Problem Based Learning : Features of an undergraduate real world inquiry

The qualities of a process designed degree have been explored in a short case study paper here.

Download: real_world_inquiry_for_undergraduates_in_work.doc 

From this exploration comes a descriptive list of the characteristics of PBL based around a real world inquiry approach. 


Juggling or balancing ? Aligning parties in inquiry led work based learning

Within an inquiry led work-based programme learners undertake a journey which has at least three separate stake-holders. The learning individual, the Higher Education Institution and the workplace organisation (of the individual learner). 
Unlike many types of work based learning under the inquiry based approach the link between the HEI and the workplace is not direct. The learner is a liaising agent in-between the two institutions. Other forms of work based learning involve negotiation and liaisons between the HEI and employer such that the educational experience is the product of prepared alignment. 
Under the inquiry based approach, where individuals take highly personalised pathways, no direct link is made between the two orgnisations, rather instead the individual through process aligns the players. 

Some examples : 

Ethically the experience must: 
Satisfy HEI ethics guidance
Satisfy the moral learner
Satisfy workplace policies 

For the research topic decisions must:
Fulfil the learning outcomes of the module (HEI)
Fulfil the interests and learning objectives of the learner (learner)
Work in harmony with the organisational goals (or at least not contradict them) (workplace

At a more micro level of inquiry the factors play out too … 

For the methods used in inquiry 
Work towards the achievement of module requirements and meeting learning outcomes (HEI)
Satisfy the personal development and research objectives of the individual (learner)
Must be manageable, non-intrusive, appropriate and workable in context (workplace)



The closure of Ultralab : Richard Millwood on recent events | Merlin John Online  

And from me … 

As Ultralab closes its doors, along with others, will be staying at Anglia Ruskin to continue to work on the innovative, life changing degree programme BA Learning Research & Technology within the Faculty of Education. I am pleased to be staying to continue developing a programme that has and could transform the opportunities of many. 

Over the last four years I have been involved in a project and a working community which dared to go beyond. The people were undoubtedly the main ingredient. As I sat at dinner last night with the new team, an exciting new phase of the project was born. Though undoubtedly I still have a slightly heavy heart as we proceed less truly wonderful colleagues. I have had great pleasure in working with an amazing bunch of people. As I closed the door on Ultralab today, my final trip to Chelmsford this year, I was deeply, deeply sad that Ultralab has ceased though I remain excited about the possibilities of the Ultraversity Project, the BA LTR, my own future and the future of colleagues. I am immensely proud to have been part of the lab and extremely thankful and lucky to have worked with truly wonderful people. It was great and you know who you are! Thank you. 

A new year, a new future. Here’s to possibility & opportunity …. always remembering to keep “eyes on the horizon, feet on the ground” 

My new email then, with immediate effect:

Facilitating inquiry and problem based learning

Reading about good practice for the facilitation of problem based learning much advice relates to face to face situations and situations, where problems are presented to learners instead of them being learner defined. Some additional pointsfor facilitation of PBL or inquiry based learning ……

– Student centred facilitation does not equate with teacher inaction, online facilitators need to be pro-active in seeking to assist learners to make appropriate study designs and to undertake their research thereafter.

– When learners are defining their own problem or issue to research, clear parameters are needed before the design process begins. The parameters ensure that assessment is possible (for example learning outcomes). These parameters should be explored with learners before negotiation. 

– Prepare strategies for dealing with negotiation difficulties : Facilitator group work or panels can provide a useful source of consistency for handling negotiation.

– The design of PBL needs to be gradually sequentially scaffolded. Learners may benefit from making decisions about their learning choices in a gradual or staged way (rather than to make having all decisions at once). For example decissions may be made first about broad topic, then methodology, then the design of learning outcomes or activities. The task of designing learning may be overwhelming if not staged or scaffolded. As learners become increasingly skilled, independent and confident in design the scaffolding may become less prominent. The sequential, unfolding of learning design prevents a scattershot approach to learning design whereby learners make choices which do not necessarily support each other. Sequenced scaffolding ensures decision making is informed at every moment in the process.

– A-synchronous technology can be used to enable thoughtful negotiation. 

– Facilitated community can generate support, cross-pollination and criticality between learners and provide a social dimension to PBL/inquiry based learning (and in so doing prevent isolation too). 

… and then, together, a new possibility was made!


The BA Learning Technology Research degree programme saw its first mass graduation yesterday in Chelmsford. The graduation was the moment that the Ultraversity research project had reached its first full cycle. Through action research the project set out develop a fully online research based degree for people in work.  


The mechanics of making this work are being detailed in a variety of publications now, in my opinion these things were critical to the success of the first cohort:

1. A culture of co-research – setting out on a journey together where learners and facilitators invest themselves in the desire to find out how new methods of learning can work. Where we’re all prepared to try and fail, then try again. There’s no fountain of knowledge but a culture of discovery. 

2. A reactive mechanism in design – planning existed to a certain extent but the unknown landscape of online learning meant that the degree team had to constantly react and change in the face of emerging needs and new technologies. An online undergraduate team needs to react to changing circumstances. 

3. Passion! – tied into the success of the degree at every stage has been the great passion of learners, facilitators, technical and administrative contributors to the project. Without the passion how could we have ever overcome the difficulties, embraced what is new and maintained the vision. 

4. Community – the heart of the degree is the social relationships held between all contributing parties. Through a variety of VLE’s, it’s own blogosphere and subsidiary spaces a unique online community has developed. Where learning and support have been played out alongside deeper relationships, formed through a shared cause. 

5. Hard-work – let’s not downplay or forget the sheer hardwork of the learners who have fitted a degree in to their lives that always contain a job role and often contain family and caring roles. These individuals have been online in the small hours because of their passion and commitment. I also know how incredibly hard the staff have worked too. Sheer hard work had a large role to play yesterday.

Well done to all the graduates, and to all who everyone who has contributed to this amazing and unique collective achievement … including to colleagues who no longer work on the project but contributed greatly. The first scalable online research and work-based degree blows out any set notions of who can achieve a degree and access higher education. It demonstrates that we can use technology and new pedagogy to break through barriers to learning and enable.

Common Tools, Distributed Team 30/5/06

communications for the remote team Google “distributed teams:” and Ultralab is the top hit, the items below in the list are writing about ‘distance’ learning and distributed teams etc. but they don’t practice this themselves. Ironically whole departments in other Universities have fixed office based teams. Ultralab in its organisation is living out the practice it seeks to spread. It uses the practices that it espouses. So many distributed or e-learning departments seem to be working from a central location, Ultralab’s full time, permanent living out of distributed learning, distributed research and online community puts the team in a hugely advantageous position to empathise with, understand and develop delightful learning online. I am not setting out to criticise interpretations of distributed working practice, but I do feel like authentic practitioner voices are missing from the discussion.