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Feature Articles

The Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project:
Fostering Project-Based Learning with Multimedia

By
Michael Simkins

In 1995, the Silicon Valley Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project—or the Multimedia Project, for short—was launched as one of the original nineteen Technology Innovation Challenge Grants funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of these grants was to support innovative applications of information and computer technologies to systemic educational reform. The grants provided substantial funding over a five-year period to school districts—in partnership with businesses, community organizations, and educational researchers—to implement, evaluate, and document cutting-edge ideas.

In the case of the Multimedia Project, our goal was to infuse the classrooms of Silicon Valley with an exemplary model of project-based learning supported by multimedia (PBL+MM). What did we mean by that? We defined PBL+MM as “a method of teaching in which students acquire new knowledge and skills in the course of designing, planning, and producing a multimedia product.” And we said that “exemplary” PBL+MM would embody seven key dimensions: core curriculum, real world connection, extended time frame, student decision making, collaboration, systematic assessment, and use of multimedia as a tool.

Accomplishing the project’s goal required the combined efforts of many people playing complementary roles. The core work was done by a group of classroom teachers that grew in number to over 150 and represented 50 schools in eleven school districts spanning the 1,740 square-mile Silicon Valley region. For most of these teachers, multimedia was a new technology, and many had only passing experience with project-based learning. What they shared at the outset was an interest in learning more about technology and a desire to provide the best education possible for their students. As members of what came to be called the project cadre, these teachers attended summer institutes and monthly workshops. They participated in on-line discussions. They used and contributed to the project’s Web site. They developed new relationships with colleagues from other schools and districts with whom they formed a strong community of practice. Through trial and error, exasperation, elation, and reflection, they shaped our concept of exemplary PBL+MM and what it takes to make it happen in the classroom.

Supporting cadre teachers was a special set of individuals who served in the role of Technology Learning Coordinator (TLC). These were experienced classroom teachers who were “early adopters” of technology and had become skilled technology users. Each TLC had responsibility for a “team” of four to six cadre members. Grant funds were used to release TLC’s from some of their classroom teaching responsibilities, which enabled them to provide their cadre members with on-site coaching and support, organize and lead local workshops, and coordinate their team’s participation in annual exhibitions of student work and other project-wide activities.

Several organizations made significant contributions to the Project. Researchers and theorists from the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) and SRI International, both in Menlo Park, California, helped develop the Project’s initial plan and provided a range of consultative services throughout the course of the Project. Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a non-profit regional organization comprised of leaders from business, education, and government, provided an institutional “umbrella” that facilitated the necessary collaboration among schools and districts in the many different cities and communities that comprise Silicon Valley. San Mateo and Santa Clara County Offices of Education helped in many ways, such as providing fiscal oversight, meeting facilities, and help with integrating project activities with other professional development programs already underway.

The success of the Multimedia Project earned it recognition in September 2000 as one of only two educational technology programs nationwide to be cited as “exemplary” by the Education Department’s Educational Technology Expert Panel. Mandated by the Educational Research, Development and Improvement Act of 1994, the eighteen-member panel was composed of educational practitioners, researchers, school reformers, evaluators, and representatives from local education agencies, institutes of higher education, businesses, foundations, and state and federal agencies. Its charge from Congress was to identify exemplary and promising programs based on four criteria: quality of program, educational significance, evidence of effectiveness, and usefulness to others.

Elements of Success

What accounts for the Multimedia Project’s success? No one thing, of course, but I believe the following three factors worked very much in our favor:

  1. Focus
    Our project had one single, clear goal. We knew what we were trying to do, and we managed to keep from getting sidetracked. A turning point was the creation of the Multimedia Project Rubric, which provided a concrete description of what an exemplary multimedia project looked like. Once we had the rubric, we knew we weren’t just headed north or south but to a specific set of coordinates.

  2. Support
    The teachers in the Multimedia Project were not just dunked in a training vat and sent back to their classrooms to practice their new skills. Certainly, we had workshops and institutes, but we also systematically developed a community of practice in which we all supported one another. The Technology Learning Coordinators were a critical component of this community, and their ability to provide on-site mentoring was crucial to our success.

