Make Project-Based Learning Truly Authentic With Public Products

Examine the importance and explore different types of public products that can be used in project-based learning.

Grades K-12 10 min Resource by:
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If a student creates a project and no one sees it, or hears it, or interacts with it, does it truly matter? Can it ever be truly authentic?

There are two key elements of a public product: a public audience and an authentic product. It takes both parts to have a truly authentic project-based learning (PBL) experience.

The public product is a way for students to apply what they have been learning to something beyond themselves. The product should actually matter to someone else, not just the members of the PBL group. In addition, the public product allows students to show what they have learned, demonstrate how they have answered the driving question, and share the amazing product they have created with an authentic audience.

Authentic Audience

Who comprises an authentic audience? It depends on the public product, but it should always include people beyond students in the class and the teacher. If students have designed a class field trip and they are trying to get permission or funds to go on the field trip, then the principal and other teachers might be an authentic audience. However, if the public product is focused on the local water quality, then the principal and other teachers are probably not the most authentic audience. The public audience may include peers, parents/guardians, community members, business leaders, outside experts, or a global audience through the use of technology.

An audience should provide some type of feedback to students. According to PBLWorks, when sharing a public product, students should be asked to “explain the reasoning behind choices they made, their inquiry process, how they worked, what they learned, etc.” If public products are released to the public, on a small scale or globally, and there is no type of questioning and feedback, the product still needs to be discussed. Students need to be able to reflect and process all of their learning. Reflecting, discussing, and receiving feedback from an authentic audience is most ideal, but when the ideal may not be feasible, do the best you can to make it as authentic as possible.

Because the product is public and matters to people outside of the group who created it, students are likely to be more engaged and care more deeply about the outcome and the quality of their public product; they don’t want to look unprepared to people in the “real world.” In addition, a public product allows student work to be visible and discussed by others. Students are able to receive feedback from people who are typically not their peers or their teacher (hopefully they are also getting this feedback prior to the final public product). For example, if several groups of students submit an inclusive playground design with a model, budget, and video and/or essay explaining why their playground should be built to a school board or community organization in charge of playground construction, their work is public, their work matters, and their work is discussed by others outside their classroom and even their school. In short, their work is authentic.

Creating relationships with outside organizations to work with students is a key component of PBL. Students, especially older students, are able to seek out and make connections to experts who may be able to help them. However, it is much easier and may be essential for younger students to have these connections created, or at least initiated, by the teacher, the school, or the district. Many districts already have partnerships with organizations and businesses, and it is just a matter of reaching out to them. In other cases, it may be up to you to take the first step in creating and building those relationships. Remember that it is okay to start small and continue to build as time goes on and more projects are undertaken.

When gathering an authentic audience and stakeholders, consider having them be available throughout the project as a resource, or at least consider having them available at some point to provide feedback prior to the final public product being completed. If students will be creating an application, a game, or a YouTube video for their final product and using the World Wide Web as their audience, they can still connect to stakeholders who have careers creating similar products, and students can see how many people have downloaded or used their product, which is another form of feedback.

Lastly, public products can and should be made public long before they are finished. Students should be constantly reflecting on their work and creation, giving and receiving critiques, and revising their product throughout the PBL unit. The product is not a one-and-done event. To learn more about the importance of reflection, critique, and revision, consider reading the AVID Open Access article, Support Student Reflection, Critique, and Revision in Project-Based Learning.

Types of Public Products

A public product does not mean that you have to put on a huge exhibition for students. In some cases, it may be that, but it absolutely does not need to be a huge event. Remember to start small! Maybe the first time that you and your students engage in PBL, their public product is for another class of students or just their families. Maybe it is for a small panel of community members. Maybe it is the creation of a website, game, or video that is posted to a larger global community using the Internet. Maybe students are creating a submission for an authentic contest or engaging in some type of authentic competition. There are truly endless possibilities, both small and big.

Backwards planning is important when designing and planning projects for your students. Keeping the public product in mind will help you in your PBL design and planning, and it will force you to think about the types of choices that students will be able to make around their final product. You will also be able to think about and create a rubric, which can always be modified, to help students in the creation of their public product. When thinking about what type of public product students will be able to create, it is important to ask yourself, and even have students think about, the following things:

  • Is the product authentic?
  • Is the product attainable in the amount of time that students have available?
  • Do students have access to the supplies and resources needed to complete the product?
  • What components of the product should be done by individuals, and which components should be done by the group?
  • Will all groups be creating similar products, or will/can all products be different?
  • Will the product show evidence of students meeting standards and learning targets/goals?

Once these questions have been considered, you can narrow down public product options. Public products can vary widely, and there are probably many products and ideas that your students will come up with that you have never thought of…and that’s okay. Many public products often, and really should, include more than one component. For example, if students create a play, they may have also created a script, costumes, set, brochures, advertisements, a budget, promotions for social media, or posters―all of which may be presented to the public. To get you thinking, here is a list of 100 + Final Product Ideas for Project-Based Learning from Experiential Learning Depot and A Collection of Project Based Learning End Products from Learning in Hand. Lastly, there are a lot of ideas of types of public products in the following two AVID Open Access articles, Design Summative Assessments for a Live Virtual Classroom and Design Summative Assessments for a Self-Paced Virtual Classroom.

If you are planning to include some type of writing, animation, picture, audio, and/or video element as part your students’ public products, consider having them use some of the resources highlighted in the following AVID Open Access Articles: