Personalized PBL and Virtual Reality Bring History To Life

Because we believe in the potential of personalized, project-based learning, we’re big fans of New Tech Network (NTN)–a national nonprofit design partner for comprehensive school change.
Through its proven school model, a project-based learning platform and powerful professional development, they coach schools toward lasting change and ongoing improvement. There are nearly 200 schools in 28 states and Australia in the New Tech Network.
The model is based on four design pillars:

  • Culture That Empowers (Growth Mindset)
  • Teaching That Engages (Project-Based Learning)
  • Technology That Enables (Digital Literacy)
  • Outcomes That Matter (College and Career Readiness)

Once I heard that there was a great example of the NTN model right in my own backyard, I couldn’t wait to visit.

Innovation To Boost Opportunities

The Winton Woods City School District (WWCSD) is located just a few miles north of Cincinnati and serves a diverse student population of more than 3,800 students. Of them, 14% are English Language Learners speaking 26 different languages, more than 85% identify as ethnic/racial minorities and 73.5% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.
Paid for with support of an Ohio Department of Education Straight A Fund Grant, implementation of the NTN model across the district began last year, with all schools Pre-K to 12 using the NTN model of project-based learning by the 2018-19 school year.
“After an extensive evaluation of project-based learning in conjunction with the New Tech Network, it was a natural progression to offer this experience to all of our students. Educators have a daunting task of leading reform efforts while working with students to promote equity. This is exactly what the New Tech Network experience will do for our students,” says Superintendent Anthony G. Smith. “We have a golden opportunity to teach our students how to become problem solvers while exceeding state standards. We are excited about our educational framework that will help to develop well-rounded learners.”
New Tech leaders share Superintendent Smith’s enthusiasm.
“We are humbled and thrilled to partner with Winton Woods Schools,” says New Tech Network President and CEO Lydia Dobyns. “We appreciate their commitment to invest in teachers and administrators so that every student experiences deeply meaningful educational experiences to prepare them for an unknown future.”
You can learn more about the model from the teachers, leaders and students of Winton Woods Schools in this video.

The Project-Based Learning Process

Projects at WWCSD and NTN follow a five-step process–launch, inquiry, workshops, culmination and reflection.

Virtual Reality Brings WWI Projects to Life

I spent a couple mornings with the teachers, students and leaders at Winton Woods to learn more about the model and to experience this personalized, project-based learning firsthand.
To kick off the month-long History/ELA project, students were presented with several materials including this “entry document” to explaining the goal of the student-created WWI virtual exhibits.

Because the desired outcome of project-based learning is mastery of the material, students are given multiple opportunities and options to show what they know both individually and in groups. One of the things I like most about this project (and all rigorous, project-based learning) is that students are encouraged to engage with a topic for breadth and depth, and then encouraged to share what they’ve learned with others.
In this case, students were provided with details and grading rubrics for each of these requirements including group presentations, virtual museum exhibits and individual research and writing projects. Each student had to research one real person’s life from the WWI era and create three different pieces of writing across different genres from that person’s point of view.
Options included:

  • A Journal/Diary
  • Poem
  • Personal Letter
  • Short Story
  • Song
  • Newspaper Article
  • Other Writing Approved By Teacher

Not only would students come away from this project with a better understanding of WWI and its implications broadly, but they would dive deeply into the personal stories of an individual soldier, nurse or similar for an “up close and personal” view through the eyes of a real person who experienced it.
In addition to setting students up for success by making the expectations and learning outcomes visible, teachers also ensured students had the support they needed with any new materials or programs.
In previous years, students completed this project as a website, but this year the project evolved from a website to an interactive Virtual Reality (VR) exhibit designed using CoSpaces. The school’s Technology Coordinator demonstrated how to use the program and had a number of Virtual Reality headsets on hand for students to experience VR themselves–many of them for the first time.

Rubrics in hand, the students were on their way to a month-long research, writing and design project. Several weeks later, I returned to the Winton Woods New Tech campus to check back in with the ELA/History class to see the culminating WWI projects and presentations.
Students first presented their projects to the whole class and to the teacher on the big screen. The exhibits differed greatly from group to group. It was really cool to see how different students interpreted the assignment in various ways – each hitting the desired outcomes with a slightly different flavor. For example, some groups leaned heavily on audio to immerse museum participants in the sounds of war. Others added animated tour guides. Some groups designed elaborate, personal memorials to their fallen soldiers. Others integrated local connections to their museums.

The real fun came when we all strapped on the VR headsets and experienced the WWI museums individually. If you’ve never been in a classroom of a bunch of kids experiencing VR for the first time, it’s quite a site (with a fair bit of people bumping into each other and walls.)

We all agreed that, although there was value in the whole-class presentation, the real power of the experience came from the VR session. It truly was an immersive experience to be “inside” the actual exhibit through VR. The students naturally came to conclusions about other ways they could use VR for projects and teachers were asked several times where they could purchase the materials to play with VR at home. Students also identified ways they would improve the technology itself and look forward to sharing the feedback with the creators of the program they used to help improve it for future classroom use.

The Promise of Personalized, Project-Based Learning

We believe that high-quality project-based learning engages students, encourages collaboration and creativity, promotes authentic work and leads to deeper learning outcomes. We’re encouraged by partnerships between districts like Winton Woods and networks like NTN. In fact, we predict that more partnerships and networks like these will emerge as a growing cadre of schools begins the work of school redesign and transformation.
To learn more about the project-based learning process, see this video featuring WWCSD teachers and leaders.

Heading to SXSWedu this year? Be sure to check out the session Keeping It Real: Attitudes, Privilege and Project-Based Learning featuring WWCS Superintendent Anthony G. Smith and NTN CEO/President Lydia Dobyns.
This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased. For more on Project-Based Learning and related topics, see:

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