Project Based Learning in an Online Course
I have written earlier about the free online course from udacity.com on computer science I am taking with high school students right now. One aspect of the course that I did not recognize at first is that it is actually a project based course. It is not a “computer science 101” course. It is a “learn to make a search engine in 7 weeks!” course (and by the way, you will learn computer science 101). The difference is subtle but significant.
When I heard about a course on learning to make a search engine, I thought, “Cool! I want to learn how to do that!” and I signed up. Imagine if the tag line had been:
Gain a breadth of understanding about computers and Computer Science.
Gain ability at developing algorithms for problems and improve logical thinking.
Learn something about a specific programming language (Python) and use it to write computer programs.
In fact, the course objectives above are pretty close to exactly what we have been learning in the udacity “build a search engine course.” But there is no chance I would have signed up to take the course above. Framing matters.
Why do we have to learn this?
At High Tech High, we have a design principle “real world learning” or “adult world connection.” This means that we try to design learning experiences so that students see a purpose to what they are learning. Udacity’s search engine course is aligned with this principle. They could have said, “Well, take four years of courses with us, and at the end, you will know how to do something with all this knowledge you’ve acquired.” But they didn’t. Instead, they have started teaching us the basics, but immediately in the context of getting us ready to create a search engine. For example, in week one, we needed to write a computer program that searches for something. We could have searched for anything, but in the udacity class, we learned to search for a link on a webpage. It was obvious to me why I was learning to search for a link. It wasn’t just some exercise that the instructors were assuring me would help me “later in life.”
Designing online courses that capture some of the best aspects of project based learning would be a step in the right direction.