Electronic Journal of Science Education V5 N3 March 2001 Makinster et al.
Design and Implementation of an On-line Professional Development Community:
A Project-Based Learning Approach in a Graduate Seminar

James G. MaKinster
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Indiana University

Sasha A. Barab
Instructional Systems Technology, Indiana University

Thomas M. Keating
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Boston College


One of the central tenets of inquiry-based, problem-based, project-based, and many of the other historical and contemporary curricular paradigms is that of providing meaningful and authentic experiences that provide context for student learning. Meaningful learning requires that students are afforded opportunities to leverage prior knowledge and participate in tasks that are both meaningful to themselves and to the world at large (Novak, 1988). Regrettably, classroom experiences often look much different from the types of learning and workplace environments people experience outside of academic settings. Consequently, concepts are abstracted from those situations in which they are of relevant value (Barab, Cherkes-Julkowski, Swenson, Garrett, Shaw, & Young, 1999; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Young, 1993). Providing students with authentic learning opportunities means that there is congruence between the learning activity that takes place, the meaningful context of the activity, the potential relevance of that activity to the lives of the students and to real-world practitioners, and the ability of those students to perceive the activity as relevant and meaningful (Barab, Squire, & Dueber, 2000).

One way to support the emergence of authentic experiences for science education students in the context of a graduate student seminar is through a project-based learning experience. Project-based learning environments emphasize learning activities that occur across extended time frames, are student centered, interdisciplinary, have real-world relevance, and engage students in an inquiry process (Blumenfeld et al., 1996; Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, Bass, & Fredricks, 1998). A central characteristic of well-designed projects is that underlying the work is a set of driving questions or problems, developed by the students or the instructor, that focuses and provides motivation for student activity (Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Keating, 2000; Barnett, Barab, & Hay, in press; Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

The purpose of this paper is to report on our experience in developing a project-based learning context for graduate students to learn through doing. This paper summarizes the theoretical framework for the development of this course, the structure of the course, the lived experiences of the participants, and the course outcomes. In this manuscript, we share our experiences in a manner that can serve to inform future project-based learning efforts and also provide a potential model for future seminars in science education.

Learning Framework

The design of the course and the framing of this account were grounded in situated cognition theory (Brown et al., 1989), a theoretical perspective that acknowledges that knowing is an activity that is co-determined by individual-environment interactions (Barab, Cherkes-Julkowski, Swenson, Garrett, Shaw, & Young, 1999; Gibson, 1986; Roschelle & Clancey, 1992; Young, 1993). From this perspective, "knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, content, and culture in which it is developed and used" (Brown et al., 1989, p. 32). The situated perspective is based on the assumption that learners are immersed within the context and culture of, for example, a lecture, laboratory, or a problem-based scenario. What is learned includes the context and motivations that were present where and when learning occurred. In other words, learning about inquiry-based learning in the context of passing a test will be different than learning about inquiry-based learning in the context of developing a professional development structure for practicing teachers. Central to situated cognition is the notion that learning is best supported when the content is part of a context that the students can perceive as meaningful, assign value to the subject matter, and develop an understanding of the relation of it with their lives (Lave, 1997).

One way to provide a real-world setting for students is through the use of one of the many models of project-based learning (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Dewey, 1938; Papert, 1991; Roth, 1995; Roup, 1992). It is important to acknowledge that there are as many types of project-based learning as there are efforts to forward designs grounded in the tenets of project-based learning. Central to our view of project-based learning is that it incorporates the key principles summarized by Barab and Duffy (2000) (see Table 1). Each of these principles embodies theoretical and practical entities that have emerged from the literature and our experience. These principles served as the foundation for the design and implementation of the project-based graduate seminar described below.

Table 1
Design principles for problem/project -based learning environments from Barab and Duffy (2000).

