Online Problem-Based Learning


With a DE student cohort of over 100 students per subject in the core subjects of the School of Agriculture and Wine Sciences (SAWS) courses and high attrition, new models are needed which engage students, motivate them to self-direct their learning, and sustain their motivation over the course to improve student retention. This project used key elements of a problem based learning (PBL) approach, in a scaffolded and supportive online environment, across three core subjects offered in a suite of nine SAWS courses. It was envisaged that a constructive alignment approach using an online PBL method of delivery, scaffolded online interactions with peers, and authentic assessment tasks that aligned with a PBL approach would reduce attrition, enhance student engagement, and provide a framework for consideration by other courses.


The project had a number of aims:

  1. Reduce attrition by at least 5% and increase student engagement as evidenced by retention statistics, SES, SEQ, and CEQ evaluations.

  2. Facilitate learner-learner engagement (as per the CSU Draft DE strategy, 2014).

  3. Provide a cost efficient framework for the delivery of online collaborative learning using a PBL approach which can be adopted by others.

  4. A staff development and student induction regime for the facilitation of online PBL.


An action research approach was used in the way that each implementation of the online PBL process was slightly modified for improvement based on student and staff feedback, as well as analysis of the student interaction within Adobe Connect pages. The ways in which the implementation developed over time are illustrated in Table 1, Appendix B. Although the essential features underpinning online PBL remained unchanged, the incorporation of additional elements helped to refine the implementation strategy. The unchanged elements were the use of Adobe Connect and the basic layout structure (included in Appendix C). In each cohort, PBL occurred over a three week period, subject level online meetings (OLMs) were held weekly to provide feedback to each cohort and present an overview of what was expected in the forthcoming week, and students posted Weekly Summaries (or milestones) of their group’s progress each week to the subject discussion forum. PBL cases were purposefully developed by the project officer in consultation with the subject coordinator and drawing on real cases from industry reports or subject coordinator expertise. Tutor guides were developed which included the expected student learning outcomes and responses based on a framework developed by the Sydney Medical School.

Staff attended a two hour ‘orientation to PBL’ training workshop and were provided with lists of relevant discussion questions for each case. Both subject staff and the project officer checked into the online PBL meeting rooms in Adobe Connect of each group every two days to provide feedback, direction, and support.


Some of the key findings of this project were:

  1. Collaborative small group work is a useful method to promote student interaction in Distance education and Adobe Connect is a suitable tool to support this in large cohorts.

  2. Group based assessment tasks enhance the collaboration of students and a sense of belonging to a discipline area.

  3. Student opinion was mixed about their enjoyment of the task and not all students performed well, but the majority of survey and interview respondents, as well as student reflection assignments showed that students commented favourably on the relevance of gaining experience working collaboratively with others, enhanced communication skills, use of authentic assessment tasks, and upskilling of technological literacy and the applicability of all of these skills for the workplace.

  4. The learning activity is especially useful if course coordinators are seeking to improve students’ metacognitive abilities.

  5. Five clear factors emerged from the survey evaluation which was validated through Rasch analysis and triangulated with qualitative data. These factors are: Cognitive engagement, Success factors, Metacognitive behaviours, Collaborative learning outcomes, and Social outcomes and benefits.

  6. Results are independent of degree enrolled in.

  7. Students who are overcommitted may benefit the most from scheduled, assessed, and scaffolded online group tasks in terms of collaborative learning outcomes.

  8. Attitudes towards collaborative learning outcomes are mixed, depending on the extent of participation by others within the group.