Project-based learning requires a sustained effort from instructors and students. Students cannot expect to start the project the week it is due and to turn in a professional looking document or to complete some other assessment on the project. However, many students attempt to do that even if you nag them incessantly. Because of this, I develop a set of technology assignments for the first project in each course I teach. The goal of these assignments is to get them using the technology they will need for the project and to let me look over their shoulders, electronically.
I try to give them a sample of what to expect in the project, but generally they will get different results. I ask them to contact me or post on the class discussion board if their results seem off. They are then able to get help with their problems a few weeks before the project is due instead of the day before it is due. On this particular project, students struggle with how their model should behave asymptotically. They often try to find a rational model that has a nonzero horizontal asymptote even though the number of students is decreasing and the number of teachers is increasing. By requiring them to submit a technology assignment on that topic two weeks before the due date, I can give them feedback on their choice of models for the numerator and denominator.
Technology assignments also have another added benefit. I have found that students who cheat, do it out of desperation. Most of the students who have cheated in my classes do it because they have not completed the technology assignments and start the project memo at the last second. If I can get them to complete the technology assignments, a sustained effort over several weeks that is easy to grade, they very rarely cheat. Once they have invested time doing the project that was created specifically for them, they want to follow it through. Certainly students will cheat. But in every instance I have caught (and that is many), it was easy to detect the cheating because they turned in a project memo that was not the one they were assigned or is not consistent with the technology assignments they submitted.
After the first month, students have learned most of the technology tools they will need and I have fewer technology assignments. Typically later projects have only one or two technology assignments. My goal with these assignments is to see how they are doing on the project and to give them feedback along the way.