Project Based Learning Evaluations, Application to Society & Afterword

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of this five-article series on an exciting and innovative development in the global education futures space – Project-Based Learning – at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. This fifth installment combines relevant sections from Chapters four, five and six as adapted from Professor Noyuri Mima’s book The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures. This article summarizes three main aspects of the overall PBL initiative at Future University: How projects are evaluated, some examples of how they are applied to communities and societies, and finally, an afterword that situates the PBL program within global objectives such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

PART I: Project Evaluations and Portfolios

A matter of special interest to both academic staff and third year students alike concerns the operation of the PBL projects and how they are evaluated. Conventionally, student work was readily evaluated based on the premise that the individual student would store new knowledge based on their study efforts, they would solve problems as delivered in lectures, and sit for exams to receive their due grades. In contrast to this seemingly straightforward evaluation procedure, in the case of PBL, students work as part of a team rather than individually, necessitating a paradigmatically different approach to evaluations. To answer this question, firstly, we must re-visit the basic question of what purpose student evaluations serve in the first place.

How students are grated

In the PBL course, giving students grades involves more than tallying up individual test scores. Understood from the point of view of a learner-centered approach, progress is measured according to feedback which reflects how they have proceeded along the PBL studies path. The ultimate grade students are finally awarded also depends on their teacher-to-student consultation – a recent refinement of the PBL process since it began 17 or more years ago. Three factors influence the outcome of this consultation: student self-evaluation, peer evaluations, and survey results from interim and final presentations.

The first – self-evaluation – takes into account attendance, weekly reports, attitude and degree of collaboration, performance in the interim and final reports, as well as contribution to presentations. Peer evaluations look at both positive and negative points according to their team member’s comments. Peer comments from interim and final presentations evaluate their performance, methods used, and other factors. It is a requirement of both students and academic staff that they complete survey questionnaires about other teams’ projects. Outside visitors’ survey comments are also factored in to the overall evaluation process.

It often happens that a student has been highly evaluated by his or peers while critically self-evaluating – or vice-versa – in which case the student and academic staff can talk through these issues that arise, during the final consultation.

The Student Portfolio

Essentially there are two different types of written reports accepted as part of the PBL evaluation process. The first resembles the type of thesis expected at an engineering conference – precisely and logically structured with hypothesis and results, while the second type is more concerned with process – with what students have read and learnt, and what new skills they acquired along the way. To add, there is also a third style that combines to varying degrees both the above.

Final reports tend to follow one of these above styles and collectively are referred to as the ‘Project-Based Learning Portfolio’. The portfolios are compiled three times over the course duration: at team member allocations; interim reports; and final reports. As part of these three portfolio submissions, each is accompanied by a survey with questions that build successively upon each other, culminating in a 21-question survey at the end of the course. As PBL is a required course for third year students, these questions are also designed to guide students for their fourth and final year in terms of identifying research themes for their graduation thesis.

What’s happen after PBL Portfolios

FUN recognizes the importance for students to be especially aware of and think about their portfolios in terms of not only how they progressed over the one-year course, but also in terms of how that pedagogical progress can be effectively applied to ongoing studies. As the student portfolio is still a relatively new system at FUN, not only is there much scope for improvement but also for better quantifying the student progress over the three portfolio submissions. Academic staff too are aware that they need to keep discussing the portfolio system itself so that it can be strategically applied in fourth year studies. This ongoing debate around the portfolio potentially involves more effective methods of data visualization that allow academic staff to help maximize student outcomes in their future studies.

PART II: Project-Based Learning Real-World Applications

In this section our attention turns to one of the most important aspects of the Future University Project-Based Learning program – namely, how it relates to community, society and its potential effects vis-à-vis real-world problems. Multiple stakeholders take active part in the PBL team projects from project design through to completion. This requires not just technical understanding of the issues being researched but also the theoretical foundations that inform each project.

Theoretical Underpinnings of PBL’s Societal Involvement

Since the 1980s education around the world has undergone rapid reform. The word we take for granted now – ‘learning’ – only began to gain currency from the mid 1990s onwards as applied to business, lifelong learning, policy formulation and city-planning sectors. Added to these are the successive and synergy-forming waves of new research fields around social psychology and group dynamics from the 1940-50s, and educational psychology and cognitive psychology from the 1960s, which continued to inform each other from the 1980s onwards. All of these and more now inform and have become part of the theoretical foundation that guides the current Project-Based Learning program at Future University Hakodate. Let’s take a look at some of these foundational educational theories.

