September/October 2000 // Faculty and Staff Development
A Project-Based Learning Approach to Helping Pre-Service Teachers Develop Technology Competencies
by Yuehua Zhang
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Yuehua Zhang "A Project-Based Learning Approach to Helping Pre-Service Teachers Develop Technology Competencies" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

With the recent explosion of technological advances has come the following mandate: America's schools must be responsive to the educational needs of a society increasingly dependent upon technology. In many cases, however, educators are not well-trained to use information technology tools to enhance their instruction and thus student learning. I propose a project-based learning approach for instructing pre-service teachers (i.e., teacher education students) in the effective use of educational technology and for measuring their technological competencies.

My approach provides a context through which pre-service teachers can form productive relationships with in-service teachers who successfully make effective and meaningful use of technology in their own K-12 classrooms. By pairing novices with experienced classroom teachers, we bring pre-service teachers' technological knowledge into alignment with the instructional needs relevant to their own disciplines. This focus is not new. At Northern Illinois University, for example, the College of Education's technology committee established the following four goals related to training and support for pre-service teachers (Owen, 1993):

  • to create an initial familiarity with the technology currently used in the schools and to increase awareness of technology options and applications in school settings,
  • to develop essential skills in the most basic software applications,
  • to bring pre-service teachers' technological knowledge directly to bear on instructional needs relevant to their own discipline, and
  • to expose pre-service teachers to aspects of technology beyond the individual classroom and to introduce philosophies for selecting and evaluating technology.

In order to realize the above goals, we must select as mentors teachers who infuse technology into their instruction. By exposing pre-service teachers to successful working models of technology-based instruction, some (if not all) of the following parochial attitudes can be eliminated:

  • "Technology has its importance, but good teaching and the effective use of technology do not significantly correlate."
  • "Educational technology is more a 'fad' in education than an important trend."
  • "Technology advances so rapidly that what is taught today will be out of date tomorrow. So what's the point?"
  • "Educational technology will not be an important component of my pedagogical repertoire. I'm just not motivated to invest time and energy in it."

K-12 students themselves can be instrumental in helping pre-service teachers form more positive attitudes about the potential of technology in education. Planned excursions to K-12 classrooms, school technology labs, and/or media centers where students are immersed in projects can help pre-service professionals recognize important possibilities for instructional technology; moreover, the enthusiasm that students display while working with technology can motivate any teacher. For example, after visiting a local middle school where students were developing Web pages and multimedia projects, 32 of the 36 students enrolled in my fall 1998 Educational Technology course expressed a heightened appreciation for the relevance of their coursework to their future profession.

The use of project-based learning can help pre-service teachers assemble small and seemingly fragmented details of their technology training into a unified and coherent whole. As the completion of a project forces them to engage in a more complex process of inquiry and design than do more routine and repetitive classroom exercises, their competencies develop more rapidly, and their appreciation for the opportunistic use of technology in their future classrooms is enhanced. Furthermore, such experiences ideally provide opportunities for greater cooperative learning among pre-service teachers and collaborative learning between pre-service teachers and more experienced professionals (their classroom teacher mentors). Through these activities, pre-service teachers not only enjoy a hands-on approach to designing instructional material but also may experience an ensuing sense of accomplishment—a psychological and attitudinal lift that minimizes those prejudices alluded to above.

Project-Based Learning: A Case Study

In one example of project-based learning that I have described elsewhere (Zhang, 1999), teachers at a K-8 school in Nebraska were recruited—on the basis of their experience with technology implementation and enthusiasm for the project—to collaborate with teacher education students at Concordia College (now Concordia University). The teacher education students' assignment was to investigate how instruction in a variety of disciplines—including language arts, social studies, mathematics, and the sciences—could be delivered through multimedia packages. The project consisted of four main stages: first, the initial consultation between classroom teachers and pre-service teachers; second, the pre-service teachers' development of their technology-based instructional materials; third, a critique of these materials by both the course instructor (myself) and the mentoring teachers; and fourth, the actual delivery of the instruction to various classes of students, with each session taking place in the school's computer lab.

The mentoring teachers were asked not only to supervise and assist pre-service teachers in the design of instructional materials but also to evaluate the pre-service teachers' work in this process. The evaluations were based on the final products pre-service teachers developed as well as on their attitudes, participation, overall effort, and commitment to producing quality instructional materials. Twenty-five percent of the final grade for the project was based on input from the mentoring teachers. The primary benefit realized in this approach was a tangible product: the multimedia instructional materials developed by pre-service teachers. We used HyperStudio as our multimedia tool because it is commonly used in K-12 schools; thus pre-service teachers produced something that they could take with them to their own classrooms.

Using a project-based approach, the pre-service teachers created an embryonic model for future applications of educational technology. Crucial to the completion of their projects was the reconciliation of theory with practice and the development of mentor relationships between themselves and classroom teachers. The assignment required the pre-service teachers to spend considerable time researching reference materials and consulting with classroom teachers by phone and e-mail as well as through personal contact. Some pre-service teachers shared their experiences in their journals, saying:

  • "I would not have spent that much time on the project if it were just for the class."
  • "This time it is real because I am working with a classroom teacher who is also going to evaluate my project and to use my project in her classroom with her students. I must do my best."

The pre-service teachers in this course were often more receptive to feedback from the K-8 students than from me. One pre-service teacher wrote in her journal: "The K-8 students were very straightforward about what they thought about the project; they would point out the positive and negative aspects of the project directly." Another noted that her "5th grade students were really sincere. I could tell whether they liked my project or not, or if they liked some parts of my project and disliked some parts. I felt that it was important to meet their needs. . . . hear[ing] their comments directly. . . [helped] me to realize that there is so much for me to learn about designing instructional materials." An overwhelming number (90%) of the pre-service teachers involved in a collaborative project indicated that the K-8 students were surprisingly candid in their evaluations of the instructional material. Such honest feedback helped bring the materials into better alignment with the students' needs and interests; it also provided pre-service teachers with an enhanced understanding of the instructional material design process.


Training pre-service teachers to use educational technology should not be a rote, task-oriented exercise; as such, it only hampers their competencies and perpetuates negative attitudes about technology. Instead, technology competencies must be learned in both a practical and philosophical context, one that allows pre-service teachers to meaningfully apply the skills that they have learned in a classroom to a real curriculum. The required technology courses in any teacher education program must strive to harmonize theory and practice; when they do, they will produce quality teacher candidates who are willing and able to enhance teaching and learning with technology.


Owen, M. (1993, May). Computer competencies for extension. Paper presented at the National Extension Technology Conference & ACE, NETC/ACE annual meeting, Miami, FL.

Zhang, Y. (1999). Project-based collaborative learning. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (pp. 1960-63). San Antonio, TX: International Conference of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education.

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