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McCall, I --- "Online enhanced problem-based learning: assessing a blended learning framework" [2010] LegEdDig 29; (2010) 18(2) Legal Education Digest 46

Online enhanced problem-based learning: assessing a blended learning framework

I McCall

44(1) The Law Teacher, 2010, pp42-58

Most Australian higher education institutions employ at least one Learning Management System (LMS) for online student and course management and to assist with the provision of learning and teaching. If the LMS adopted by an institution is generically available across teaching disciplines, subject coordinators, if they embrace the system, must then decide how it might enhance learning and teaching delivery in their subjects and, perhaps, how to adapt it to achieve their needs. For this they will most likely need assistance to understand, navigate and manage the LMS and to learn new skills to get the best from it. If they are fortunate, there will be an institutional learning development organisation or online tutorials (or both) available to provide this assistance.

This article reports on a project to implement the technology offered by a generic institutional LMS in a course leading to entry level professional qualifications. The principal aims of the project were to deploy online learning tools in the existing course to enhance its flexibility, produce high quality learning experiences for students and retain an appropriate level of face-to-face support and assessment. In this context, key research questions examined are: (1) What is the appropriate blend of face-to-face and online technology that needs to be implemented in the course to assist in producing a high quality flexibly delivered learning environment in the context of a problem-based learning approach? (2) How effective are the online components of the generic LMS in supporting students’ learning within such a blended environment and, in particular, what is the extent to which students used the online discussion forum to support their learning?

The research methodology employed two indicators: (1) The application of a ‘Resources – Tasks – Support’ framework to the blended learning settings in the main transactional case study assessment tasks in business and litigation practice. It facilitated our careful reflection on the students’ problem-based learning tasks as well as the resources, facilitation and support that should be offered within the proposed blended programme. (2) Student evaluation surveys. The course is delivered in both Autumn and Spring semesters and the student evaluations are administered at the conclusion of each course. The evaluations employ a six-point Likert scale and include questions about the students’ perceptions of the value of aspects of the LMS in their learning, including the discussion forum.

Problem solving or the problem method is a learning and teaching methodology employed by many law schools. This approach broadly equates to a process of presentation of a problem scenario to students, their researching the relevant law, acquiring sufficient knowledge to produce a solution, followed by class discussion about the ‘answer’. The advantages of the problem method can be to test students’ knowledge, to develop their ability to analyse and value and to encourage the development of lawyerly skills and professional judgement.

As is by now widely known, problem-based learning (PBL) employs some of the same attributes as the problem method but has a different learning approach in that the focus is on the learning process rather than knowledge acquisition: students learn not just knowledge but the important skills they need to grapple with authentic problems ‘in general and in their discipline’.

The PBL approach involves encouraging students to take an active part in their own learning and ‘requires learners to construct and develop their own knowledge through researching and developing solutions to open-ended, real-life problems’. This approach requires students to work on an issue or a problem, identifying not only its nature but the information they need to ‘synthesise a solution’. Even though a PBL approach involves a focus on learning strategy and not solely on knowledge acquisition, students still have the opportunity to acquire relevant knowledge by using the strategy to recognise what they already know, identify what they need to know to tackle the issues or problem and then seek the information, relevant to their needs.

The experience of trying to resolve ‘real-world’ problems can enhance students’ learning outcomes and PBL can be a valuable addition to course development.

The issues or problems themselves need to be designed with care so that students can effectively take part in the exercise and, therefore, ‘contribute meaningfully’. Further, their contributions and learning outcomes are likely to be more meaningful if they have some grounding and generic skills associated with the problem-solving process.

On balance, the literature suggests that, although some caution is necessary in using a PBL approach, it can produce positive learning and teaching outcomes. In particular, such an approach, if deployed appropriately, can contribute to developing students’ skills of self-reliance and lifelong learning, which are likely to have a longer shelf life and be of more value to them across disciplines and jurisdictions than mere knowledge.

While the literature contains various definitions and descriptions of ‘blended learning’, there seems to be general agreement among writers that the label means a mix of face-to-face and online learning and teaching modes which are delivered in the best balance of active and engaging face-to-face and online learning experiences.

