George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning

Getting Set Up for Collaboration in Online PBL Units

Student collaboration is a hallmark of project-based learning, but it can be tricky to manage online. Here are some basic strategies for helping students work together.

October 8, 2020
Teenage boy video chat with classmates
SDI Productions / iStock

Project-based learning (PBL) and collaboration conjure up images of students sitting in groups, working through problems in a shared space. Covid-19 may be a game changer for education, but the lack of shared physical space doesn’t have to mean the end of collaborative learning. While online and hybrid learning do pose serious challenges, the strategies below can help give students the continued opportunity to reap the many benefits of PBL.

Online Collaboration Basics

Before starting any projects, you should be comfortable using Zoom and should have practiced sharing hosting, managing breakout rooms, and having students chat informally in the virtual classroom. Students should also know how to ask for help from a breakout room.

Establish community norms around respectful communication and allow students to practice collaborating in low-stakes challenges and games or the Jeopardy-style quiz game Factile, which allows you to create personalized questions related to academic content. Community-building activities will help students get comfortable working together and give you the opportunity to troubleshoot any recurring tech glitches.

Once students are working on a project, monitor progress by moving in and out of the breakout rooms to keep them on task with time limits and deliverables.

Overcoming Video Conferencing Challenges

Even when teachers and students have a certain level of mastery, tech sometimes has a mind of its own. You can help students stay focused on collaborating by preassigning breakout rooms. That way, when glitches come, you won’t be struggling with your list while students disengage. If you have separate links for each class you teach, you can preassign breakout rooms. If you use one link for different sections, it’s a little more time consuming. You can choose a group size and have Zoom create groups randomly to kick off a project—spending time assigning students to groups during class is not advisable unless your students have independent assignments to work on. Once a project is underway, assigning students to breakout rooms can be delegated to a trustworthy student while you do a warmup activity.

Students lose connection often and end up back in the waiting room or the main session. If you’re circulating, be on the lookout for them. Discussions can also be difficult because of lagging connections, and garbled voices make it impossible for students to be understood—having them close tabs or turn off their camera when talking may help. As a last resort, have students use the chat function.

You too may sometimes need to use the chat because of lagging. Use the chat to communicate or drop links to premade videos that explain concepts in that case.

One other commonly encountered issue is students disengaging. Lectures and text-heavy slideshows all day are exhausting, and game sites, puppy videos, and other distractions abound. Creating engaging, highly interactive lessons is key, and you can also use class norms and mid-class deliverables, like polls and graded discussion boards, to keep students engaged.

Other Challenges of Online PBL Collaboration

Even when Zoom is working smoothly, there are many obstacles to running PBL units in a virtual classroom.

Students missing synchronous sessions: Post clear written and video instructions that students can refer to whenever needed—this will help all students, not just the ones who missed a live session. Post the project scope and timeline in your learning management system (LMS). And make sure students can reach each other via texting or instant messaging so they can keep in touch outside of class time.

Students not completing their part of the assignment: This is sometimes a problem in the physical classroom, but it seems to me to be more prevalent in distance learning. Assign roles so each student has clearly defined responsibilities. Design projects so that individual parts are as valuable as the whole, and decide ahead of time how you will assess work so as not to penalize group members who are on task.

Hybrid learning or quarantined classes: This is going to be a big issue this year. When students are in the midst of working on a project, video conferencing will allow them to collaborate whether they are in class, remote, or a hybrid of the two. Have them use comment functions in Google Docs and Slides, Padlet, LMS discussion boards, etc., to communicate.

Organizational difficulties: Students working remotely are likely to have issues with motivation and time management. Use design or engineering processes to divide projects into parts, and assign a student project manager. Provide ongoing feedback to encourage revision, and hold office hours so students can drop in and work with teacher support.

Differences of opinion: There are always differences of opinion when people work together, and these can be exacerbated during remote PBL units by tech and other issues that make clear communication more difficult. Explicitly teach students how to provide appropriate peer feedback, and consider providing sentence stems to teach them how to work out differences. If groups are really struggling to work together, offer mediation and mentoring help, and consider trying peer mediation.

Project Completion

The virtual setting offers many options for students to present their learning. Allow as much student choice as possible. Some possible formats students can use:

Be flexible, making allowances for variance in digital skills and device access. Mostly, remember to praise and reward student work as you would in face-to-face instruction.

Online and hybrid education do not signal the end of collaborative or project-based learning—they can give students more opportunities to practice innovation and critical thinking. And if there’s one thing last spring taught us all, it’s that there can never be too much innovation and critical thinking.

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  • Project-Based Learning
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Online Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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