Project-Based Online School: How It Works

High-quality project-based learning mirrors the real-world process of creative problem-solving. Here's how we pull off this hands-on, collaborative form of schooling virtually.

Emily Veno
December 14, 2023

Have you ever been really proud of something you made? What about the experience led to your feeling of pride?

Maybe you felt the rush of relief, after spending hours toiling, when your creation turned out well! Maybe you shared your work with an audience, earning positive feedback. Maybe you learned something in the process, overcoming frustration to achieve what you couldn’t before.

"His sense of pride and accomplishment has gone through the roof. He has told all of our family and friends about his podcast."  -Lashonda S., Prisma Parent

It’s no wonder research shows a link between creativity and well-being. Humans are meant to work with their hands, creatively express their thoughts and feelings, and invent solutions to help others.

The creative process also helps us learn. Project-based learning (PBL) is a research-backed, innovative, and engaging approach to learning, embraced by the most forward-thinking schools and education experts.

At many schools, PBL is squeezed in when teachers have a spare moment not taken up by testing, textbooks, and worksheets. Prisma, however, was designed from the ground up as a project-based school.

What is Project-Based Learning?

There’s a difference between project-based learning and doing a project. Although making a papier-mâché diorama might be more fun than doing a worksheet, it doesn’t necessarily count as project-based learning.

In high-quality project-based learning, learning happens through the project. PBL projects target specific learning goals, and are planned so learners acquire and demonstrate these skills during the learning experience.

For example: in traditional learning, a child might learn about volcanoes through a textbook and multiple-choice quiz, then make a model by following step-by-step instructions. In project-based learning, they would instead research volcanoes, make notes and sketches, and design their own model from scratch. Both scenarios involve making models, but only one is project-based learning.

Benefits of PBL

High-quality project-based learning mirrors the real-world process of creative problem-solving. In traditional schools, schoolwork is only seen by the teacher and is turned in once before being forgotten. In real life, and in project-based learning, projects serve an authentic purpose, involve collaboration, and go through multiple revisions. In this way, PBL builds 21st century skills, and prepares learners for future careers, more effectively than traditional schooling.

Project-based learning is also simply more fun than traditional school. Although not everything in the real world has to be fun, the more fun school is, the more kids love learning. In a rapidly changing world, where successful people of the future will need to constantly adapt, helping kids love learning should be the ultimate goal.

Difference Between Homeschool & Project-Based Online School

Many families homeschool to provide hands-on, real-world learning experiences for their child. There’s no firm definition of “project-based homeschooling,” but many popular styles, from unit studies to unschooling, emphasize projects.

A project-based online school differs from homeschooling in a few ways:

  1. Comprehensive curriculum. Our project-based themes are planned by curriculum experts to ensure learners cover all standards from social studies to science.
  2. Live teaching. Although not all online schools offer live classes, schools like Prisma offer homeschooling parents a reprieve from responsibility for lesson plans.
  3. Peer collaboration. While some families incorporate project-based learning into homeschool co-ops, consistency can be a challenge. In our school, learners collaborate with peers daily.
  4. Chances to share project work. It can be challenging for homeschoolers to find opportunities to show off learning and gain presentation skills. At Prisma, learners present every project during Expo Day celebrations.
  5. Accredited transcript & diploma. Translating even traditional homeschooling to a transcript recognizable by colleges can be daunting, let alone nontraditional project-based learning. Prisma’s accredited program delivers a transcript & diploma recognized everywhere.

How PBL Works at Prisma

Middle School (4th Grade-8th Grade)

“The way my son is learning through doing, the depth he is exploring in each subject being taught, far surpasses any school experience we have ever had.” -Prisma Parent, Niche review

Prisma middle schoolers engage in six interdisciplinary project-based themes each year. Each theme is a broad, kid-friendly topic blending multiple academic subjects and providing ample learner choice & customization, while covering each concept needed for success in high school.

For example, learners might cover Physics, Financial Literacy, and Creative Writing in Playology (theme focused on the business of designing & selling toys), followed by World Cultures, History, and Research in Legend Has It (theme focused on myths & legends from across the globe).

Each theme begins with an Exploration phase, where learners build foundational knowledge and engage their curiosity. Next is a Project phase, where learners are walked through the process of choosing, researching, planning, outlining, drafting, and revising a final project.

Along the way, they engage in daily live workshops focused on the project (Project Lab), reading & writing (Literacy Lab), and peer collaboration (Co-Lab).

Learning coaches provide feedback and assessment. If learners achieve the project’s learning goals, they earn Badges on their Prisma transcript for each specific skill covered. (For example, learners might earn Physics, Design Thinking, and Writing Badges for a single project.) If learners didn’t earn a badge, they can always revise. In real life, responding to feedback is more important than getting it right the first time.

