Media, Technology, and Education
COVID 19Integrated ClustersProject-based Learning

Project-Based Learning in the Age of COVID-19

Last week, Plymouth State University faculty participated in an event called Slipper Camp (“like boot camp but softer and on Zoom”) in which we discussed various issues related to designing our Fall 2020 classes so that they can be offered online if we need them to be. The Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative organized the two day event with faculty and staff from all over campus facilitating online sessions about various issues that arise when you want/need to bring classes online, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that makes the future completely uncertain.

With my colleagues Brandon Haas and Elisabeth Johnston, I co-facilitated a session that was billed as Project-Based Learning Online in the schedule for Slipper Camp. As we did our research, however, we realized that there were some things that we wanted to talk about that were not just about going online but instead were about using project-based learning online in these uncertain times. So we rebilled our presentation as Project-Based Learning in the Age of COVID-19. The video of the session is availabe here and the slide deck is here.

We started our session by asking participants to think about the reasons that they engage students in project-based learning in their classes. We then suggested that as we think about transitioning our project-based learning experiences online for the Fall, we need to re-focus our attention on those reasons, eliminating as many “extras” as we can. As this article from Edutopia suggests, we need to clarify (and lower) our expectations so that we ensure students are participating in the elements of project-based learning that we deem essential.

To underscore our point about paring back, we shared some important points from Cathy Davidon’s excellent blog post called “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.” Davidson writes that we must approach our classes with the “premise that ALL of our students are learning from a place of suffering, pain, disruption, dislocation, anxiety, uncertainty, and/or trauma. So are we.”​ She goes on to say:

Before we begin to make our fall syllabus, we all need to think from a student’s point of view.  We need to try to understand what it means to be studying for a future you don’t know that you will have.  No one knows what lies ahead. Total social breakdown? Total economic collapse? A health emergency in which millions die over the next three or four years?  No one knows but we are all reading predictions that make any dystopian novel seem tame by comparison.  How do you study to prepare for this future?

This comment resonated with me because I often motivate discussions about self-regulated learning (one of the major characteristics I’m trying to help students foster when I engage them in project-based learning) by talking about the future and what it will require of students. In a world with such an uncertain future, Davidon asks, “What do our students need now?  That is the essential question for going on line.  Whether teaching algebraic geometry or sociology or literature or art or religion, we need to begin with the question of: what would I need if I were a student in this pandemic?”​ This question is essential for us to think about as we design our courses with project-based learning experiences.

We then asked participants to think about the gold standard of project-based learning as articulated by PBLWorks. Such projects include a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, authenticity, reflection, student voice & choice, critique & revision, and a public product. Because of the ways in which project-based learning have been framed at PSU, we added team-based collaboration to this list. We asked people to think about which of these elements they feel is most important and which will be most challenging to transition to an online environment. Our poll indicated that people are most concerned about team-based collaboration with over 50% choosing that as the most difficult to implement online. Although it might be tempting to jettison that aspect of project-based learning, we think it can be successfully implemented online but will require careful thought. We think the following list of best practices (adapted from the Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute) can help:

  • Communication: Have teams establish communication channels and expectations early on in the project.Establish a small set of communication channels for the entire class (Moodle, Teams) and use them even if we are face-to-face in order to get students used to using them​. Design an exercise in team charter building in which students develop and agree on these things​. Make sure the exercise can be completed in an online environment
  • Feedback: Scaffold project elements and provide timely and actionable feedback regularly. Check in with teams early and often.Work with students to determine what the project deliverables will be​. Focus on actionable feedback. What should students DO? 
  • Virtual Spaces: Provide virtual space for team collaboration. Use LMS tools where possible.Establish a small set of spaces for collaboration (Office 365 tools and Moodle since these are our official spaces and students report confusion if each instructor is using significantly different virtual spaces)​. Students might choose to use some other virtual spaces​. Spend time making sure that students can access and know how to use the tools​. Be flexible if an online student cannot use these virtual spaces in exactly the way you planned because of connectivity issues​.
  • Online in Mind: Create teams based on similar schedules or time zones. Keep teams small to avoid meeting time conflicts​. Gather information about schedules and time zones using Microsoft Forms or some other similar tool​. Gather this information for both a face-to-face scenario and an online scenario regardless of which we are in when you collect the information​. Think about how collaboration will happen in situations where (some) students have low-bandwidth connections to the Internet​.
  • Strengths: Align roles with individual strengths and interests. Have students “audition” for teams as part of their introduction.Design activities that allow students to think about and articulate their strengths and interests​. Design an introductory exercise in which students prepare a video answering a particular set of questions that might get the conversation started​. Think about how to use online tools for some of this work even if we are face-to-face at the point when this work is done​.
  • Schedule: Provide a task list with interim due dates and a schedule from the onset of the project. Check in regularly to ensure teams are on track.Think about how students can contribute to the development of the schedule​. Ask students about the best ways to do the check ins. What communication tool(s) will work best for each team?Allowing choice in tasks can help individual students in many ways, including with bandwidth issues.
  • Robust: Develop a project that requires discussion, collaboration, and decision-making to avoid divide and conquer attempts.Discuss with students the difference between collaborative efforts and divide and conquer efforts​. Help students figure out ways to communicate and collaborate using technology tools like Microsoft Teams.
  • Peer Review: Include peer review and self-evaluation components throughout the project life-cycle. Students must be taught how to effectively peer review and self-evaluate​. Provide many opportunities for both​. Give actionable feedback on their peer review and self-evaluation attempts.


We ended our session with some general advice from PBLWorks.

  • Lead with compassion and care.Connection matters most. Think about each phase of the project and how you can continue to build connection through the project activities.
  • Be mindful of family situations and stressors.  Many families are overwhelmed with managing multiple students alongside concerns about finances and general safety. 
  • Provide as much voice and choice as possible for students especially in terms of how they share what they are learning. There should be plenty of low tech options provided for those that do not have access to digital tools and/or wifi.


​Image Credit: Selfie with Mask taken by me on May 3, 2020.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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