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Distance Teaching with Service Learning and Civic Engagement BETA

A Toolkit from University of Maine at Augusta, and University of Southern Maine

Print Version of the Toolkit: uma.edu/faculty-cedoc

Project-Based Learning


Project based learning (PBL) differs from both problem based learning as well as traditional, lecture and assignment based learning in one key sense: it is rooted in an authentic, real world goal and the learning is student-driven by necessity. [1] Project based learning sets up a real world ‘project’ for the student to complete over a predetermined period of time - it may be as short as a couple of weeks and as long as an academic year. Typically, when incorporated into a service learning course, it is meant to completed over the course of a semester.


The syllabus for a PBL course clearly identifies the limits of such work in terms of the learning objectives. Since project based learning is not a commonly used strategy in higher education, it is possible that students are unfamiliar with it and need a lot a scaffolding before they feel comfortable. This strategy requires significant time investment from both the instructor and the student (see: Lee, Blackwell, Drake and Moran, 2014) [2] and a shift in expectations for all participants.


Some projects may be undertaken as groups, while some may be individual projects. In either case, PBL offers students the opportunity to develop key competencies and create a product they can demonstrate to prospective employers. Traditionally, PBL is more likely to be used in k-12 classrooms, however, there is a steady increase in the number of opportunities in higher education, including online education to explore it.

In traditional Project-Based Learning design, the project is often determined by the instructor. Faculty are the subject matter experts and are also more likely to be familiar with organizations and other experts who can either support or are in need of the project in question. In a distance course with service learning, however, you may find it easier to create the wireframe or outline for a project for your learners and include some soft-skill instruction for how learners can define and pitch project ideas with a community partner.


  1. In: Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching. O’Neill, G., Moore, S., McMullin, B. (Eds). Dublin:AISHE, 2005. Released under Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0. Some rights reserved.
  2. Lee, J. S. , Blackwell, S. , Drake, J. , & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a Leap of Faith: Redefining Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Through Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2).

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