"It's like learning in 3D" : online project-based learning in NSW schools

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Education in NSW reflects world-wide trends that promise changed practices through the use of information and communication technologies (ICT), to assist students attain capabilities expected of an educated population in contemporary society. Most recently, the use of the Internet has become a major priority for NSW government schools, with the expectation that students will increasingly participate in online learning activities. As educators grapple to find evidence of changed practices and extended or enhanced learning experiences for students, attention has turned to new forms of activity that have emerged within the online environment. This thesis explores the implementation of online projects as one such emergent form. The study focuses on the experiences of students and the practices of classes, with a view to asking how the online projects reconstruct the learning environments and activities of classes, how they contribute to the learning achievement of students and to the effective use of Internet technologies in K-12 school settings. A collective case study approach was used to reveal multiple views of online projects implemented in five NSW schools. Particular value is attached to the viewpoints of students and to professional dialogues with teachers that contributed insights into what was occurring in the classes and what was achieved as a result. Meanings have been drawn from each case to build a better understanding of the phenomenon of online projects as a whole. The study draws on social constructivist and project-based theoretical perspectives, with their widely accepted claims to benefits for students of authentic, learner-centred, participatory learning. The thesis argues that online projects can stimulate and support learning activities that produce these known benefits, while recognising constraints that exist in every-day classes. The online projects present a disruptive force within classes, changing the nature of activities and forcing a shift in the roles of both teachers and students, and of the technology itself, making it subservient to the learning intentions. Findings for students relate both to participation and learning effects. Strength of student engagement and the value of authentic learning activities emerged as notable features of the online project experience. Rather than accepting these claims as sufficient outcome of the projects, this thesis identifies attributes that promote student engagement. It examines what constitutes authentic activity for school students, especially younger ones, and how a sense of authenticity is established in learning tasks. It particularly explores the contribution of online presentation of the projects to the benefits and constraints identified. The study has significant implications for education systems and teachers, and for the design and implementation of online projects as part an effective online learning provision for schools. In the highly conflicted area of investment in ICT and the search for purposeful learning uses of the Internet, online projects present a teaching and learning approach that can deliver some of the much-acclaimed potential – primarily because they promote changes in practice that are concerned with much more than just the use of the technology.
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