Evolution of Organization Learning Theories

One of the most influential scholar-thinkers whose work forms part of the PBL theoretical base is Kurt Lewin, who famously sought political exile from the Nazi regime and ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Lewin is now known as one of the most influential figures in the field of social sciences best known perhaps for his contribution to our understanding of how individuals and groups interact – a field we refer to as group dynamics. Embodied in the term action research, Lewin’s research contributed to shaping our understanding of individual-group interactions with a view to strategically guiding society in preferred future directions.

To his credit, Lewin applied his research to real-world situations involving multiple ‘stakeholders’ – a term he coined – such as federal and local government bodies, citizen groups and experts, then considered an innovative strategy for identifying authentic problems areas from which solution strategies could be crafted. Lewin’s research was further taken up by his successors Chris Argyris and Donald Schön who advanced Lewin’s work in the 1980s into what they called ‘Action Science’. Action Science incorporated key terms such as ‘reflection’ – or the ability to stand back from social phenomenon with an objective eye.

Another influential term was ‘meta-cognition’ which refers to a higher cognitive skill that allows the learner to stand above knowledge gained. In other words, this is the ability to learn about learning, a higher order cognitive skill that promotes our transcending current problems as a conduit to inspiring innovation.

This complex cluster of knowledge bases can in turn be structured neatly into a three-step model consisting of an ‘unfreezing’ phase, which involves planning through to the diagnosis of social situations, and the collection of relevant data to inform a plan of action. This is funneled into the next phase – ‘changing’ – where collected data and information is translated into learnable knowledge and praxis. The third phase – ‘refreezing’ – as its name implies, requires that results from phases one and two are systematically analyzed and where new behaviors and attitudinal changes can be evaluated. Outcomes from this last phase are subsequently fed back for iterative refinement into the previous phases in a continuous virtuous cycle of social betterment.

Synergies between expert and experiential knowledge and the integration of contemporary versus traditional knowledge

Schön was conscious that expert knowledge does not necessarily translate into the overall betterment of society. This led scholars such as Donald Schön to conceive the notion of the ‘reflective practitioner’ which although at first glance might put the academic expert on the self-defense, reconciled the expert with the non-expert, by re-conceptualizing the latter as having knowledge that complements the expert’s knowledge into a greater synergistic whole, essentially forming the possibility of an equal partnership.

On this theme of what constitutes ‘knowledge’, in our so-called modern society we are quick to think of modern science, scientific knowledge, and expert knowledge. But more recently, our taxonomy of knowledges has been expanded to give greater weight to notions that now incorporate the ideas of living knowledge, everyday knowledge, body knowledge, local knowledge and indigenous knowledge. Increasingly, these knowledge types are understood as providing essential balance and support to the world in which we live.

A ground-breaking project that reflects the equal importance of these various knowledge types was a healthcare project conducted in a rural Thailand healthcare facility. In this radical project, Western-based medical workers as well as local indigenous medical workers collaborated with stakeholders from government, local community organizations, social workers, and patients, from which a unique healthcare model emerged. This model eventually became a new benchmark in cross-knowledge health care practice adopted by other nations and health care professionals.

Organizational Knowledge and Innovation

Another concept that forms the foundations of Future University Hakodate’s Project-Based Learning initiative derives from the management theorist Ikujiro Nonaka – namely, organizational knowledge creation. Research across various Japanese organizations including National Panasonic found a synergistic mutually-influencing process between tacit knowledge and formalized knowledge. This was later codified into the theory known as organizational knowledge creation theory which set off a management boom in the United States based on Japan’s corporate innovative success.

In the wake of this boom, scholars such as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger developed the notion ‘community of practice’ – which become a guiding manual for Japan’s business communities when translated into a book aimed at an emerging community of practice knowledge-based society. The basic tents of this theory base cross-over strongly with the FUN PBL organizational model and inform multi-stakeholder collaborations strategies and at the same time promote innovation throughout our university.

Towards the Learning Region

Better innovation models are required not only by corporations but also by local governmental organizations beset with a litany of emerging social problems such as aging populations, declining birthrates, ongoing urbanization and outmigration of rural populations, and the greater imperative to create sustainable societies. Within this context, from the year 2000, hundreds of workshops around the themes of town-making and revitalizing local communities emerged, variously using techniques derived from action research theories. One focus indicated the need for local community members to take responsibility for the futures of their own communities, a notion that came to be known as community design.

The mid-sized city of Hakodate where FUN is based, provides a pioneering example of this type of local community futures movement when in 2002, government bodies, business leaders, experts and citizens staged the event ‘The Hakodate Livability Project – Unique Lifestyles and Environment’ – which became a benchmark throughout Japan. This and similar projects have both informed the Future University Project-Based Learning initiatives while our initiatives have in turn influenced them in an ongoing virtuous cycle of innovative community-building knowledge and praxis.

