The NU Global Challenge Courses: Designing an Online Course Structure to Support Asynchronous Problem-Based Learning

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

During Summer 2020, Northeastern University designed eighteen asynchronous “global challenge” courses, based on faculty research and using a project-based learning model centered on collaborative problem-solving. This session explains how the Canvas learning environment was leveraged to support PBL’s inductive learning approach and engage remote, first-year students in inquiry and teamwork. 


Dr. Laurie Poklop’s is a Senior Associate Director at Norhteastern University's Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research. Her primary focus in the Center is programming related to online teaching and learning. She facilitates the Center’s two online faculty development programs, the Online Course Design Orientation Program and Facilitating Online Courses. In addition, she directs the Online Course Design Fellows program and consults individually with faculty who are designing and teaching online courses. Dr. Poklop is also actively involved in the Center’s Faculty Scholars program, and is particularly interested in qualitative research. She has played a significant role in Dr. Susan Ambrose’s broad qualitative study of students’ experiences on co-op. In addition to her work in the Center, Dr. Poklop is a part-time lecturer in Northeastern's Graduate School of Education.
Dr. Gail Matthews-DeNatale is Associate Director of Online Learning at Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research (CATLR). She joined CATLR in April 2016, and before that she was an Associate Teaching Professor at Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). While at the GSE she also led the M.Ed. program in eLearning and Instructional Design. Prior to Northeastern, Gail held positions at Simmons College, George Mason University, and The University of South Carolina. She is the recipient Northeastern University’s 2014 Award for Teaching Excellence and the Online Learning Consortium’s Learning 2013 Effectiveness Award. From 2011-14 she served as Northeastern University’s FIPSE-funded involvement in the Connect to Learning ePortfolio. Gail is a founding board member for the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL).

Extended Abstract

This session will showcase a course structure that was designed to support inductive project-based learning (PBL) in a set of fully online “global challenge” courses taken by geographically dispersed first-year college students.


As one element of its efforts to maintain continuity of curricular offerings during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Northeastern University made a commitment to creating innovative, experiential learning opportunities for a globally dispersed population of first-year students who were unable to come to campus for the Fall 2020 semester. Through a collaboration between the Offices of the Chancellor and Provost, tenure-track research faculty across disciplines, and the University's teaching center, the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research (CATLR), the University developed eighteen project-based learning (PBL) courses--all centered around complex, ill-structured global problems, including such issues as racism, antibiotic resistance, sustainable fisheries, immigration and social activism. 


These “global challenge” projects and related learning materials were created within a two-month development cycle during the Summer of 2020. The research faculty defined questions to drive student inquiry, curated a set of readings and other materials to support student research into the questions, and recorded videos introducing the significance of the questions as well as presenting guest speakers with a range of perspectives. In the courses, students worked in groups of three or four to develop a proposal for addressing the global challenge in question.

PBL takes an inductive approach to learning, grounded in ill-structured problems. Research has shown PBL to be effective in promoting motivation and engagement as students develop content knowledge and cross-disciplinary skills (Ravitz, 2009). However, learner experiences in PBL environments tend to vary depending on the students’ pedagogical orientation and learning skills, as well as the design, implementation, and facilitation of the experience. This is further complicated when the PBL environment is online and primarily asynchronous.

This inductive approach to learning challenges course developers to rethink the typical weekly format associated with online courses. In PBL, rather than responding to clearly defined weekly activities and proscribed materials, the work of the course is primarily student-directed. Students must decide what they need to know to address the stated problem, find the resources they need, and plan their approach to the work in teams. Faculty take a facilitative role, providing feedback and guiding students’ inquiry as necessary. The structure of online courses, then, needs to center on the processes of learning in PBL, rather than content-oriented activities.

A master course structure was designed by an experienced online learning specialist from CATLR with four goals in mind:

  • To reinforce the problem-solving process for students

  • To support team-based project work

  • To support iterative proposal development

  • To scaffold teaching for PhD students who would facilitate the courses

Presenters in this session will share how the Canvas learning environment was leveraged to effectively support PBL’s inductive learning process and engage students in inquiry and teamwork. Specifically, participants will learn how the courses were structured in order to scaffold the project development process, provide an appropriate structure for first-year students online, foster teamwork and collaboration across time zones, and encourage diversity of thought through peer sharing and feedback. Strategies used in the course structure include variable-length modules, activities to scaffold students’ use of curated materials, cyclical project planning, and regular self-evaluation of team performance.

The evolution of these global challenge courses over three terms was informed by regular assessment through surveys of students and course instructors, as well as ongoing communication with course instructors. This embedded assessment has been key to identifying challenges faced by both students and instructors and responding with course design adjustments. Presenters will share significant findings from this ongoing assessment and engage audience members in brainstorming responses to identified challenges.