Design Principles
Engaging Problems Students should be introduced to problems that engage the community and challenge the student.
Real-World Complexity Problems should reflect the complexity of the thinking and work they are expected to be able to do in a real world circumstance.
Ill Structured Problems The problems or dilemmas should be ill structured.
Learning by Doing Students must engage in active practices, not spend the majority of their time listening to the experiences of others.
Student Ownership Students must assume ownership of the problem and the development of a solution.
Collaborative Work The work should be collaborative and social.
Reflection The opportunity for reflection both during and after completion of the work must be central.
Teacher as Guide The teacher's role is one of a learning and problem solving expert, rather than a content expert.

Project-based learning models provide an effective approach to creating a classroom learning environment with authentic tasks as the primary focus and enable students to reflect on and evaluate their emergent understandings (Pea, 1993; Marx et al., 1997; Savery & Duffy, 1996). This type of learning experience provides students with an ill-structured task and requires them to develop a series of goals and solutions that will ultimately lead to completion of the task or project that becomes the learning context. Project-based learning models typically have at least two essential components (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Savery & Duffy, 1996). The first component is a driving question that organizes a long term, authentic investigation or design project (Barnett et al., in press; Blumenfeld et al., 1991). During the investigation or design phase students engage in inquiry-based activities in support of the driving question (Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Keating, 2000). One of the central issues in learning in this type of environment it that learning involves becoming a practitioner, not simply learning about practice (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Savery & Duffy, 1996).

The second critical component in a project-based learning model is the production of tangible, meaningful and authentic artifacts as the end products of the learning activity (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Savery & Duffy, 1996). Such artifacts, for example, can range from creating a three-dimensional model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system, a web-based portfolio, or a Lego robot that feeds your fish while you are on vacation. Construction of such artifacts can serve to generate dialogue during periods of evaluation and reflection and support emergent understandings (Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Squire, in press). The task or project provides an anchor around which the class (and learning) revolves (Barab & Landa, 1997) and serves as the means to test the viability of individual and collective understandings. During participation in such a project students and teachers can test our own understandings against those of others and the applicability to the task or project at hand. It is through participation in such a task that meaningful learning can occur.

An important component of the project-based learning task is that there is an element of "authenticity." However, authenticity is a concept that is referred to by many, yet is often poorly defined. Barab, Squire, and Dueber (2000) argued that in designing a learning environment intended to support authenticity one has to come to terms with what is meant by authenticity and to whom (teacher, student, real-world community) is it authentic. Discussions of authenticity must consider authenticity in terms of the life-world of the student and in terms of a target professional domain. In talking about authenticity in terms of this paper and the seminar discussed within, we are referring to a learning environment in which the outcomes have relevance and meaning to both the seminar participants and to some real-world audience. This moves the task beyond a "simulation model" of authenticity in which students simply replicate the tasks of real-world practitioners for a school context, and towards a "co-evolutionary model" of authenticity.

A co-evolutionary model for supporting the emergence of authenticity is one that allows for collaboration among the learner participant(s) and the real-world practitioner participant(s) so that all parties mutually define and co-evolve the parameters for defining and addressing the task-at-hand. Central to this model is that the task-at-hand has meaning and significance to all parties, and that it addresses a real-world need that has significance independent of school-created expectations. (Barab, Squire, & Dueber, 2000, p. 43)

In other words, completion of the classroom tasks should have applications that go beyond the university seminar context.

The primary role of the teacher in a project-based learning environment is that of a facilitator; one who manages the setting and assists students in developing an understanding of the material or subject at hand (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Marx et al., 1997; Savery & Duffy, 1996). It is within this real-world context that students are provided authentic experiences and knowledge integrated with experience (Brown et al., 1989). The student takes the role of a cognitive apprentice, as they are encouraged to explore a particular problem or dilemma in the context of more able peers (Lave, 1997; Savery & Duffy, 1996).

The Class

In the spring of 1999, an elective graduate education seminar entitled Professional Development for the 21st Century was implemented at a large Midwestern university. As outlined above, the format for this seminar was project-based. The faculty and students collaborating in this course represented numerous departments and program areas throughout the School of Education. Six faculty members representing two different departments, Curriculum and Instruction and Instructional Systems Technology, and several different program areas within Curriculum and Instruction (math education, science education, language education, and early childhood) served as co-instructors. The 14 graduate students participating in this class also represented a diverse population from within the School of Education (mathematics education, science education, Instructional Systems Technology, and language education).