Towards the Lifelong Learning Society

Another influential factor on the FUN PBL program derives from the notion of lifelong learning, which, as a result of the successes of Japan’s rapid economic growth has spurned widespread interest in all varieties of leisure activities and ongoing educational opportunities. The first formalized embodiment of this lifelong learning soft innovation came from the French educationalist Paul Lengrand who presented his concept of ‘education permanante’ to the third UNESCO International Adult Education Committee. Two guiding concepts around lifelong learning including the nurturing of adult confidence in coping with wider social change, learning about learning, and the fostering of a lifelong questioning mindset.

Creating Independent Learning Opportunities

A further related concept was the notion of creating independent learning opportunities and venues, active learning. The premise was that lifelong learners with real-world experience could bring meaningful and valuable contributions to the ongoing betterment of society as a whole. Starting with France and England, universities designed for more mature-age students – U3A (University for the Third Age) – spread to more than 50 countries and currently have more than 1,000 campuses with 400,000 plus students. Many of the operational features of the U3A model resemble that of the Project-Based Learning model. Mature-age universities have also taken off across Japan and are often managed as local government body organizations and welfare cooperatives. Due to their transparent management policies, prioritization of mature students’ individual interest areas, and commitment to social contribution, commonalities with the FUN PBL program are apparent.

Examples of University Education Spin-Off Projects

Many commonalities have been identified with the evolution of the above-mentioned educational innovations and the philosophies that underlie the Future University PBL course. However, there are also differences. PBL student expectations do not always readily correspond to corporate and community expectations. What should be done in this case? Our answer is simple. Rather than thinking solely about grades students obtain, PBL is better thought of as a ‘hybrid learning’ model, a fusion of university education and adult education which seamlessly integrates students along with community members.

By way of example, one organization that oversees all higher education institutions in Hakodate is the Hakodate Campus Consortium, as it is known. HCC launched a novel program in 2009 – the Hakodate Science Terakoya*1 – Introduction to Science Technology Communication, an annual summer intensive course. In this program, tertiary students are able to receive credits for their performance while at the same time it is also an adult education course. The course is designed to deepen peoples’ understanding of science and technology issues as they affect our modern societies. Students can share their university-learnt science and technology knowledge with citizens who in return share their life experience knowledge. At the completion of the course, they collaborate by exhibiting their group results at the Hakodate International Science Festival (HISF).

The Hakodate Science Terakoya started with the objective of nurturing local would-be science communicators but due to its popularity gained over the years, there have been surprising outcomes. For example, some Terakoya participants ask to be volunteers for the HISF, others wish to take the course again, while others elect to volunteer as teacher assistants for ongoing courses.

These and other spin-off educational opportunities have emerged organically from Future University and the Project-Based Learning courses extending to diverse community groups such as physically challenged groups, all under the banner of enlightening ordinary citizens around the issues, the commercial and social possibilities, even the beauty, that current science and technologies research potentially offers to excited learners from all walks of life.

*1 Terakoya is a traditional Japanese education style that first emerged in the 17th century in Japan initially from Buddhist temples aimed at teaching commoners the basics such as reading and writing – but often extended to other subject areas including geography, the arts, and so on.

PART III: Afterword

Sustainable Development Goals and Education 2030

In this concluding section, we turn our attention to how the Future University Hakodate Project-Based Learning course and educational goals fit into the wider global context. A defining acronym that appropriately packages the nature of our rapidly changing work is VUCA – or volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Within this global social context, in 2015 the United Nations Headquarters released a 17-goal 169-target development agenda for 2030 with a view to revolutionizing and preparing the world for a sustainable development paradigm. These sustainable development goals (SDGs) included the eradication of poverty, the total reduction of world hunger, adequate health care and welfare for all peoples, amongst others.

Aware of the greater context of these SDGs and similar reports including the OECD’s Education 2030 Project Position Paper (2018), Future University has strategically incorporated related concepts that speak to our world of finite resources, the hope for prosperity, how to guarantee a sustainable planet, not to mention improved well-being for all peoples on earth. Such global goals depend on a reconceptualization of not just our core competencies but what we call transformative competencies*2 – for which we suggest three: the capacity for creating new value – in the form of new products, worldviews, ways of thinking, social models, along with tolerance for adaptability, creativity and the spirit of curiosity. The second involves the ability to reconcile tensions and dilemmas; while the third refers to the capacity to take responsibility for one’s actions in our increasingly complex and inter-related world and be able to fully comprehend the consequences of our actions (p. 5-6).

