Why English teachers should care about project-based learning: multiliteracies, assessment for learning and digital technologies.


There is impetus for pedagogical change in the English classroom. Bull and Anstey (2010, p.6) observed that, ‘literacy teaching and learning should respond to the rapid changes in literacy arising from increasing globalization, technology and social diversity.’ This transforming social, cultural and technological landscape necessarily brings with it a new set of opportunities and challenges for secondary English teachers. Three such challenges include the purposeful integration of digital technologies into the classroom, the use of assessment for learning practices and the emergence of new literacies. The reshaping of traditional teacher-centred pedagogy to a more student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogy may assist Australian secondary English classroom with meeting these new challenges. One alternative pedagogy that may provide teachers with a scaffold to integrate digital technologies, assessment for learning practices and multiliteracies into the English classroom is PBL.  The researcher will adopt an interpretive approach in an attempt to address a gap in research into student-centred and inquiry based pedagogies in English classrooms in Australia, specifically project-based pedagogies and the changes made to assessment practices, digital technology usage and teaching of multiliteracies when these pedagogies are implemented.

This study is designed to answer three questions:

  • How are digital technologies used when project-based learning is introduced into the Australian secondary English classroom?
  • What changes are made to assessment practices when project-based learning is introduced into the Australian secondary English classroom?
  • What literacies are taught when project-based learning is introduced into the Australian secondary English classroom?

Literature Review

The researcher is a practicing educator and this study draws on broader learning theories of constructivism, engagement, assessment and literacy. Central to these perspectives are cooperative learning, activity theory, situated practice, structural alignment and formative assessment however this study will focus on project-based learning, digital technologies, multiliteracies and assessment for learning.

Founded in Constructivist theory, project-based learning (PBL) “involves completing complex tasks that typically result in a realistic product, event or presentation to an audience” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2). This pedagogy engages students in relevant, real-world problems that require them to attain and strengthen skills essential for success in the 21st century – collaboration, communication, creativity, digital citizenship – as well as understanding positive ‘habits of mind’ (Costa, 2007). Furthermore, research into project-based learning “has found that students who engage in this approach benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to those of students who engage in traditional forms of instruction” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2).

One challenge facing secondary English teachers in Australia which this study will consider is the use of digital technologies in the classroom. The 2009 implementation of the Digital Education Revolution 1-1 laptop initiative presented English teachers with a need to consider when, how and why digital technologies could be incorporated into their teaching practice. Moreover the current NSW Stage 4/5 syllabus (2003, p. 4) and the Draft Australian Curriculum: English (2011, p. 11) both stipulate that teachers are required to help students to become productive, creative and confident users of technology. Ravitz (2010) conducted a study into the relationship between online technologies and the implementation of PBL in small schools across the United States and found that PBL “helps teachers integrate technology by providing reasons for its use” (p. 10) however there is a need for a greater understanding of the influence project based learning has on the use of technology in the classroom (Ravitz, 2010).

A second challenge faced by secondary English teachers in Australia is the nature of assessment. Often the primary assessment in English is summative despite evidence that assessment for learning practices have ‘more impact on learning than any other general factor’ (Petty, 2006). The Rationale of the NSW English Stage 4/5 Syllabus (2003, p. 7) and draft Australian Curriculum: English (2011, p. 6) both advocate assessment for learning practices including peer and self-assessment.  In their seminal paper, Black and William (1998) conclude that the introduction of effective assessment for learning  “will require significant changes in classroom practice” (p. 141) because “instruction and formative assessment are indivisible” (p. 143). Importantly Black and William propose that “what is needed is a classroom culture of questioning and deep thinking, in which pupils learn from shared discussions with teachers and peers” (p. 146). These features are key elements of PBL which has been shown to “have documented positive changes for teachers and students in motivation, attitude toward learning, and skills, including work habits, critical thinking skills and problem-solving” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, p. 4, 2008). Barron’s (1998) longitudinal case study of 5th graders concluded that an “emphasis on formative assessment and revision” (p. 305) is central to PBL.

