Opportunities for educational innovations in authentic project-based learning: understanding instructor perceived challenges to design for adoption

  • Daniel G. Rees LewisEmail author
  • Elizabeth M. Gerber
  • Spencer E. Carlson
  • Matthew W. Easterday
Development Article


Authentic project-based learning (APBL) is a highly effective way for instructors to help students learn disciplinary skills, modes of thinking, and collaborative practices by creating solutions to real-world problems for real users and clients. While educational technology innovations can bolster APBL by making a promising but challenging pedagogy more effective, as with many areas of education instructor adoption is slow. Diffusion of innovations theory predicts that instructors will adopt and maintain their use of innovations if innovations are perceived to, and then do, address their challenges. To guide design of future APBL technologies, we interviewed 47 university APBL instructors about their most significant challenges and inductively analyzed the resulting interview transcripts. APBL instructors reported interrelated challenges of: (a) scoping, sourcing challenges and balancing the needs of the program, students, and clients; (b) curriculum preparation, making the curriculum flexible enough for shifting project problems and codify standards to help students understand how to do quality work; (c) providing assistance to teams, including monitoring, and delivering assistance; and (d) coordinating a range of stakeholders involved in assisting teams, including co-instructors, clients, and students. To support instructor adoption in APBL, educational technology innovators might communicate existing technology, or create technological innovations, that provide: (a) scoping tools for sourcing projects, and forming teams; (b) authoring tools for sharing and remixing of curricular materials; (c) project management tools for team management and monitoring; and (d) coordination software to manage all APBL stakeholders.


Project-based learning Diffusion of innovations Innovation Qualitative Interview 



We thank the members of the Delta Lab, Simone Ispa-Landa, Bruce Sherin, and Christopher Riesbeck for their feedback on data collection and analysis.


This work was funded by the National Science Foundation (US) Grant Nos. IIS-1530833 and IIS-1320693.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Copyright information

© Association for Educational Communications and Technology 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Delta LabNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.School of Education and Social PolicyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  3. 3.McCormick School of EngineeringNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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