Blended Problem Based Learning


Summary

John Bennett in the York Law School used a Blended Learning approach for postgraduate students on the LLM International Corporate and Commercial Law programme. He used the blog tool in the VLE to allow students to post their research findings to share with the group, and students could then comment on. Group wikis were then used to present the group’s final solutions to the tutor.

Keywords: collaboration, group work, critical skills, blogs, wikis

Aims and Objectives

This case study focuses on a blended design approach for a new postgraduate LLM International Corporate and Commercial Law programme at the University of York, which was first delivered to students in October 2009 using a combination of lectures, discursive seminars and problem based learning (PBL) activities.  The use of problem based learning is presented to students as a core element of their study programme, enabling them to focus on aspects of law which have been introduced in the seminars and lectures.

A defining characteristic of the postgraduate curriculum design relates to the level of student autonomy in the performance of PBL tasks. The LLM model follows an open discovery model, which is closely associated with andragogical self-directed learning. A dedicated PBL tutor, (who may be a member of the general teaching staff, or who may be dedicated to PBL work), oversees the learning process with students given a freer hand to determine their learning objectives, how to address them and to evaluate what they have learned.

Another key characteristic of the LLM approach is the integrated use of ICT tools to support the performance of the unguided group research tasks – an essential part of the blend in course delivery and study methods. The selection of collaborative tools and a virtual space for student-managed activity aligns with the philosophy of the teaching programme, to foster self- and group-management skills expected of students at this level. Web 2.0 tools assist with this process, with a group blog used to support information sharing and discussion of the problem and a wiki tool for the presentation of a group’s combined solution. The emphasis on virtual collaboration is also intended to be enabling for postgraduate students, who are geographically dispersed and unable to collaborate face-to-face during the period of unguided group work, given that there is no requirement to be resident on campus during the period of self-study.

Overview

The 2009-10 LLM programme was designed to include an assessed PBL activity in each module, worth 30% of the total marks on offer to students in the module assessment. The PBL activity followed on after the delivery of introductory lectures and seminars by the teaching staff, which provided students with a theoretical overview of the key themes of the module. The PBL cycle ran over one week, from the introduction of the problem to the submission of a group solution by students. This involved two key elements: in the first part of the cycle learning outcomes would be developed and in the second part of the cycle the students would feedback their research on those learning outcomes and apply them to the original problem. Once initiated, each PBL cycle was designed to run as a ‘stand-alone’ activity, exploring a practical aspect of law which not been dealt with in detail in the seminar, with a dedicated tutor overseeing the cycle.

At the start of each cycle, a new PBL problem was introduced ‘cold’ to students in a face-to-face session, with the PBL tutor acting as facilitator and providing feedback on the performance of the group. The problem took the form of a case history, which students were invited to analyse and then to develop “learning outcomes”, which were areas of law that they had chosen (supported by the PBL tutor as facilitator). These learning outcomes were self-selected as being necessary learning to enable the group to advise on the problem. The role of the PBL tutor was limited to helping the students frame the particular learning outcomes so that they were not too broad to be researched within the timescale and in such a form that there were suitable materials for the research readily available. For example, one problem in the Law and Commercial Transactions module was presented as a summary of contract negotiations between two parties, with students invited to analyse the terms and conditions for the commercial transaction under negotiation, determining whether an agreement had been reached. Learning outcomes related to the rules governing the reaching of agreement (and therefore forming a contract) under English Law.

For each problem, a student acting as Managing Partner or Chair assumed responsibility for leading the discussion and managing the interaction of the group, and another student acted as Scribe, recording the details and outcomes of the discussion. These roles were rotated amongst the group over the period of the module to ensure that all students had the opportunity to participate. In these sessions the students identified and shared their prior knowledge as well as developing the learning outcomes and priorities for the group research task, which were elicited through a brainstorming exercise facilitated by the PBL tutor. The learning then moved to the self-managed collaborative space on the University’s virtual learning environment (VLE), where students were presented with the group wiki and blog tools (Learning Objects Campus Pack 3 tools hosted within the Blackboard VLE) to manage their own research activity to address the learning outcomes and seek an agreed solution to the problem. At this stage of the PBL cycle, it was anticipated that students would engage in self-directed learning, researching solutions to all of the targeted learning outcomes for the problem under review.

