Blog 77

Problem Based Learning – The Maastricht MOOC

Justin Podur, Faculty of Environmental Studies

In Fall 2017, Maastricht University in the Netherlands offered the second round of its Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in Problem Based Learning (PBL). As an instructor who has attempted to use PBL in the classroom, I took the course because I wanted the chance to be on the student’s side of the equation this time.

First developed at McMaster University’s medical school here in Ontario, PBL has moved to dozens of universities all over the world. Maastricht University holds the banner of PBL high in Europe, producing pedagogical materials, manuals, cases, and a living PBL laboratory in the form of its ongoing classes (including this MOOC) for instructors and administrators thinking of going the PBL route.

If PBL is contrasted with “traditional” instruction, the differences could be noted as follows. In a traditional classroom, the lecturer chooses a sequence of information, readings, and exercises to be followed. If class has tutorials as well, these tutorials offer a small group the opportunity to discuss the course materials in further depth. Students are evaluated on assignments and tests.

In a PBL classroom, the students are presented with a problem first: typically a case from professional practice (remember the method was developed in a medical school). Faced with the problem, the students in a tutorial context have a pre-discussion, during which they define the problem and outline their learning objectives for self-study after the tutorial. They may divide learning objectives up among several students who are assigned the research role. Then, they go off and study based on resources (readings, etc.) provided by the instructor. They return for a post-discussion where they share what they have learned with one another. Besides the role of researchers, students are also assigned roles like process manager, discussion leader, and facilitator. The idea is that students in the PBL context take more ownership of what they learn, they practice leading and participating in discussions, and they practice researching a problem within a structured framework.

This is all outlined in a seven-step procedure: 1. Clarify the setting 2. Define the problem 3. Analyze the case 4. Re-structure the problem 5. Formulate learning goals 6. Individual study 7. Report-back to the group.

This all changes the role of the tutor, or instructor, as well, who become the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”. Design of problems, the placing of problems on an intellectual sequence so that they build on one another, and the idea of an integrated PBL curriculum with sequences of problems building on one another to form an academic program, all become new and intense challenges for instructors. These sorts of problems were tacked in Maastricht’s MOOC, which was designed for university instructors wanting to incorporate PBL. Units included: 1. Finding a team 2. Getting acquainted with PBL 3. Discussing PBL problems 4. Designing PBL problems and courses. Students worked in tutored teams and went through the seven stages of PBL in the course, from pre-discussion to self-study to post-discussion. The problem, in a slightly meta situation, was how to use and incorporate PBL into one’s own university curriculum.

Because students were from all over the world (my own group included students from both Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Brazil, Bangladesh, and other countries), getting together for a synchronous pre- and post-discussion proved impossible. We worked asynchronously through google docs and other similar online tools, including the online learning platform on which the MOOC was mounted, called NovoEd. The instructors did make an effort to hold Google Hangout sessions for all who could attend, during which student questions were answered and some live interaction between student and instructor was possible.

Other resources available to students included videos of lecturers discussing problem design and creation, as well as videos of students engaged in actual pre- and post-discussions, which I found extremely helpful for understanding how tutors worked in a PBL course. Academic literature on PBL, including reports from instructors and students, was also abundant in the course.

I first attempted to run a course using PBL last year, when I taught the master’s level course in quantitative research methods. When I sought feedback from students at the end of the course, they reported wanting more instruction and demonstration of techniques (especially videos) than I had provided. Now that I have taken Maastricht’s MOOC I have planned a hybrid course this winter, where techniques will be demonstrated up front, followed by the presentation of the problem that will require the application of the technique to solve.

The greatest takeaway for me from the Maastricht MOOC was the idea of PBL as a method for structuring classroom discussions. Developed for medical school, it transfers easily to other professional areas of study, like law and business. In quantitative methods involving mathematical and computing techniques, I believe that more hybrid approaches that allow for direct instruction and demonstration might be appropriate. The same probably holds for language teaching and other fields. That said, quantitative research methods (and other areas that I teach like Geographic Information Systems or GIS) also involve philosophical questions, ethical issues, and reasoning that are highly amenable to PBL-type discussions, so the method remains useful. Thanks to Maastricht’s offering and to my colleagues in the MOOC, I have a better understanding of where to deploy PBL.

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