Situating the Project-Based Learning Program at Future University 


Welcome to the third installment of this new five-article series on an exciting and innovative development in the global education futures space – Project-Based Learning – at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. The first article was an overview of the PBL initiative at FUN, the second on History and Philosophy of PBL, while this one situates PBL within the overall FUN curriculum design.

Situating the Project-Based Learning Program at Future University 

This third installment is based on Chapter two of Professor Noyuri Mima’s book The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures, with the aim of situating the Project-Based Learning (PBL) initiative at Future University Hakodate. PBL is a core compulsory course at FUN for all third-year students. Launched in 2002 students and academic staff have been collaborating in teams and through repeated trial and error, PBL has evolved into its present form. This article contextualizes PBL within the overall curriculum design at FUN explaining the mechanisms by which PBL is delivered.

Positioning PBL in the Curriculum

The role of PBL as a new educational methodology was debated as early as 1996 when FUN was undergoing opening preparations. It was decided early on to make PBL compulsory, but considerable debate unfolded before deciding on timing it for year three. In part it was thought PBL would be most effective after students had acquired a certain degree of skill in their chosen fields and that their collaborative skills would be best refined if working with students from different study areas.

The FUN Curriculum

To recap, Future University Hakodate opened in 2000 with one main Faculty – Information Systems Sciences (ISS). The term ‘information’ was interpreted broadly to include all components that make up our physical world while the term ‘systems’ as all the interconnections that collectively constitute society. Although computer technologies lie at the core of this curriculum structure, ISS is more than another IT course in that it seamlessly incorporates design, communication/s, cognitive psychology, complexity sciences and artificial intelligence, all melded organically into a new hybrid discipline.

This Faculty of Information Systems Sciences is further divided into two main Departments – Media Architecture and Complex and Intelligent Systems. These are further divided over five course threads: Information Systems; Information Design; Advanced ICT; Complex Systems; and Intelligent Systems courses, respectively.

While first year students share a common curriculum that provides the educational basics including writing and communication skills along with technical fundamentals, year two students are divided into one of the two Departments where they pursue their elected specialties. In year three, in parallel with their majors, students also embark on the PBL course as part of a collaborating team. Finally, year four students enter a specific research lab where graduating studies are pursued including the completion of a thesis.

Special Features of FUN’s Project-Based Learning

As previously mentioned, the FUN Project-Based Learning course launched in 2002, and as a pioneer in Japan’s tertiary education system, comprises three main features. The first feature involves a collaborative team consisting of academic staff and students. PBL teams are typically between 10-15 students from various study areas the pedagogical effect of which is to transcend specific disciplines. The team is guided by 2-3 academic staff who generally set the PBL theme. Themes are diverse and in 2018 included:

  1. A futuristic mobile phone prototype.
  2. A deep-learning machine.
  3. The Future Body Project.
  4. Empathetic global design.

A second feature involves setting team themes meaningfully grounded in actual real-world problems. By way of example, let us take a general theme such as – ‘Designing for the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in the Healthcare Space’. Firstly, a certain problem existing in this space must be identified with a view to exploring solutions through the application of information technologies. Finding a research-worthy problem requires reading around the subject, conducting surveys, visiting and observing healthcare institutions, and talking to various stakeholders. Through this research process students can identify novel problems and are able to take their studies to the next phase – identifying solutions. Here, students are able to start applying what they have learnt in their specialty fields at FUN and based upon healthcare professional and patient accounts, can commence to explore possible solutions.

This kind of research clearly requires sophisticated coordination between staff, students and the participating community organizations. It also requires considerable time for the three main phases through to communication and reporting of final outcomes. Over the duration of the PBL program, students inevitably face unforeseen obstacles demanding trial and error until satisfying results are eventually achieved.

A third feature consists of praxis. Third year students are still studying their respective majors and their associated technical aspects. PBL affords the opportunity to put theoretical and technical knowledge into real-world projects thereby building invaluable team skills. This is not to say that FUN students have not acquired collaborative skills during years 1 and 2 – in fact, in the Communication courses, they will have already mastered to some extent knowhow around general presentation techniques, digital literacy, planning, and basic project development. Third year PBL provides the perfect venue for bringing all their skills together into a coherent and meaningful whole.