At the beginning of the semester the course goals were outlined and discussed. The instructors hoped to create an "active learning community of faculty and students from multiple disciplines…to examine issues related to the establishment of an internet learning forum for the School of Education's faculty, pre-service, and in-service professionals." Understanding what such a learning community entails, developing an understanding of potential community members, and creating the electronic network to potentially support such a community would be achieved through readings, discussion, and a series of related projects.

The driving question for this class, initiated by the instructors, was "How do we design an online community that promotes the professional development of pre- and in-service math and science teachers?" This driving question and project-based artifact were considered to provide an authentic framework in that there existed the potential for the seminar participants, the School of Education, and the educational community in general to view such an artifact as relevant and meaningful. Success of this project-based experience would, in part, be judged on whether or not such perception occurred and if the online community survived and continued to develop beyond the conclusion of the seminar.

The goal of the seminar was to design a prototype of a World Wide Web (Web) site that would support the aforementioned community. The seminar met twice a week for two hours over a period of 16 weeks and was organized around four major projects. The first three projects were intended to provide the foundation for the fourth project, the final construction phase of the website. Class projects included: (1) a search for existing resources in terms of reviewing the educational research literature relevant to the development of this website and a search and review of the World Wide Web for on-line environments that could serve as models for development, (2) a context analysis of what types environments would best support teacher's needs, (3) the design of a prototype for the website, and, (4) the creation of the prototype website, the Internet Learning Forum (ILF). Students participated in each of the four group projects during the semester. Group assignments were dictated by faculty for the first two projects and negotiated during class for the second two projects. Each group was comprised of four to eight students. Occasionally, faculty members served as advisors for specific groups, but their input was primarily offered during in-class discussions.

Project One - The Search for Resources
The first project, a search for existing resources (articles, books, other websites), was conducted by three teams. Each focused on separate task, each of which fit together to inform the final product (the ILF). The Exemplar Community Search Team examined the "communities of practice" research literature to find manuscripts that discussed how to best support the development of these communities. The relevant implications from these papers were summarized and presented to the class by this group. The Professional Development Search Team set out to find Web-based environments that had been developed to support the professional development of teachers. The Exemplar Participants Structures Team focused on identifying structural and technical components of existing on-line virtual spaces that might suggest useful design features for the ILF. Exemplar web sites were presented to all members of the seminar. This allowed the entire class to collaboratively visit and explore the websites. The presentations typically generated a tremendous amount of discussion and dialogue among the members of the class and enabled the class to develop a shared appreciation of the positive aspects of each website explored. For example, the participants spent a significant portion of one class period exploring The Math Forum. As one of the groups presented this website, seminar participants frequently asked to see certain features, commented on the utility and/or significance of certain areas, and commented on and discussed how the electronic features of The Math Forum might inform the design of the ILF.

Project Two - The Context Analysis
The second project was a context analysis conducted in order to develop a better understanding of the potential participants, including their needs, knowledge, and access to technology. A context analysis is an essential element of the design process that allows one to identify the problems and concerns of a potential audience (Kaufman, 1986). The seminar students designed instruments to survey and interview potential members of the professional development community, both pre-service and in-service teachers. The pre-service teachers, including both undergraduate-level education majors and field-based student teachers, completed a written survey. In-service teachers were interviewed using a similar set of questions.

The context analysis revealed similarities and differences between the needs of pre-service and in-service teachers. Both groups expressed an overwhelming desire to interact with, share, and learn from other teachers. In addition, the in-service teachers stated that teacher training programs and professional development workshops often failed to address many of their curricular and pedagogical concerns. For example, several teachers suggested that such workshops often provided an overview of a particular pedagogical approach or technique, but failed to take the specific circumstances of their own classroom into account.

