V. Cavalli-Sforza

Al Akhawayn University (MOROCCO)
Project-based learning (PBL) is learning that occurs as a result of student effort to solve a problem or work on a project. Cooperative learning (CL) is learning produced in small groups of students, organized by the teacher to do some of the tasks of a course. Frequently, though not necessarily, PBL involves group work, and therefore CL, to some degree. PBL is more and more widely used in different branches of education, including medicine, engineering and, in our case, computer science education. It serves to improve student motivation by grounding coursework and learning in real (or close-to-real) problem-solving situations. These, in turn, directly spur the acquisition of new knowledge relevant to solving the problem at hand.

Our young university, located in Morocco but following the North-American model of education, has been seeking to foster the use of innovative pedagogical approaches among its faculty members by offering special faculty development programs delivered by expert education practitioners. The experiences we describe were inspired by a one-day seminar in cooperative and project-based learning by visiting faculty from the Technical University of Catalonia and a year-long program delivered by researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT) via face-to-face institutes and webinars. The goal of this program was to engage faculty members in reflective practices about teaching in general and their own teaching specifically.

Most of our courses in computer science involve project-work at some level, but the project remains well-separated from class and lecture time. The implementation of full-scale PBL in a class – that is, the offering of a class where the target content to be learned is fully organized around a project with minimal, if any, lecturing – requires significant changes to course organization and staffing, especially with large classes. We recently had the opportunity of applying PBL and, to a lesser extent, CL in two small Master’s level classes in Natural Language Processing and Advanced Languages and Compilers. While both courses included some amount of lecturing by the instructor, from the very start of the course students were asked to propose suitable projects to be done individually or in groups. As the courses progressed and different topics were covered, students were requested to carry out research regarding some of the topics, to apply the knowledge they acquired to their project, and to present that research to the class. Students worked and learned continuously, were able to apply their learning directly to a concrete problem of their own choosing, shared their experience with other students and the instructor, and received prompt and continuous feedback. Student performance was generally very high, not only in the project component of the course, but also in examinations, where students demonstrated good understanding of the material covered. Student satisfaction with the course was also very high and students provided useful feedback for future improvement.