Going Deep with Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is a concept for learning that has widely been used in the educational system.  My daughter recently completed a project for her class in which she put together a stop-motion video of her dolls going through a time machine to explore the history of her home state.  This kind of learning greatly engages so many parts of the mind, allowing the concepts of planning, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, information synthesizing, and often collaboration.  It’s a powerful way to learn because it brings context and relevance to the table and goes far beyond the limitations of straight book learning.  Applied to the field of technology, we see it as just as powerful of a mode for learning, going beyond the typical book learning or certification study.

I wrote several posts on the value of certifications (structured learning, opportunity, and growth), but I wholeheartedly agree with every argument that becoming certified does not equate to mastery.  Likewise, running through the labs or sandbox environments that align with cert study do not provide mastery or any a true depth of understanding.  They do provide a second modality for learning (“doing” reinforces “seeing”), but unless we go free style and try to come up with our own scenarios, the activity level is often very passive, and retention is short-lived.

Coming up with our own scenarios in these sandbox environments can help to engage the active thinking.  One can create a goal of what to configure and work through it to completion.  This is a great way to use VMware’s Hands on Labs, for example.  Once you become accustomed to the interface and concepts, toss the lab manual aside and start working through your own configurations.  The lab environment is a fully functional environment that can be configured any way you like, within the limitations of the nested environment.  Poke around at the other settings, try different configuration, and just go crazy and break it, and then try to fix the broken state.  This approach will engage the problem-solving part of the brain that will help to internalize the material.

But let’s go beyond the sandbox or lab environment and consider how working in “live” environments can greatly increase our learning.  After all, the live environment provides the greatest context and relevance to help one learn concepts.  A retired Army Ranger friend once told me that in the service, their training would start with a walk-through of a scenario, then with blanks in their rifles, and finally with live rounds.  Deeper understanding is sharply honed when working in a live environment that carries consequences if mistakes are made.  Greater thought and care must be exercised so as not to cause adverse impact.  But we can still do this in the context of project-based learning.

What better way to learn something than to come up with a project goal at work – something that is relevant to your work role or area of study – and force yourself to come up with the solution using the resources and constraints of your environment.  I’ve done this with coding and automation.  Earlier in my career, I decided that to get better at PowerCLI, I would force myself to use it whenever I could.  As easy as it was to find a copy of code that someone had written, I would often attempt to write the code on my own to actively work through the logic and to exercise the parts of the brain that would retain the information.  Heck, I remember doing that years ago when learning guitar.  After learning the basics, a wise friend advised me to learn songs with my own ear before using guitar tablature.  It’s much harder to do, but the benefits are deeper and longer lasting.

I encourage everyone to think about a complex task that has been an ongoing challenge.  For example, maintaining firmware and driver updates or applying configuration changes in the environment.  Brainstorm ways that this maintenance can be automated using the tools readily available or that can be efficiently implemented.  And then go forth and tackle the problem using the tool.

There are so many tools and resources available to us to solve problems, but we all grieve the limited time to learn these tools and skills.  If there is limited time during the workday, then it might be worth treating your project as a personal project on your own time.  Sure, it will benefit your organization and make you look better to your team and management, but it will also provide you personally the benefit of learning new skills and provide another bullet point on the resume.  In fact, any project that is completed, whether for work or for personal benefit, can in fact be talking points on a resume.

I’ll share a very specific example I came across for project-based learning related to AWS.  I’m currently working on my AWS Certified Developer Associate certification and while searching for additional training resources I came across this post on A Cloud Guru’s site

#CloudGuruChallenge – Event-Driven Python on AWS

The goal of this challenge (or project) is to automate ETL processing for COVID-19 data using Python, AWS cloud services such as Lambda, CloudWatch, DynamoDB, and SNS triggers, while leveraging source control using GitHub. This kind of project goes beyond my current skill set, so what a perfect way to dive in and really learn these components.

And this is only one idea I came across.  There are many resources out there that offer a goal – a problem to solve and and a challenge to design and build a solution.  They are all great because they require one to think through the architecture, the capabilities and limitations of the various components, and how to put the solution together.

I’ll share one last thought.  Project-based learning has the benefit of providing an avenue for deliberate practice.  Just like athletes and musicians continually train to stay at the top of their game, we IT professionals must continue to train in ways that are relevant in our field.  Because our field continually changes, we must continue to deliberately practice and hone the skills needed to keep up with these changes .  Project-based learning is an excellent way to provide the context, the practice, the critical thinking, and the problem-solving skills required to stay relevant and keep at the top of our game.

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