Musings on completing a PBL MOOC about PBL (problem-based learning)

Early December I completed the MOOC ‘Problem-Based Learning: Principles and Design’ organised by Maastricht University: a course where participants “learn about PBL by doing PBL”. It’s the first of many attempted MOOCs that I actually finish.

This blog post is a summary of musings and reflections following this experience. It talks about problem-based learning (PBL) as well as the PBL MOOC and MOOCs in general.

Here goes…

Learning design (or ‘instructional design’ if you prefer) is a weak point in MOOCs. They are often organized by universities and therefore stuck in the sector’s ‘content + discussion + assignment’ model. I had in fact hoped that a PBL MOOC on PBL would turn this upside down – that’s what PBL usually does. But the typical university approach prevailed.

Through this experience and the PBL examples which we were exposed to in this MOOC, I found that PBL at universities is different to the PBL we apply in eWorkshops for professional development. PBL at universities is generally more focused on ‘talking about’ the problem and ‘reading about’ the problem (long lists of references to academic papers that also talk about the problem), rather than solving the problem and tapping into people’s real-life experience and insights. I find this frustrating: looking for information should feed into the process of solving a real problem – it shouldn’t BE the process.

Most PBL examples from universities (except in science and health – see below) are not too hung up about providing a complex, ill-structured and real-life problem for learners to solve. The ‘problems’ at the start of each task in the PBL MOOC consisted of one paragraph ‘contexts’ followed by a question. However, there is more focus on following a prescribed task process, i.e. the Maastricht Seven Step procedure of PBL: (1) clarifying terms, (2) defining the problem, (3) brainstorming, (4) structuring and hypothesis, (5) learning objectives, (6) searching for information, (7) synthesis.

These 7 steps are not the steps one would use in real life when solving a problem. So although the academic resources provided in the MOOC point to the importance of using a ‘real-life’ problem in PBL, the ‘real-life’ doesn’t extend to the solving part. The ‘problem’ (if you can call it that) is instead taken through a rigorous ‘system’ of analysis that has a distinct ‘course’ flavour.

This is where the approach used by the private/government/NGO sectors differs. There is very little writing about the use of PBL in these sectors and it’s rarely captured in academic research (which typically focuses on analysing behaviours of students in university courses or schools). However, anecdotal evidence seems to point to a model that focuses on problem SOLVING, along the lines of: “You are a [e.g. marketing professional], this is the situation/problem, decide how you would solve it (use prior knowledge or search for information that can help, negotiate with your teammates and agree on one way forward), produce a real-life deliverable [e.g. e-marketing strategy, prototype website etc.]”. This reflects my own experience with PBL in the eWorkshops we develop for the NGO sector.

So the following questions remain: Although very different, are both approaches considered PBL in their own right? Is the only requirement for a learning approach to be called PBL that there is a ‘problem’ at the start, even a tiny and superficial one? Or can the university sector claim they set the parameters for what is and what isn’t PBL (they are doing the research after all)? If so, what exactly are these parameters? And if we in the professional development sector don’t fit, what are we going to call our approach?

As a participant in this MOOC, I realized that learning design professionals from outside the university sector have higher expectations around task design (including the way learning support is designed) than people who work in the system. I found this to be true in this MOOC as well as other MOOCs which I started in the past. Because learning designers in other sectors can’t use assessment as an extrinsic motivator, we have to pay much more attention to sound instructional/learning design, including in PBL courses. This means that when we build online workshops and e-courses built on a backbone of real-life problems, we typically invest far more time on designing these problems, as well as testing them to ensure instructions/scaffolding/supporting procedural information are crystal clear (in DynaMind it’s not unusual to spend up to one week on the design of one collaborative task). Learning tasks in MOOCs are typically uninteresting because universities aren’t into this stuff, and I think this is one of the main reasons so many people drop out.

Science students are lucky. They get better PBL than students of other subjects at university. That was quite clear when exploring the examples given to us and those we found ourselves in our web quests. Humanities students tend to miss out: PBL problems in that sector typically aren’t real problems and the whole exercise is often a weak attempt to add some context to the traditional approach of ‘read this, discuss, and submit your assignment’. There is a lot of misunderstanding around what a good ‘problem’ is – the best examples came from the science faculties.

I wish I was a scientist… because I could learn from fellow scientists in science MOOCs. When scientists run MOOCs, they are interested in what their learners bring to the learning event. There tends to be a stronger sense of partnership. Who knows, the next science wizard could be among the learners… In contrast, in MOOCs about education or training, the prime interest of the organizers often seems to be to observe how people learn in the MOOC. The ‘meta’ takes over and participants become research subjects, whether they agreed or not. That’s where the organizers’ time is typically invested, not in having a genuinely interesting dialogue with fellow professionals who attend the MOOC. This has an impact on learners’ behavior of course, but I doubt this bias is captured in the resulting research papers.

There seems to be a prevailing idea that learners who are new to a topic should not be thrown into the deep end and solve a problem as soon as they start a course; they need to read about ‘the topic’ first. I disagree. I don’t believe people new to a topic are particularly well served by courses that focus on ‘talking about’ instead of ‘doing’. The ‘talking about’ should serve the ‘doing’ – real practical problems should drive these efforts. Yes, it’s challenging to learn like that but it’s also much more interesting – after all, that’s what PBL is about. Having two streams for ‘experienced’ people on the one hand and ‘newbies’ on the other hand would contradict the very principles of PBL.

MOOCs have low completion rates for a variety of reasons. People register, have a look and leave again – that’s just fine. However, little is being said about the many learners who would be very keen to stay on board if only the course would be more interesting. MOOCs should be much more than throwing resources at people and leave it to them to find purpose and meaning. We (self-directed learners) do this online on our own all the time. The C in MOOC stands for ‘course’ and that comes with the expectation that someone out there has actually made the effort to design a meaningful learning event with interesting real-life tasks.

Therefore, the premise that “MOOCs typically have low completion rates, so we’re just fine” is disappointing. Low expectations mean there will be low commitment to address the inherent problems – and there are many. MOOCs have great potential. It would be a pity to avoid the hard work necessary to make them better. PBL could be part of the solution, provided much greater effort goes into problem design.

Earn the privilege to train your learners
Universities’ e-tutoring methods should not be used in facilitated professional development


1 Comment. Leave new

  • Highly informative article, succinctly stating the argument around PBL.
    An article that certainly makes one to reflect on their own practice.


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