Despite these similarities, there were several differences between these groups: (a) pre-service teachers expressed a desire to obtain more field experience, (b) pre-service teachers expressed greater concern about lesson planning and classroom management issues, and (c) veteran teachers wanted to discuss deeper pedagogical and curricular issues with their peers. For example, several in-service teachers expressed concern about and interest in specific teaching strategies, such as inquiry-based learning, rather than the basic classroom management issues emphasized by pre-service teachers.

As noted above, the context analysis provided the seminar group with a foundational understanding of the issues and concerns most important to potential future users of the ILF. The findings of this mini-study were similar to the needs and concerns of pre-service and in-service teachers discussed in the literature (Adams & Krockover, 1997; Hewson, Tabachnick, Zeichner, & Lemberger, 1999; Simmons, et al., 1999; Strage, & Bol, 1996). However, it was our intention that by having the students design and conduct their own surveys that it would enable them to develop a sense of ownership and connectedness to the identified issues and their target audience. The results of the context analysis guided the design and construction of the ILF Web-site.

Project Three - The Design of the Prototype
For the third project students employed a collaborative, rapid visual prototyping approach (Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990) to develop design plans for the ILF prototype. Students in the seminar were divided into three groups and asked to design or storyboard a potential layout for the ILF. The design was to be based on the previous resource and context analysis projects and the in-class discussions. It is important to note that throughout the semester, small, collaborative groups served as an effective way to complete each project. One of the unique aspects of the prototype design project was the use of parallel design teams. Each group had the same task; to present their designs at the end of a three-week period. This resulting competition between groups motivated each group to develop a unique and defensible design.

The approaches and resulting designs of the design groups exhibited a great deal of variation. Each group presented useful elements and raised pertinent issues that would eventually inform the final design and construction of the ILF prototype. One design group focused on teasing out the specific components of each area within the ILF website. Their presentation featured ideas for the graphical layout of the "My Office" section of the site (see Figure 1). The presentation of the second group placed significant importance on the graphical layout and aesthetic appeal of the website. They adopted a 'visiting the classroom' metaphor, incorporating the use of a school hallway that was to eventually become the home page of the ILF prototype. The third group built a semi-functional website for the ILF. This group's approach raised a number of specific design and navigational questions. For example, should beginning pre-service teachers, pre-service student teachers, and veteran teachers each have their own home pages within the ILF? Would the specific needs of these groups be better served by providing different means for accessing the same information?

It is difficult to identify the reasons for the diversity in the approaches and outcomes of the different design teams. It is possible that the approach and focus of each group was a reflection of the development preferences and experiences of the group members. For example, members of the third group were most comfortable with the development approach of rapid-prototyping (Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990). These students found that quickly producing a website was the easiest way for them to think about the design issues, needs, and constraints.

Project Four - Constructing the Prototype
The culminating project for this seminar was to construct the ILF prototype. A virtual "visiting the classroom" metaphor was adopted as the organizing theme for the website prototype. To that end, it was decided to produce a set of videos of math and science teachers engaged in the act of teaching in their "real" classrooms to seed the virtual school environment and to foster discussion among the participants. To create the prototype, the seminar reverted back to the jigsawed cooperative groups. At this time each student was assigned to a small work group and took an active role in a particular aspect of the design. Again, group assignments were negotiated during an in-class discussion and conscious attempts were made to base assignments on the content and/or technical expertise of the students involved, as well as to provide experiences for students that wanted to learn about a particular technology or content area. The three groups consisted of a Video Production Team, a Content Team, and a Design Team. The teams were given one month to complete their assignments. Each group was assigned specific roles; however, completion of the overall project often required students to assist one or more of the other groups in their tasks.