Modus Operandi

Key to the smooth operations of the PBL program is the supervisory body – the Project-Based Learning Working Group (hereafter WG). This WG functions in the same way as other intra-university committees and as such is responsible for organizing and disseminating information relating to the PBL scheduling, budgeting, and other day-to-day operations. The WG is made of FUN academic staff who are also responsible for their own PBL projects and teams. This organizational model brings multiple benefits to the sustainability of the PBL program in that the WG have insights into how it should be run and how to improve the program in real-time based on their own experiences as well as colleague and student feedback. The WG is typically made of academic staff with diverse backgrounds including younger staff, veteran academics, those from industry backgrounds, and so on. This staff variety also adds to the PBL delivery and management styles and also supports general Faculty Development (FD) objectives. FD assumes multiple forms by affording academic staff insights into how community-based organizations operate, promotes discussion with co-supervising staff as well as university-to-community dialogue which frequently opens up new and innovative research collaborative possibilities. Needless to say, academic staff can apply PBL-derived ideas into their other lectures in an ongoing virtuous cycle of self-improvement.

The Yearly Schedule

PBL is structured in three main phases: problem identification (April-August); finding solutions (August-November); and reporting/communicating outcomes (November-end of January). Phase 1 involves explorations around problems that need to be better understood and solved. Phase 2 requires organizing the theoretical foundations and requisite knowledge imperative to finding solutions to the said problem/s. Here, technical systems undergo preliminary development and prototype products begin to take shape for iterative refinement. In phase 3, preparations commence with a view to sharing new knowledge and the outcomes derived over the duration of the research project. A substantial report co-authored by all team members is compiled for submission. After almost a full year of student-teacher collaborative research, the PBL culminates in a showcase event where outcome highlights are presented to an attentive audience.

Academic Staff Preparations

Teaching staff kick off their PBL preparations during March of each year with the first task – deciding a theme. Essentially, all academic staff at FUN are obliged to be a member of a PBL team which usually consists of between 2-4 academics. It is desirable that they bring a variety of expertise and knowledge bases to the PBL team. In the example given above – ‘Designing for the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in the Healthcare Space’ – four academics led this team, two of whom were experts in healthcare systems while the other two were from cognitive psychology and IT consulting backgrounds. Diversity of backgrounds allows academic staff to make full use of their expertise and generate surprising synergies. Once the PBL theme has been decided, the academic team submits their application to the WG and once approved, the next stage begins – the academic-to-student pitch!

The Academic Staff Pitches

Unique to FUN, students get to a select a PBL theme of their choice. Academic staff compete in the project pitches delivered to students, outlining the nature of the project theme, skills they are expected to acquire, project schedule, staff self-introductions, previous research, and finally, what they are looking for in their student team. Pitches take place in the FUN Open Space – typically in a poster session style. The 20 or so team pitches are approximately 15 minutes and presented four times over two sessions. Students circulate to experience as many pitches as possible in the allotted time. Year 1 and 2 students are also free to partake in watching the staff pitches in anticipation of when their time comes. Year 4 students are often invited to co-present or simply share their experiences and inspire junior students.

Team Allocations

Having heard the pitches, students ponder their preferences and have a week to make up their minds. They are encouraged to talk directly with the academic staff after which they select their priority 1, 2 and 3 teams, and submit online. Submissions can be followed in real-time via the FUN intra-net and students are able to make changes to their submissions up until the final team allocations posted by the WG.

Selecting Leaders

PBL finally kicks off in their allocated teams during the month of May and one of the first tasks is to select a team leader. Candidates introduce themselves and students are free to select their team leader by a method of their choice. Under academic staff guidance some teams may not decide on a leader for the first few weeks until members have become suitably acquainted and feel confident in selecting the right person. This procedure differs from team to team. In larger teams, they may wish to break into manageable subgroups for which a separate leader is chosen. Subgroup examples could include a programming subgroup, or design, promotions, and so on.

Basic Team Rules

All PBL teams follow three basic operating rules:

  1. All team members meet for three-hour sessions twice per week – Wednesdays and Fridays periods 4-5.
  2. Attendance is compulsory.
  3. A weekly report must be submitted by the team.

Other than these three basic rules, teams are free to operate as they see fit. Depending on the nature of the PBL themes and objectives, differences inevitably emerge and teams are therefore expected to find their own best practices for problem identification, strategies to achieve objectives and solutions, and other operating procedures. Within this framework academic staff act as facilitators – typically adopting one of three facilitative styles: the ‘directive’ approach in which the academic team adopts strong leadership ensuring minimal student failures, effective progress, but in which student opinion and initiative is sometimes lost. The second approach is more hands-on ‘participatory’ – here the facilitators are directly involved in posing questions, pointing out ideas, and suggesting ways ahead. The third approach is more ‘hands-off’ in which facilitators take on a more supervisory type role with minimum interference in the team’s progress, thereby promoting students to be highly independent and take creative ownership of their project.

Interim Presentations and Reports

The communication of PBL progress and outcomes is thought to be especially important. Interim presentations take place in July while final presentations are held in mid-December each year. Interims cover the background to the project, how the problem emerged as well as objectives for the latter research phase. A1 size posters are displayed in parallel with visual and oral presentations. Presentation are 15-20 minutes including audience questions. Presentations receive feedback on evaluation sheets in order for teams to reflect upon and refine their latter phase research.

