Designing Project Based Learning for a Virtual Classroom

Virtual PBL

Written by Karen Fradley and Chad Norman

How do we continue our project-based learning approach with a purely digital platform while maintaining authenticity and a genuine purpose?  The learning opportunities have to be interesting, rich, and diverse.  A lot of that is taking on real problems.  In this article, we will share with you how to create a project-based learning opportunity for the virtual classroom, resources that can enhance student engagement, and how the virtual space actually opens doors to opportunities for project-based learning.

When creating a project-based learning opportunity, you want the focus to be on the process or methodology you want students to practice, rather than on the final product.  In the project I created in the spring, for example, I wanted students to gain experience using the Engineering Design Process (EDP) to design, build, and test a prototype of a prosthetic limb that would allow a disabled dog, Derby, to run and play independently.  The primary goal of the project was not to have a working prototype, but for the kids to participate in the cycle of the EDP.   The frameworks or methodology you may want to consider for project based learning are: Engineering Design Cycle, Inquiry Cycle, and Project-Based Learning.  

Next, create the sequence of tasks using the platform of choice.  I like to use HyperDocs, which I create on Google Slides.  Links embedded into the slide take a student to the media necessary to complete a task, such as Epic, Ted ed, YouTube, Newsela, Wonderopolis, The Smithsonian, or The San Diego Zoo (the possibilities are endless here).  You can create tables for students to type responses right into or you can use sites like Padlet , Flipgrid, or Edpuzzle for student responses.  I love that students can use these sites to give feedback to each other too, working on yet another 21st Century skill!   The document can be shared easily back and forth with the teacher for ongoing assessment/feedback.  You can actually build into the HyperDoc places where you want them to check in before they proceed by adding “Share your presentation with Mrs. Fradley” at the bottom of a slide.  Remind students to change the title of the document to include their name – believe me, that step is ESSENTIAL to keeping your life organized!  Two great articles about making and using HyperDocs that include some excellent examples (free templates, whaa??) can be found here and here.

Consider where you can break the larger project into a few chunks that would provide tiers for summative activities.  Providing summative activities for students to learn from and receive feedback from experts regarding project development can create motivation and incentive for students.  When working backwards from a finished project, teachers can anticipate when experts in the field can provide needed background or considerations for design.  

Use your video conferencing tool, such as Zoom, for student discussion and feedback.  I like to create a slideshow presentation specifically for the Zoom call, which can help keep the flow of the call going.  A thoughtful layout can incorporate Dimensions of Depth & Complexity, Visual Thinking Routines, or critique protocols that elicit student input and dialogue.  

And speaking of video conferencing – leverage that technology for the most amazing field trips and guest speakers!  Remember that project I did in the spring where students participated in the EDP?  At the end of the project, they met a real scientist who creates prosthetic limbs!!  It was a really great way to reinforce that the EDP is used in the real world by real scientists.    Resources like,  Skype-a-Scientist & Nepris are amazing for connecting experts to your classroom.  Scientists and engineers are often interested in being consulted and have the opportunity to discuss their work.  Teachers can search for organizations working with specific topics.  Oftentimes, a cold call will either yield a confirmation of a speaker or at least a recommendation of who to contact.  Back in May, an initial connection with an Entomology Researchers at Western Washington University led to further connections with the head of Entomology designing Giant Asian Hornet (AKA Murder Hornet) traps for the Washington State Department of Agriculture.   With the need for physical presence to discuss, many professionals are quite willing to take an hour to talk with excited students.  Prior to the event it is important to build a background knowledge of the scientific concepts being discussed.  A resource review often turns up many articles, sites, and videos that will help students gain familiarity with the current work being done in that field.   A “reading list” can be generated for students to review prior to the interview and high quality questions can be created.  When the engineer agreed to speak with my class, he shared with me a video of his work that he wanted the kids to watch prior to his talk.  The students prepared questions on a Padlet Wonder Wall for him, also ahead of time, and that was a great way to make sure both parties were prepared on the day of the event.  

The feeling of isolation and limitation of mobility during remote learning could be mitigated by taking virtual field trips.  I often tell my students that I wish that we could be like the Magic School Bus and take trips to the locations being discussed.  Place based projects addressing local issues can be a great way for students to engage in authentic work.  Our intention for last spring was to develop recommendations for the development of a local city park.  This particular park has within its boundary a stream that at one time was a spawning ground for salmon.  One limitation of the project was the ability to spend the time there during the school day to collect the data needed to have accurate knowledge of the environment in order to make recommendations to the city.  Without the tether of the logistics needed for field trips, this fall, I intend to make regular visits to the park to allow students to see the water testing and observational methods used to assess the area.  Students will then be encouraged to analyze the data and generate more questions and recommendations.  The benefit of place based/project based learning is that for instances like this park, students can visit the location in a safe way to observe the reality of what is being studied. 

I hope that this article leaves you with a feeling of excitement for the boundless possibilities that exist for project-based learning in the virtual classroom.  It’s truly an amazing opportunity to tap into the creativity and resiliency our students possess.   

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