student doing homework on a tablet

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention.

So many educators who have not previously thought about virtual learning in their classrooms or schools are now confronted with that possibility because of the COVID-19 virus crisis. Working remotely can be a difficult enough transition in any case, but doing it in a Project Based Learning environment is particularly challenging, with the level of student collaboration, targeted support, and community interaction inherent to Gold Standard PBL.

How can a PBL teacher keep students connected and engaged, so a project is just as powerful as what would be expected in their face-to-face classroom? This post is intended to provide some resources that can help you answer this question.

One thing to point out up front is that just like a PBL classroom is different from a traditional classroom, virtual PBL will look different from a typical online course. PBL can't effectively be reduced to a scripted process of reading text, watching videos, completing virtual worksheets, and taking multiple choice quizzes. The same level of inquiry, questioning, critique, reflection, scaffolding, and collaboration will still be there, albeit in a remote learning setting.

The move to virtual learning is enhanced by the wide availability of technology that would have made such a transition much more difficult only a few years ago.

The edtech market has exploded with new products in recent years, as has technology in general, as more and more companies move to remote, home office arrangements. This reality is certainly something that PBL teachers can leverage, given the fact that many projects intentionally blur the lines between traditional learning and the type of work that’s happening in our communities.

Whole class, project team, or one-on-one meetings can now be done with Zoom, including relatively short meetings with small teams via their free option) or with Whereby. Mural and Explain Everything are virtual white boards that can be used not only for targeted instruction, but are also fantastic for remote brainstorming and problem ideation. Trello is an example of a tool that helps individual students keep track of project action items and share them with their project teams - a really valuable skill students need to master regardless of context. Teachers can also take advantage of Nearpod as a way to create customized online instruction that targets the individual needs of each student and accommodates the norm of a PBL classroom to provide just-in-time instruction to individual or groups of students.

Also see this article about how another member of our National Faculty, Lacrecia Terrance, uses tech to support struggling students.

PBL teachers can also adapt other general and edtech-specific tools to each of the elements of Gold Standard PBL.

Here are just a few examples that PBLWorks’ National Faculty member Honor Moorman included in her recent presentation at the Texas Computer Education Association Convention, Leveraging Tech to Create Gold-Standard PBL Experiences for Students:

The above provides a small sampling of possible tech tools that can help the transition to a virtual PBL environment. But considering the vast array of choices in this space, it’s also a good idea to work with your IT support staff and do your own research via platforms such as EdSurge, Common Sense Education, and LearnPlatform.

The coronavirus outbreak has likely created a sense of urgency in your school or district to begin making virtual learning plans.

Take advantage of this by prototyping aspects of a virtual PBL environment with students by doing mock virtual meetings and test-driving new technology. This allows you to scaffold the process with students while you still have the capability to adjust or supplement them with live follow up and one-on-one coaching.

You should also be intentional and proactive in thinking about how the normal routines in your PBL classroom will be replicated in a virtual environment. Use this time as an opportunity to get student input regarding clear expectations, protocols, and norms everyone will follow if the decision is made to go virtual. Items to consider might include frequency and agendas for team meetings, ways students can upload work and demonstrate mastery of learning targets, sign-ups for one-on-one check-ins with students, and when and how whole-class instruction will occur.

Just because you are not in the same physical classroom as your students doesn’t mean that you can’t still nurture individual and team relationships. Online tools such as Mural allow you to do virtual team building exercises and warmups. Also make a point to check in frequently with students who may be unsure of how to continue their project work, but also will likely be worried and somewhat disconnected in this new arrangement. Provide a two-way street of frequent communication, including virtual “office hours” where students can reach out individually or via a Zoom call to address needs they may have.

Remote learning does raise issues of access and equity.

Most of what has been discussed so far assumes reasonable internet or mobile phone access, which may not be the case for all your students. Network with your peers who have flipped classroom experience, including your local and virtual PLNs, to see what resources and approaches you can adapt to a remote PBL environment. Our friends at TeachThought also have some excellent tips on how to proactively address and manage equity of access in these situations. And here's a free Digital Equity Toolkit from the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Kay Sturm, another PBLWorks National Faculty member, suggests using a tiered approach, given that schools will have different levels of access to technology, both at home and on campus. Canvas your students now to see what access options they have and then develop protocols and packages appropriate to each.

Even the "no tech" option – especially in a PBL environment – should be more than just a packet of worksheets! If your students don’t have computers or internet access away from school, you could:

  • Offer specific types of activities that are engaging, hands-on and contribute to the larger project goals, such as collecting data, or a daily "get outside" mindfulness observation routine.
  • Provide students with a package of sample articles, data sets, or open-ended problems (with graphic organizers or project checklists) that they could use with the design process to build empathy, define the problem, and ideate solutions.
  • Ask students to prototype designs for project products with whatever materials they had available, or write proposals for solutions to problems.
  • Have students interview family members or neighbors, or make phone calls to distant people, to get additional expertise and feedback for prototyping or proposal-writing.
  • Assign art-based projects, or project-related books they can read at home.
  • Ask students to do an individual project, where they pick a topic of interest and explore it on their own (e.g., family history; the physics of baseball or skateboarding; the science of cooking) then create videos, podcasts, or a written product.

There is a small silver lining.

As research has shown us and design thinking facilitators like to remind us, constraints often lead to greater creativity. This serious global crisis has made it a priority for educators to develop concrete plans for high-quality virtual learning environments. And while Project Based Learning brings its own unique challenges, we do not need to revert to approaches that are not conducive to PBL teaching and learning. Take the view that this renewed emphasis on virtual learning is an opportunity to further align PBL to the realities of the future of work.

Other online learning examples & resources specific to the coronavirus outbreak:

Additional PBLWorks blog posts about tech tools for PBL:

PowerPoint presentations on remote teaching: