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April 09, 2008

eCoaching Tip #58

Reaching the Heights of Learning with Authentic Problem-Solving

This tip focuses on activities and strategies that you can use to create effective problem-solving experiences in your online course. The general rule of thumb for problem learning is to incorporate problems that are as "authentic as possible." What is meant by authentic? One definition is that "authentic learning" is "uses real-world problems and projects and that allow students to explore and discuss these problems in ways that are relevant to them." (Carlson, 2001)

This tip explores ways that you can take small practical steps towards incorporating authentic problem-solving into your courses. At the same time, there are references for examining the role of simulations and games that you may want to pursue in looking towards the future! You may also want to refer back to a previous tip from last summer on "What-if" scenarios. Tip 48 (Summer 2007)

Refreshing Our Thinking about Types of Course Content

As you may recall from previous tips, one content model categorizes course resources into four content types: (1) core concept content; (2) simple application content; (3) more complex applications and problem-solving for which solutions are available and (4) authentic, real and immediate problems for which solutions may not be known.

In the face-to-face classroom simple problem-solving is often led by the faculty in a synchronous meeting, and taking the learners step-by-step through a problem solution. In the online environment, this modeling of problem-solving is often done with either prerecorded tutorials, spontaneous online classroom or text materials.

More complex problem-solving activities usually combine individual and small group work followed by sustained synchronous conversation. In other words, more complex problem-solving is often not one activity but usually a sequence of activities. These activities encourage individuals to do some initial thinking and searching on their own; share some of this "thought work" with others and then possible solutions and alternatives are processed in a group setting.

Steps in Problem-Solving

Your learners can often benefit from help in understanding the phases in problem-solving. You may want to adopt one of problem-solving "step" approaches that are recommended for general real world problem-solving. Here is a seven (7) step process that you can consider. A website with descriptions of each of the seven steps is available here -- www.pitt.edu/~groups/probsolv.html. For math problems and other engineering types of problems, a four (4) step process initially developed by G. Polya might be preferred. www.math.utah.edu/~pa/math/polya.html

Here is the seven-step process.

  1. Define and Identify the Problem

  2. Analyze the Problem

  3. Identifying Possible Solutions

  4. Selecting the Best Solutions

  5. Evaluating Solutions

  6. Develop an Action Plan

  7. Implement the Solution

The next part of this tip details out examples of how you may want to approach problem-solving strategies in your course. For example, one strategy to keep as an option is to only do parts of the more complex and authentic problem-solving in any one course, particularly if you have a short eight-week term. But more on that later.

Problem-solving Phase One -- Individual Starting Points

Let's assume that the end goal of this authentic problem-solving assignment is to do one of the following:

  • Create a vision for the next stage of growth for a company
  • Develop a report on possible alternatives for solving a leadership problem
  • Critique and provide alternatives to the statistical methods used in a study
  • Develop recommendations for a problem -- tied to the course content, of course -- in the workplace that one or more of the learners is experiencing (tied to the course content, of course.)
  • Identify and analyze environmentally-safe or friendly products for cleaning in your area

The first steps to solving any problem involve analyzing the problem and envisioning what a successful outcome might look like. As this is a skill that we want all learners to develop, it is good to have the students spend some time analyzing just what the problem is and what that end result might look like.

So the first phase is to have the learners approach this problem individually and record or capture their initial thoughts about what the problem is and how to approach it. This first step can be done as an assignment that is then posted in a learner's blog or in a discussion board. This assignment is not intended to be long or complex, but the starting point that shows thought, questioning and possible initial research.

Another option, of course, is to have the students work in small groups or teams in this initial phase as well, depending on the maturity of the learners and the complexity of the problem.

Problem-solving Phase Two -- Small group or Team Collaboration

In this phase of the process the learners work in small groups or teams and bring their initial thoughts, questions, observations to a brainstorming meeting. This is what is sometimes difficult to do in the online environment. The best brainstorming is synchronous or almost synchronous. So the best online tools might be the Wimba online classroom, or a chat room or now that we all have wi-fi and cell phones, to use audio conferencing services combined with free docs online.

