Inspired Teaching

How will we Virtualize PBL?!

A teacher's guide to converting
Problem Based Learning (PBL) to the virtual world

By Sarrah Lal (@SarrahML) & Sharon Bal (@SharonBal8)
Originally Published, March 23, 2020

Problem-based learning (PBL) is now a cornerstone of health professions education in many jurisdictions, especially in undergraduate academic teaching. How many times have tutorial group facilitators been advised to ensure in-person participation for learners and facilitators, to promote group process and deep learning? 

The pedagogy of social learning and group cohesion we achieved by sharing a physical space is now being challenged during the COVID-19 crisis when medical schools turn to faculty hired for in-person teaching and mandate virtual teaching. How do we optimize this sudden pivot - accelerating educator readiness and maximizing learner outcomes?

The following resources will prove helpful in getting started! 

How does an in-person PBL classroom differ from a virtual one? This resource offers practical tips for novice virtual faculty, or those aiming to “up their game”. When exploring virtual educational experiences, it is important to engage learners by requiring cameras to be kept on, calling on students if engagement is uncharacteristically low, and gamifying interactions (e.g. through intermittent short quizzes). 

Remember to explore new opportunities for engaging with your learners! Does a type of parity get created when we are all simply a face and take up a square the same size as everyone else? Are there other needs that emerge? 

2.  Going Online in a Hurry (From The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Most educators are pivoting very quickly from traditional formats to online ones. This means you may be well into coursework and the disruption means you have to consider a change in content delivery and evaluation. This resource provides a convenient checklist covering key aspects of this change, including:

The immediacy of pivoting to digital formats and the disruption this causes requires stepping back and re-considering how we assess knowledge. It requires communicating this clearly to learners and creatively adapting to new needs that may emerge over time.

3.  Team Based Learning in a Virtual Environment (From DaVinci Education)

Although Team Based Learning (TBL) is not the same as PBL, many of the same principles will apply to both environments.  Both PBL and TBL are based on constructivism and social learning theory as core pedagogical frames. These learning theories are also seen in flipped classroom and other small group formats that we see in most academic health science teaching centres. This resource details the challenges virtualization poses to the group process required for TBL, but many of the suggestions will resonate with teachers/tutors seeking to convert their PBL sessions. When optimizing your virtual education approach, consider:  

What needs to happen from both a technological and psychosocial perspective for you to foster an online PBL environment will differ from your in-person experiences. There are many tools embedded in video conferencing software that can promote active participation - Google Hangouts Meet and Zoom are just two of the platforms available! You can read more about other platforms for small group facilitation here. Does the choice of platform and additional asynchronous (e.g. email-based) interactions you have with learners make a difference to the effectiveness of your new virtual PBL tutorials?

As PBL educators we must always consider the learner needs. During this transition to virtual PBL, the resources listed above will help get you started in understanding the unique considerations of a virtual PBL classroom, how interactions may need to be re-designed to accommodate this new digital environment, and the type of (new!) tools at your fingertips. Be diligent in how you transition to online PBL and keep your eyes open to new learner needs as they emerge - soon this will be a breeze!

Dr. Sharon Bal (@sharonbal8) is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University. She is a prominent educator at McMaster's Waterloo Regional Campus and the lead of our Social Media team in the McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Program for Faculty Development (@MacPFD). She is also a Mom, family physician, educator, student. 

Sarrah Lal, MBA is an assistant professor in the Division of Education & Innovation (DEI) within the Department of Medicine. She is a entrepreneurship and innovation expert and directs various educational efforts within the Michael G. DeGroote Initiative for Innovation in Healthcare. Currently she is also the lead of the Leadership & Management team in the McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Program for Faculty Development (@MacPFD).