Virtual PBL Project Management

Thanks to guest blogger, Leah Henry, for sharing tips from the trenches of her classroom-as she moves from a “brick and mortar” PBL classroom to a virtual learning during school closures of COVID-19.

Project Management from Home  

For the PBL practitioner, moving to an online format is likely less daunting than what it would be in a traditional setting; and that’s because most PBL classrooms already have a tech-heavy presence and utilize asynchronous teaching and learning tasks. What I’m finding in the past two weeks is that there are some pretty nifty ways to do things virtually- like move presentations with an authentic audience from in-person to  video, or leverage great graphic design apps that can make amazing visuals instead of tangible visuals. The challenge that has presented itself in the past week is: If I can’t see the students working, how do I manage the project process from home?  

I believe that the three key things to remember in developing a virtual project management plan are: Keep it familiar, be flexible, and remember to tend to your classroom culture.

Keep it familiar

Do not try to reinvent your project management strategies overnight. Instead, ask yourself, “how can I mimic what I do in the classroom to manage projects?” For example, I had a visible progress board hanging on the wall of my classroom that I am transferring to Google Sheets. I designed these Sheets to have grid lines and headers that mimic the one I used in the classroom. My project board is going to be in the shared Google Folder for the whole class to have access to, along with all resources for the project linked. Each partner group is also setting up their own shared Google Folder to put all important project documents in-we have “must-have” docs like “research log”, “Ideas for final product braindump” and so on. The same is true for managing the flow of live eventsHere is an example of an online agenda for my class that I used along with Zoom meetings, and it wasn’t much different than what I normally use in class for a workshop. 

None of these items are new, I am just placing a larger emphasis on them and moving a few management tools they are used to from our classroom, to this new virtual space. Keeping the project management tools familiar for my students is a priority. I could use Trello or another Kanban or Scrum system to manage this but my students aren’t familiar with those. I’m betting they will work better in “the world of the familiar” when there is so much that is uncertain for them right now. 

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Be Flexible  

Consider making your projects more simple and consider scaling them down so that one student can work on it alone or with a partner, rather than a small group.  Scrap the project you had planned on doing if it just doesn’t make sense now, and consider more of a “phenomenon based” approach where you guide students through current events that are connected to content. This is a great time to refocus on the “power standards” or those big picture items that you would hate for students to leave your classroom without diving deeper into. We have bemoaned the standardized test driven mentality of our school systems and this is our opportunity to show what could be possible if we opened learning up, so Carpe Diem!

Be willing to let go of a lot of those structures you thought were necessary in times past. Those daily exit tickets, ten minute collaboration checks, and the normal pace of your classroom are likely gone for now. The “traditional” school schedule is also gone as students are going to work on class work on their own time now. However, you might suggest a set number of minutes a day for project work time, or help them identify time when they can call or video with their project partner. 

Think about how to be equitable in the access to the tools you are creating and have both video of your live sessions and some kind of outline that could be printed if possible. Some of my students lack reliable wifi, so I have made sure they are able to call in when we have video calls. We are printing off packets for those students as well, so the project that those students do will need to be catered towards what they have available to them and include the hard copy version of virtual project management tools I plan on using.

It might be a good idea to have flexibility in due dates as well, as we can’t control the lives of our students in this new reality. If students are paired up, you might survey them to see when they have availability to work with others and group them based off of that. Again, having a clear project benchmark tool visible for students to continually check on their progress will be really helpful for both you and the students, just emphasize that you will work with them on the due dates. 

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Maintain the Culture

Finally, don’t neglect the culture of learning that you worked so hard to build! If anything has come to light for me the past week, it is how imperative it is to create a culture of learning in our school systems.  Phone calls (google voice), videos (flipgrid), and the Remind app are great to check in, share lighthearted stuff, and let students know you are thinking about them. You could possibly do a movie night and have students tweet/Remind message/ group chat/ chat on a google doc and use Netflix’s chrome extension to have a conversation about the film and its connections to class content. 

Start every “live” meeting or call with a question like “What’s on Top for you?” or “What happened today that was good or concerning?” Be sensitive to the home lives of your students and recognize that many of them are working in addition to being expected to stay on top of schoolwork right now. 

I also want to keep students collaborating, even if they are doing more individual PBL units. This is a lesson that I did with students in an AP class that had them working in groups. 

You can do this! Just think about what works for you normally, consider how that could be done virtually, and then keep adapting and playing with your project management strategy. It isn’t going to be perfect at first and it will be messy sometimes, but isn’t one of the reasons we do PBL so that we can learn by doing, fail, reflect, and try again? 

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About the Author:

Leah Henry is a veteran PBL facilitator and instructional coach. She has taught in rural, suburban and urban schools and both charter, parochial, and public schools in grades 7-12, with the bulk of her in-classroom PBL experience coming from working in an Expeditionary Learning school and a New Tech Network school. Leah worked with educators from all grade level and content areas as a remote school development coach for the New Tech Network for 6 years before returning to the classroom 2 years ago. She is currently learning how to keep her 1st grade, PreK, and Preschool students learning through a pandemic while managing her AP World, Dual Credit US History, and World History courses and completing an online grad course. 

Additional Resources: 

5 tips for designing asynchronous learning 

5 tips for synchronous learning 

How to design PBL for online learning 

Wakelet Twitter story from the #pblchat on PBL Project Management

Sample virtual workshop

AP Sample Review Unit for AP World History

Great ideas for leading virtual meetings

Virtual learning PD and support