Problem Based Delivery

Problem-based Delivery (PBD)

Over the period 1999 to 2003 at the Queensland University of Technology QUT), I was seconded to the role of “Science Flexible Delivery Coordinator” where I worked with academic staff to develop and deliver, to students, a series of problem-based learning modules supported by a QUT Large T&L grant with Assistant Dean (T&L), Associate Professor Al Grenfell. The scope of the project was to organize course material in the then Faculty of Science and to present it cogently and creatively in a flexible and online manner. Online learning was still a fairly new development at this time and resources to support it quite limited. Developing support resources was an important part of the role.

Imaginative approaches were used to organize course materials through open-ended problems such as to engage students with deeper learning than provided by conventional descriptive approaches and solution of closed-ended problem sets. Further, they promote the development of a wider range of graduate capabilities as shown in the table below:

PBD Module Content knowledge to be applied Conventional Approach Capabilities Targeted
Car Crash Module – Investigation of a traffic accident (with Darren Pearce) Equations of motion, Newton’s laws, conservation of momentum and energy. Descriptive approach and solution of problem sets involving closed drill problems Deductive reasoning, problem-solving, working in teams, written communication
Apollo 13 Module – How to build a CO2 filter to get the astronauts home safely? Balancing chemical equations, the gas Laws, units of measurement, the mole concept, stoichiometry. Descriptive approach and solution of problem sets involving closed drill problems Analytical thinking and problem solving, working in teams, information literacy, written communication
Fishkill Module – what killed the fish? how to prevent it from happening again? Water quality measurements, eutrophication of water bodies, algal blooms, acid sulfate soils, biodiversity Lectures combined with questions requiring short descriptive answers or short essays Deductive reasoning, forming testable hypotheses, problem-solving, critical thinking, written communication

PBD Teamwork Forum System
The resources developed for the above modules consisted of the Discus Pro [1] discussion forum system which had been developed in the context of chemistry teaching and was very flexibility-configured and purpose-designed for carrying out discussions in Science and Mathematics, including the use of chemical and mathematical equations. The details have been published elsewhere [2]. Sometime later, Darren Pearce added a Sea-level Rise problem module, based upon the physics of (work, heat, and energy) to the suite of PBD modules.

Discus Pro system
Diagram 1: The problem-based team learning system powered by Discus Pro forum.

As an illustration of the problem-based learning system used, refer to the screen image above (Diagram 1) from Semester 2, 2004. The Discus Pro system page is set up as a comprehensive online learning environment for this teaching unit (Physical Science) and is divided length-wise into sections of:

  • General Discussion Area
    • System Announcements
    • General Discussion
    • Feedback
    • Testing Area
  • Problem Module Details
    • Car Crash Problem
    • Apollo 13 Problem
    • Sea-level Rise Problem
  • Team Discussion Areas
    • Team Areas 1-15 (private team discussions – password protected)

Resourcing Issues
Diagram 1 shows the details for a semester 2 class with 68 students divided into around 15 teams. During semester 1, the class sized were typically much larger, for instance in semester 1, 2000 there were 306 students divided into 50 or so teams over two campuses. The “posts” column is Diagram 1 demonstrates that different teams used the forum to different extents. For instance, a total of 15 posts for Team 2 and 209 total posts from Team 6. The use of the forum wasn’t assessable in itself, so teams were free to decide on how they would conduct their own projects. During 2000, when there were 50 or so teams 8 tutors plus the lecturer were used to assist students with the teamwork activities and assessment of project reports. After the T&L grant expired it became hard to fund tutors for this purpose.

Importantly, at that point in time (1999 and later) many were asking “How do I get my students to engage with the discussion forum?” we were able to achieve a high-level of engagement with the PBD discussion forum modules without making contributions to the forum by students formally assessable.  In semester 1, 2000, for instance, the following statistics were observed for the use of the forum over the semester (or averaged over the semester):

Students 306 Pages viewed per visit 8.7
Total page views 92,152 Average visit length 06:50 min.
Pages viewed per student 301 Lecturer/Tutor posts 720
Total visits 10,542 Logged-in student posts 2135
Visits per student 34 Logged-in posts per student 7.0

The results in this table indicate a very advanced level of engagement from students in using the forum to solve the PBD problems cooperatively within the design of the group-learning environment.  Looking at the data presented indicates a high-level of usage of the forum by both students and tutors. Given that use of the forum wasn’t formally assessable, we conclude that many students found the discussion forum convenient for

  • collaborating with their peers without requiring frequent face-to-face meetings, and
  • interacting with the lecturers and tutors.

The next sections focus upon the Apollo 13 and FishKill! modules themselves.

[1] DiscusWare LLC no longer has an active web address for software sales of Discus Pro but the free version, Discus, still powers a number of academic and non-academic fora sites, which can be located by a simple Google search.

[2] Mark Selby and Darren Pearce, “Using the Discus Discussion Forum System in Problem-Based  Learning in Science,” UniServe Science News, Volume 14, November 1999.”