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Contemporary PBL challenges

Even though PBL has been an internationally acclaimed pedagogical innovation, it also faces a number of complex challenges:

One of the main challenges is to develop PBL models so they remain relevant and continues to be viewed internationally as a radical pedagogical innovation which provides students with PBL competences relevant and necessary in a digital age. The push for a digital agenda comes from two sides:

1) from a political, societal and global perspective where there is a strong focus on the development of ICT competences and transferable skills (such as collaboration skills) in education for a digital age (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009; DuFour & DuFour, 2010; Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Rotherham & Willingham, 2010).

Most recently, in a Danish context represented by a report from “Danmarks Vækstråd” (2016); and 2) from a student perspective where they bring with them different experiences and expectations in relation to the use of digital media for their education, indicating that teachers need to extend and transform PBL through the use of digital media.

In order to address these challenges, AAU stands in a particularly strong position. The fundamental unity in the AAU PBL model, consisting of a mix of collaboration skills and subject specific professional knowledge, mirror the societal need for transferable skills. Therefore, the challenge for the AAU PBL model is to expand this unity by embracing and integrating digital competences.

In the following, we list five key challenges identified as central to the future development of PBL competences at AAU in a digital age. The challenges will be studied in a common baseline and scenario study and four subprojects. 

Challenge 1: What are the current AAU PBL competences

A central characteristic for the AAU PBL model is that the acquisition of PBL competences is an integrated part of the educational programs.

The competence concept is relatively wide and can be described as sufficiency of knowledge and skills that potentially enable to act in a variety of contexts. PBL competences, in particular, can be described as acquisition of flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills, self-directed learning skills, effective collaboration skills, and intrinsic motivation, which all are very much aligned with the 21st century skills (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Rotherham & Willingham, 2010).

However, the AAU model expands this list of competences to include students’ abilities to identify problems, work interdisciplinary and apply project management skills (University, 2015a, 2015b).

In many traditional higher education systems, curriculums include objectives that students should acquire competences similar to these. While it is true that such competences are learned in different ways, the integrated learning process of the AAU PBL model has the advantage that students learn to share knowledge and collaborate, not only within the groups, but also within the subjects (Zhou & Kolmos, 2013).

However, the disadvantages of integrated learning are that competences may become tacit and implicit unless they are explicitly reflected on and conceptualised. For this reason, all first-year AAU programs introduce students to PBL, and some programs and faculties also have an element where students learn to reflect on their learning of the PBL competences. Later in their education, however, there is no systematic reflection on the PBL competences and this could impact the students’ progression.

Despite the fact that AAU supports the students’ learning of PBL competences, no systematic, explicit knowledge exists in the university system of how the current practices on PBL competences is evolving. What is the state of the art across faculties, programs and semesters? What are the present strengths and weaknesses? And what is the uniqueness and the potential of the PBL competences in a digital age? The baseline study will address these issues further and the results will be applied in all the subprojects 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Challenge 2: Problems as the driver for learning

A feature of the AAU PBL model is the core PBL competences of problem identification and problem solving in the projects. This AAU tradition allows the students to formulate problems which drive the learning in the project – and which is very often done in collaboration with external stakeholders, such as public institutions or private companies.

This is a unique component of AAU’s learning model compared to the tradition of problem design in other PBL systems in which academic staff formulate and design the problems/cases/projects for the students who have less influence on their own learning process (Savery, 2015).

The participatory AAU approach has been challenged in the period after 2010 where focus on the disciplines has become stronger. In particular, this has had an impact on the design of the problems and the abilities of the students to formulate their own problems.

Consequently, a need exists to map existing practices of problem identification and study the importance of students identifying problems and how this shapes their learning process, achievement of knowledge, skills and competence development. Furthermore, given the digital context of this research project, a need also occurs to study how new digital tools influence the students’ problem identification process. These questions will be addressed in subproject 1.

Challenge 3: Integration of digital technologies

and collaboration skills

A core characteristic of the AAU PBL model and the PBL competences is that students work closely together in groups over an extended period of time. While historically, this work has taken place in group rooms, it is also clear that the emergence of digital technology is transforming how students work together.

Increasingly, students (and professionals) are working and learning in hybrid environments where digital and physical spaces merge and where students need to work together across physical locations and time zones. These changes, together with limitations of available physical spaces, create new conditions for group work and result in demands for new or changed forms of collaboration skills.

Only limited studies exist on analysing how the increase in use of digital media affects students’ project work and how this impacts their development of collaboration skills as an essential part of PBL competences. In terms of existing practice at AAU, we are not yet sufficiently aware of what digital tools the AAU students use in general or how the adoption of new media influences their learning.

These basic questions will be addressed in the base line study whereas subproject 2 will address how digital technologies have changed PBL practices and what skills students develop or need to develop in order to master advanced digitally mediated collaboration practices.

Challenge 4: The impact of digital technologies

on the interplay between courses and projects

Another distinct characteristic of the Aalborg PBL Model is the unique interplay between courses and project work at a semester level. As a consequence of the AAU reform in 2010, many of the AAU programs have applied a new curriculum structure with three parallel courses and one project module.

An unfortunate and unforeseen consequence has been that the interaction between the study activities has become less coordinated, thus impacting on the interplay between courses and projects (Kolmos et al., 2013). Another more global trend emphasizes the focus on course activities. Today, universities all over the world are experimenting with flipped classroom pedagogy and the integration of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OERs) as part of on-campus courses. This is also a trend of interest within AAU and can certainly lead to interesting pedagogical innovations.

However, a caveat is that flipped classroom is typically a pedagogy employed for individual courses, and it is a challenge what flipped pedagogy means in relation to problem and project based group work, as well as how this reverberates to the courses.

The interplay and organisation of project work and courses at semester level provides AAU with an unique opportunity to develop a radically new pedagogical organisation; namely what presently has been termed flipped curriculum (Ortiz, 2016) or what we could call flipped semester. The challenge would be to re-conceptualise not only individual courses, but also to re-think the entire organisation of a semester.

How could semesters be organised with student projects and problems as drivers, and where courses would take advantage of OERs and MOOCs as an open exploratory process negotiated amongst students and teachers, semester coordinators and supervisors? This will be addressed in subproject 4.

Challenge 5: Reflecting on PBL competences

by the individual student

Finally, students’ development of transferable collaboration skills is at the heart of the AAU PBL model and often a reason for its popularity amongst employers. However, with the lack of ongoing reflection during the study and the tendency towards implicit learning in groups, it may be difficult for the individual to grasp the specific learning outcomes they have acquired from different courses and projects, within and across semesters. This could result in a lack of individual awareness of his/her PBL competences when students enter the labour market.

Studies indicate that in the engineering field, the gap between education and work is less significant compared to the rest of the Danish institutions (Kolmos & Bylov, 2016; Tymon, 2011). However, studies also show that students find it difficult to understand and articulate the collaboration skills they acquire through their group work (Kolmos, 1999).

While Krogh and Jensen (2013) report about the practice at AAU of Students Development Dialogues which are individual reflective discussions with supervisors, those are not conducted systematically. This gives rise to the question, if a facilitated individual reflection tool utilising digital media - such as an e-portfolio - can help students in their preparation for their future work life? This question will be addressed in subproject 3.