based learning in science, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45:1, 55-65, DOI: 10.1080/14703290701757450 Retrieved from:

Drucker, P. F. (2008). Managing oneself. Harvard Business School Press. Retrieved from:

Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C. W., Hirschman, B., & Huang, M. (2010). Effects of problem-based economics on high school economics instruction (NCEE 2010-4110). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory West. Retrieved from:

Johnson, David W. and Johnson, Roger T. An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning. Educational Researcher, Vol. 38, No. 5 (Jun. – Jul., 2009), pp. 365-379 Published by: American Educational Research Association Retrieved from:

New Media Consortium. (2013). The Future of Education The 2013 NMC Horizon Project Summit Communiqué. Retrieved from:

Teacher’s little helper. (2018, November 17-24). The Economist, pp. 62-63.

Walker, A. & Leary, H. (2009). A problem-based learning meta analysis: Differences across problem types, implementation types, disciplines, and assessment levels (Abstract). Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1): 12-43. Retrieved from:

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