The Video Production Team was responsible for soliciting potential ILF participants, investigating and resolving the legal issues surrounding video taping a classroom for use on the Web, coordinating and implementing on-site video shoots of the participating teachers, and the digital editing and production of the final Web-based video files. To achieve these goals, several of the team members were trained to use video equipment, digitally edit video (using Adobe Premiere), and produce RealVideo files. Members of the Content Team assisted the video team in shooting on-site video. After a classroom lesson was videotaped, two or three members of the video and content teams reviewed each of the tapes and determined which segments might be useful to include as video segments in the ILF. This approach was used to provide a model format for future participating teachers. Eventually, this task was to be placed in the hands of the classroom teachers. Several one to five-minute video segments were chosen. Each video segment was used to elicit reflections from the participating teacher that would serve as one of the bases for on-line discussions regarding classroom strategies and issues that arise within the context of that particular segment. For example, one video segment highlighted a teacher's strategies for helping students ask the appropriate types of questions during student science investigations.

The Content Team served as the foundation for the construction project. This team was responsible for determining which elements to associate with each video, how to integrate the elements, how to chunk the video into segments, and to produce a methodology for teachers to submit their own videos in the future. The content team also served to coordinate the efforts of the video team and then to pass on the resulting video and text-based information to the design team for incorporation into the ILF prototype. Members of the video production team assisted the content team in reviewing the videotapes, interviewing the teachers, and collecting their reflections on the lesson that they had presented.

The Design Team was responsible for programming or coding the prototype interface for the ILF web site. Due to time constraints and the enormity of this task, they were asked to focus their efforts on creating the ILF home page and any associated pages necessary for a user to be able to view the video segments of classroom lessons. "Under construction" Web pages were used for sections of the site that were not completed by the end of the semester. For example, links to the discussion section simply took the user to a page that outlined the types of discussions to take place on this page when the site was completed.

Core Outcomes

There were two primary outcomes from this seminar. First, the efforts of students and faculty resulted in the completion of a "tangible artifact" (The Internet Learning Forum) that was valued by both the seminar participants and the extended educational community. Second, the seminar embodied many of the design principles for project-based learning environments, presenting a unique opportunity for interdisciplinary interactions, collaboration, and meaningful participation. Each of these outcomes serves to inform the design and process of future project-based graduate seminars in science education.

The Internet Learning Forum
Based on the expertise of the participating faculty and the current importance placed upon Mathematics and Science Standards at both the state and national levels (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; Indiana Department of Education, 1997; National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics, 1991; National Research Council, 1996), the seminar members chose to develop the ILF prototype website for use by elementary science and mathematics teachers. The ILF website consisted of a variety of participant structures, all related to virtually visiting the classrooms of teachers. In person visits to classrooms are often difficult to manage, fleeting, and one-time experiences. To address these difficulties, the ILF features a video library of classroom episodes that serve to supplement live classroom observations. Within the ILF environment, teachers can discuss, annotate, reflect upon, and replay classroom episodes as needed.

The site is organized around the metaphor of "virtually" visiting a classroom. The home screen of the prototype is shown in Figure 1, with math and science classrooms prominently featured. The inclusion of streamed videos of real classroom interactions is the defining characteristic of the environment. The prototype included four videos of elementary teachers engaged in an inquiry-based science or math lesson, including the teachers' reflective commentaries, descriptions of the teaching activity, and associated lesson plans. In addition to the Math and Science spaces, there are four other virtual spaces designed to support professional development needs: (a) the Office - a space to register for the site and obtain technical information, (b) the Auditorium- the space for the videocast and replay of special events, (c) the Resource room - a place where teachers can go to access reference materials of interest, including references on teaching resource materials (software, other classroom artifacts like the graphing calculator, manipulatives, sensory probes), state and national standards, grants, applied research and theory, relevant state initiatives, and other materials the teachers identified as relevant, and (d) My Office - the teacher's personal space where he or she can store bookmarks to resources and relevant classroom video to return to at a later visit.

Figure 1. The ILF prototype home screen, consisting of links to the Math and Science Classrooms, ILF Office, My Office, Lounge, Library/Resources, and the Conference Room/Auditorium.

