Project-based learning (PBL) practitioner Gigi Dobosenski sits in front of the monitor from her home office as she recalls her 18 year journey as an online PBL coach. In delivering innovative pedagogy, Gigi serves as an Advisor, Co-Director and Science Specialist at Edvisions Off Campus (EOC), a full-online PBL charter school located in Henderson, MN.
“We want to reinforce the idea that learning can occur anywhere at any given time,” Gigi says passionately. “And we will help our students figure out how that fits into our…” she gestures with finger quotations, “curriculum,” she laughs, “but this is how to facilitate real lifelong learning.”
While digitally housing a student body of 113 middle and secondary school students, EOC believes that “PBL gives students a voice in what they learn, how they learn, and how they prove what they’ve learned.”
Here Gigi, in her interview with HEADRUSH, reflects on teaching PBL from home, the magic of a strong advisory program and the real difference between teaching PBL onsite vs online.
Is it cool for you as a teacher to work from home? Are you in your own space right now?
Yeah, this is my office at home!
Does working online help reduce staff burn-out?
Yep. And that is something the staff really watches for too. It is hard online. There is a big trust factor. Obviously. You are assuming advisors are working with their students. You have to trust that advisors will tell each other when they have issues, work with their students and indicate if they are struggling with something… It is this constant figuring out of where we can be flexible but where can we come together…
And you’ve been an online project-based practitioner for your whole career?
Pretty much. This is the 14th year of EOC, and I helped start the school. But I came here from Minnesota New Country School, another project-based learning school, which is where I did my student teaching, so I have never officially taught for pay in the traditional system. Sometimes traditional teachers look at me like, “you don’t understand from our perspective…” Except, I grew up in the traditional system and my mom was a traditional school teacher so clearly I know what the traditional system is.
You must have a really strong sense of community cultivated if you’ve been there yourself for 14 years…
Yeah and we have 100% staff retention rate for the last four years in a row.
Tell me a bit more about your student demographic.
They are all over the place… We get a lot of above the curve kids and below the curve kids. Sometimes they were previously homeschooled and the parents are like “Ahhh, they are teenagers and we want them to have other experiences” so then they send them in our direction. Or we get students who are very rural where there are no alternative learning centers nor charter school options and traditional schools aren’t working, so then they would seek us out at that point.
So what is it that makes Edvisions Off Campus special?
You know, we have that advisory piece. And I think that is something [special] from the students’ perspective… They may be online but every morning they meet with the other students from their advisory. They like to type and chat a lot… We also do field trips. Twice a year we have an overnight field trip for the whole school. The first one is at a camp, a sleepover camp where we do outside activities. The second one is in the twin cities so it is urban and metro-y. We also have monthly advisory field trips. And open field trips with other advisors.
Give me an example of the coolest project a student has done in your advisory.
That is tricky… Over the years I’ve seen… an artist who set up her own art exhibit and had people come to the opening of her art show. Another student wanted to go into baking to become a culinary artist so she designed recipes for a local bakery. And she got a job there, actually! She was only supposed to shadow. They ended up hiring her. She actually got to develop cupcake recipes and such. And then she offered a cooking class for the rest of the students to take and all of the cookies made went to a food shelter organization. The projects vary. They are very complex and have multiple pieces to them.
Do you feel like PBL in general facilitates an earlier awareness in students for what skills they are good at?
Yeah, for sure and it definitely helps them develop passions. And that is actually part of our actual mission [at EOC], to help them develop their passions and find their niche in the world… Some students will do projects they don’t like and they’re like, “I don’t wanna do that topic anymore…” Some find their passions really fast. Some have a passion they come in with and it modifies and changes over the years which is really nice to see because I think of all those students who enter freshman year of college thinking they are destined to do one thing and then they take their first class and are like, “Umm, no.” This way we kind of get rid of some of those (trials) over the years.
It seems the PBL narrative always leads to the challenge against state mandates… Schools fighting to pursue personalized learning while still completing hundreds of targets that the state demands every year…
Right. The state demands make people feel like they have to switch over to doing more traditional curriculum to supplement what the state is asking for. There is always that battle and tension to try to keep student directed vs. teacher directed… And as an online school there is even more of that. We are an online project-based school. So In MN that means we are a charter school… but we also have to follow all the online learning [requirements], because online learning certification is its own program. So there are two different public programs. The online program is even more in the lineup with all of these [required] benchmark standards.
I never realized the online component would have additional standards you would have to meet. What are some of these standards?
Well this year is a good example of a year we get to do both, (laughs sarcastically). For the renewal with our charter authorizer, we have to meet all of the goals and what they call the scorecard for them. We also have our online learning recertification at the same time in which we have to meet all these standards. They follow a lot of the iNACOL standards — that would be national online coalition.
So your online pedagogy requires you complete more benchmarks?
We, of course, don’t fit a traditional online school either, as we do everything synchronously, using video conferencing type things vs. asynchronous. So it’s not like we have curriculum that has been canned and put on a website for kids to go and log into. That is more of a traditional online model.
I hadn’t really thought about the difference between asynchronous learning vs synchronous learning but that must have a massive impact in your ability to teach PBL…
Yes, it does. And also it governs our numbers of students, and we keep them really low. We can only have so many students per advisor because we need to do all of this work with them in real time vs if we had a curriculum which we were just checking to see if they were turning things in. That would be different.
What would you say is the biggest difference between teaching PBL online vs onsite?
There is a little bit of difference in the fact that we can only see what they share with us, right? When I was at a site based school, at New Country for instance, I could see when the student went to the shop and was working on something. Now it’s only if a student shares that information with me… I can’t just go plop down at the desk.
Do you think there is hope for big public schools who have to meet state standards to implement PBL or is part of the accessibility low numbers?
I’ve seen other schools try to do it. And they usually make schools within a school. Which then they’ve reduced the numbers, right? So it does seems that our particular model [works], with the engagement and it being student directed, and for how much we have to know our students to help direct their projects.
Any pieces of advice for schools who want to take the jump to PBL but haven’t yet?
Well you need teacher buy-in for sure. And you’ll find this with Avalon too… We are both teacher-powered schools. We don’t have an administration per say so the teacher buy in is the power… So to make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s not necessarily that they all have to be like, “hey I want to do PBL,” but for them to allow the space to happen… You have to be flexible with your subject and realize you are not the only subject in the world, I guess (laughs).