May 2017

The Synthesis of Digital Technologies and Project-Based Learning: Creating Authentic Learning Experiences

What is Project-Based Learning?

According to The Buck Institute for Education, (BIE) Project-based learning (PBL) is "a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge."(What is Project Based Learning?", 2017). Project based learning starts with a guiding question or problem and students work through steps both independently and within groups to solve the issue that culminates in a final product. Learning is primarily self-directed with teachers serving as facilitators and support. In addition, PBL tends to be interdisciplinary in nature with projects including, but not limited to scientific concepts, technological competencies, digital tools, and mathematical principles. 

Why Implement Project-Based Learning?

A growing body of research suggests that “project-based learning provides a deep, meaningful understanding of content by engaging students in a highly motivating learning environment. Students using PBL perform better on both standardized assessments and project tests than students in traditional direct-instruction programs, and they learn essential life skills such as analytical thinking”(Speziale et. al., 2016). Project-based learning fosters collaboration, creativity and engages students in the learning process.  

Within my technology classes, students coursework focuses primarily on project based learning that is centered around inquiry and problem-solving. The framework of my technology classes is the Engineering Technology Design Process. Students utilize the design process to solve their guiding question or design challenge which might be hands-on or digital in nature.   

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As seen in Figure 1, In order to solve the issue, students much “research the need” and “develop solutions”, construct a prototype, and "communicate solutions". All of these steps have to potential to include digital technologies in the learning process to support and facilitate student understanding.

According to Kokotsaki, Menzies & Wiggins (2016) "The successful implementation of PBL in the classroom lies on the teacher’s ability to effectively scaffold students’ learning, motivate, support and guide them along the way." Though PBL is student-centered and self-directed, teachers must anticipate skills students need to support their learning. For example, for the "research the need" and "develop solutions" portion of the design process, it is pertinent students have a clear understanding of research skills, ability to analyze online sources, and how to sift through the multitude of information on the web.

Goal of PBL: Deeper Learning

When implemented effectively, the combining of digital tools and PBL can lead to deeper learning for our students. According to Kingston & Lenz, (2016) “When students engage in deeper learning, they achieve academically and develop deeper learning knowledge, skills and beliefs, including: critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, and an academic mindset.”

In order to effectively implement technology into PBL, teachers must think about the core elements of project based learning, such as a guiding question, sustained inquiry, and student voice and choice. Subsequently, they must determine which technology tools align to the particular element and HOW this can lead to deeper learning.


Figure two was taken from The Partnership for 21st Century Learning Website. To view additional synthesis of PBL components and technology and their outcomes click here.

Classroom Examples of Project Based Learning

Students were given the driving question of designing a watercraft that can withstand weight and not sink. Students worked through the design process and utilize digital tools to research potential solutions and relevant concepts such as buoyancy.                             

Students were tasked with creating their own computer games using Scratch and were tasked with designing a controller using a Makey Makey Kit and conductive materials that was appropriate for the game they had created. Through this project they learned about conductive materials, computer programming, circuits, and ergonomics.


There is a plethora of digital tools that can be incorporated into the planning, creating, and sharing of a project-based learning product. This infograph outlines many digital tools available for project-based learning. When designing a project-based learning activity, in order to effectively engage students and promote higher level thinking, one must carefully reflect upon the desired outcomes of the project in order to select the most effective digital tools and additional resources to support the learning process.


A New Infographic on Project-based Learning for Teachers. (2016, July 12). Retrieved May 20, 2017, from

Basilotta Gómez-Pablos, Martín Del Pozo, & García-Valcárcel Muñoz-Repiso. (2017). Project-based learning (PBL) through the incorporation of digital technologies: An evaluation based on the experience of serving teachers. Computers in Human Behavior, 68, 501-512.

Capraro, R., Morgan, M., SpringerLink, Morgan, James R, & ProQuest. (2013). STEM Project-Based Learning An Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Approach. Rotterdam: Sense.

Cejka, E. (n.d.). Inservice Teachers’ Approaches to Open-Ended Engineering Design Problems and the Engineering Design Process. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from

Kingston, S., & Lenz, B. (2016, January 21). Blending Technology into Project Based Learning. Retrieved May 20, 2017, from

Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (n.d.). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. (2016, July 17) from

Speziale, M., Speziale, K., McCook, B., & Letwinsky, K. (2016, November 03). Our research shows that when students work on projects, they learn more. Retrieved May 20, 2017, from

What is Project Based Learning (PBL)? (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2017, from

Walker, A., Recker, M., Robertshaw, M. B., Osen, J., Leary, H., Ye, L., & Sellers, L. (2011). Integrating Technology and Problem-based Learning: A Mixed Methods Study of Two Teacher Professional Development Designs. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 5(2).

Yang, Z., Wu, H., Lu, D., Wu, Di, Lu, Sanya, & IGI Global, publisher. (2014). Transforming K-12 classrooms with digital technology.