At the heart of the ILF are the science and math classrooms, which provide users the opportunity to see other teachers teach. When an ILF member selects a specific classroom to visit, they have before them a selection of video clips, reflections, and documents that embody the lesson featured in that classroom. The video of the class is the focal point of each ILF classroom (see Figure 2). A split screen allows an individual to watch the video while reading the teacher's reflection on that particular segment and to explore other materials and links associated with the lesson. Associated resources include the lesson or topic plan the teacher is using, relevant curriculum standards, reference to resource materials, and discussion forums for ILF members to share impressions and critique classroom strategies for teaching and learning.

Figure 2. Initial screen when visiting an ILF classroom, including links to an overview of the lesson, reflective commentary, descriptions of teaching activity, lesson plans, and connections with both state and national standards (not visible on this screen shot).

The participating teachers, students, and faculty benefited from the development of the ILF website, the tangible artifact for this project-based learning seminar. All of the participating classroom teachers stated that they profited from the experience by having the opportunity to share their classroom practice and reflect on their teaching in a unique professional development environment. It was surprisingly easy to find four teachers that were willing to have one of their classroom lessons videotaped and made available to other teachers in the ILF. A course member identified one of these teachers as a potential participant and this teacher then asked three of her colleagues if they would be interested in also participating in this project.

The graduate students in this seminar were provided with authentic learning opportunities in the context of building a website that they saw as valuable and meaningful, and that had a life beyond the confines of the seminar - moving beyond the simulation model of authenticity. Students were able to discuss theoretical and applied educational issues while engaged in the design and construction of something of their own making with real-world implications. Such issues were central to almost all of the discussions during the first two projects. It was essential that the class develop a collective understanding about inquiry-based teaching, state and national mathematics and science standards, communities of practice, community development, teacher professional development, the availability of resources for teachers on the Web, and numerous other issues of importance to mathematics and science educators. The faculty used their experience and overlapping relations with the broader culture to push these discussions in a manner that took into account the concerns of the field in general. For example, one of the faculty participants was concurrently in charge of developing of the electronic version of the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics national standards. He was able to provide unique and valuable insight into the development, implementation, and impact of this national standards electronic document. The faculty also benefited by further developing their understanding of the issues surrounding the design of situated learning environments and by creating a unique product that served as the foundation for future research and development efforts.

The real-world value of the ILF, and in turn its perception as an authentic artifact, was reflected in the fact that the ILF has since evolved into a multi-million dollar National Science Foundation funded research and development project (The Inquiry Learning Forum). Grounded in the work of the seminar, the Inquiry Learning Forum is a video centered, Web-based learning forum designed to support an online community of Indiana in-service and pre-service science and mathematics teachers interested in developing a better understanding of inquiry-based teaching (http://ilf.crlt.indiana.edu) (Figure 3). There are currently more than 500 registered members and close to fifteen classroom episodes online. The new Inquiry Learning Forum is being used in formal and informal educational settings including professional development workshops, CCU course credits, and, as of the Fall 2000 semester, several science and mathematics pre-service classrooms.

Figure 3. Current iteration of the ILF home screen, consisting of links to the Visit Classrooms, ILF Office, My Desk, Lounge, Library, Auditorium, and Workroom (Inquiry Learning Forum).

Model for Project-based Learning

The graduate course, Professional Development in the 21st Century, embodied the design principles forwarded by Barab and Duffy (2000; summarized in Table 1) and can serve as a useful model for project-based learning seminars in science education and other disciplines. The students enrolled in the seminar were presented with a problem that was challenging, clearly engaging both students and faculty. The faculty brought with them a particular vision and excitement about this project that was readily transferred to the students. The central task was not simply a task-based activity that only had meaning for class participants. Instead, and consistent with the co-evolutionary model of authenticity discussed by Barab, Squire, and Dueber (2000), the class activity had real-world value, bringing with the challenges and real-world complexities of authentic work.

The project is an example of an ill-structured problem leading to the creation of a tangible artifact, the ILF website. At the outset, members of the class, including the instructors, had a vague conceptual vision of the end product. The format, structure, and details of the each project and the website were developed in the context of the course. Given the project-based structure of the course, students were clearly involved in learning by doing. The faculty allowed the students to assume ownership of both the problem and the manner in which they developed solutions. Many of the findings from the context analysis were ideas that had been previously identified in the primary literature; however, allowing the students to investigate these issues for themselves allowed them to develop a sense of ownership and connectedness to these issues. Participant ownership was reflected when six students and four faculty members agreed to continue work on this project during the summer after the semester was completed.

