Project-Based Learning in the Remote Learning Environment

As the pandemic crisis slowly eases, I wonder what lasting impacts this protracted event will have on K-12 education – specifically on teaching and learning in the PBL/STEM arenas. Many educators predict that teachers will incorporate and expand the use of virtual learning and continually improve the way they design and deliver online learning experiences.

Online learning has its pluses and minuses, of course. While some students actually prefer virtual learning, others find it a real challenge. Some students don’t have internet access or computers at home. Several siblings may have to share one computer. Students may have difficulty manipulating online tasks, such as signing into sites. In a recent student survey by author Peter DeWitt, students missed social interaction when learning online. Some were unable to learn the material by themselves, did not understand what was expected, or were not able to get all assignments done. Others found online learning downright boring.

While teachers cannot rely exclusively on virtual learning for educating kids, it’s wise to consider ways to incorporate this 21st-century approach into regular classes. This unforeseen pandemic experience presents us with opportunities to fine-tune distance learning into a conventional learning tool and use it effectively. (It goes without saying that teachers will need ongoing professional learning opportunities to build and sustain digital competence.)

Where do we start?

So, how can teachers guide project-based learning (PBL) and STEM learning online?  To make that decision we first need to focus on why we use STEM and PBL in our classrooms – to help students learn essential skills they need to succeed in their lives and careers. Then we can concentrate on how we will help students acquire and apply those competencies in a virtual environment.

To help with this task, please glance at 7 PBL essential design elements that you might consider incorporating in online lessons.  After reviewing these, consider the additional focus needed for STEM skills – an engineering design process; integrated content in science, math, and technology; collaboration; and experimentation.  By now you might be breathing a sigh of relief. Many of these look relatively doable.

And you’re definitely right! You can help kids develop some of these proficiencies in a virtual environment. The task is to decide specifically how to do this.

Focus on significant content.

Take a look at PBL Design Element #1: Focus on Significant Content.  This element seems fairly clear-cut. The goal is to ratchet up rigor and learning and to help kids meet specific content objectives. This may actually seem the easiest element for teachers because it mimics to some extent what they do as they plan face-to-face lessons. Here’s the challenge, however: how can you make the content interesting, learnable, and individualized, without the benefit of face-to-face projects featuring real challenges and collaborative problem-solving experiences?  This post, Tips for Using PBL in the Remote Math Classroom, gives some practical examples of how to apply some of these elements in a virtual classroom.

A quick Internet search brings up many additional ideas and examples of ways to presenting content virtually. For example, record your presentations, use other videos, post online readings, and other resources, establish small, online study teams, and so on. Kids will also need ways to respond virtually and regularly communicate with you and one another online.

Use the right tools.

As you may have deduced by now, teaching and facilitating online involves choosing digital tools to involve kids with online learning in exciting ways. Your school or system may offer an online learning platform you can use. If not – no problem. You can begin by simply posting a video of yourself explaining the content. You might put kids in small teams to research, share, and build understanding. You could use video-conferencing to host real-time discussions and chats with students about what they’re learning. A recent post, Tips, and Tools to Enhance Remote Learning Instruction, offers explicit ideas and tools to help with delivering a stimulating online learning experience, as does Technology Integration Made Simple.  Also, check out Tips on Creating Engaging E-Learning Projects.

For additional ideas on tools you can use to present/share/engage students in learning content, check out Defined Learning (DL) blog posts by Rachelle Dene Poth and Meghan Raftery. Or, go to the DL Blog categories list and click on E-Learning and Edtech. You’ll find a wealth of resources right here at the DL site.

By the time you research and build lessons using the creative tools you decided on, you’ll probably be enthusiastic about continuing to use some of these virtual tools even after classes get back to “normal.”

Now, look again at the 7 Essential PBL Design Elements. You’ve probably noticed that in tackling Element #1 you are also touching on several of the other Elements. These elements don’t stand alone. They are integrated into a broad learning experience that stimulates and engages students in self-directed learning. If it seems useful, we can look closely at one or more of the other elements in a subsequent post.  In my wildest dreams, we can stir some questioning, sharing, and excitement around eLearning and its possibilities.


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