Project-Based Online Learning: A New Prescriptive Model of Instructional Design

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

Project-based learning (PBL) models like the one created by the Buck Institute are difficult to translate to the online environment. Two online educators co-designed several project-based online learning (PBOL) experiences for one online school that serves 4th through 12th grade. This design and development research study has resulted in a prescriptive model of instructional design for PBOL. 


Anissa is an associate professor of instructional technology in Kennesaw State University's Bagwell College of Education. She teaches graduate teacher education courses in instructional technology in online and hybrid formats, and supervises doctoral students. For the past several years, she has coordinated the online teaching endorsement at KSU that serves Georgia certified K-12 teachers. She is currently developing a personalized learning certificate program for educators at the graduate level. Her research has focused on innovative learning models including K-12 online learning and massive open online courses. Outside of teaching and research, she serves on various boards and committees related to educational innovation, online learning, and futurist planning at the university, state, and school districts levels.

Extended Abstract

In 2015, Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss published a model of instructional design called the Gold Standard  Project Based Learning, which built off of the Buck Institute for Education's earlier model of the same focus. This model is vastly referenced and considered "a composit of the best research-based and classroom-proven project design elements and instructional practices (Larmar, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015, p. 34)." This model incorporates seven essential design elements like sustained inquiry, authenticity, and reflection all surrounding key knowledge understanding and success skills. However, there exists a dearth of research on how this instructional model translates into the online environment.

As a design and development research project, a K-12 instructional designer-teacher and K-12 online education researcher-teacher decided to approach project-based online learning (PBOL) in the authentic context of planning and teaching a 9th grade online literature class. According to Richey and Klein (2007), design and development research is the

systematic study of  design, development and evaluation processes with the aim of establishing an empirical basis for eh creation of instructional and non-instructional  products and tools and new or enhanced models that govern their development (p. 1).

This in-progress study is intended to produce a new prescriptive instructional design model to guide K-12 online instructional designers in creating PBOL experiences for K-12 learners. Later, another study will seek to validate this model. Specifically for this first phase of the design and development study, the co-designers wanted to know “what does project-based learning look like in the K-12 online context, and what processes inform PBOL design?” The co-designers engaged in an iterative design process that repeated the ADDIE model of instructional design through three iterations resulting in three distinct PBOL units of instruction. Data collected and used for this iterative process of model development included aggregated student rubric scores, aggregated student formative assessment scores, student logins, student video view frequencies, aggregated student survey data, written instructor feedback, and instructional designer reflections.

As a conceptual framework, ADDIE as a general process of instructional systems design was used to guide the design and data collection approach as it is practiced in the design context (Molenda, Pershing & Reigeluth, 1996). Co-designers first analyzed student data and curriculum maps to determine the best unit of instruction to redesign first. In the second and third iterations of analysis, the co-designers used all previous student outcome data and instructor feedback to inform the design decisions and make changes to the model. During each design phase, the co-designers planned the events of instruction using a draft of the presented model. Co-designers then developed portions of the unit separately to be assembled in the learning management system. In each iteration implementation with K-12 students, one of the co-designers supported the instructors and collected student data.  Finally, the evaluation phase of iterations one and two blended into the analysis phase of the following iteration allowing the co-designers to make changes or additions to the model. Following the three iterations, one prescriptive model of instructional events emerged to support PBOL. Prescriptive models of instruction prescribe what learning operations should be performed in what order for a certain learning outcome (Landa, 1983). This new PBOL model includes the following:

  1. Hook and/or Driving Question
  2. Introduce the Project
    1. Begin Formative Assessment for Content Knowledge
    2. Begin Formative Assessment for Project Understanding
  3. Build Content Knowledge
    1. Complete Formative Assessment for Content Knowledge
    2. Continue Formative Assessment for Project Understanding
  4. Tutorial-by Example
    1. Complete Formative Assessment for Project Understanding
    2. Rubric and Product Sample
    3. Model Evaluation
    4. Peer Evaluation
  5. Summative Assessment
  6. Sharing

This model of instructional events and sub-events exhibits the order in which K-12 students would engage with content in the learning management system for one PBOL unit supported by an undefined number of smaller lessons. In this presentation, a visual for this model of PBOL instructional events will be shared and explained. Additionally, researchers will discuss the iterative design process and the data supporting the design decisions, as well as newly emerging student achievement data, which will be used for model validation purposes as the study moves forward.  

The resulting model of PBOL instructional events may have implications for K-12 online designers, instructors, and students, but in addition one of the co-designers has used the model to design PBOL for teacher preparation in the higher education context. Thus possibly offering new knowledge to support instructional designers in effective PBOL for contexts beyond K-12. On-going implementation and research of this model will investigate the validity of the model.



Landa, L. (1983). Descriptive and prescriptive theories of learning and instruction: An analysis of their relationships and interactions. In Reigeleuth, C. (1983), Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current Status. New York: Routledge.

Larmar, J. Mergendoller, J. and Boss, S. (2015). Setting the standard for project-based learning: A proven approach to rigorous classroom instruction. Alexandria: ASCD.

Molenda, M., Pershing, J.A., & Reigeluth, C.M. (1996). Designing instructional systems. In R. L. Craig (Ed.), The ASTD training and development handbook (4th ed.) (pp. 266-293). New York: McGraw-Hill

Richey, R. and Klein, J. (2007). Design and development research. New York: Routledge.