The structure and progression of the seminar consistently built upon the research and design projects completed by the students who engaged in collaborative work. The class relied on in-class discussions, where the opportunity for group and individual reflections were of central importance. These discussions were based upon the active completion of the various projects throughout the semester. The students were immersed in the problem and were provided guidance during their search for solutions. However, it is important to again emphasize that the role of the faculty was primarily as learning and problem solving experts, rather than content experts. Due to the large number of faculty and their diverse backgrounds, the faculty sometimes served as content experts on a need-to-know basis. For example, a discussion might come to a point where clarification from a content expert was needed in order to proceed with a strong understanding of the issues at hand.

The diverse backgrounds of the faculty and students in this class also resulted in a unique opportunity for interdisciplinary interactions and collaboration. Students and faculty were able to utilize and demonstrate their expertise during the course of the semester. The meaningfulness and importance of the interdisciplinary aspects of this class were clearly reflected in student comments from the course evaluations.

The interdisciplinary nature of the course, while frustrating at times (it takes a while to understand all of those perspectives), ended up being a real plus. I really enjoyed hearing the different viewpoints and working together with such an interesting and talented group of people. It really didn't feel like a course at all… Nothing done in this course was busy work or meaningless, which didn't make it feel like work. Thanks for a great experience!

I enjoyed the way in which this course was set up. I learned a lot through the process of developing a prototype - more so than I would have just sitting and listening to a lecture or in a traditional class environment. However, it was difficult, sometimes, having so many leaders in the room (professors).

This was a wonderful experience! I have never been in a class with such an interdisciplinary focus and I am very pleased with the result….The School of Education should offer more classes with a team and interdisciplinary approach.

These type of sentiments were communicated by most of the students in their evaluations and during discussions with faculty after the completion of this course. In general, the participants of this course regarded it as a success. When asked to rate the extent to which the course met the original objectives for the course, the average score for each question was rated as very well or higher (Table 2).

Table 2
Average scores from evaluation questions on the extent to which the original course objectives were met. Categories ranged from 1 (not at all) to 5 (completely).

Question Average Score
1. Become familiar with literature related to shared communities of practice, knowledge management, and teacher professional development. 4.0
2. Develop an understanding of the current standards of practice for early and middle childhood development areas and science and math content areas. 3.7
3. Assess the needs of the future participants in the ILF. 4.0
4. Build and test a prototype for the ILF. 4.6

Lessons Learned

Despite the overall success of this graduate level seminar as a project-based learning experience, there were several issues or concerns that emerged during the semester that might serve to inform future project-based seminars. First, with six faculty members in the class (we acknowledge that this concentration of faculty in one seminar is an extremely rare event), there were a number of instances when the faculty dominated the discussion sessions. On certain occasions, a conscious attempt was made to redirect the discussion back into the hands of the students; however, there was also reluctance on the part of some of the students to volunteer their ideas and thoughts. Discussions were often extremely lively and it typically required some effort to get a chance to speak. On the one hand, this does suggest that the faculty were personally invested in the class and encouraged engaged and lively discussions. On the other hand, it would have been extremely helpful for the faculty to develop a shared understanding about how the class was to be run and how discussions would be managed.

Despite one of the faculty members initiating and coordinating the development and implementation of this seminar, he was unwilling, or unwanting, to serve as the facilitator or discussion leader/manager. Effectively managing classroom dialogue is essential during project-based activities (Abrami, et al., 1995). It is readily apparent, and not too surprising, that this task becomes even more challenging when more than one or two faculty members participate in such a seminar. Simply bringing together talented graduate students doesn't mean productive discussions will spontaneously occur.

