What Are Effective Project-Based Learning Teaching Strategies For The Blended Classroom?
by Terry Heick
While nothing is certain, more and more schools have returned to in-person learning after spending much of the last 24 months in remote teaching and learning circumstances.
Which almost makes a post like this less and less useful as each day passes.
However, blended project-based learning–where students mix face-to-face instruction with digital work and digital interactions–took place long before remote teaching fell upon public education. In many ways, much of this (blended PBL) isn’t new.
So, on to the list of strategies to help teach through digital, blended project-based learning in a remote classroom or eLearning environment. Even beyond remote teaching and eLearning, most of these ideas apply to ‘traditional’ digital PBL as well (e.g., students in face-to-face classrooms being assigned projects that are largely based on digital interactions).
Teaching Strategies For Blended Project-Based Learning
Start small–even a 1-day project that builds to a 3-day project, maybe. Build up to those 6-week or ongoing projects that may have a due date but no ‘ending’ date.
In the beginning, focus on audience and purpose–what should the project ‘do’ and who should it be doing it for?
Provide a range of models–different kinds of projects that depend on different tools, skills, etc. Part of the idea is to help prompt their thinking about what they might do but more importantly, it could help clarify or simplify) what project-based learning actually is–demystify it a bit so that they can be excited and creative and self-directed rather than intimidated, confused, apathetic, and teacher-led.
Have a digital FAQ, Wiki, or some kind of central hub for all common questions, resource needs, (maybe the above models), etc. You could also use a productivity hub of some kind–Trello, Microsoft Teams, etc.
Pre-assess. Ask them to create a ‘5-minute’ plan to roughly gauge their interest in or capacity for PBL in remote learning. Note, just because a student answer well here doesn’t mean they won’t be successful using PBL in remote learning. But starting this conversation can help you decide how best to move forward.
Have students keep a project journal–ideally in audio or video form so it’s easy to create, curate, and share. (Use Loom or SendSpark for easy screen recording, for example.) How you use this journal is up to you. Students could reflect on progress, use metacognitive prompts that help them see their own thinking, how they see think about different aspects of the project, where they feel strong and weak, etc. It could also focus more on creativity, act as an ongoing dream board for what they’d love to do given more resources, times, skills, opportunities, etc.
Use KWHL charts. This can help students (and teachers) itemize and prioritize the concepts and skills that might be necessary to complete a project. In light of this information, students can either refine the project or have some kind of plan to learn those concepts and skills.
Use a PBL planning template. (More on these soon–the idea here is fill-in-the-blank framing of different kinds of projects, different stages of projects, etc.)
Consider the transition from ‘Online’ to ‘Offline.‘ This could be planning a project digitally that should function offline. This might also mean that you ‘flip’ your teaching where students work on the project (or elements of the project) offline and come to the digital classroom with questions, for guidance, for collaboration, etc.
But it doesn’t have to mean project-based learning in a flipped classroom. It simply might mean that you spend digital face-to-face time differently than you do in non-digital PBL work–even schedule it differently using offline, asynchronous messaging, for example for communication with or between students.
Decide what should be synchronous and what should be asynchronous (read more about the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning)
Decide what should be done at home and what should be done face-to-face (e.g., in a physical classroom)
Focus on SEL (read What Is Social Learning?)
Equity, of course, matters. Access to technology, bandwidth, responsibilities and challenges at home, and a host of other factors make remote learning even more challenging than in-person teaching/learning in many ways. But to whatever degree you are able, help students bridge gaps, fill holes, and find opportunities to care about and drive their learning through projects.
Privacy and safety in blended (or all-digital) project-based learning can be a tricky thing and has many variables. The idea, obviously, is to give them as much freedom as possible while keeping them safe–a ‘walled garden’ approach to digital learning.
Use grouping intentionally (like any good lesson or unit)
Consider having student ‘experts’ (think roles within the PBL process–decenters teacher). This is similar to having classroom ‘jobs’ only it’s digital and the ‘experts’ are geared toward helping one another troubleshoot common PBL challenges.
Outline the projects. Use the gradual release of responsibility model. Show them how this is done, then approve a simple outline for a mock project, then have them do an actual outline for their project in the same way they would an essay. How you design the outline depends on the grade level, kind of project, etc. But this outline can act like a kind of blueprint for the project, include key dates, and checkpoints, look-fors and watch-out-fors, etc.
Consider rubrics or some kind of standards for quality. These would ideally be co-created with students but when time and energy are low, just a teacher-created rubric is helpful to clarify for both teachers, students, and families what the students are doing, how they will be graded, etc.
Use the right tools. There are so many wonderful digital tools that are affordable or free and uncomplicated and elegant to use (Trello, Google Drive, etc.) There are also clunky tools that stifle creativity, productivity, and learning. (This probably deserves its own post but tools for project-based learning might be a good start.)
In addition to the productivity hubs, consider Zoom, FlipGrid, Explain Everything, SeeSaw (to curate work), and Google Meet.
Revise and personalize your expectations. Remote teaching and learning can be hard. Start small, find easy wins, build on small victories, and do everything you can to empower students to lead their own learning (which is where PBL really shines).