Saturday, August 6, 2011

Practical Tips for Conducting Problem-Based Learning in Distance Education

As mentioned in a previous post, Problem Based Learning is only one approach to introducing authentic learning opportunities to the classroom. Educational research links PBL to improved student learning and motivation which makes this one area that is worth further exploration.

As the following video illustrates, the key to successful PBL experiences, whether in traditional f2f classrooms, or in online courses, is effective communication.

Communication in an Asynchronous Environment
But how does this look in an asynchronous online environment where the instructor and students may rarely be interacting with course material at the same time? In a 2009 study published in Educational Technology and Society , Hao-Chang Lo studied the use of three computer assisted communication (CMC) tools in an online undergraduate course.

Each communication tools served a different purpose throughout the course:
1)      Instant Messaging (IM) is often used for synchronous or “live” discussion. In this course, students were asked to record IM discussion so that classmates unable to participate in the live session could still watch the recording and stay informed with the class discussion.
2)      Students created blogs for intra-group communication where posts and comments formed the basis of this dialogue. Blogs allow for online “conversations” to take place in much the same way discussion forums are used. Individuals post reflections, links, videos, etc. and then classmates can comment asynchronously.
3)      Collaborative group work and inter-group learning took place within a wiki. This tool allows multiple users to create and edit collaboratively. In this course, much of the synthesis of knowledge took place through this medium.

Using Online Tools for the PBL Process
In Lo’s study, the step-by-step process of PBL learning was conducted entirely online for three weeks of the fifteen week course with the remainder of the course occurring in a traditional f2f classroom. However, this blended approach to course delivery provides some suggestions for courses that take place entirely online, especially in terms of the communication tools that were utilized:
1.    The problem was posted on the wiki through a variety of media (e.g. text, images, sound, video, and web links). From here, students could explore the problem from a variety of sources.
2.    Students were required to brainstorm and question which was facilitated through IM, a synchronous communication tool. (For strictly asynchronous courses, a discussion forum could be used to facilitate conversation but it would require some framework or guidelines for participants.)
3.    Different research tasks were chosen by different members. A due date for information was discussed and agreed upon by the students. Individuals posted their research findings on the blog allowing members to collaboratively collect a wide range of information.
4.    The next step involved groups analyzing the information and determining what information was useful in helping to solve the problem and what information was extraneous.
5.    Then students used the wiki to present their solution to the problem. Individuals reflected on the learning process during this step as well.
6.    Finally, the instructor provided feedback, often pointing to other groups’ wikis as a way of connecting all of the students in the course.

Tips for PBL in Distance Learning Environments:
Ø  Choose a Group Leader: At the beginning of the online portion of the course, groups were asked to elect a leader to help with time management and meeting times. Group leaders were also responsible for letting the instructor know if members were absent.
Ø  Decide on Group Communication Tools: Groups also determined how to best communicate (e.g. email, text, IM, Skype, etc.) with each other. This communication was in addition to course communication which had been previously determined by the instructor.
Ø  Provide Training if Needed: An early survey indicated that many students were unfamiliar with some of the online tools. For example, only 10% of students were familiar with the wiki. Group members were given instruction in the use of the online tools.

The importance of good communication in online learning environments cannot be underestimated. In this study, 76% of the students found it more interesting to learn in a virtual classroom. A a post-course survey revealed that students “were satisfied with the communication interfaces that could provide permanent links to web pages.” The convenience and flexibility of these tools combined to create a positive learning experience.


  1. Important reminder of the fact that without communication in online environments, they disintegrate quickly. I find that in my online courses I have to be very deliberate about communicating. As you know too well, I push email, participate in the online discussions, populate a wiki, hold weekly synchronous sessions, tweet and comment on blogs. For me, I think the central idea is to "be present", and that transcends any particular mediums I might use. I never want my students to get the impression that they're out there alone and that nobody cares enough to participate in their learning actively. It's the same as being in any classroom, I guess, but it does mean that I have to be much more intentional and attentive more hours of the day. It's much harder than showing up in a classroom a couple of times a week, and ironically, most people think teaching in online environments is actually easier.

  2. Thanks Rick. You make a very good point about the time that is needed to create an online presence, both as an instructor, and as a participant ... and the misconceptions about distance learning as being somehow "easier" than face to face.