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Learning about Problem-Based Learning in the style of Problem-Based Learning

Learning about Problem-Based Learning in the style of Problem-Based Learning

Photographer:Fotograaf: collage: Simone Golob

MAASTRICHT. It is a worldwide first; MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by Maastricht University, to be launched after the summer, is the first online course to be given in the style of problem-based learning. UM employees can try MOOC out from 11 May.

A lecturer who takes on the role of tutor for the first time, a block co-ordinator who has to think up problems that can be dealt with in a tutorial group, or a director who wants to know whether problem-based learning is something for his institute. They can all learn something from UM MOOC about Problem-Based Learning, or PBL. A course that is unique in its setup: where MOOCs are usually created according to a traditional teaching method, this is the first time that PBL is being applied on a large scale.

After enrolling, the participant will be asked to form a group with other students. After a brief explanation, they are presented with a problem by means of short videos and articles, which they are asked to deal with as a group. Instead of getting together in a classroom, the online tutorial group meets using Skype or Google Hangouts (synchronised working), or choose to work together asynchronously using chat or a wiki. The group assignments are not checked by a lecturer, but by another group. The group members are not given a grade by a tutor, but by each other.

A team of employees and students from various faculties and the university library have worked on MOOC for eighteen months. There were quite a few discussions, says educationalist and project leader Daniëlle Verstegen. “Is it still PBL if there is no tutor? Should you force people to work in small groups? We talked long about those kinds of questions. Even if MOOC is not successful, this project has at least produced a solid internal discussion about PBL.”

Certain problems had to be overcome, such as the large number of dropouts at MOOCs. “We will make the groups larger than normal: 12 to 15 members,” says Verstegen.  ”That way, if half of them drop out, you still have a reasonable number left. Dropout rates for MOOCs range from 60 to 98 per cent, so tremendously high. We hope to be able to curb that by having people fill in a profile and choosing their own group, to make them feel more involved in the course, but it will happen anyway. In a way, that is not so terrible, if people feel after completing part of the course that they know enough, then that is fine.” If some groups become very small, they will receive an automatic e-mail that suggests that the members join up with another shrunken group.

The MOOC platform also had to be suitable for groups to meet up with each other. “We finally chose a Stanford platform, NovoEd, because this is the only platform that focuses a great deal on the social aspect of learning. For example, they facilitate working in groups, and allow members to start and follow discussions.”

Participants can choose from three tracks: Teaching/tutoring in PBL, Design/development of PBL problems and course, and Assessment/organization in PBL. “We focus in particular on professionals: lecturers and educationalists. Some will have absolutely no experience with PBL, while others may only want to see how such a MOOC works.” The participants will need to spend about 4-8 hours a week on the course. “It depends on how much experience you already have.”

The course will be co-ordinated by three lecturers; in addition to Verstegen, there are Herco Fonteijn and Geraldine Clarebout. “There will be a live session every week, in which we talk about something that is relevant at that moment,” says Verstegen. “For example, popular discussions or frequently asked questions. If there is a specific problem, we can also invite other lecturers to come and explain the topic in greater detail.”

The course will be put online in autumn, but before that there will be a pilot for UM employees. “The MOOCs at Stanford have an average of 10 thousand participants. We want to try it out on a smaller scale before we start with such large groups.” Verstegen hopes to receive a lot of input. “Does it work? Does everyone understand it? What do they think about the teaching material? Do they themselves have any material lying around that might be suitable for the course? But also: what do they think about this setup? And about MOOCs in general? If this works out well, this MOOC could be the model for further UM MOOCs. But it is also possible that next year we say: No, this is not for us.”


The MOOC on PBL starts on 11 May. You can enrol now using this link:


Online and traditional education, you can’t have one without the other

Online education is getting increasingly popular, not in the last place because of the massive open online courses. The American universities Harvard and MIT have listed the developments in a report.

The possibilities of online lectures and testing are used more and more in higher education: 83 per cent of the bachelor’s students at MIT have taken subjects of which part of the programme was given online. MOOC platforms owe a substantial part of their growth to the expanding number of courses and closer co-operation between institutes. So it does not look like traditional universities and schools of higher education are biting the dust: MOOCs need the co-operation with traditional education.

In addition, the number of MOOC participants is not growing very rapidly, according to researchers. In a little more than two years, one million students have enrolled in one of the 68 courses provided by Harvard or MIT through the online platform EdX. That sounds like an enormous group of students, but the authors compared the growth of EdX with that of Facebook: the social network site grew much faster in its initial years.

Harvard and MIT have noticed that more and more students enrol in courses that fit well together. Students participating in a MOOC about poverty, for example, also enrol in courses about health care and statistics. It appears that people are putting their own study programmes together.

At the same time, this does not mean that they reach the final goal. Because not everyone has the ambition to achieve a certificate: the researchers’ survey shows that 57 per cent of the students were planning on going all the way. That was already the case when there were only a few of courses online, and that has not changed.




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