Project-Based Learning for the Online Classroom
Engaging students is a challenge whether teaching online or face-to-face. In online classes that tend to be text-heavy, this task can be especially difficult. One way to overcome this hurdle is to design project-based learning (PBL) assignments. This article discusses the advantages of PBL assignments, best practices for designing and implementing them, and examples and resources that can help generate assignment ideas.
What is PBL?
According to PBL-Online, the PBL model was built upon authentic learning activities that are designed to provide students with real-world relevance, complex tasks, and creative outcomes. It is an approach that emphasizes meaningful learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, and student-centered. PBL activities place the onus on students to learn course content and master course objectives, particularly when they are allowed to choose their own topics or activities for an assignment.
Project-based assignments can be designed for individuals or groups. From a social learning aspect, collaborative group projects encourage students to interact with and learn from others, learn to negotiate in a group dynamic, and use new resources that peers bring to the project—all of which occur regularly in the workplace. For those students who feel isolated in the online environment, group-based PBL assignments can assist in helping them feel better connected to the classroom and to their peers.
Benefits of PBL Assignments
Research has shown a number of advantages to using PBL assignments in the classrom:
- Students tend to take a greater interest, responsibility, and ownership of their work when engaged in PBL activities. PBL activities allow students to engage in creative ways to help them relate to course content. By providing choices for projects, a well-orchestrated PBL activity encourages students to take ownership and initiative for project outcomes. When students are asked to view and critique peer projects, they are more inclined to improve their own performance (Buck Institute of Education, 2007).
- Students learn course content and new learning strategies through the collaborative process of meeting PBL goals. According to Grant (2002), PBL caters to students' diverse interests, abilities, skills, and learning styles. Students can use a broad range of skills through PBL, which provides a multi-level approach to learning content. When students participate in PBL activities, they gain new learning and processing strategies using their own past experience, peer experience, teamwork processes, and instructor feedback. In addition, working collaboratively helps students acquire more understanding of the content when viewed from a variety of perspectives.
- PBL encourages all the components that we strive to achieve in our face-to-face and online classrooms at UMUC. PBL creates positive communication and collaborative relationships among diverse groups of students by encouraging them to participate together in critical thinking, problem solving, practical skill building, accountability, and goal setting. Within the PBL framework, students collaborate to make sense of what is going on in the assigned task(s) and required outcome(s) (Buck Institute of Education, 2007).
- Depending on the scope of the project, students may be able to add their PBL projects to their resumes. Students who engage in meaningful, relevant assignments or who have been allowed to choose their own projects can use the opportunity for professional advancement.
- A well-designed PBL activity encourages students to collaborate creatively to assist one another with responsibilities and divide the workload. By providing students with the framework for designing the project outcomes and deliverables to reflect the course objectives, students can engage with the content both individually and collectively. They can assign certain project tasks to those who excel in them or to those who wish to broaden their skills in a particular area while also bringing everything together into a coherent whole.
PBL Best Practices
When designing PBL assignments, it is important to provide instructions and processes that encourage students to develop and demonstrate newly acquired skills and knowledge. A PBL assignment can be used as a final project and/or several shorter activities throughout the semester as a way to evaluate students' subject matter competence. Pearlman (n.d.) has identified the following best practices from the Autodesk Foundation for designing meaningful PBL activities:
- Build on student interests whenever possible.
- Provide a number of subjects of interest that relate to course content along with a variety of projects from which students can choose.
- Provide students with meaningful, authentic real-world problems without a pre-determined solution.
- Allow students to take the lead, making critical choices and decisions.
- Connect students with community resources and experts.
- Draw on multiple disciplines to solve problems and deepen understanding.
- Build in opportunities for reflection and self-assessment.
- Ensure that outcomes and results are something useful that demonstrate to students and instructor what they have learned.
- Culminate in exhibitions or presentations to an authentic audience.
Sample PBL Activities
The sample PBL activity designs clisted below an be expanded and customized for groups or individuals.
|Presentation|| The individual or group will research a topic, develop a presentation and at least two activities (questions or tasks), and facilitate a conference based on their deliverables.
Evaluation options: For a group project, team members provide feedback to the instructor on their peers’ work and/or students critique each other’s presentations and provide feedback to their peers.
|Critiquing/Writing Academic Papers||Students will critique each other's paper based on the instructions and outcomes provided by the instructor.||
|WebQuest||Goals and instructions may vary, but a sample WebQuest is available.|
The Houghton-Mifflin Project-Based Learning Space includes a small collection of PBL classroom assignments that you might also find useful.
PBL resources are plentiful on the Web. The following resources are good beginnings for helping you learn how to build your own PBL activities. When looking for additional resources, also try “inquiry-based” or “problem-based” learning as your search terms.
- Design your own PBL activity
- PBL activity design for online courses
- Create rubrics for PBL activities
- Overview on designing PBL activities
- Best practices and strategies in PBL
Buck Institute of Education. (2007). Handbook: Introduction to project based learning. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/index.php/site/PBL/pbl_handbook_introduction
Grant, M. (2002, Winter). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, 5(1). Retrieved from http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/win2002/514/index.html
Pearlman, B. (n.d.). Project-based learning on the net. What is PBL? Definition from the Autodesk Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/ProjectsontheNET.htm#Definition