Wednesday / April 24

Tech Tools to take PBL online  

Two weeks ago many of us were in classrooms running authentic projects or around tables planning rigorous and engaging PBL experiences for students. All that came to a sudden halt in the wake of COVID-19. I have been so inspired by the informal crowdsourcing that I have seen across all social media channels-teachers helping teachers, educators helping parents and students showing up in ways that continue to keep us all going during these difficult times. 

A couple weeks into e-learning for many of us and there is no longer a shortage of resources for teachers to pull from for tech tools…#realtalk: it’s a bit overwhelming! Whether you are new to PBL or a veteran, setting up a project in an online learning environment is a whole new game! And while it’s possible to do PBL virtually, the technology to make it happen can sometimes be a hurdle. So I’m going to keep it real and keep it simple, friends – here are my top 5 user-friendly tech tools for transferring PBL to an online setting: 


Flipgrid was cool before the distance learning frenzy of the past few weeks, but it’s really cool now. And why is that? Because it’s interactive and easy for students of all ages to use. I have seen Flipgrid used for everything from asynchronous morning meetings and Socratic Seminars, to daily reflections and even oral presentations. For PBL, I like Flipgrid because it provides teachers, peers, and experts with a tool to offer feedback on project benchmarks, deliverables, and drafts. As we know, formative assessment, feedback, reflection, and refinement are best practices of PBL, and that can be difficult to maintain in a virtual setting – but Flipgrid truly makes that feel seamless.  

And here is a little bonus to Flipgrid: Just yesterday I watched my daughter respond to her classmates’ reading reflections of Tiger Rising  and what made me love Flipgrid even more was the smile that it brought to her face when she saw her friends’ and teachers’ videos. Flipgrid can be a wonderful tool to continue to build your classroom community in a time when we are all yearning for human connection. 

2)Zoom, Google Hangouts  

Ok, I’m cheating here by giving you “2 for 1,” but both of these are tools I can’t live without, and if you are new to the virtual world you shouldn’t live without them eitherUsing these two tools is as simple as going onto each website, “creating a meeting”, copying and pasting the link that’s provided, and sending it to your students in a calendar invite or email. Once students get this invite or link all they have to do is click it at the given time of your meeting and BAM! you have a screen filled with the faces and voices of your students! You can use Google Hangouts and Zoom to run a synchronous class meeting, introduce a new skill or content in a mini-lesson, or conduct a lecture.  

Within projects, these tools work great to do an interview with an expert or conduct a project launch. To see an example of a project launch done virtually using the Question Formulation Technique through Zoom, click HERE. As teachers you will appreciate that you can share your screen with both tools, and with Zoom you have the ability to record sessions, which is great for students who can’t attend a meeting or to document lessons for students to reference in the future.  

Google Hangouts is always free, but Zoom is running an offer for educators to provide it for FREE right now! And here are three pro-tips for these tools that will maximize your use of them and save you some stress: 

  1. Establish virtual meeting norms with students  
  2. Teach students how to use the camera and microphone feature  
  3. Have parents install and test the tools in advance  
  4. Ask students to mute their microphones unless they are speaking.   

3) Calendly  

When you are new to the virtual world one of the most challenging parts of the transition is figuring out how to balance your time and establish some healthy work boundaries. True confession: I block my workday by the hourassigning each block to a specific purpose (meetings with colleagues, providing feedback, developing content, email, and even my daily workout and meditation, and small breaks). Calendly can be really helpful with establishing these structures for both you and your students. The way it works is you block out the increments of time you are and aren’t available and students can pick from what you provide. This also teaches students how to manage their time and develops agency by having students sign up for a slot and follow through with attendance.  

For PBL, this tool is great for teacher office hour sign ups in lieu of “project work-time check-ins”. During office hours, teachers can use this tool to check in with students on project benchmarks and to provide feedback on formative assessments or at the end of a project. This tool can also be used to schedule small group workshops to differentiate instruction by blocking certain time slots for specific students.  And here is what makes Calendly even cooler: it links up to your Zoom account and automatically sends the invitee a calendar invite and generates the link for your meeting.  This tool will save you time organizing your schedule and help you set some home-school-work boundaries by blocking out time on your calendar for individualized support.  

4) Google Tools  

I know this seems really simple, but that’s the point! Google Tools provides students with some familiarity, because they are likely tools you used in face-to-face learning. You can use Google Slides for daily asynchronous lessons –– creating a series of 5-10 slides as a “deck” for each day of the week. My daughter’s 4th grade teacher has been doing this for the past few weeks since schools have been closed, and as a parent I have really appreciated this! Within the “deck” you can hyperlink student resources, insert images and even include videos of you talking to them!   

For PBL, I also like leveraging Drive folders to organize student work (creating folders for each student to upload work, project groups to organize their work, or unique folders for each benchmark phase of the project). Docs is a great space for students to conduct writing assignments or for groups to collaboratively document their thinking and project progress (synchronously or asynchronously).  The teacher can simply give feedback using the comment feature.   

PBL Pro-Tip for Docs: A best practice of PBL is to create a project hub, which is a basic dashboard for all resources related to the project. While some schools have access to Newsela, Schoology, or other platforms that can serve as a hub to collect project resources, I use Docs because it’s simple to create and continue to add to, and it’s easy for students and parents to reference. To see an example of a project hub you can click HERE. 

5) Padlet, Trello, Headrush   

You are about to get a three-for-one! I love Padlet, Trello and Headrush because they help with learner management, which can be extremely difficult when we are teaching remotely. #realtalk: you never realize how much you took a simple “drive by” group work observation for granted until you are sitting solo at home behind your laptop. Despite one of the many misconceptions of PBL (that under the guise of being “student-driven,” PBL is loose and unstructured), there are actually really important structures that the teacher can put in place to provide some guardrails to ensure that students are learning and effectively managing their time. These 3 tools align beautifully with the SCRUM method which I highly recommend as a process for managing the progress of project work to show what work is in progress and what work needs to be completed. Having student groups constantly reflect on the process of project work also increases ownership over learning, which is arguably even more important in virtual learning than in a “brick and mortar” classroom.   

So, if reading through these tools rings a bell of familiarity or a feeling of “oh that’s doable” –– that’s the point! These 5 tech tools alone can get you through the rest of the school year doing virtual learning, without a steep tech-learning curve for you as the teacher and without compromising engaging teaching and learning. 

Need more resources?  

How to take PBL online  

COVID19 virtual learning resources for teachers, parents and leaders  

Free virtual PBL project to download 

Free virtual mini-STEM-project to download  

To plan your next project: “Keep it Real with PBL” planning workbook  

Virtual learning and PBL support  

PBL E-course Library   

Written by

As an educator in schools across the country with a “one-of-a-kind” professional DNA, Dr. Jenny Pieratt prides herself on providing practical PBL tips and tools for teachers, along with authentic #realtalk on the subject of project-based learning. To learn more about her work visit and follow her on social media @crafted_jennyp. Be sure to check out her new book from Corwin: Keep it Real with PBL and her “PBL on-demand” e-courses

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