Engaging Students in PBL During Remote Learning

Imagine the following scenario: your favorite college basketball team is playing in the NCAA finals. They’re even hosting the tourney in your hometown. You’re driving into work one morning, jamming to the radio, when all of sudden the DJ announces they’re giving away free tickets. On a whim, you call in and get through to a producer. They ask you to hold and a few seconds later, you’re on the air. As it turns out, you’ve won! You were caller number 68 (the number of teams in this year's tournament) and you've just secured your tickets to the Big Dance!

So here’s the question: What do you do? Do you take the tickets and go to the game or watch from the comfort of your own home? The buzzer-beaters, break-aways, and bracket-busters coupled with the smell of savory hot dogs, the taste of soft pretzels with tangy mustard, the sounds of cheering, announcers, and music, plus the electricity of the crowd make the national championship one of the most exciting events in collegiate competition. Watching through a TV screen from your couch wrapped in a Snuggie while eating a plate of lukewarm nachos sadly doesn't compare...there’s nothing like attending an event like this in person.

And while the sounds (and smells) of your typical school are not as enticing or exciting as those involved in March Madness, most educators know that the consistency, community, and camaraderie of the classroom is what typically works best for children's learning. Yet during the last year and a half, millions of kids have been isolated at home and required to learn remotely to avoid the risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus at school and spreading it to their family at home. Despite educators' best efforts, Zoom and the like haven't turned out to be very fulfilling for students.

So the question on every teacher's mind has become, "How can I engage my students during remote learning? How can we make this work for kids?" The simple answer? Don't stop doing what you were doing before! Deep learning experiencesthose meaningful learning opportunities that stick with kids long after they've left your classroomare what got kids excited to come to school before the pandemic and I believe they are also what will get us through to the other side. Whether you're making student podcasts, schoolwide newspapers, or Minecraft models of green cities for the future, project-based learning (PBL) can inspire, engage, and excite...even when learning remotely. In this article, I'll share three important reminders for teachers who are trying to make it all work for their students "From Downtown."

Tip #1: Minimize Confusion with the Use of a Few Multi-Functional Platforms and Tools

George Couros famously said, "Technology will never replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational." But believe me, less is more! When my school district first began using a one-to-one model with iPads, I went app-crazy. I believed there was an app for every occasion. But soon, I learned that the most valuable apps are the workhorses that can be employed in almost any learning situation. Apps for the composition of creative content, especially, have become the most valuable to my class of 5th-grade students. We could survive almost any reconfiguration of school with only four apps: one home base for sharing links, one for video creating and collecting, one for group idea catching, and one for individuals to share their work with a teacher.


For better or worse, my district has landed on Schoology to serve as our launchpad. Built-in messaging helps students reach out to me for help and helps me broadcast reminders to families. We also use it in the classroom for sharing pretty much anything that can be accessed by hyperlink...but you could just as easily make SeeSaw, Google Classroom, Padlet, or Moodle your “filing cabinet” for all of those links to videos, articles, and other resources.


Not only is Flipgrid an essential classroom app for students to post video responses but it also has recently grown to provide virtual field trips (using Microsoft Teams), intriguing video prompts, fun video filters and editing tools, plus audio-only options for camera-shy students. Flipgrid can help guide student thinking at every step along the way during PBL, from project-based brainstorming to learning from experts to video project showcasing to after-the-fact reflections on the process.


JamBoard is a versatile Google tool that makes planning and delegating easy when learning at a distance. Sharing a link will send teams to a whiteboard where they can type, draw, add sticky note labels, photos, and more. Collaboration is achieved simply and teachers can leave feedback easily in this shared workspace for students.


Our class uses Classkick for everything from math to social studies. Without Classkick, I'd be completely unable to help students remotely in real-time, draw and type on their individual pages, or leave audio recording feedback. Students can help each other, too, without the clumsiness of discussion boards or email threads.

Tip #2: Provide Opportunities for Learning and Working on Their Own Time

As any person who has done any amount of remote work in the last year will tell you, there is a real problem known as Screen Fatigue. Some school districts made the monumental mistake of trying to recreate the school day, hour-for-hour, with synchronous learning. Teachers in some places commanded students to appear on camera, fully dressed (in some cases even insisting on school uniforms being worn), and ask permission to eat a snack or use the bathroom...in their own home! I can't imagine demanding that amount of compliance during an emergency-learning situation. Instead, I set up a more balanced approach to our school day, giving students a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, where students create both digital and analog content, knowing that learning can happen at any time, with or without the ever-watchful eye of a teacher.


I have to admit, I jumped on the Bitmoji classroom bandwagon in the summer before the 2020–21 school year. I don't know what other teachers ended up doing with their digital learning spaces, but mine became one of the most integrated aspects of our daily schedule. For each subject we learned, I had a Google Slides Bitmoji classroom. And when our whole class was learning together, one of my favorite things to do was post pictures of our anchor charts on the digital walls. In this way, students would have a full-screen view of our reminders in front of them in an even more visually accessible than if we were in the physical classroom.

