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Project Based Learning: Personalizing the Learning Environment


There has been a movement to shift the traditional classroom environment into one that encourages inquiry and a deeper connection with learning.  In the traditional factory-based model, the teacher is the center rather than the learner. Schools around the globe are beginning to reconstruct the entire school experience in order to engage learners innovatively and organically (Adams Becker, S., Freeman, A., Giesinger Hall, C., Cummins, M., & Yuhnke, B., 2016).  These innovative approaches structure authentic learning opportunities through challenge, competency, or project based learning. Jean Piaget’s writings (1964), among others, helped shape the foundations of these methods. Inquiry based learning provides guidance for the learner to discover, activate curiosity, and learn how to learn.  Project-based learning (PBL) presents learners with an authentic opportunity to engage meaningfully with content by solving real-world problems collaboratively.

The objective of this literature review is to emphasize the importance learner choice, ownership, and voice has in creating authentic learning opportunities (COVA), the definition of PBL and its relation to blended learning, and the impact personalized learning has in empowering students’ self-efficacy.


COVA is an active, inquiry based learning approach defined by Lamar University professors Tilisa Thibodeaux, Dwayne Harapnuik, and Cynthia Cummings (2017) to navigate the learning process in the M.Ed. Digital Learning and Leading program (p. 2).  Through COVA, learners are given the “freedom to choose how they wish to organize, structure, and present their experiences and evidences of learning” (Harapnuik, 2016). Choice develops the foundation for a personalized learning environment (Bolliger & Shepherd, 2010).  In a PBL environment, learners are encouraged to organize, collaborate with classmates, and choose how they wish to showcase their work and learning experiences (Harapnuik, 2017). The Buck Institute for Education (2019) calls PBL “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” In the traditional pedagogical approaches, “teachers dictate how students are to perform, organize, structure and present information and learning experiences.  When teachers do provide a choice, it is often a selection from a predetermined list of options” (Harapnuik, 2017). Teachers determine the method of delivery, and rarely offer authentic opportunities for students to formulate solutions to real world issues. If learners are not able to associate their learning with personal interests or ambitions, the learning is centered around the teacher and not the learner (Bray & McClaskey, 2013). In a learner-centered environment, a learner’s contributions and expressions are built upon prior knowledge and experiences (Swanson 2004, p. 261). Choice is imperative in a blended learning environment.  “Some element of student control is critical; otherwise, blended learning is no different from a teacher beaming online curriculum to a classroom of students through an electronic whiteboard” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 34).

According to Buchem, Tur, and Hölterhof, learner control leads to learner ownership.  Allowing learners ownership initiates motivation, engagement and agency (2014, pp. 20-21).  The process of ownership is not by pure discovery, but by guided discovery provided by the instructor (Harapnuik 2016).  Attwell (2012) suggests the learner owns different processes related to learning in which the learner “owns” his or her reflections and personal assessments.  According to constructivists, like Jonassen (1999), learners must own the problem because it promotes learner agency and responsibility in developing solutions.  Learners engage dynamically through organizing and constructing knowledge in both individual and constructive activity (Biggs, 1996; Piaget, 1968, 1983). Knowledge relates to an operation, in which to engage in it, one must act on it (Piaget, 1964).  Personal learning environments provide a space for learners to take ownership and meet the expectations they have created for themselves (Bray & McClasky, 2014).

Through the COVA approach, learners are encouraged to construct and organize their ideas through the use of their own voice, and share their work and insights with their audience (Harapnuik, 2016). A true PBL environment situates learners’ interests, voice, and prior experience at the heart of the curriculum and supports a student-centered pedagogy (Ball, 2016). Voice is a central component to PBL. Projects are designed to revolve and culturally respond to learners’ unique backgrounds, interests, and needs (Schwalm & Smuck Tylek, 2012). PBL grants learners the opportunity to recognize their own voice and own it by publishing their endeavors to a real-world audience beyond classroom borders (Buck Institute for Education, 2017). Publishing to an audience other than the instructor deepens understanding, and bestows a sense of purpose (Bass, 2014).   Harapnuik (2017) advocates for the implementation of an online ePortfolio in which students present their authentic work digitally to create an online presence.