The third challenge facing English teachers today is the necessity to teach new media and new literacies. Traditionally English in Australia has been viewed as a teacher-centred discipline with a heavy focus on linguistic literacy – reading and writing. However the introduction of multimodal and multimedia texts into the Australian Curriculum: English (2011, p. 1) reshapes our understanding of literacies. A three-year ethnographic study by Mizuko et al (2008) describes how “new media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting (p. 2)”. The term multiliteracies was coined by the New London Group in response to emerging media and is defined as ‘a new approach to literacy teaching … (that) … overcomes the limitations of traditional approaches” (New London Group, 1996, p. 1) Being multiliterate requires fluency in five semiotic systems: linguistic, visual, gestural, spatial and audio (Bull and Anstey, 2010, p. 4). AEnglish teachers are now responsible for the teaching of multiliteracies, inviting another challenge for teachers because “literacy must address the impact of new communication technologies, and the texts delivered by them” (Bull and Anstey, 2010, p. 6). PBL may present teachers with the framework for engaging students with multiliterate practices.

Meeting the demands of changing literacy needs, curriculum changes and the federal 1-1 initiative forces secondary English teachers in Australia to reconsider their pedagogy.



This exploratory study will use a mixed method research strategy to address the research questions and provide a rich description of a specific pedagogy – PBL.  A survey of Australian secondary English teachers in the form of an online questionnaire will ask teachers about technology usage in their classroom, types of pedagogies used and types of assessment practices used. This survey will include both closed and open-ended questions. The population for the study will be secondary English teachers within New South Wales including teachers from government, independent and Catholic schools – all members of the NSW English Teacher Association.

The study will also include two class case studies – both classes will be using project-based learning pedagogies. Drawn from these two classes will be two teacher case studies and eight student case studies.  See Figure 1 for visualisation of study and Figure 2 for factors that will be the focus of each case study.

Figure 1


The population for this study is a sub-set of Australian secondary English teachers. The sample of this population will be drawn using a mixed sampling method – purposive sampling and cluster sampling.

The survey sample will attempt to be representative of the population. This sample will be drawn using a probability sampling method – cluster sampling. The sample will be members of the NSW English Teachers Association. A random selection of the 2000 members will be emailed a link to the online questionnaire. It is not anticipated that all recipients will complete the questionnaire. The number of teachers in the survey will depend on the number of responses to the online questionnaire. Ideally N = 100 teachers.

The strength of the random sampling method for the survey is cost (Neuman, 2006) and that it only selects members who are secondary English teachers. The weakness is that the population members are only from NSW and do not represent the total population of secondary English teachers in Australia. These teachers are also all members of a professional association and this could result in cluster effects. This will impact the validity of the data and its representativeness. This survey aims to give the researcher a general picture of teaching pedagogies, the use of digital technologies, assessment practices and the teaching of multiliteracies in the Australian secondary English classroom.

The case study research sites will be two Australian high schools in the Sydney region. The case study samples (two teachers and eight students from each class) will be drawn using a non-probability sampling method – purposive sampling.  This sampling method will allow for the selection of “unique cases that are especially informative” (Neuman 2006, p. 222) based on the survey data. Participants for the teacher case studies will not be matched in regards to SES, gender or teaching experience as this study is descriptive and does not aim to be representative. Moreover it is anticipated that it will be difficult to identify many English teachers using project-based pedagogies, resulting in a small sample pool from which to select participants for the case study. The student case studies will be drawn from the participating classes via a random sampling method using a random number generator. Ideally student case studies will include a balance of male and female, SES, achievement levels and age as well as a range in attitudes towards English. For these embedded case studies N=10 (n1 = 2 n2 = 8 ) N= number of participants.

The strength of the purposive sampling is that it will ensure the participants are actively using project-based pedagogies in the classroom. The weakness of this approach is that it is not a representative sample of the population – Australian secondary English teachers. However these case studies do not aim to be representative of the entire population (Yin, 1989). The case studies aim to be a rich description of a particular pedagogy in practice and its impact on the use of digital technologies, assessment practices and the teaching of literacies.  The strength of the sampling method for this study derives from its use of a combination of random and purposive sampling methods.