*2 For the full report and related materials see:

Knowledge, skills, competencies and human agency

The above-mentioned concepts of knowledge, skills and competences – in all their variations – to be effectively and justly applied also require an extra capacity, namely, agency. Agency, simply put, refers to that human condition of feeling empowered – as an individual or organizational entity – to independently effect change on one’s social or physical environment. The term change agent is often used as a key term for those individuals or groups who consciously bring about change in the face of global education challenges such as the five identified in the OECD Position Paper*3 (2018, p.6) while in the context of education the inter-related terms student agency and teacher agency are increasingly added to the vernacular of contemporary education philosophies and strategies as a direct response to the above five challenges (2018, OECD Education 2030 Position Paper, p. 6). The common essence of these variations of the term agency points to the ability of all education parties to feel equally empowered to participate and independently bring about change in their respective roles. The PBL program at FUN consciously embodies and leverages this sense of agency for all participants in the PBL course dynamic.

*3 These OECD challenges included: curriculum overload; time lag between problem recognition and response; high quality content required to ensure student’s deeper understanding; curriculum equity; and fifthly, careful planning and alignment for effective reform implementation (2018, p. 6).

Desired Role Allocations in Education

Based on the above OECD Education 2030 Position Paper (2018), the FUN Project-Based Learning course has integrated five inter-related concepts to inform the PBL course design. These are:

  1. Teacher agency – in which academic staff should be able to fully and creatively apply their expert knowledge bases in order to effectively deliver PBL courses to their assigned students.
  2. Authenticity – in which students can apply their knowledge and experience to real-world situations, feel the value in their studies, and collaboratively learn topics that transcend single disciplines.
  3. Inter-relation – which refers to the opportunity for students to identify the relationships and connections between their various course subjects, PBL themes, and how these can be connected to everyday life situations.
  4. Flexibility – here, both teaching staff and students turn static knowledge concepts into ‘adaptable and dynamic’ applications, respond to social changes by adapting curriculum and course objectives that reflect continuously changing realities.
  5. Engagement – in which both students and teaching staff engage meaningfully with all project stakeholders and are actively involved in the course work from beginning to completion (p. 7).

Collectively, all these factors can be rolled into a concept we refer to as ‘co-agency’ by which we mean that students should not think of themselves as isolated siloed learners but as part of a wider learning community which includes academic staff, the community, their own families and loved ones, all of whom collectively and continuously reinforce and complement each other’s skills – the student as meta-student.

Transforming Mindsets

All human beings, however independent we may consider ourselves, live within a physical and social environment that imposes limitations on the possible. Certain things in the real world cannot be achieved and we as educators and learners must reconcile ourselves with this and focus on understanding the joy of what can be done, all the while being aware that if we work in teams the repertoire of what is possible can be significantly expanded.

This way of being in the world is what we like to call the FUN mindset, a wordplay on the letters FUH – Future University Hakodate. This key word ‘fun’ embodies the university thinking that learning can be fun, indeed must be fun. We also have the university-wide motto that reads: ‘Open Spaces Open Minds’ which reflects the idea that open and accessible university spaces also facilitate an open mindset. The Project-Based Learning program reflects these educational goals and concepts with the larger aim of encouraging students to find their studies a source of fascination and inspire them to act on their learning.

Creating a Sustainable Learning Environment

To conclude this five-article series featuring the innovative Project-Based Learning initiative offered at Future University Hakodate, we wish to emphasize that the good design of a futures-oriented learning institution that aims to generate meaningful connections with local communities, also requires a very special kind of leadership from their academic staff. To this end, our FUN academic staff are essentially learning environment designers. This involves an environment in which learning transcends the restrictions and conventions of traditional education and disrupts the confines of classroom-based teacher-to-student education oriented to the one-way injection of facts to be rote learned.

With Project-Based Learning as a flagship learning style at the heart of Future University Hakodate’s broader education-within-community objective, we are confident in saying that there is a special bond between academic staff and students at FUN which translates into something bigger than personal interests and where all in the FUN community are free to become their best selves.

Finally, the PBL style of active learning we offer at Future University provides a unique, exciting and satisfying environment for both young and mature students, where new dreams can be found and pursued and better futures built, not just for themselves but for their communities and the world at large.

Don’t predict the future – let’s create better futures, together!

OECD (2018). THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION AND SKILLS – Education 2030. Retrieved from

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 written and edited by Professor Noyuri Mima (Chief Editor)
June 2018

We hope our international readers have enjoyed this five-article series on the Project-Based Learning experience at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE (FUN). We welcome your enquiries about the book, the university, the academic staff, or the courses themselves. We look forward to you joining our innovative FUN learning community.