Project-Based Learning and Building Community Online
At the beginning of this fall semester, I was reminded that during the online experience last year I could see my students’ faces on WebEx. I am having a much harder time remembering names of my students this semester in my in person classes because of their masks. I’m not making an argument against masks here, and I am ready to be back in a physical classroom. But I am curious about the possibilities of online learning, particularly the ability to form relationships and community in our classes in different modalities.
Several times early this semester I had graduate and undergraduate students that I have been working with for up to a year tell me that they were glad to finally meet me. I was initially confused, but quickly realized that we had never met in person. For me that was an important realization because I felt like I “knew” these students. A decade ago I might have rolled my eyes at someone talking about their online friends, but I had a relationship with these students that felt no different than with past students. Part of this is likely because I have gotten far more used to WebEx meetings and classes. But I am also confident that it has to do with the fact that I worked with these students in a project-based class.
Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach where students learn by working on projects that deal with real-world problems, typically in groups and over an extended time period. These students who I was “meeting” for the first time had been in my Mapping Project Lab course for 1 or 2 semesters. GSU Project Labs are part of the EPIC program and are based on Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Projects model. Project Labs allow students to earn course credit over multiple semesters while working on faculty-led, public-facing projects. As it became clear last fall that many of our classes needed to be online, we were moving into our second year of experimenting with Project Labs. Many of us were worried about the sudden move to online. I was particularly concerned about the loss of community that made these Labs successful. Over that first online semester, I found that many of our concerns were uncalled for, and there were even some advantages to PBL online.
Project-Based Learning- During the pandemic, students from my Project Lab and others mentioned in surveys and course evaluations that these Labs were the one class that they felt a part of a community in a year of almost all online courses. While they didn’t elaborate, my assumption is that their positive experience was due to the PBL focus of the class. In our Labs, students were in groups working on a shared goal for the whole semester (and some for an entire year). They have to share ideas, organize, plan, and rely on one another to move a project forward. It likely helps that the projects they are working on are connected to real-world issues and have tangible products that often have actual audiences. These factors are there with PBL for any modality, but were probably even more important during the pandemic.
Breakout Rooms- At the beginning of the pandemic, WebEx did not have an easy way to run breakout sections, and that posed a problem for larger workshops I had planned that were being moved from face to face to online. Without a way to easily move from a larger group to a smaller one and then back again, I was at a loss as to how to achieve the idea generation and community building that is critical to faculty development and teaching. I ended up paying for a personal zoom account for a few months because they allowed breakout rooms. This was annoying, but the point here is less about the initial failure of the platform we were provided, but how obvious and easy it was to approximate in person-techniques. Not only can the breakout sections accomplish a similar experience to the in-class approach, some aspects of the online breakout sessions were actually better- the instructor can jump from room to room with less disruption to individual discussions; groups are set up automatically and immediately, avoiding the 5 minutes of figuring out who is in what group, and there are not the problems caused by the cacophony of multiple groups having discussions in the same physical space. The breakout sections were extremely effective for my project-based course. We used the beginning of class for some tutorials and larger group discussions, and the majority of class was spent in their smaller project groups to plan, address problems, set goals, and get work done. I could join groups to troubleshoot or help lead. More advanced students could be moved into a group to help out.
Screen Sharing- My Project Lab is in person this semester, and I have already had two sessions where I could not provide a planned tutorial because the instructor computer did not have updated software. In my other courses this would never be a problem because I would only be using an internet browser or PowerPoint. For project-based courses though, students often need to learn to use more specialized software. Having that software on my personal computer is almost always going to be more reliable, and screen sharing online allowed me to be comfortable knowing that I would have the software that I am accustomed to.
Remote Participants- Years ago, I had a student who was dealing with a serious injury and asked if she could be in my in-person class through FaceTime. I was somewhat skeptical of how it would work out, but I wanted to help. Every class period I would set my laptop on a desk facing the front of the class and she would call in. She could participate in class discussions and ask questions. When students met in small groups, another student would grab the laptop to include her. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, and it allowed her to take at least a few classes while she was injured. I’m guessing most of us have recognized over the past year that online meetings and classes have some advantages. We can run a class when we are away at a conference or allow students to participate when they are home sick or are having trouble with transportation. We can bring in speakers without paying for travel. I am increasingly confident that I could include students in my Project Lab from other schools from anywhere in the world as long as they have access to the internet.
I am still adjusting to fully online courses, and I prefer hybrid and face-to-face modalities. Like everyone else, I am ready for this pandemic to be over. Around 15 years ago, using online discussion boards dramatically changed how I taught. They offered much more time for students to reflect on course content. Quiet students could take the spotlight. I could take the pulse of the class every week, seeing if they were reading and what they understood or misunderstood. When I started teaching hybrid courses, having robust discussion boards was central to my approach. The pandemic has forced me into using new tools. My initial impulse was to try to replicate what I was already doing, assuming it wouldn’t be quite as good. I am again learning to adjust my ideas of what is possible with online tools.