How to design PBL for online learning

In a recent post for Cult of Pedagogy I broke down my process for project planning-with over 2,000 interactions in the first week, I would say it was well-received! Given the Coronavirus Pandemic that is shutting down schools, potentially till the end of the school year, educators are now starting to ask ‘How do we design PBL for online learning?”. In this post I take the anatomy of a basic project and show you how to shift face-to-face best practices of PBL to a virtual setting. 

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The Launch

We are all guilty of it-the project launch is sometimes the last thing to plan after you have spent countless hours getting your project ready to go. Well, now that we are shifting to online learning the Launch couldn’t be more important…or more exciting! Here are some ideas for ways to launch your project virtually:

  • The Question Formulation Technique can live on! You can present students with a “focus” such as a video link, send students on virtual field work with Google Earth, or have a recorded webinar with an expert. Then have students jot down their questions, sort and prioritize in a Google Doc. Wrap up the launch with a submitted reflection for “next steps” 
  • Need something more simple? How about a PowerPoint or Google Slides filled with images related to the subject of your project. Students can then respond to a simple prompt using  Visible or Artful Thinking Routines.  

And don’t forget!:

  • A project overview (or one-pager) is even more critical in virtual learning because students will really need to have ownership over their learning. Beyond just providing them with an overview (or quick video for younger students) you should ask them to engage with the overview in some way-either a quick “exit ticket” or journal entry or even a voice recording of 3 things they will be doing and learning about in this project ahead. 
  • Document those Need to Knows (NTKs) and come back to them often! Google Docs can be a really easy way for students to record, share and easily move their Need to Knows to Knows. This is really important in virtual learning spaces because it is a way to track thinking and keep students engaged in their learning and growth. 

Want to see an example of a virtual launch? I got you covered-check this project out- it’s a mini inquiry project on sports and STEM that uses the QFT. And learn more about the project launch HERE. 

Daily Instruction and scaffolding

Similar to a brick and mortar classroom setting, I like to use the workshop method for virtual learning. You are likely wondering ‘how do I design PBL for online learning day in and day out?’ Here is what that looks like in a sample daily agenda:

Opening Task

I know collaboration can be tricky for in-person learning, let alone virtual spaces, but during times of distancing a teachers’ ability to maintain a learning community with human connection is really important. Here are a few tips and tools to help:Group work

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Tip 1: Establish norms and expectations together 

Tip 2: Keep it simple-keep the task simple and keep collaborative work times to shorter, specified time allotments as you transition.  

Tip 3: Use breakout rooms that you can monitor -I love breakout rooms in many video conferencing platforms because it’s a great way to group participants but also allows you to pop in on them! 

Tip 4: Use familiar tools that can be monitored -are we seeing a theme with “monitored”?! By now almost everybody is familiar with all things Google-Docs is a great way to interact with comments within a group.  


Formative assessment is always important in PBL, but in an online learning setting it is especially important! Daily learning and check-ins will continue to happen-see my note above about office hours and project work time. Students should also continue to submit benchmark deliverables that can be assessed by the teacher, and self reflections on their learning at each benchmark. Rubrics can easily be turned into Google Docs where the teacher can highlight and comment on student growth and goals. Students can also vlog for their reflections. 

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Yes, students should still continue to share their learning with the world! Here are some ideas for exhibition, in addition to what you will find from Share Your Learning:

  • Create a class blog where students can create “pen names” and share their writing and thinking. Maybe even have them submit their writing to a local newspaper or organization as an “op-ed” 
  • Class websites and Digital Portfolios may be more important now than ever before-read more on how to do it HERE.
  • Find online contests that students can participate in as a culminating experience for their final product 
  • Create a virtual panel for students to “present” their findings or pitch to

To learn more about exhibition click HERE. 

Looking for more? Here are more resources to help:

Virtual learning COVID resource collection by CraftED 

How CraftED can help