It is usually wise to record and report the results of this brainstorming session, as the next step will be for the small teams to collectively agree on the definition of the problem, and some of the possible solutions or approaches to the problem.

The results of the brainstorming session including work on possible solutions is then shared with the larger course community in Phase Three.

Problem-solving Phase Three -- Course Community Sharing and "Consulting"

In this third phase of a full problem-solving course project, the learners share the results of their work with the rest of the community. If the learners are working on similar problems they can compare and evaluate the approaches; if the learners have selected problems that are quite different, they can serve as advisors and consultants to each other.

Tools that support this phase include general discussion forums, live classrooms and team blogs.

Segment the Authentic Problems

Earlier, it was suggested that designing complex authentic problems into your course may be too ambitious or unwieldy -- for both you and your learners. Learners may be intimidated or overwhelmed by difficult and real problems in their course -- on top of the very real problems that they may have at work and in their lives.

So, if your students are undergraduates or less experienced graduate students, segmenting the problem-solving provides to incorporate authentic and real problems into your courses.

For example, segmenting would mean to focus on the first steps in any problem-solving scenarios, such as analyzing and clarifying the question and determining some potential approaches to the problem. As John Dewey has observed, "A problem well stated is half-solved." In the same course the next time around, an approach would be to complete the process, and focus on the second half of the problem-solving process and select and evaluate some of the solutions and develop an action plan.

Other Resources for Authentic Problem-Solving

Many business courses and leadership courses use case studies as the focus of problems. These case studies are often readily available from sites such as the Harvard Business Online site for Educators. For example, a new 'web-based simulation using the dramatic context of a Mount Everest expedition to explore processes of group dynamics and leadership is available.

An alternative to using prepared case studies that sometimes seem very dated in our world of breaking news is to complement prepared case studies with Internet research or to have a class develop their own. An article by James Theroux http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/jaln/v11n4/pdf/v11n4_theroux.pdfdescribes the challenges and possibilities of creating real and immediate cases by using the Internet to develop communications between the faculty, students and a company. A tool that can support this type of development is a wiki that can be developed collaboratively.

Closing Thoughts

A common concern about problem-based learning is that it is difficult to "cover" all the content in a course. This is a valid concern. The best way to deal with it is to analyze your course in terms of the performance goals that you have for your students. Finding enough content is no longer our biggest challenge; interpreting and using content well in incorporating authentic problem solving is.

References and Resources

Carlson, Ann. (2001) Authentic Learning: What does it really mean? Innovative Teaching Showcase from Western Washington University. pandora.cii.wwu.edu/showcase2001/authentic_learning.htm Accessed April 10, 2008.

Galarneau, Lisa. (2005) Authentic Learning Experiences Through Play: Games, Simulations and the Construction of Knowledge. Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views- Worlds in Play. Accessed April 10, 2008. lisa.socialstudygames.com/digra_galarneau_final.pdf Links to other writings and pubs on this topic by Galarneau are at lisa.socialstudygames.com/pubs.htm

Harvard Business for Educators. Organizational Behavior & Leadership. New Leadership and Team Simulation - Mount Everest Accessed April 09, 2008.

Polya, G. (1957) How to Solve It, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 1957, ISBN 0-691-08097-6 Summary is available at http://www.math.utah.edu/~pa/math/polya.html and http://euler.slu.edu/Dept/SuccessinMath.html - problemsolving. Accessed April 09, 2008.

Seven Steps to Problem-Solving http://www.pitt.edu/~groups/probsolv.html Accessed April 09, 2008

Theroux, James. (2007). What it takes to Innovate: The Experience of Producing an Online, Real-time Case Study [Electronic Version]. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks/published by the Sloan Consortium 11 http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/jaln/v11n4/pdf/v11n4_theroux.pdf. Accessed April 09 2008.

VanGundy, Arthur B. The Seven Rules That Lead to Great Ideas. http://www.amanet.org/LeadersEdge/editorial.cfm?Ed=572. Accessed April 09 2008.

Reminder -- the Library of eCoaching tips is available at http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/inventory.htm


Reaching the Heights of Learning -- Authentic Problem-Solving



Ecoaching Table of Contents



Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013