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Author: Suzanne Tapp, Andrea McCourt, and Jillian Yarbrough

How do you inspire your online students to move beyond making status quo postings in your discussion component and lackluster responses to their peers? Is there a way to get students engaged in meaningful group work in the online classroom? Consider using problem-based learning (PBL) to transform your discussions with either a low-risk, one-time implementation scenario (much like a case study) or a more in-depth group project that spans several weeks. PBL is an active learning strategy in which students are presented with a “real life” problem and asked to present problem-solving solutions using a framework that asks them to examine what they know, what they need to know/research, and then what they recommend (Rico & Ertmer, 2015). There are a variety of ways to incorporate it into your online course. Case studies are an excellent way to integrate PBL into online discussion. A case study requires students to analyze a discipline-based situation as well as the context of that situation in order to generate workable solutions. Students are then asked to support those solutions with theories, logic, and/or facts. Case studies allow students to apply class topics and materials to real-world scenarios by using critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Many case studies can be simplified to make them appropriate for online discussion. For example, rather than requiring students to provide a full case study analysis, consider asking just one discussion question that focuses on a single step in the case study process. This might involve asking students to (1) discuss one of the major problems related to the case, (2) identify tools that professionals might use to solve the problem, (3) generate a list of what they already know about the topic and/or need to know in order to solve the problem, (4) analyze statistics related to the case, or (5) generate and defend a viable solution to the case. The team component of PBL can also be incorporated into online classes. One team PBL activity we successfully adapted for the online classroom is a “negotiation simulation” for a class on employee and labor relations. This assignment required teams of students to adopt differing perspectives (labor union versus organization management) about priorities for an employment contract. Each team member was asked to develop an initial contract offer that matched his or her team's assigned perspective. Teams then needed to incorporate all of their team's individual assignments into a single document that represented their team's initial contract offer. This process was conducted through team discussion boards. To add another element of negotiation to this assignment, we created an all-class discussion board where all teams posted their final contract offers. The students were asked to review and comment on at least two contracts posted by an “opposing” team (e.g., a member of a union team might make recommendations to a management team for how to make their offer more appealing to a union). While the contract component of this assignment is discipline-specific, this process could be used to have students debate a wide variety of topics in other classes. While students like PBL in general, educators and students alike realize that group work comes with challenges. Provide as much structure and direction to students as possible, particularly the first time that a PBL strategy is introduced to the course. We recommend that students be graded as groups and individually for their contributions, and that groups organize their work on a system that the instructor can monitor, such as a Google Doc. Younger undergraduate students in particular often appreciate the input of the instructor if the group dynamics go awry. To help avoid miscommunication about workload, consider assigning roles to group members, such as the group leader, the recorder, the person who submits the final product on behalf of the group, and so on. It may also be a good idea to assign individual “prework” regarding the problem prior to the first group meeting so each person brings something to the table and there are clear expectations for the first discussion or meeting. For instructors adopting a PBL strategy for the first time, we recommend starting small and beginning with one discussion question before working up to higher-risk, more involved PBL activities. Try using concrete, real-world problems that are easy to understand so that students have a positive first experience with dynamic contributions from classmates. Students will also adapt more easily to a new technique if they understand the expectations and assessments ahead of time, so be certain to provide the assessment criteria and/or rubric prior to the beginning of the activity. And perhaps the most important piece of advice for PBL: Remember that there will not be one perfect answer! Allow for individuality and innovation—and even failure—in the answers that your students provide. Reference: Rico, R. & Ertmer, P. (2015). Examining the Role of the Instructor in Problem-centered Instruction. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 59(4), 96-103. Suzanne Tapp is the director of the Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center; Andrea McCourt is the program director for human resource development; and Jillian Yarbrough is an instructor of university studies at Texas Tech University.