The second set of issues arose in the context of relying on collaborative groups throughout the semester. Any time that a class project requires a division of labor, some students develop more content or technical expertise than others due to their respective assignments. One factor that may have contributed to varying levels of expertise development within groups was that there was often a problem with accountability within the group activities. Some students did not take full responsibility within their respective groups, leaving the majority of the work in the hands of two or three other students. This problem has been documented previously in collaborative learning experiences (see, or example, Cohen, 1992). There are two strategies that would have helped to remedy this problem. First, the use of student portfolios or journals would have enabled students to turn in summaries of and reflections on the work they had completed. Each student could be expected to present the artifacts they had created or contributed to and articulate their role in its completion. Second, a portion of each student's grade for each project could have been placed in the hands of their group members. Peer evaluation can serve as an effective means for teachers to keep track of whether or not students are completing their share of the work.

Final Thoughts

Undertaking the design and implementation of the ILF in the context of a graduate course served to facilitate a number of positive outcomes. These outcomes reflect the initial goals established at the outset for this course. The participants in this seminar had opportunities to develop: (a) an intimate understanding of the needs and concerns of practicing and pre-service teachers, (b) an understanding of the relationship between professional standards and the elementary science and mathematics classrooms, (c) practical skills using various types of technology (video equipment; online conferencing tools; Web-based video; and computer software such as html editors, digital video editing, database programs, and presentation packages), (d) an appreciation for the process of collaboratively conceptualizing and developing a technological educational resources, and (e) a better understanding of related educational issues and concepts.

This project-based learning experience went beyond simply transmitting or supporting the discussion of relevant research articles to actually supporting students in applying what they were learning to a commonly held task. This common goal helped to establish a sense of community in which students relied on and valued other students' participation and expertise. Participants in this class had opportunities to build connections between themselves and the relevant literature, between themselves and the other members of the class, and between themselves as educators and their ability to contribute to the field of education. When students have to work collaboratively toward some common goal, the experience allows them to become part of something larger than their individual experience and to contribute to the field in ways that are more consistent with those of science educators in academia.

It was apparent both through formal evaluations and informal conversations with the students that some participants experienced a deep sense of accomplishment in that they were able to create a tangible and useful artifact that will open new doors for learning opportunities and give new meaning to the phrase "visiting the classroom." This is partly because the project was not simply an academic exercise designed to support learning. Instead, it was a real-world project that was valued by all participants as well as the community that the outcome of their work was intended to serve.

It is important that science educators not only expose pre-service teachers and graduate level science education students to contemporary teaching ideas, such as project-based learning, but provide opportunities for these students to experience learning through such modes of education. It is a widely held belief in education that teachers often teach the way that they were taught. Therefore, this course reflects our continued attempts to develop a pedagogical model that is consistently tested and refined in order to improve our ability to support student growth in learning and understanding, while at the same time giving students an opportunity to learn and work within a project-based experience. We suggest that instilling a project-based approach within the setting of a graduate seminar situates the educational experience, and therefore, enhances both student learning outcomes and the future teaching practice of the participants.


The Internet Learning Forum is the product of six faculty members and 14 graduate students that invested a large amount of time and energy during the spring semester of 1999. We would like to thank all of those who participated in this class, as well as those that provided external support along the way. Faculty members: Robert Appelman, Sasha Barab, Thomas Duffy, Enrique Galindo, Thomas Keating, and Mary McMullen. Graduate students: Michael Barnett, Brian Beatty, Chin-Chi Chao, Kursat Cagalitay, Judy East, Jamie Kirkley, Judith Longfield, James MaKinster, Julie Moore, Jeff Nowak, Diana Treahy, Eric Reynolds, Ji-Yoon Yoon. We would also like to thank the teachers that participated in the development of the ILF prototype; Jill Fabiano, Rise Paynter, Nancy Stockwell, and Wendy Tamborino. This work in this manuscript was supported in part by a KDI grant from the National Science Foundation # REC-9980081.


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About the authors...

James MaKinster is currently a doctoral student in Science and Environmental Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University.

Sasha Barab is an assistant professor in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University.

Thomas Keating is an assistant professor in Science Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University.

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