Data Collection 

This proposed mixed methodology study includes four data-collection methods. The quantitative survey will collect data from an online questionnaire. The qualitative embedded case studies will collect data from interviews, observation and document content analysis. All of these data collection methods will allow for the operationalisation of the central concepts of the study. These concepts are outlined in the table Figure 2. This table also outlines the content of interviews, questionnaire, observation protocols and document analysis codes.

Concept Content of interview questions, questionnaire items, observations protocols and document analysis
digital technology use type of technology used, how often technology is used, duration of technology use, purpose of technology
assessment practices amount of feedback given during class, mode of feedback delivery, type of feedback given (verbal, whole class, individual student, physical – ticks on page, written comment, positive or negative feedback, quality of feedback), teacher and students’ discussion of feedback, types of assessment used in and out of class
teaching of multiliteracies types of texts incorporated into each lesson, explicit literacies taught, types of literacy practices used, lesson materials
pedagogies types of pedagogies used, most common pedagogy used, when specific pedagogies are used, attitudes towards student-centred pedagogies, frequency of student-centred pedagogy used, attitude towards PBL, knowledge of PBL

Figure 2

An online questionnaire survey is planned for NSW English Teacher Association members. The data from this questionnaire will be stored in an online survey tool, most likely www.surveymonkey.com. The quantitative data from this questionnaire will provide information on the usage of digital technologies in the Australian secondary English classroom, the pedagogies adopted when using technology, the types of assessment and feedback strategies used and what types of literacies are supported and explicitly taught in the secondary English classroom. Participants will be asked between 15 and 20 questions taking no more than 15 minutes to complete.

This structured data collection process will draw many of the questionnaire items from a survey created by Ravitz, Hixson, English and Mergendoller (2011) as well as older studies including the TALIS Teaching and Learning International Survey (2009). Items will be re-written based on relevance of items to the study’s central concepts. The survey will ask about the frequency of 5-8 practices specifically pertaining to teaching practices, assessment practices, the teaching of literacy and the use of technology using Lickert scale-style responses.

A qualitative approach to data collection will be taken for the embedded case studies.  A variety of data will be collected including interviews with teachers and students, observation of teachers and students in classroom, interviews with teachers and students, examination of a variety of educational documents and artifacts used by each teacher including programs, lesson plans, student work samples and teaching resources.

‘The interactions that make up interviews are dynamic, not static, forms of social interaction’ (Freebody, 2003, p. 137) and require attention to what is said, how it is said and why it is said. The role of the researcher is semi-participatory as the interviews will be semi-structured in nature. This structure allows for the possibility that ‘the issues guiding the research in the first place need to be adapted … in light of the statements of interviewees’ (Freebody, 2003, p. 133). Interviews with teachers will include 6-10 questions with probes and last one hour in length. Interviews with students will include 3-4 questions with probes and last up to 30 minutes in length. The data for the interviews will be recorded by audio recording device and transcribed so that they can later be analysed and illustrated quotations can be extracted for inclusion in the final research report. Interview questions will be drawn from those used by Grant (2009) and the ‘Inside the Classroom Teacher Interview Protocol’ (2000). Questions may also need to be re-written based on relevance of questions to project-based learning, assessment, literacies and digital technologies.

The role of the researcher in the observations is semi-participatory and will involve observing three 50 minutes lessons of each case study class. This observation will be of both teachers and students. The data collection process is structured and semi-structured as the researcher will record data using an observation schedule (structured) but allow for brief supporting field notes (semi-structured). The observation protocol will be designed using items from pre-existing protocols including the ‘Classroom Observation Instrument’ created by Grant (2009) and ‘Inside the Classroom Observation and Analytic Protocol’ (Horizon Research inc, 2000). Observation will focus on four things for the teacher: pedagogy, use of technology; use of feedback and range of literate practices used. For students observation will focus on: use of technology; reception/expectation of feedback and engagement in a range of literate practices used.