High School

“The most recent project is one of our favorites. Each kid was challenged to create a medical product to help a certain patient population. My son developed a hypoallergenic PICC line securement device. Another kid created a phone case with a place for emergency meds for his asthmatic brother. Another made an app for people with generalized anxiety disorder.” -Prisma Parent, Niche review

Prisma High Schoolers engage in 12-week project-based themes covering all core credits for high school graduation. For example, they earn Biology credit through our Secrets of the Biosphere theme, and World History credit through our Hindsight 20/20 theme.

Our high school program balances rigorous academics with giving learners more responsibility for their own learning. In the Immersion & Exploration Phase, learners demonstrate mastery of the key competencies through research, hands-on labs, and interactive modules. In the Project Phase, they apply their learning to a real-world problem connected to their research, from designing an app to advocating for a local policy to editing a YouTube video essay.

High school coaches provide feedback, and learners receive grades for their official transcript. They also add their projects to a portfolio website, useful in the college admissions process. Theme projects aren’t the only projects—high schoolers also complete an open-ended capstone project in their 11th grade year.


Benefits of the Online Learning Environment

Some assume online project-based learning could never measure up to in-person. Here are a few ways the virtual learning experience is better:

  1. Personalization. To keep a regular classroom organized, kids do the same work at the same pace. Online, kids can collaborate on some components, while completing academic work at their own pace, and choosing individual projects based on their interests.
  2. Flexibility. Many families want more schedule flexibility than in-person school provides, but don’t want to forego an innovative, hands-on curriculum. Freedom to travel the world or spend more time outside only enhances the project-based learning experience!
  3. World-class educators. The demand for remote jobs in education is high, so we can be picky. We hire fewer than 1% of learning coach (teacher) applicants. No wonder 100% of our families say they are happy with their child’s coach.
  4. Expert guests. It’s easier for online schools to attract super cool experts to speak to learners, since they don’t need to travel. Prisma learners have heard from a former Supreme Court Justice, an anime voiceover artist, and a Mattel toy designer.

More Project-Based Learning Resources

Prisma Middle School project examples

Examples of themes: Interdisciplinary Learning at Prisma

Design your own projects: Unit Study Planning Template

Design Thinking for Kids

Service Learning Projects for Kids

Activities for Homeschoolers

PBL Works Project Ideas

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

Want to learn more about how Prisma can empower your child to thrive?

Learn More

More from our blog

Homeschool Unit Study Examples & Free Planning Template

Unit studies blend multiple subjects together to create real-world, interest-driven learning experiences. Steal the approach our curriculum experts use to create themes with a free downloadable unit study planner.

Emily Veno
November 6, 2023

Meet Camil Aponte

“The curriculum at Prisma allows learners to learn about their strengths and use their passions in an organic and interdisciplinary way. The kids have the freedom to choose by having differentiated projects, quests, enrichments, and clubs.”

Emily Veno
October 21, 2023

How Do Homeschoolers Get Into College?

You might be hearing from friends, extended family, and random strangers in the doctor’s office “there’s no way your kid will be able to get into a good college as a homeschooler.” Impolite, yes. True? Let’s figure it out.

Emily Veno
October 20, 2023

Meet Todd Forsyth

“The amount of support and check-ins our learners have at Prisma is unparalleled compared to anywhere else I’ve ever worked.”

Emily Veno
October 16, 2023

Types of Homeschooling Explained: Which Style is Right for Your Family?

Each of the most popular homeschool styles has existed for a long time, and each has diehard evangelizers and fervent critics. From classical to unit studies to unschooling, this guide will help you find the form best suited to your family.

Emily Veno
October 13, 2023

Meet Tim Corkran

“What most drew me to Prisma was the chance to work with a fully project-based curriculum custom-designed for middle schoolers who are hungry for academic engagement.”

Emily Veno
October 10, 2023

6 Best Online Middle Schools

The best online school for your family is a question of priorities: More support or lower tuition costs? Traditional or project-based academics? Asynchronous or lots of interaction? We break it down in this post.

Emily Veno
October 4, 2023

Meet David Waitzer

David Waitzer is the Founding Learning Coach for our first cohort in East Asia & Oceania. In this post, he describes how his background teaching and leading for innovative international education companies will help him accelerate the growth of Prisma learners.

Emily Veno
October 3, 2023

Announcing Prisma East Asia and Oceania

Prisma has hundreds of learners across the Western Hemisphere. Along the way, we've gotten requests to launch cohorts in new time zones from families around the world who want to be part of what we’re building. Next up is East Asia & Oceania! 

Emily Veno
October 3, 2023

Meet Lizzie Thompson

Middle School Curriculum Designer Lizzie uses her diverse experiences: studying Literature at Harvard, leading outdoor adventure expeditions, and teaching high school English, to help Prisma learners find their voices.

Emily Veno
September 25, 2023