Where institutions have adopted a blended approach, the proportion of face-to-face and online elements varies among subjects and the mix needs to be designed for a variety of audiences.

In the past, some criticism has been levelled at the online component of blended learning principally because its dominant function was perceived by some teachers to be limited to the electronic delivery of content and information such as course materials, lecture notes and slides. However, more recently it has been seen as a way to foster critical thinking as well as facilitating collaborative learning and increased interaction between students and staff through discussion forums and email contact.

The University of Wollongong Professional Legal Training Course (the Course) prepares law students for admission to legal practice, delivering a core curriculum that must comply with the National Competency Standards for Entry Level Lawyers: a series of benchmarks specifying the skills, practice areas and values that must be included in all pre-admission training programs.

The University learning development centre initiated the learning design process for the blended course by suggesting a framework which was a product of an Australian Universities Teaching Committee’s (AUTC) funded project, the results of which were disseminated at its 2002 conference, ‘Reusable Learning Design: Opportunities and Challenges’. This framework employed a ‘Resource – Task – Support’ structure to propose generic face-to-face and online learning activities.

PBL requires students to be active learners, to investigate the issues and relevant information and engage in analytical techniques required to reach a resolution. These characteristics suggest a PBL approach is useful in the preparation of students for a professional environment. In our course, we were preparing people for admission to practise law and the PBL approaches are the strategies many lawyers employ in real life to handle issues in their clients’ cases. So, one of our important aims was to incorporate online technology to enhance this ‘real-life’ learning atmosphere, not only to introduce the problem but also to scaffold the learning experiences in the subsequent stages of the PBL case study.

When we examined the main components of the LMS we were applying to our overall PBL approach, we identified a number of valuable elements: (1) the opportunity to provide a substantial and valuable research database for students including learning materials and resources such as course study guides, commentary and readings, as well as web links to online resources such as the University library, the courts, NSW Parliamentary Counsel’s Office, the NSW Law Society Journal, webcast lectures and other media; (2) a ‘selective release’ facility that can be used to programme in advance the release of: material, information or anything else capable of online transmission to selected students on pre-determined dates; generic feedback or examples of documents on students completing nominated tasks in their coursework; authentic ‘client concern’ memos to students in their case studies prompting them to examine their files, reflect on the actions they have taken to that point and promptly respond to their clients’ concerns; and instructions and materials to selected groups of students on either side of a case study; (3) a calendar tool to record selected events in a subject such as assignments, face-to-face facilitated sessions and assessments, with direct links to each assignment; (4) a strong communications capability outside the institutional student and staff email that allows email exchanges among students and staff either individually or in selected groups; (5) a discussion tool that can be applied to and used within each module of a subject that allowed asynchronous communication on multiple issues (or threads) among staff and students; (6) a separate compartment (folder) that can be created for each module within a subject which can contain information pertinent to the module, links to assignments, assignment material and additional resources such as online links; and (7) a fully self-contained assignment environment that can house: the assignment description, instructions, assessment criteria, instructions and transactional or case study materials to commence the problem-based learning sequence; and the assignment submission area where students can submit their assignment as a Word document with or without comment and the marker can download the assignment, insert feedback, upload the assessed document and have a choice of actions: return the assignment to the student for review and edit, save for later action or return the assignment with or without closing comments and award a final grade.

Online LMS infrastructure such as this can be of great value in supporting a problem-based learning environment for students. It can, for example: (1) provide online ‘triggers’ or ‘starters’ in the form of videos or other media to introduce the ‘problem’ or learning question; (2) release client instructions or requests for advice sequentially during the conduct of the case studies in a ‘real-life’ way; (3) provide, on request, learning resources or assignment materials housed in an online database for independent or group research; and (4) provide opportunities for efficient and valuable communication and collaboration.

