Learning just in time: Project-based learning at SAE Australia

In a recent presentation, I looked at the journey of implementing Collaborative Project Based Learning at SAE Australia over the course of the last 3 years. What were the benefits of doing it in the first place? How many hurdles loomed during implementation? And where do we go from here?

Project based learning is not new.  It has been used in various forms in medicine, engineering, teaching and other fields for several decades. In the creative industries, where solving a problem through creative means and effective communication is the nature of the beast, it seems like a no-brainer.

Project Based Learning as a teaching methodology is used in Stage 2 of our six-trimester degrees and takes the form of 30 Credit Point Modules each with 9 contact hours, alongside 10 Credit Point common modules that deal with Media and Cultural Studies and prepare students for their capstone term.

Our projects inspire creativity by posing wicked problems for students to tackle.  In essence, Project Based Learning in our context consists of posing problems to solve in complex ways; ‘ill-defined problems’ that require creative output. Examples might be a game that teaches social skills or a media campaign against child obesity. Both of these require input from more than one of our disciplines, and have technical problems to solve, such as recording the sound, giving a character facial expression, writing a script, and consulting with a sociologist or psychologist. Each step of the project must be fully understood and scoped by the facilitators to ensure that the learning needs are included to fulfil the module outcomes, and that they are met just in time to be applied.

The success of our programs is measured in such ways as reduced fail rates (nearly halved), increased retention (more than doubled), excellent student satisfaction (reported in QILT surveys) and high quality student projects to end mid- and end-points of their degree.

Finding the right people to implement project based learning is the greatest challenge. Implementing PBL into the curriculum requires commitment to change, from faculty and management. Old methods of teaching have to be shaken off, and not all faculty are able to do this easily. We use the term facilitator rather than lecturer, as the method is about guiding the student to their own learning, not delivering content.

Facilitators need certain traits such as:

  • Problem solving
  • Time management and multitasking
  • Communication
  • Innovation between content and real world contexts
  • Differentiated learning awareness
  • Big picture view of a Studio module in context of the trimester and the program

Once such faculty are identified, they need training and constant support to stay on track. It is easy to fall back into traditional methods, and when the PBL is tainted by the sage on the stage, it can fail dramatically. Peer support, sharing of best practice and collaboration on both projects and pedagogy is vital, as are frequent opportunities for faculty to engage in facilitated projects as extra training.

Students also need to be ‘trained into’ the method to some degree, and taught to be both reflective and reflexive in their learning.

SAE started our PBL in the third trimester of the student lifecycle.  Now we have more faculty skills on the ground, we’re ready to introduce the methods earlier in the programs.

Thanks also to colleagues Akshay Kalawar (Department Coordinator, Audio and Film, SAE Brisbane) and Tasnim Saleh (Academic Coordinator, SAE Dubai) for their contributions to this topic and the live session. 

Find out more!

Check out the recording of Colin’s presentation or get in touch directly. This session also inspired an attendee to write a reflective blog post with some transferable insights to other Navitas discipline areas!