February 5th, 2016

Understanding Project-Based Learning in the Online Classroom


online student: PBL

In his wonderful TED talk, Dan Meyer describes how he began one of his math classes by showing students a video of a hose slowly filling a bucket with water. After a while of watching the video, one of the students blurted out “When is this going to end?” at which point Meyer asked the students how they would determine when it would end. The students started listing what they needed to solve the problem, such as flow rate, dimensions of the container, how to determine the volume of a cylinder, etc., and then worked to find the solution.

Meyer’s point is that we teach math the wrong way by giving students problems that already contain the relevant information. In the real world, one of the biggest steps in solving a problem is determining which information is relevant from all the information we are given. Here’s a perfect example of the theory and practice behind project-based learning.

Project-based learning is a hot topic in education, but most faculty do not understand how to incorporate it into their teaching. The principle is simple: Students learn best when they learn in the process of working toward a goal. Unfortunately, the value of project-based learning is often expressed in vague platitudes about “student-centered learning” or “knowledge creation.”

In reality, the main value of project-based learning is that it teaches students to ask the right questions. Traditional assignments predefine the information that the students will use. Project-based learning puts students into the position of having to determine what information they need by asking the right questions.

Plus, projects are driven by curiosity, and there is a considerable increase in motivation and retention (http://jjsquared640.blogspot.com/2014/10/curiosity-killed-cat-but-not-student.html) when learning is initiated by curiosity. Nobody is curious about the answer to the math equation he or she is given. Meyer instead created a situation where they first asked the question. Now they are invested in the problem and the answer.

The online environment proves yet another benefit in that it allows for the possibility of creating public results, such as a blog or Wikipedia article. You can also create a class wiki to host the projects. Students are far more invested in work that will be seen by many others than they are in the traditional assignment that is seen by nobody other than the teacher.

Finally, project-based learning constitutes a kind of gamification of learning, and thus has the same benefits that are driving the gamification of education movement. Games allow for short-term failure on the way to a goal without long-term cost, multiple paths to success, and just-in-time information within context of a goal (Gee, 2003; Kiang, 2014). Projects have these same characteristics. But whereas faculty are often stymied on how to use gamification principles in their teaching because it requires an enormous time commitment to develop complex simulations with multiple paths, projects solve this problem because the real world effectively provides the conditions of the game. The multiple paths, information, successes, and failures are all provided by the world as students develop their projects.

For instance, I teach a medical ethics class, and one project I use involve having students develop educational content for others. In one case a group of students created a guide for expectant parents on prenatal genetic testing. These students needed to determine what to put into that guide, meaning that they needed to ask about the major ethical issues in genetic testing as well as common practice. But they also needed to ask about the thinking of expectant parents. What are the parents’ concerns, fears, understanding, etc.? This will inform how the information needs to be presented. As future medical professionals, they benefit from stepping outside their normal role of caregiver into that of the patient. Most of their medical education is on the facts of health, and so this project gets them thinking about how health care looks to the patient.

Another project came to me while I was sitting on the medical ethics board at the local hospital. One day, the leader of the board learned that the doctors in the hospital did not know the legal definition of death or how to test for it. That led this normally calm man to pound his fist on the table and proclaim to the other doctors, “That’s not right. You people are declaring patients dead who aren’t dead.” Talk about a stony silence.

This gave me the idea of having students create a guide for doctors on how to determine death. (Did you know that one of the critical tests to determining legal death is squirting cold water into the patent’s ear to see if the eyes jiggle?) Again, they had to start by asking the right questions about what death is and how to test for it, what the majority of doctors currently think and are doing, and how best to communicate the right information to them so that it will influence medical practice.

Finally, the students in this class are normally preparing to sit on the types of medical ethics boards that I describe above and make life and death decisions about patients. So I simulated that experience as much as possible through case studies. I put them into groups and have them imagine they are the care team for a patient in an end-of-life condition. I provide the broad outlines of the case and ask them to come up with a judgment about what to do.

Since real ethics consultations always involve a period of exploration in which the participants try to gather more information, the students begin by asking me any questions about the case that seem pertinent but are left out of the write-up. This can be done with a chat system such as TodaysMeet (https://todaysmeet.com). Students send me messages asking for further information, such as whether the patient has a relative who can speak for him or her. I have a list of information I will use to answer questions. If the information is not on the list, I tell them that it is “unknown,” which is often the case in real-life situations.

Their project is to come to a group decision about what to do. I even have a few curveballs drawn from experience that I throw at them, such as one case where opposing parties suddenly switched positions when they were told of the care team’s decision. I can see something similar in, say, an engineering class, where a team is told that the client has suddenly changed its requirements in the middle of the project.

Another good project I learned about involved the students designing a Civil War memorial (www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol10/1004-schopf.aspx). This required them to ask questions such as, “Where will we put it—Gettysburg, Atlanta, Appomattox—and why?” They also needed to determine what to say on it. Should it honor the glorious leaders, the sacrifices of the soldiers, the victory of the North, or the hardships of the South?

If you can’t think of any projects of your own, try asking your students a question such as, “What can we build, real or hypothetical, to help others understand the class content?” You can also survey the hundreds of examples found at the Buck Institute for Education (http://bie.org/project_search/results/search&channel=project_search/) to stimulate your thinking on what is possible.

Consider how your teaching can be transformed by project-based learning. You will be surprised by the results.


Gee, J. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning. AMC Computers in Entertainment, v. 1, n. 1.

Jenkins, J. (2014). Curiosity Killed the Cat But Not the Student. J. Jenkin’s Teaching Thoughts blog.

Kiang, D. (2014). Using Gaming Principles to Engage Students. Edutopia, October 14, 2014.

Meyer, D. (2010). Math Class Needs a Makeover. TEDxNYED.

Schopf, L. (2014). Messing Learning, Clear Objectives. ASCD Express, v. 10, i. 4.

John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University. He is currently the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University and the editor of Online Classroom.

Reprinted from Understanding Project-Based Learning,
Online Classroom, 15.1 (2015): 4-5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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