The process of adapting the institutional generic LMS for the two main ‘real-life’ learning vehicles in the course – business and litigation practice – involved linking assessment tasks to learning resources and support, including on-campus facilitation and off-campus study and collaboration. Within the basic framework were ‘problems’ in the form of tasks, introduced in face-to-face sessions or released online, on which students worked progressively off-campus, independently and collaboratively (for example, online using the discussion tool); assessment and feedback on assignments, followed by face-to-face analysis, reflection and discussion. These authentic tasks were built into the PBL sequences. Students were required to react to real-life situations that confronted them so that they needed to acquire skills or knowledge (or both) to ‘solve’ the problem (such as advising the client or preparing the appropriate document) and so assemble a solution.

We drew on the AUTC project exemplar as a ‘diagnostic tool’ to identify, assess and validate some of the most important learning and teaching settings in our online enhanced PBL delivery. Importantly, it assisted us to critically examine such aspects as: (1) the need to provide students with course materials and other resources in hard copy, CD or other electronic format; (2) the ease with which students could access, navigate and interact with the online environment and the technical support offered by the University IT facility; (3) the effectiveness of the ‘problems’ we posed in the form of ‘triggers’ and other introductory sequential assignment tasks, that were meant to engage the students in ‘real-life’ practice-oriented activities and the media by which they were (or could be) introduced; (4) when and how we should offer support for students in the form of face-to-face sessions, on-campus individual or group consultations, online discussion, email and online individual or generic feedback; and (5) how and when we might encourage collaboration among students including use of the discussion forum.

The exemplar also enabled us to more clearly identify, evaluate and align the principal resources, learning experiences, facilitation and other support requirements in the course programme for each case study. In this way, we were able to determine whether we had the ‘blend’ or ‘balance’ right in all aspects of the delivery of these key learning and teaching vehicles.

An important opportunity for collaborative learning in the course which we strongly endorse and encourage among the students is contributing to the discussion forum.

It appears that the discussion forum, at least in the two main case study areas in the course, is being under-utilised. In informal feedback, one of the reasons students give for this apparent reluctance to engage in the discussion medium is that it is much easier to just text a question to a colleague rather than having to log into the online program. Some students also report that they are inhibited by the public nature of the medium and do not want to ‘look silly’ by posting ‘dumb’ questions. Despite the apparent lack of active contribution to the discussion forum, there are some encouraging signs in the students’ evaluations reported below, such as students apparently learning from the medium even without contributing to it.

At the end of each semester, we seek feedback from students by way of a student course evaluation related to a number of learning and teaching issues. The surveys use a six-point Likert scale, are administered formally in class and the students’ responses are anonymous. In addressing the questions for this section of the study, we used the results of the students’ surveys from Spring 2008 and Autumn 2009.

Overall, the responses to the focus survey questions suggest that the project we embarked on to adapt the LMS to the needs of our course was successful in enhancing the flexibility of delivery and in contributing to the quality of the students’ learning experiences. The ‘Resources – Tasks – Support’ exemplar assisted us not only to plan and develop an appropriate balance of face-to-face opportunities and online technology within our overall PBL course structure but also to assess the extent to which the settings could contribute to a supportive student-centred learning environment. The students’ survey responses in both semesters indicated that, overall, the majority were satisfied with the level of teacher facilitation and support and also considered the online learning program enhanced their learning.

During the study, we were able to assess the appropriate amount of additional teaching and consultation support that needed to be available to students – by telephone, online and, if necessary, in extra sessions on campus, individually or in groups This aspect is a workload issue that teachers and faculties need to appreciate and take account of when they ponder the value of a blended learning environment, as is the fact that marking online-submitted assignments takes measurably longer than marking hard copy.

The level of positive responses on the value of the online discussion forum was interesting and indicated to us that, even where students might have been reluctant to contribute to the discussion threads, they still apparently read them and they assisted their learning in the course. We see value in finding ways to encourage more participation in the discussion forum, as the asynchronous medium allows students time to develop their responses, come back to a thread with new thoughts when convenient and allows opportunities for contributions from less dominating types of students who might be reluctant to speak up in class.

The work we did in developing and implementing the blended learning course has enabled us to continue to improve the application of the generic online components, in particular, and also to continue to develop our own model for best practice. For us, that work has also reinforced the need for teachers to be clear on the aims and intended outcomes of their subjects and the learning and teaching needs of their students.

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