The final component of COVA learning framework is to provide authentic opportunities for learning to take place.  Authentic learning requires active engagement in concepts in which the learner learns “by doing,” cultivating and investigating solutions to problems that extend beyond a textbook formula (Windham, 2007). Freeman et al. (2017) say “authentic learning is not a trend – it is a necessity” (p. 4).  In the 2016 K-12 Horizon Report, Becker, Adams, Freeman, Giesinger Hall, Cummins, and Yuhnke argue that authentic learning is the foundation in which metacognitive reflection and self-awareness blossom (p. 22). Harapnuik (2016) suggests authentic learning opportunities that are significant to the learner stirs meaningful connections. Authentic learning is not a new concept, however technology has further provided learners new avenues to access learning in both real and virtual settings (Windham, 2007).  Ragone and Quale (2017) say PBL “requires children to embrace uncertainty while also engaging with the great wonders of the world in a systematic way” (p. 60). An established real-world view helps authentic learning to take root. An authentic learning environment helps students grasp the purpose of why they are learning. (Yoshikawa & Bartholomew, 2017, p. 50). Authenticity is not an isolated aspect of the environment, it is the result of reciprocity between the learner, project, and the learning environment (Barab, Squire, & Dueber, 2000). Harapnuik (2016) stresses that “without this dynamic and interactive authenticity, there would be no genuine choice, ownership, and voice.”

Definition of Project-Based Learning

PBL can be defined as learner-centered, inquiry-based instruction that occurs over an extended time period, during which students select, plan, investigate and produce a product, presentation, or performance that answers a real-world question or responds to an authentic challenge (Holm, 2011, p. 1).  These authentic learning opportunities guide discovery through a constructivist method in which the learner uses prior knowledge to produce concrete evidence of understanding. The projects require complex thinking and creative problem solving (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Savery, 2006). In Jerome Bruner’s The Act of Discovery (1961), he states that:

Discovery in its essence is a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to additional new insights. A small part but a crucial part of discovery of the highest order is to invent and develop models or ‘puzzle forms’ that can be imposed on difficulties with good effect.  It is in this area that the truly powerful mind shines (p. 7).

Blended Learning & PBL

Technology presents personalized learning opportunities for learners to engage in hands-on or virtual projects. Personalized learning through the tool of technology can be accomplished through blended learning.  Blended learning is “any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 34).  Although PBL is not directly associated with blended learning, when authentic projects are paired with technology, learners are able to engage deeper and experiment with a variety of tools and platforms (Adams Becker, Freeman, Giesinger Hall, Cummins, and Yuhnke, 2016).

Personalized Learning Environment (PLE)

Personalized learning can be defined as a learner-centered environment in which the learner drives their own learning, and develops their own inner teacher. This creates flexibility for the teacher’s role to shift into a facilitator or mentor. (Bray & McClaskey, 2014). “Educators are now acting as guides and mentors, modeling responsible global citizenship and motivating students to adopt lifelong learning habit by providing opportunities for students to direct their own learning trajectories” (Friend, Patrick, Schneider, Vander Ark, 2017). The opportunity to step away from the traditional problem sets and research papers students find learning fun because they’re able to engage in hands-on meaningful projects with a variety of tools (Windham, 2017). Personalizing the learning grants learners the chance to create, inspire, own and receive support in their learning which in turn develops students into the biggest advocates for a personalized learning environment (Friend, Patrick, Schneider, Vander Ark, 2017). A learner-centered environment that is rich with genuine exploration, reflection, and expression along with guidance and support frees learners to take risks to fail forward (Ackermann, 2003). Carol Dweck (2006, p. 39) argues that when learners develop a growth mindset, failures may sting, but failures do not define their identity. Failing forward develops agency and gives learners the chance to own both their failures and successes. It is the responsibility of the learner to own their learning (Harapnuik 2017) while it is the responsibility for the teacher to present learners with challenges manageable enough to spark interests and engagement (Duckworth 1987). Our aim as educators is to inspire our audience to be autonomous life-long learners. Personalizing the learning, providing authentic opportunities for ownership develops learner agency and efficacy (Bruner, 1961).


The goal of education is about learning. Education sets students free to create, inspire, dream, and lead if given authentic opportunities to do so. Educators have the great responsibility to set the stage to encourage students to choose, voice, and own their learning. The PBL environment provides the authentic learning opportunities necessary to connect students to real-world context.  In his TED Talk titled Bring on the Learning Revolution!, Sir Ken Robinson (2010) says, “Human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process, and you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is…create the conditions under which [learners] begin to flourish.” PBL empowers learners’ self-efficacy, and provides an environment in which learners flourish. Personalizing the learning environment through PBL will develop the next generation of life-long learners.


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