Also up on these digital walls were writing checklists, project rubrics, and embedded timers to keep them on track and aware of the time while they wrote, read, recorded, or worked out math problems. I was always only a breakout room away for help, but the digital anchor charts helped them remain as independent as possible during these synchronous learning times.


To cut back on the continuous screen time and to help students learn on their own time more flexibly, asynchronous work time was another daily part of our schedule. This was great for students to be able to work individually on open-ended projects, create their own video chats for group tasks, or work on earning badges for other classes like physical education, vocal music, or visual arts.

One helpful way for me to keep tabs on how things were going for everyone was employing a project progress tracker. Once upon a time, my go-to app for this type of functionality would have simply been a SMART Notebook file pulled up on the classroom touchscreen, but nowadays it's Trello. There are lots of other options out there for progress tracking for schools like OneNote, Google Slides, or even utilizing a shared digital calendar. Tracking the progress of a team can be important when students are in different learning spaces because it keeps them connected and shows the teacher who needs support. Simply pull these up while students are in their groups and see as they move through their project tasks.


This era of remote learning certainly has its downsides, but for all that we've lost in the form of traditional schooling, we can make up for it through creative projects. At a time when pedagogical mistakes are all but guaranteed, I've been able to take more risks with my class and try new approaches since we basically have nothing to lose. Give kids the chance to be content creators rather than simply consumers by asking them to showcase their learning using Apple Clips, iMovie, or GarageBand. When students are given the chance to create something of value to the world, they can simultaneously learn new information and skills that they can leverage again at a later date. 


In his book Vintage Innovation: Leveraging Retro Tools and Classic Ideas to Design Deeper Learning Experiences, John Spencer reminds us that innovation isn’t about creating something new so much as creating something relevant: "Sometimes relevance doesn’t mean a deep dive into augmented reality or artificial intelligence. Sometimes it’s a deep dive into a novel or a meandering philosophical discussion on what it means to be human. It’s often in the analog that we find a different perspective" (Spencer, 2019). With that in mind, remember that there is a lot to be gained from having students prototype a design using cardboard and ducktape rather than mastering the latest CAD program for your 3D printer. Give students the chance to be creative and innovative...while stepping away from the screen.

Tip #3: Celebrate the Work of your Remote Learning Pioneers by Having them Teach as Experts to Authentic Audiences

Breakout rooms have come to be seen as an essential part of remote learning considering how students working in smaller groups can foster a deeper level of connection and communication, but they can also serve a purpose towards the end of the learning cycle, functioning as a space for students to showcase their learning and teach to others as experts.

While during pre-COVID times, classroom groups would have shared their projects in front of the whole class, or on occasion the whole school (the "go big or go home" mentality), I've taken remote-learning project-based sharing in the opposite direction—smaller audiences, abbreviated timeframes, and more informal presentations.

Smaller Audiences

Breakout rooms allow students to connect with others and for them to connect in a way that is only possible in a smaller setting. At times, presenting to large audiences in the school community, local experts, or even around the world when leveraging digital technology like podcasting or social media platforms can be intimidating and overwhelming. Sharing what you've learned in a small breakout room to four or five classmates can be much more palatable.

Short and Sweet

Keep your breakout times short! This helps students stay focused and on track. Keeping breakouts to under five minutes can help students understand the one thing they need to accomplish. Once the time is up, call them back to discuss their questions, puzzles, and how they might continue to go about their future explorations. Maybe you push them back out into rooms for the next task or allow them to choose new rooms to find other topics they're eager to learn about. With multiple exhibitions happening concurrently, students have options for where to go, and this format can also help you get through a whole class-worth of project presentations in a single block of class time.

Less is More

Using breakout rooms as a format for sharing student expertise was inspired by my own discovery of the app Clubhouse, the newest frontier in social media-based professional development and networking. There, users create "chatrooms" in which they can ask questions, share knowledge, and spark discussions about virtually any topic. Similarly, our remote classroom can spontaneously be partitioned so that groups can present their projects to small groups of peers who are interested to hear what they have to say. These informal rooms show that products of learning do not always necessitate a dog and pony show and that sometimes informal conversations can be just as revealing as a full-blown PowerPoint presentation.


Learning through project-based learning takes time in a normal year. During a pandemic, while everyone attempts to learn new tools, skills, and ways of living, PBL will take even more time, and the results may not be what you’re used to or what you’re excepting. The process, like everything else in the classroom, takes practice and patience. But if we provide a meaningful process, we can create an atmosphere that values and celebrates student pathways, passions, voice, and choice.

About the Authors:

Grayson McKinney has been an educator for over 15 years. He is a 5th-grade teacher from Michigan and a dynamic presenter who loves connecting with educators to grow his Professional Learning Family. He and his teaching partner, Zach Rondot, are the co-authors of an upcoming EduMatch publication, The Expert Effect: A Three-Part System to Break Down the Walls of Your Classroom and Connect Your Students to the World, soon to be available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. In #ExpertEffectEDU, Grayson and Zach write about the benefits of getting your students to learn from experts outside the classroom, become experts in their own right through project-based learning, and teach as experts to authentic audiences, both near and far. Follow Grayson on Twitter: @GMcKinney2



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