Using Project-Based Blended Learning to Engage Career and Technical Education Students

April 2018
A group of student with safety headphones and goggles

The benefits of career and technical education (CTE) run the gamut. For example, CTE gives schools an opportunity to engage students and prepare them for high-wage, high-creativity and high-demand careers. It also makes education applicable and important to students—and keeps America’s skilled labor force vital and relevant.

Based on our experience working with schools, districts and other stakeholders in this area, we have found that a combination of two learning models can form a powerful backbone for CTE programming.

Model 1: Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning immerses students in an engaging question, problem or challenge for an extended period. It’s a hands-on approach that can build skills, mindsets and behaviors needed for success in the modern workplace.

In addition, by challenging students to work on meaningful tasks and produce tangible results they can relate or apply to their lives and work, project-based learning can increase engagement.

And according to research, other benefits of well-designed project-based learning include long-term content retention, problem-solving, collaboration skills, test performance and overall attitudes about learning.

Model 2 - Blended Learning

Also known as hybrid learning, this approach combines various teaching techniques and delivery methods. In most cases, it’s a mix of classroom meetings and content delivered through an online platform.

Blended learning provides benefits of both classroom instruction (accountability, customized feedback, support and social opportunities) and online instruction (convenience, lower cost and self-directed learning opportunities).

Research suggests that students at nearly all levels of achievement do just as well in blended classes as they do in traditional classrooms.

Four Considerations for Project-Based Blended Learning

Combining project-based learning models with blended learning techniques allows students to work independently and with others to gain and apply knowledge and skills in a real-world context.

It also supports self-guided and self-paced learning, reflection and application while maintaining connections to and collaboration with peers and instructors.

We offer the following recommendations for designing project-based blended learning experiences that promote academic and career success for CTE students:

Design around your audience and desired outcomes

Who your students are and what you want them to learn, value or do differently are key considerations in any type of instruction. This is particularly important with project-based blended learning, in which instructional materials must be properly designed and scaffolded to enable students to work independently. When possible, hold focus groups and testing sessions with students to fully understand their needs and learning context.

Focus on real-world application

Design activities aligned to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy that encourage students to apply what they’ve learned, justify a decision or produce a piece of work. Include activities that generate products students can include in a portfolio or use in job searches, such as interview questions, resumes and professional development plans. Incorporate or reference any relevant competencies or standards recommended or required by CTE stakeholders to strengthen the connection to occupations and the workplace.

Provide a mix of instructional activities, media and materials

Since learning preferences and abilities vary, try to incorporate a mix of materials and media to provide students with different ways to access what they are learning. Consider posting videos of classroom lectures so students can review them later. Use interactive modules to provide an engaging and more accessible way to learn about a complex topic. Design activities around students’ interests (e.g., encourage students to create videos or social media posts that demonstrate or describe an occupational skill they have learned).

Provide adequate support for instructors and students

Many CTE instructors come from industry and the trades; they will offer students valuable real-world expertise, but their experience with curriculum and instruction will vary. In addition, instructors and students will have varying levels of comfort and facility with technology. Err on the side of caution—be sure to provide additional training, documentation and support. Also, consider testing new learning activities before rolling them out to make sure they work for both instructors and students.

Designing CTE curricula with project-based blended learning strategies and techniques gives students access to a meaningful, engaging mix of independent and classroom-based activities that can help them understand and prepare for postsecondary options—and the workforce.