When schools were forced to go online owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators had to come up with creative ways to impart education without sacrificing engagement. Many are now boosting online engagement by using PBL in their online classes. Project-based learning (PBL) is basically a model that relies on a learning-by-doing-approach.

According to a paper released by MDRC, an American nonprofit research organization, teachers can use PBL to promote a “need to know” attitude in their students with good effect, as long as they organize learning around suitable goals. Research also shows that PBL is effective when it comes to developing skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Making a Case for Project-based Learning in the Online World

When teaching in a predominantly online space, you might spend a lot of your time and energy in ensuring that learning goes smoothly. However, it is crucial that you keep the element of fun alive.  Benefits of doing this include increasing engagement levels as well as alleviating some of the stress that students have experienced in recent times. As a firm believer in project-based learning, I feel it can serve as an important tool in holding students’ attention as well as building morale.

If anything, the existing situation gives educators an opportunity to highlight the importance of what they are teaching while connecting learning with real-world problems. PBL gives you means to simplify the understanding process through engaging and active lesson plans.

Using Driving Questions

Using driving questions is a crucial aspect of project-based learning, and this holds true in the online world as well. A driving question is one that creates active engagement. For instance, if you are discussing water pollution with your students, you would be better off asking them how they can solve the problem as opposed to asking them for factors that contribute to the problem.

Get Students on a Path to Discovery

Continuing with the water pollution example, you’ve already set your students’ brains in the “looking for solutions” mode. You may then ask them to formulate their answers in a step-by-step manner. While the initial part gets them to put their thinking caps on, formulating their answers requires that they use their problem-solving skills, while also increasing engagement.

You may use different approaches to get your students on the path to discovery.

  • Invite guest speakers from different realms and encourage students to ask them questions.
  • Use guiding questions that can help students in focusing their thinking, and share links to online resources where they can find answers.
  • Use virtual escape rooms where groups of students can solve riddles or complete puzzles. Problem-solving, time management, teamwork, and focusing under pressure become part of the parcel.

While younger students tend to benefit more through focused questions and specific resources, what older students usually require is just some basic direction.

Offer Alternatives

Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, author, and speaker, opines that since learning speed and styles can vary significantly between students, it is upon educators to create approaches and environments that are conducive to the variations. This can involve scaffolding as well as differentiation. Unfortunately, using a single type of assessment to check for learning still remains common.

With project-based learning, students get the ability to illustrate their best ideas in ways they find suitable. Going back to the water pollution example, while some students might try to create a water filtration machine, others might offer solutions to keep pollutants from entering the water. Further, the latter could come in the form of a video presentation, an essay, or even a skit.

What works well in giving students the ability to choose between different options is that you end up building excitement and engagement levels. Students then feel they’re on a discovery mission, and this motivates them to put their best foot forward.

Tips to Simplify the Process

If you are an administrator, make sure you don’t take away your educators’ ability to build engagement with their students. While there is no dearth of curricula that addresses covering required standards, not many focus on creating students who have a passion for learning. Consequently, give your teachers all the freedom they need when it comes to using creative and out-of-the-box approaches.

From the point of view of an educator, being organized should be your top priority. If your students will need supplies, let their parents know at least a week in advance. Prepare for some parents asking you why their kids need new supplies. Give them a heads-up about when you plan to use PBL approaches. Inform them that while PBL will, in all likelihood, work in engaging their children, they need to exercise patience.


With a little more than following the right path, practice, and patience, PBL can be a very engaging way of teaching as well as learning. Educators need to understand that if they’re not enjoying or having fun during the lessons they impart, neither are their students. In my personal experience, I have often been surprised by how creative my students get because of PBL. With a lot of learning now happening over the internet, it’s about time that educators look at boosting online engagement by using PBL techniques.