Real Life Stories
A Problem-based Learning Approach in a Virtual Environment
In 2006, Vanier College in Montreal launched a pilot project to create a hybrid course for students in technical programs. These professional programs, which lead directly to the workforce, often attracted students who found work before graduation and did not complete their required core studies. The school’s graduation statistics suffered, and the students were left with an incomplete academic record because of one or two missing courses.
The Pilot Project’s Basic Principles
We therefore began preparing a course in Intermediate French as a Second Language for students whom we assumed would not be very motivated. This was why, whenever possible, we used problem-based learning (Pérez, 2006). One of the strengths of this approach is to engage the student with well-structured pedagogical situations where the emphasis is on motivating active participation. The student learns by actively analyzing, creating and comparing.
The course is 70% on-line, principally in real time through a virtual class using the Via teleconferencing platform, but also in asynchronous mode for team or individual activities such as group discussions and on-line exercises. Thirty percent of the course is classroom based for summative evaluations.
Types of Activities
We created pre-reading activities to stimulate the student’s interest and awareness of the topic of study. A first reading for students to summarize was on the pollution of the Great Lakes. We began by asking students whether they felt that the pollution of these bodies of water could be blamed on Canada or on the United States. Students were always convinced that the blame lied with the Americans whereas it is principally the fault of the Canadians. We didn’t give this response during the course, but during the VIA sessions, we brought our students to question their prejudices by asking them to complete information tables and to generate realistic hypotheses based on the geographic sources of pollution. In the on-line class, students wrote, and their responses appeared on screen. Students were also called upon to speak, and their involvement in the issue was unmistakably genuine. In the following video, you can better grasp how the activity worked.
Problem solving activity in virtual classroom (In French)
After the course finished, students could find out which country was at fault. Furthermore, they were required to answer general and detailed comprehension questions using Netquiz.
Writing a Summary
To follow up reading the text, we prepared an activity based on creating a summary of the same article by presenting students a purposely ill-defined problem. The only instruction was to summarize the article in ten sentences and to transform the information presented in tables using a spreadsheet such as Excel into another form of graphic presentation without giving any examples.
Students were then asked to use a site designed with Netquiz to look at three of the summaries as images that were too small to read, but large enough to analyze (click on the image; Nom : test; Prénom : test). Students discovered information in discussion that was never presented as a lecture. They were asked to compare several summary beginnings and three complete summaries in the same manner. Students were then asked to make a synthesis of all of the elements, which had been pre-selected for their pedagogical value during the last semester. Therefore student production was at the center of learning acquisition.
Has someone developed similar activities? What were the results for student motivation and success? What IT activities have been put in place to help students who are several courses short of obtaining a diploma?