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  Title:  Examining Students’ Use of Online Case-based Discussions to Support Problem Solving
ID:  4989
AllAcademicCode:  1539208
Description:  Discussions play an important role in supporting problem solving during case-based instruction (CBI). Little research has considered how students use online case discussions to support problem solving. This proposal reports a completed study examining how the content covered in three online discussions supported students’ problem solving during CBI. Findings reveal that students addressed all phases of problem solving but minimally addressed understanding relationships presented in the cases.
Session Type:  Concurrent Presentation
Convention Strand:  Research Methodologies
Full Abstract:  Click to Close Abstract View

Background and Purpose
While solving ill-structured problems can be challenging, developing problem-solving skills is important for success in professional endeavors (Jonassen, 2011). For instance, in the instructional design field, professionals are often faced with complex problems with many potential solutions (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005).  Research indicates problem-centered methods, such as case-based learning, have been effective in facilitating problem-solving in novices (Tawfik & Jonassen, 2013; Tawfik & Kolodner, 2016), and discussions play an important role in this process, offering learners a medium for sense-making, collaboration, and content coverage (Flynn & Klein, 2001; Levin, 1995).  

While many researchers suggest discussion comprises an important role in supporting problem-solving (Flynn & Klein, 2001; Levin, 1995), little research has considered how students intentionally use an online discussion to support problem solving during a case discussion.  In this research, we examined students’ postings in an online discussion to understand how their efforts supported the problem-solving process.  Specifically, we used the following research question:  How do students use asynchronous online discussions to support problem solving during case-based instruction?

To investigate our research question, we used an exploratory qualitative content analysis multiple case study approach (Kohlbacher, 2006; Yin, 2014).  We examined three online asynchronous discussions to determine how students’ efforts in case discussions supported a problem-solving process.  Based on previous research considering problem solving in online asynchronous discussions (see Ertmer & Koehler, 2014; Ng, Cheung, & Hew, 2010), we developed a coding schema to capture a problem-solving process representative of approaching an instructional design problem.  Initially, this process was envisioned as having four phases (with each phase having subcategories):  1) articulating problems, 2) clarifying perspectives, 3) developing solutions, and 4) assessing solutions.  Based on our initial coding of the case discussions, we added a fifth element to the coding schema:  reflecting on the process.

Participants included 12 graduate students, enrolled in an advanced instructional design online 8-week course, taught by the lead researcher during Fall 2018.  Three online case discussions were analyzed for this investigation, which included 522 posts across all discussions (Case 1=150, Case 2=165, Case 3=207).  For each discussion, students were asked to consider two prompts:  an initial prompt running Monday through Wednesday, typically focused on understanding case problems and a midweek prompt for Thursday and Friday, centered on generating solutions addressing identified problems. Coding was completed at a thematic unit level (Budd & Donohue, 1967), resulting in a single post typically including several codes.  All posts were coded by both the lead researcher and another member of the research team, and 100% agreement was reached through discussion.  Across the three discussions, 1,326 references were coded (Case 1=411, Case 2=384, Case 3=536).  Additionally, across all three discussions, 49,935 words were expressed (Case 1=15,304, Case 2=17,645, Case 3=16,986).  The total number of words per problem-solving phase were also recorded.  The research team used frequencies and percentages to determine how students used the case discussions to support problem solving by considering 1) how students covered the problem-solving process during their discussions and 2) how students’ problem solving during the discussions varied across cases.

In each discussion, students engaged with every phase of the problem-solving process.  Across all discussions, the Clarifying Perspectives phase of problem solving had the most coded references (402 references) and words (41.07% of all words expressed).  This was followed by Generating Solutions (371 references, 31.33% of all words expressed), Assessing Solutions (284 references, 19.00% of all words expressed), Articulating Problems (210 references, 10.88% of all words expressed), and Reflecting on the Process (59 references, 3.97% of all words expressed).  Considering individual subcategories, Identifying Environmental Characteristics (11 references, .53% of all words expressed), Generating Relationships among Solutions (29 references, 2.35% of all words expressed), and Clarifying Relationships among Case Elements (31 references, 2.82% of all words expressed) received the least amount of students’ attention during the discussions.  Generating Design Solutions (157 references, 13.25% of all words expressed), Clarifying Case Perspectives (139 references, 20.29% of all words expressed), and Clarifying Stakeholder Perspectives (120 references, 10.34% of all words expressed) were areas students most often addressed the problem-solving process during their discussions.  

From one case discussion to the next, the amount of attention given to each problem-solving phase varied.  While the Clarifying Perspectives problem-solving phase received the most attention in the first two discussions, students’ primary focus during the third discussion was in the Generating Solutions problem-solving phase.  At the same time, from the first discussion to the third, the Articulating Problems problem-solving phase received increasingly less attention.  Across all case discussions, each problem-solving phase subcategory was addressed at least one time.

Implications and Conclusions
Overall, students appeared to use the online discussions to support every phase of the problem-solving process.  Across discussions, unlike previous related research (Ng & Tan, 2006), students gave approximately equal attention to identifying and understanding problems as generating and assessing solutions, suggesting that discussions offer an effective place to make sense of case content.  Students predominantly used the discussion area to clarify perspectives, which underscores the collaborative potential a productive case discussion affords (Mitchem et al., 2008; Yew & Schmidt, 2012).  The attention each problem-solving phase received varied across cases, suggesting that different cases and discussion prompts afford diverse opportunities to focus on specific aspects of the problem-solving process.  Facilitators should be mindful of the types of cases they are selecting and how they structure the discussion to maximize coverage of the entire problem-solving process (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014).  By using multiple cases, facilitators can guide students to more adequately cover the entire problem-solving process.  

Interestingly, students spent only a little of their discussion efforts considering the relationships among case problems and issues, examining the relationships among solutions, and suggesting how environmental characteristics impact a project.  As understanding relationships during the problem-solving process suggests expertise in instructional design (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005), designing discussion prompts and facilitating a deep consideration of such relationships is worthwhile.  Overall, the results from this exploratory investigation suggest that students can intentionally use online discussions to inspire effective problem-solving during CBI in several specific ways.


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Sponsor:  Research & Theory       Session Type: Concurrent Presentation     Fee: $0.00
    Presenter(s):  ® Adrie Koehler, Purdue University ; Katherine Chartier, Purdue University ; ® Zui Cheng, Purdue University ; ® Holly Fiock, Purdue University ; ® Shamila Janakiraman, Purdue University ; ® Huanhuan Wang, Purdue University ;