Finally, data will be collected using specific coding dimensions from document content analysis including a variety of educational documents and artifacts used by each teacher including programs, lesson plans, student work samples and teaching resources. The content analysis data will be recorded using frequency and manifest coding. This coding would look for: types and amount of technology used or referred to in documents; teacher, peer or self-feedback in the form of ticks, crosses, stars, stickers, stamps and written comments types of literacies used or referred to in documents.

Ethical Considerations

According to Drew, Hardman and Hosp (2008) ‘a basic ethical principal for qualitative researchers is this: Do not tamper with the natural setting under study’ (p. 70) because this type of research ‘involves data that are recorded in narrative descriptions, not numbers.’ (p. 70). Ethics within a school setting will require a consideration of consent, privacy and observation. This study anticipates that informed voluntary consent for observation will be sought from the teacher participants. Substitute consent for observation as well as informed voluntary consent will be required for student participants in the form of parental permission. Privacy issues will be minimal for all participants as the sensitivity of the information being shared is low and the setting – a classroom – is a shared public space. As a further means to protect students’ privacy, pseudonyms will be used for student participants.


Data analysis ‘allows the qualitative researcher to move from the description of an historical event or social setting to a more general interpretation’ (Neuman, 2003, p. 467). This study will involve an analysis of both numerical and non-numerical data. Coding of data from questionnaire, interviews, observations and document content analysis will attempt to identify recurrent patterns. This will involve both open coding focusing on surface (manifest) and latent (semantic) codes and moving on to axial coding to “conceptualise and reduce the data” (Strauss, A & Corbin, J, 1988, p. 12) and identify relationships between recurring themes. Similarly, descriptive statistics will be used for all data collected to determine apparent distinctions and similarities. The appropriate inferential statistical analyses (T-tests) will aim to determine the statistical significance of differences. Furthermore, correlation statistical analysis will be used for anticipated associations between items on the questionnaire.

Grounded theory and content analysis approaches to data analysis are the most appropriate for this study “because they are likely to offer insight, enhance understanding and provide a meaningful guide to action (Strauss, A & Corbin, J, 1988, p.  12). Both require constant comparative analysis of data. During the proposed case studies ‘data collection and analysis processes tend to be concurrent’ (Thorne, 2008) whereas analysis will come after data collection with the survey. The process of data analysis for both will include collection, entry, cleaning and analysis.

Methodological limitations

The strength of this study is the design of its research strategy involving both qualitative and quantitative data, ensuring a picture of the wider population and a richer description of teacher practice in the form of case studies. Limitations to this study include its limited generalisability however supportable generalizations about assessment practices, digital technology use and the teaching of multiliteracies when project-based learning is introduced will attempt to be drawn. It is hoped that this study will provide Australian secondary English teachers with insight into the ways in which student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogies such as project-based learning may provide them with a framework for the meaningful integration of digital technologies, assessment for learning and the teaching of multiliteracies in their classrooms.


It is anticipated that collecting and analyzing data as well as the writing of the final report will take between twelve and eighteen months.



December 2011 – January 2012 (ongoing) Literature review
January, 2012 Seek ethics approval
February – April, 2012 Data Collection
May – June, 2012 Data Entry
July – August, 2012 Data Cleaning
September – December, 2012 Data Analysis
January – March, 2013 Writing up findings

Figure 3




Equipment $500
Travel $1000
Printing $300
Casual teacher cover $2000
Accommodation $400
Miscellaneous $250



     Figure 4

Dissemination of Results

The findings of the study will be disseminated in several ways. Firstly a report of findings will be provided to the schools participating in the study. Secondly a thesis will be completed documenting the results of the study. Finally the results of this study will be presented at the Australian Association for English Teachers annual conference in 2013 and International Society for Technology in Education conference in 2013. A journal article will be submitted for publication in both the Australian Association for English Teachers and English Teachers Association journals.


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