- STEM educators Emily Adah Miller, Susan Codere Kelly and Joe Krajcik wanted to ensure students could still engage in collaborative science learning when classes began to go remote in March 2020. This led them to adapt the ways project-based learning methods could be used for grades 2-5 online, they wrote for Edutopia.
- Even online, students can still actively plan and design a project together, such as looking for materials while video conferencing or tapping into the real-world learning aspect of PBL assignments while students are remote through live demonstrations of experiments in their own homes. They can even have students physically work together for brief periods — while social distancing — outside.
- Nonverbal cues — like nodding in agreement — can be lost in virtual spaces, but students can be taught to better read these signs through assignments, asking students to explain scientific terms without using any words. Educators can also encourage students to explore other ways of expressing what they’ve learned, such as having them sketch out their ideas and even encourage them to work together on their drawings by talking through ideas with each other online.
As schools shifted online in spring 2020, and as many remain so, PBL was quickly identified as a potentially effective teaching model. And while PBL lends itself to hands-on activities, the model's flexibility around allowing students to demonstrate what they know allows it to be adapted for K-12 distance learning in a number of ways.
PBL assignments typically feature group engagement where students work together towards a common goal. This is certainly achievable in a physical classroom. But even distance learning tools can support smaller, albeit digital, spaces where students can connect and collaborate together. Educators can use breakout rooms in video conferencing tools and even documents that can be shared synchronously, such as Google Docs, where students can write and see each others' edits as they type in real time.
Not all PBL work has to involve group learning, however, and for classrooms that are still in remote environments, that can be of help. Students can work on their own using PBL methods, such as the pupil who built an app offering a virtual tour of their school. That particular assignment could also benefit any school not allowing students on campus by using a completed app to give potential new students a glimpse of where they’ll one day be attending classes.
Of course, PBL assignments often require greater investments of time from educators who are now being asked to provide more feedback — rather than a written grade on a test — to assess a student’s work. That also means districts and administrators will want to standardize the way progress is measured, so every teacher follows the same assessment and every student receives the same opportunity for an in-depth critique.