After presentations are finished, teams prepare their interim reports for submission. These include three main points:

  1. Outline of team activities such as research background, obstacles faced by the team, problem-solving processes, results so far, and plans for the latter phase.
  2. Self-evaluations – here, students reflect on their own performances in terms of objectives met, level of participation and so on.
  3. Team member evaluations – now it is time for all students to honestly reflect on the performances of their fellow team members and the team as a whole in terms of their respective contribution to team objectives.

Presentations of Final Outcomes and Final Reports

This is the stage where the teams’ efforts over almost a full academic year are finally wrapped up for their peers and for assessment and evaluation. Building upon the interim presentations and reports, students now demonstrate how they applied those evaluations to inform and guide their final problem-solving strategies. Final presentations are conducted according to the same guidelines as the interim but with a greater focus on explain and demonstrating the conclusive results embodied in tangible form such as devices, information systems, and other artefacts. Interestingly, the best-of PBL teams are offered the opportunity to present at various locations around Japan including Tokyo’s Akihabara district and Sapporo, the main city of Hokkaido. This exciting event has gained popularity since its inception and is attracting ever-increasing audiences whilst generating interest across community organizations and commercial entities.

Educating for 21st Century Skills

To conclude this third installment on the Project-Based Learning program at Future University Hakodate, what does all this mean for you for, our international readers and other would-be students? To answer this important point, we offer some compelling empirical evidence to back up the theory around the FUN PBL program. To do this, we constructed a Project-Based Learning Acquired Skills Factor Analysis Index. This Factor Analysis Index builds upon previous work by Patrick Griffin et al (2014) in the form of their Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills Project 1 whose four general skills categories – Ways of Thinking; Ways of Working, Tools for Working, and Ways of Living in the World – further broken down to include 10 distinct skills (see Figure 1 below), was used as the foundation for an index that would reflect the customized PBL program at FUN and the types of students undertaking this program.

1 The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills Project led by Patrick Griffin et al was first launched in London in 2009 with participants from the UK, United States of America, Australia and Finland.

Figure 1 – 21st Century Skills

1. Creativity and innovation
2. Critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making
3. Learning to learn/metacognition (knowledge about cognitive processes)


4. Communication
5. Collaboration (teamwork)


6. Information literacy
7. Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy


8. Citizenship – local and global
9. Life and career
10. Personal and social responsibility – including cultural awareness and competence.

The customized FUN PBL-specific Factor Index was accordingly organized into five new categories including:

  1. Working with others – the extent to which individual team members collaborated with their fellows to identify issues and solutions via effective communication, listening to others, empathizing with the situations of one’s fellows, supporting them in a positive manner, and so on.
  2. Degree of autonomy – student confidence and ability in overcoming obstacles, handling pressure, following through to goal-completion, prioritizing team goals, etc.
  3. Attitudes towards society – ability to take responsibility for results achieved, analyze with impartiality, adjust one’s thinking based on evidence, be accepting of cultural differences, and so on.
  4. Literacy – ability to articulate opinions based on evidence, structure text for the effective understanding of one’s readers, identify and select appropriate academic sources that inform the research, and so on.
  5. ICT (information and communications technologies) use and application – ability to organize and apply collected data and information, use ICT to conduct surveys, evaluations, share data, use ICT with privacy in mind whilst also using it creatively to communicate the research in an accurate way.

Questionnaires analyzed by 156 students across three time zones: pre-PBL (April 7); interim-PBL (July); and at completion of the PBL (December) were measured on a scale from 1 (low ability) to 5 (high ability). In short, results showed that for the categories of literacy and ICT use, students self-evaluated as having made significant improvement from their pre- to interim to post-completion scores.

In the remaining three categories – working with others, degree of autonomy and attitudes towards society – despite not-so-significant improvements from pre- to interim time-zones, very significant improvements were self-reported for the interim to post-completion time-zones, suggesting that the accumulated experience by students over the one-year duration of the PBL program positively influenced their learned behaviors, attitudes and awareness vis-à-vis the significance of their Project-Based Learning experiences and outcomes.

Part 4

Translated by Dr. David Lindsay Wright, former Associate Professor of FUN and coordinator for Project-Based Learning, 2004 – 2011, as adapted from the original Japanese text by Professor Noyuri Mima (Chief Editor)
June 2018

Keep an eye out for our fourth installment around the Project-Based Learning experience at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. We welcome any enquiries you may have about the book, the university, the academic staff, or the courses themselves. Have FUN learning and start thinking about some interesting PBL research themes!