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TOOLS FOR LEARNING - Project-Based Learning: Engagement, Authenticity, and Collaboration on a Mission

By Victor Rivero - Posted Jan 1, 2017
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In sports, in games, in learning, in love—there is one mode or frame of mind that is held above so many other states of existence. Scholars write about it, scientists attempt to study it, and everybody has at one time or another experienced it: engagement. That is, having something that occupies, attracts, or involves someone’s full interest and attention; being absorbed, captured, drawn, captivated, or engrossed. It’s such thorough participation that people call it being “in the zone.” Commitment enters into it. Deep involvement, even playing a role; these words are also used to describe this familiar and desirable phenomenon.

Some educators know that there are ways to boost student time spent in this state. Gamers might always be in such a state, although hypnotized by a screen and unreal missions calls attention to purpose as a key element to consider in establishing a productive, society-enhancing type of engagement. And so we come to project-based learning, and what has been referred to as authentic engagement.

Any child knows the difference between fake and real help. Children want genuine help; they don’t want be pandered to in an inauthentic manner. Authentic means genuine, true, not fake; it’s appropriate, purposeful, and, simply, real. It’s what can easily be agreed upon as something that, by design, is structured to actually move the aims of a group forward.

Taking on a common task with others—collaborating in an authentic engagement type of situation—is not merely busywork. It’s either practice for real work, or real work itself. Work is what moves a society forward toward desirable, agreed-upon goals that enhance progress and survival. So authentic engagement situations are highly desirable states of being for a student. That they take some thought and ?design shouldn’t deter their use. Even poorly concocted, they can be worked out, and a group of students can make a go of it. There is pleasure in learning, and trial and error are part of the terrain.

In the 21st century, we are in luck. There are so many readily available and effective tools for authentic engagement that assist with collaboration in project-based learning settings, that pleasurable learning is more accessible and easier than ever. Here’s a short roundup of some favorites for educators to keep students in the zone, authentically engaged, and collaborating on a mission.


HoverCam. This little document camera has changed everything because it’s much more than what it appears to be. It is advanced technology at an affordable cost, so it’s very accessible for schools and classrooms. What’s more, it was built for education. It takes the place of projectors, videoconferencing equipment, document cameras, video cameras, and even microscopes to some degree. You can Skype on it, and you can share all sorts of things. HoverCams are collaboration workhorses, and teachers and students swear by them.


Mentored Pathways. Originally called the International Telementor Program, this is authentic project-based learning at its best. Middle and high school students are paired up with a real-world mentor while they push through various milestones working on a project that makes a true difference. They are held to professional-level standards—their audience doesn’t applaud and pat them on the back after they make a baking soda volcano fizz, but rather helps them iterate forward to a professional result on real work to get a glimpse of serious tasks ahead in the world of actual work.


Mathalicious. With these real-world lessons, middle and high school teachers can better address Common Core standards, challenge their students to think critically about the world, and engage in the kind of problem-solving learning that is just plain interesting. It’s like browsing an illustrated encyclopedia that welcomes participation and bursts of cognition in a student’s mind. This is not boring math—you might not even notice the math until you’re done. It offers addictive micro-projects presented in an enticing format.


eBackpack. A lot of classrooms have tablets these days. But if they don’t have eBackpack, it’s pretty difficult to get stuff done. This responsive little company has listened closely to what teachers, students, parents, and districts really want—to build just the type of intuitive workflow system for education that one would assume is already there. But it isn’t, unless you use eBackpack. Teachers can distribute assignments, and students can complete them, collaborate on them, manage them, turn them in, and receive their assessments. Teachers can grade and annotate assignments, and students can see teacher feedback. Everything is just so easy, including project-based learning.


Pathbrite. Here’s a very easy way to beautifully showcase abilities and achievements in aesthetic and compelling e-portfolios. Teachers will find Pathbrite especially helpful; it’s a way to collect evidence of what students have learned, created, and experienced. Upload resumes, articles, documents, photos, and even videos from social media sources. You can customize everything. There’s a lot you can do with this; it’s definitely worth exploring.


Project Foundry. This is an online project-based learning management system—yep, that’s right! It was specifically built to forward high-quality PBL just for you. Planning, working, assessing, showing—it’s all in there. Project Foundry makes personalized, deeper learning a reality. This is accountability for project-based learning and will help clear out the chaos and put in the order that makes learning more pleasurable.


Seesaw. These student-driven digital portfolios are free, and elementary school teachers engaged in PBL activities swear by them. A small, committed team of people can change the world—and that’s just what the people behind this platform and associated app are doing. Seesaw is used in elementary school classes because it’s that easy. But don’t be fooled; it’s also useful for student portfolios all the way through 12th grade to capture student learning in any form, including photos, videos, drawings, texts, PDFs, and links. Direct import from apps makes this very leading-edge technology.


Educurious. This nonprofit is serious about being a catalyst to reimagine learning. What the heck does that mean? Well, the company regularly helped disaffected students learn to read again and aspire to professional-level endeavors. Its project-based courses connect learning to the real world. The courses are fully thought out and make learning relevant to contemporary challenges experts face in the working world. In this case, curiosity won’t kill the cat; it’ll turn the cat into a lion. edu?


Google Drive, Google Docs. “G Suite for Education” brings all kinds of productivity tools not just to your classroom, but also to your school or district. There’s Classroom, Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, and more. These tools are the basics not just for students in a classroom, but for students who graduate and enter real-world work in collaborative environments. Might as well give them the professional tools now that they’ll be using later.

There are plenty of other tools, too, including the following:

• Animoto:

• MindMeister:

• VoiceThread:

• NextLesson:

• Screencast-O-Matic: http://screen?

• Skype in the Classroom: https://edu?

There are collections of resources all over the internet for project-based learning. A few of the best are , bie?.org from the Buck Institute for Education, and from the George Lucas Educational Foundation. These resources offer the kinds of student experiences that are worth supporting. Are you willing to go there? After having a look at what fun it is, it’s certainly worth the trip!

Contact Victor at

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