  3. Accountability
    We developed tools of accountability, and we used them. In order to access their mini-grants, teachers had to develop sound proposals for how they would implement PBL+MM in their classrooms. Before being paid their modest stipends, they had to supply evidence of what their students accomplished. Each spring, we used the Multimedia Project Rubric to score a sample of student projects, and we set annual improvement goals based on the scores obtained. We held annual exhibitions where students’ work was showcased for their peers, parents and the public.
Lessons Learned

What lessons did we learn? Three stand out. First, doing really good PBL+MM is extremely difficult! To be successful requires a lot of teachers. They need to know their curriculum backwards and forwards if they are to design units that are really appropriate for project-based learning. A teacher working with a new subject or grade level will have a very difficult time knowing just where the “perfect project” lies. Teachers need to be in touch with their students’ lives in order to find the right way to forge the connection between schoolwork and the real world. They need confidence in themselves and tolerance for ambiguity. They need the willingness to let the reins out and the judgment to know when they’re out far enough. Perhaps most important, they need patience and a sense of humor.

Second, success depends on good time management. Time is every teacher’s nemesis. It’s a scarce and precious resource with many demands upon it. Teachers have barely enough time to maintain their “teaching status quo” let alone embark upon major new learning and restructuring of their teaching approach. Not unlike major construction projects, PBL+MM units always seem to take longer than planned. The most successful of our teachers were the ones who planned their use of time carefully and scaled projects back to realistic proportions.

Finally, with the right combination of training, support, rewards, and accountability, teachers can make dramatic changes in their teaching practice and students can benefit from enriched educational experiences. Over time, teachers in the Multimedia Project were more likely than their non-project colleagues to take on the role of facilitator or coach, support student discussion of ideas, and encourage students to solve problems on their own. Multimedia Project students were more likely than their peers in other classrooms to engage in long-term activities, participate in small-group discussions, and actively seek solutions to problems of design. In all ways, Multimedia Project classrooms evolved in the direction of the constructivist teaching philosophy that underpins the PBL+MM model.

What Next?

We’re very much looking forward to extending the PBL+MM community to teachers from across the nation, as well as throughout the world. We have developed a suite of products to help interested teachers and teacher educators learn about PBL+MM and join one another in doing projects and sharing experiences:

  • CD-ROM
    Our CD-ROM, now available, is filled with additional resources for K-12 teachers who want to use PBL+MM in their classrooms. It includes video stories of classroom multimedia projects, resources for topics from assessment to multimedia, planning tools, project ideas, student handouts, rubrics, and more.

  • Videotape
    Multimedia: A Sneak Preview is a videotape specially designed for classroom teachers to show to students when they first embark on Project-Based Learning with Multimedia (PBL+MM). It also serves as a quick overview of the PBL+MM teaching approach for parents, administrators, and community members.

  • Guidebook
    Due to be published next summer, our teacher guidebook balances the words of researchers and project staff with advice from teachers in the field. The teacher-friendly handbook includes chapters on planning, collaboration, assessment, and new roles for teachers and students.

  • Web site
    The PBL+MM Web site holds a wide range of resources. Teachers will find classroom activities, sample projects, and assessment tools, as well as tools for sharing projects and communicating with other teachers involved in PBL+MM. Staff developers will find background information on the theory and philosophy of the approach as well as materials to use in professional development workshops and seminars. Researchers and policy makers will find research data and evaluation reports.
In closing, I’d like to share one concern I have about the future. In California, at least, the current preoccupation—if not obsession—with “teaching to the standards” and raising scores on norm referenced tests is already causing some of our most stalwart PBL+MM teachers to question whether multimedia projects are a good idea. Even knowing their value, they question whether they can afford time for projects if it means less time for drill and practice and covering material. For someone who has been in education for 30 years, this is disheartening.

Much of the time, we in education hang on the pendulum while it swings back and forth. One year, we’re told to divide kids into three reading groups, teach them phonics, and insist that they look up every word in the dictionary before they’re allowed to write it on paper. The next year, we’re to immerse them in literature they can’t begin to read, on the assumption they will somehow absorb it, and lock up the dictionary while we encourage students to invent their own spelling. Fortunately, there are many teachers who recognize the folly of this either-or approach and quietly seek a balance, as Harvey Barnett likes to say, between instruction and construction. As we witness a generation of teachers retire from the classroom, I can only hope that the fresh young people who are called to teaching will have similar good sense.