In the second part of the cycle, the Chair and the group would “feedback” their research in the presence of PBL tutor and show their understanding of that knowledge by applying it to the original problem.

Methodology

The design of the course was inspired by the introductory VLE training that the original programme leader – Professor Stefan Enchelmaier – took over the summer of 2008. The ELDT provided training on wikis and blogs and how to set them up appropriately for group activities.

Students were presented with a group blog tool to present their draft solutions to each learning outcome that had been identified in the face-to-face brainstorming exercise. The choice of a group blog tool was intentional, with the aim of supporting an open and free-flowing discussion, rather than a predefined or structured discussion mediated through a discussion forum. Reflections on all the learning outcomes were to be captured in holistic posts, with students setting out their individual perspectives on the problem. The collaborative process was intended to follow on from this, when students were in a position to share their findings and engage in the problem solving process as a group, negotiating and constructing new knowledge online. Discussion was conducted through the blog, with a commenting facility also made available for students who wanted to attach responses to specific blog posts from their peers.

The group wiki was reserved as the space for the presentation of the group’s finalised solution, drawing on the blog postings and combined research effort.  Students were encouraged to reach an agreed group solution to the problem, although the scribe could record differing interpretations to aspects of the problem in the final wiki report if disagreements existed within the group

The research and negotiation of the finalised solution (the obtaining of the knowledge and the first attempts at application of the learning outcomes to the original problem) were intended to be unguided, with no input from the PBL tutor, although an interim face-to-face meeting was convened midway through each exercise to check that students were on the right track. Individual contributions to the group work were assessed as 30% of the coursework mark for the module, acting as an incentive for engagement, group participation and adoption of the targeted learning methods.

Reflections

Students gradually embraced the study methods and online learning as they became familiar with them, viewing the collaborative tools as enablers rather than barriers in supporting the development of critical discourse. Evidence of higher order thinking was revealed in their blog posts, with developed lines of argumentation, moving beyond opinion-based conclusions to reasoned discussions on the issues at stake in the case problem. This extended to disagreements and questions, with group members perceiving the virtual space as a place to log issues that they were struggling with, thereby making their working process transparent to the course instructor.

The emphasis on communication through blog posts appeared to help students to engage in reflective thinking, obliging them to take a position on all the learning outcomes to demonstrate their learning to their peers. Disagreements led in some cases to the revision of original arguments, with individuals posting corrections to their original posts, acknowledging the input that they had received from other participants. This helped students to reach broad agreement on their solutions to each problem, which were then posted on the group wiki by the PBL Scribe

Transferable lessons learned

In their reflections on the unguided PBL research activities, students noted that they would have liked feedback on their individual contributions to the research process, and these comments may reflect a lack of confidence and familiarity with the unguided group research approach, relating to what they were expected to do.

A learning point from the 2009-10 cohort is to invest more time up-front in the introduction of PBL to students, offering a trial PBL cycle during which individual feedback is given to students, so that they are clear on what’s expected of them and how to approach the unguided PBL research activities when they tackle the assessed tasks. Getting the induction right – specifically the introduction to the tools and the learning approach that students will adopt – is crucial, and far more important than assessment drivers in encouraging students to engage with the targeted online tasks.

This process has been pursued with subsequent cohorts, including providing detailed written guidance on the PBL process, example exercises and more formal and structured assessment (including individual written feedback). In the 2012/13 cohort for example, for the assessment the students were required to reflect upon their own learning and the group’s learning and to comment on how their own individual VLE contributions supported that overall group learning. This was intended as a “virtuous cycle” with students formally reflecting on their own support for group learning and evidencing this from VLE submissions, and then improving the standard of their own contributions in later modules on the course

Next Steps

Case Study last updated: February 2014

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