Teaching Technical Skills for Student-led projects

Published: 11 December, 2017

During the development of courses that use student-led projects as the central method of learning and developing skills there were a number of key issues that needed resolving.

The first was getting students to develop projects in the first place and has become less of an issue as students move through the years understanding the freedom within the course and bringing new ideas with them. This was an issue of inspiration and trust. Term 1 will include greater support around methods for identifying and documenting a project and ensuring the project scopes are appropriate to a school year. To facilitate inspiration a collection of seed projects have been set up at http://projects.zype.co.nz/ so students can see examples based on tools and techniques. Over time this collection should include past student projects to help inspire future students and showcase the work. 

The second issue was related to assessing such a wide range of projects. This was resolved by giving the students control over their own assessment and requiring them to identify assessment evidence before submitting it for an assessment by the teacher.

The third key issue is around teaching technical skills across a wide range of contexts and abilities at a point in the project when it is meaningful to the student. My initial intent was to group students based on their technical requirements and provide ongoing workshops to develop skills as needed but the grouping of students and identifying the skills they required and when they needed them proved too high a workload. After reviewing the success of decentralising the assessment process I am going to trial a similar approach for instruction and technical skill development in 2018.

The Issues

Individualised projects require individualised skill sets and independent time frames require flexible delivery of skills.
Coupled with the limited class time available in a standard school year (~120 hours) the simple reality is that a single teacher cannot deliver all technical skills to all students from the front of the whole class.

The range of technical skill available within Digital Technologies is wide
The more freedom provided in the course the more skills are required. The range of areas, technical skills and disciplines that Digital Technologies covers is immense and even very constrained courses require the teacher to have a fairly broad understanding. As the range of skills increases the ability for the teacher to be the source of all information becomes an impossibility.

Students may want to combine skills in ways the teacher has not considered
This is a desirable outcome but not one the teacher can control and manage using tightly structured course outlines and delivery techniques. As students combine technologies and contexts in interesting ways the ability for a teacher to deliver relevant technical skills reduces exponentially.

The Structure

To work with the time constraint the terms have been heavily structured around expectations and a core focus:

Term 1:

  1. Identify and document a project of interest
  2. Set up relevant project management structures
  3. Complete assessment related to project management and the proposal of a project

Term 2:

  1. Develop a conceptual solution for the project
  2. Identify technical skills required for development
  3. Complete assessment related to conceptual development
  4. Initial development of the final outcome
  5. Initial workshops related to development skills

Term 3:

  1. Develop the final outcome
  2. Complete workshops and develop technical skills relevant to the project
  3. Complete assessment related to the final outcome and technical skills

Term 4 is usually around 4 weeks long so will be used to archive projects, develop portfolios, finalise and submit evidence for externally assessed standards, and generally prepare for subjects with examination based assessment. Ideally no internal assessment, especially last minute assessment will be done at this stage.

The Approach

This approach is designed around a model used in professional conferences where participants can sign up to workshops of interest while attending a few keynote talks. A range of technical skills and areas have been identified and documented creating a base for workshops to be developed. Each workshop consists of a set of discussion points that align with technical knowledge or an applied skill.

A Google form has been set up to allow students to “sign up” to workshops at any stage. The resulting spreadsheet becomes the management tool for the teacher and the timestamp allows a level of organisation across periods of time. Each week the teacher collates the requested workshops and creates an event within normal class time to run the workshop. The event is communicated to the students and added to a calendar.

The workshop is led by the teacher and focused on specific skills and resources but students have the opportunity to ask questions specifically related to their project. The workshops are not passive events for students and they will be expected to apply the technical skills and document the workshop in some form. The expectation is that students will begin to support each other within the workshops and associated discussions but initially the structure will be based around the teacher.

Workshops can be repeated as required by students, some will be compulsory (or at least strongly encouraged), and some workshops may not happen at all. It is also an opportunity for students to run their own workshops and take further ownership. Again, this is not a focus of the course design but is definitely an ideal outcome.

Expected Benefits

The intended benefit of this approach is to simply be able to meaningfully provide a wide range of technical skills within an inherently unpredictable environment. Allowing the students to sign up to workshops provides them with another opportunity to manage their own learning but it also means that planning is driven by student need and the teacher is no longer constraining or guessing what the students need. The end result should be a wider range of project ideas, a wider range of technical skills being explored and deeper, more meaningful learning for the students.

It remains to be seen what the unexpected benefits will be but in general they may include:

  • Students running their own workshops independently of the teacher
  • Requesting workshops that are not currently documented
  • Identifying projects based on an interest in a particular skill or set of skills

Expected Issues

Students leaving workshops to the last minute or not engaging
This approach requires students to actively engage with their technical learning and operate in quite an adult environment. A number of students will procrastinate and try to complete this learning and the related evidence for assessment towards the end of Term 3.
The decentralised assessment approach has introduced students to the need to balance workload over extended periods of time and a similar approach can be used with the workshops. A student’s engagement can be measured initially through the signup form and students who are not engaging can be approach individually. Likewise participation can be tracked and reported back to students. The three areas of measurable progress: project development, assessment, and technical skills should allow for a fairly robust system for catching students that are not engaging.

Balance
The distribution of workshops will need to be balanced across time so that students are not left waiting too long for specific sets of skills. In an ideal world students would simply get on and begin learning technical skills on their own, and some will, but for a number of students a delay of a week may be enough to disengage.

The experience from 2017 showed that most students could handle experimenting with new skills but often struggled to identify new skills that would improve their work or take them in a new direction. The mix of class-wide and individual instruction was a heavy workload and some students received less contact time than other, more insistent students. A small number of students completely froze up without a teacher at the front of the room telling them what to do.

The intent of the workshops is to make the skills on offer more obvious upfront to tempt those students who are already motivated and a way for me to track technical skills over time. I should be able to see which skills have not come up and which are being repeated and plan accordingly.

Don’t make me think
Not a unique issue but it was apparent with the assessment model as some students simply tried to opt out and I foresee a similar thing happening with that small group who freeze up without a teacher telling them what to do. In 2017 lack of technical skills being actively taught was the primary obstacle for these students so having dedicated workshops should help them move forwards more meaningfully or at least give them the opportunity to.

Are there credits for this?
Not all workshops will be directly related to a student’s assessment evidence. In fact many simply guide next steps or demonstrate techniques and tools that will help the student produce that evidence within their project. Students often see a direct correlation between the work they produce and NCEA credits so work that makes that relationship more subtle can be hard to understand.