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by Frank Romanelli
University of Rhode Island & Roger Williams University

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August 9, 2016
PBL In Higher Ed – Not

by Frank Romanelli
University of Rhode Island & Roger Williams University

By now, all the graduated high school seniors are moving into their post-secondary lives. This makes me think about where they will all go and what they will all do, especially those who graduated from PBL high schools.

Last March, I participated in the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego, CA with 1000 project based educators from around the country and some other countries.  The event was hosted by High Tech High at their newest elementary school campus. Met School San Diego was also strongly represented as were many other K-12 educators and agencies. Then there was me, the college guy.

In preparing for this writing, I looked for evidence of PBL colleges and college programs. While there probably isn’t an institution that doesn’t dabble in PBL around their STEM/STEAM programs, and, of course, their medical programs, there is little evidence of a commitment to project based learning in higher education, especially in the liberal arts and humanities. Why is that a problem?

The Attitude Behind the Lecture Approach
In March, I was immersed in a community of educators committed to authentic deep student centered learning. Thousands of students will graduate this year from these high schools where they have had the opportunity to go deep and experience authentic real world learning, only to face, most likely, the lecture.

But my concern goes beyond the lecture, which could have its place in the best of all learning worlds.  It is the attitude behind the lecture. College is a “my way or the highway” experience for most students. They are told that this is how it is now and they need to step up. This permeates everything from course selection to lifestyle, to content learning. They are asked once to choose what they want to study and then told how they will do that. There is no negotiating, no room for creative student driven design of learning, and no sense that there needs to be.

Exceptions in Higher Ed
One has to dig deep to find the exceptions. The University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education is one example. Sam Houston State University in Huntsville TX has started the Center for Project Based Learning. And in Providence RI, Big Picture Learning’s College Unbound, which began as a program at Roger Williams University and Charter Oak State College, is not a program for high school graduates, but a program for working adult learners who already have some college credit. It is a fully immersed PBL model that builds around a workplace internship project. But it is a standalone in the world of higher ed. It is also where my journey in this search began.

At the Deeper Learning conference I asked Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning how many graduates they had nationally this year. He directed me to Jennifer Ghidiu, Regional Director of Network Support & Research at Big Picture Learning. Jennifer told me that according to school directors’ reports, out of almost 4100 K-12 students nationally, approximately 1000 would graduate. Combine those students with the graduates of High Tech High Schools, New Tech schools, and other PBL organizations and you have many thousands of graduates. Where do they go to continue in a student centered real-world learning experience that brought them success?

Higher education needs to join the conversation. There is a lot of talk around internship and experiential learning in colleges and universities, but little is being done within the classroom to integrate that into real learning outcomes with project based opportunities. Some fear that it is the dumbing down of the college experience, the beginning of the end of a liberal arts education. But those who work in a project based learning environment see it as an opportunity for deeper learning, for an authentic learning experience. We need to bring the handful of colleges and universities to the table to talk about how to expand the conversation and begin to fill the growing need for deeper learning opportunities for this growing number of high school graduates.
Note: To learn about where we are beginning to see PBL in higher education, see this post.

 

Questions or comments? Do you know of other colleges and universities using PBL? Please enter them below.


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