Project-Based Learning: A Natural Fit with Online Education

The Buck Institute for Education’s definition of project-based learning-“a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills acquired through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed projects and tasks”-shares many of the same tenets as online learning. However, little has been written about the links between the two or about how to incorporate PBL into an online course.

Kerry Lynn Rice, Web developer/instructor in the Department of Educational Technology at Boise State University, teaches PBL to teachers in an online program and has found some striking similarities between online learning and PBL. In both online learning and PBL, instructors facilitate and support learning rather than provide direct instruction. Like PBL, many distance learning experiences incorporate some kind of authentic tasks or assessment, which motivates students.

Rice uses PBL in each of her online courses, simply because of the similarities between these two constructivist pedagogies.

“When you’re teaching online, it’s very difficult to have an interactive, motivating course if you’re just spewing out text-based information. I think the more you teach online, the more you learn that it’s more effective to have student-centered, hands-on, authentic project-based activities than it is to have lecture-type activities where students are just reading and absorbing information,” Rice says.

As with incorporating technology into a course, Rice recommends using PBL where it is suitable to the course content and learning objectives. “The basis of any course is going to be the standards or curriculum. You’re not going to use a project just for the sake of using a project. It’s the same with technology. You don’t use the tool unless it’s appropriate.”

There are few instances in which PBL is the sole pedagogical technique used in an online course. Rather, Rice says, it is often incorporated as appropriate. “I have a feeling that a lot of people are doing it and don’t realize they’re doing it, because there’s such a meshing between project-based learning and distance learning,” Rice says.

Advice for doing PBL online

With the similarities between online learning and PBL, Rice recommends finding ways to incorporate PBL into online courses. She offers the following recommendations:

  • Start small.
  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Choose a topic you already have an activity based on.
  • Structure the project around the curriculum.
  • Create a driving question based on the theme of the course. The driving question should require students to consider the context surrounding that question.
  • Don’t be afraid to release control. “It’s OK for your students to know more than you do,” Rice says.
  • Provide scaffolding. Don’t assume that your students have all the skills necessary to learn effectively using PBL. “For example, if you ask them to brainstorm, don’t assume that they know how to brainstorm. Make sure you provide guides for those activities and anticipate students’ needs. Starting small gives you the chance to build those scaffolding activities into your project as you go along,” Rice says.
  • Plan the assessment. Students can be involved in developing the assessment rubrics, and you can “up the ante” by having students publicly share the product of the project with people who are knowledgeable about the issues the project addresses. (In the Buck Institute model, students share their projects with experts.)

Potential benefits

Project-based learning has the potential to promote high-level thinking-analysis, synthesis, and evaluation-which can improve student achievement and motivation, Rice says.

It also offers the ability to provide more personalized learning than do more traditional teaching techniques. “I think the most amazing thing is to find out so much about my students in an online environment, and I think project-based learning is the same way,” Rice says. “[Online instruction] gives the ability to individualize and find out individual strengths and weaknesses in your students a lot more than traditional face-to-face instruction does. For me, it’s just learning more about my students, being able to personalize things more, and using what [students] know to guide what they do and what others do in the class.”

For more information about the Buck Institute for Education’s project-based learning model, visit Contact Kerry Lynn Rice at