Project-Based Learning – In the Beginning …
As Japan’s population ages and its birth rates decline, the meaning of higher education in this country is increasingly being questioned. In this context, the learning methodology known as Project-Based Learning or simply PBL, continues to attract global attention and generate excitement. PBL has multiple international roots including John Dewey’s (1897) notion of ‘learning by doing’ but Future University Hakodate (hereafter ‘FUN’) is an early adopter in Japan’s educational context with its PBL coursework having been in operation for almost two decades. Already, the effects and benefits of PBL are being strongly felt since the year 2000 when PBL first became a reality at FUN, a learning institution specializing in the Information Sciences.
Under the guidance of Professor Noyuri Mima, a leading specialist in the field of learning philosophies, this bold experiment in Project-Based Learning at FUN became the subject of a book, a book which brings to the rest of the world the fruits of this almost two decades of trial and error, experimentation and discovery around the PBL initiative. The original Japanese book is titled 未来を創る「プロジェクト学習」のデザイン while in English (working title), The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures, 20 years condensed into a readable form for the benefit of educators and education reformers, students, curricula designers, futurists, policy-makers, and indeed anyone with an interest in our collective pedagogical futures. It is a book that can be used in a trans-disciplinary way as a guide to implementing similar PBL programs at other educational institutions or for individuals and organizations to select aspects that are of interest or practical benefit.
But first, let us quickly explore some of the history and evolution of this innovative PBL initiative at FUN, starting with the original inception plans for a bold new type of tertiary institution. We travel back in time to 1996, a time at which we the planners were thinking about the nature of education and educational objectives 20 years or more into the future. Already we were thinking about what traditional education courses were failing to offer students. At the early stage of applying for approval to establish FUN as a university it was decided to incorporate the PBL initiative as core curricula for all year three students.
Being designed originally as a third-year curriculum it wasn’t until 2002 that the first third-year student cohort at FUN actually took the course. In those early days, the concept of Project-Based Learning was almost unknown with no role models or precedents to go from in higher education circles in Japan. It was in that context that the PBL pioneers at FUN were continually discussing the concept and through ongoing trial and error have progressed to where we are today – an experienced deliverer and benchmark model for university-based PBL courses. For students at FUN pursuing their four-year courses within their chosen disciplines, it is this third PBL year and learning style that presents to the world a unique and important educational opportunity.
When formulating this book concept, significant background research was devoted to this PBL initiative, which even today, continues to be revised and improved upon. Our PBL team would scan the FUN internal website and interview dozens of scholars to gather student feedback, all with an eye to making our PBL better for each successive year. One of the many things that stood out in this ongoing improvement strategy was the unique interaction style between academic staff and the students themselves. Teaching staff talk openly about their commonly shared thoughts on education, as well as the joys and woes associated with being in direct contact with their PBL students for up to several hours each week.
The editorial team toiled for two years in the compiling of this book which summarizes the successes of the initiative, the fascination with the PBL concept, and the level of complexity found in the delivery of an effective and enjoyable PBL program. All these aspects of the total PBL experience are now condensed into a single volume.
The first chapter of our The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures – explains the background and origins to the PBL learning method and its underlying pedagogical philosophies. Chapter two uses our own home university as a case study to explain the PBL curriculum flow over the course of one year. In chapter three, we present the reader a variety of case studies from students and staff alike. As a predominantly Information Sciences based university there are many case studies drawn from PBL that focus on systems engineering, but the reader is free to dip in and out of this chapter according to his or her respective interests while also thinking about how those lessons could be applied to their own fields of study.
Chapters four and five on the other hand bring into the conversation case studies around the actual operationalization of the PBL courses including what know-how is required by both teaching staff and students alike. Chapter four starts off by introducing the initial design factors such as how to build the student teams, space requirements, facilities and equipment, the matter of budgeting and all the other guidelines essential to ensure project completion. Chapter five then focuses on the role and function of the teaching team, with the final Chapter six discussing the societal application of Project-Based Learning as a novel community-oriented learning approach.
To conclude this first installment featuring our FUN Project-Based Learning initiative, we remind the reader that this learning style is now more than 20 years in the making. During that time the PBL team @ FUN has made countless new friends and overcome hundreds of obstacles on the way to success. There have been good times and not so good times. Call us colleagues, partners or friends, either way, we have built a formidable and sustainable community of practice around the greater PBL program. Our ongoing community of practice continues to morph and adapt to the times and the needs of the community, and it is our hope that in our own modest way, our book which beautifully documents this adventure into PBL will contribute to Japan’s transformation for and into the future.
Translated by Dr. David Lindsay Wright, former Associate Professor of FUN and coordinator for Project-Based Learning, 2004 – 2011, as adapted from the original Japanese text by Professor Noyuri Mima (Chief Editor) June 2018, FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE.