Problem-Based Learning For Busy People

People are busy these days. The entire higher education industry is facing growing pressure to develop more flexible methods to complement traditional, multiyear degrees with full-time residence on a campus.


At ViaX, we deal with this issue all the time. Our students are mostly enrolled in a full-time degree program elsewhere, so their ability to fit our workshops to their busy schedules presents a challenge. To meet the challenge, we must be nimble and creative.


Our solutions to this challenge is problem-based learning. We offer workshops that focus on a specific issue or problem, instead of long courses that cover a wide range of topics. By maintaining a sharp focus, we can impart knowledge and generate significant learning experiences in a short period of time.


In my experience, the key to success in problem-based learning is to understand the specific issue as a window to a broader, more fundamental set of issues. The specific application – be it a computer science problem or the US-China trade war – captures the students’ attention. It makes a general challenge – be it algorithm design or international political economy – concrete and vivid.


With this approach, students can learn quickly. Even though a workshop has only five modules, the concrete focus ensures that students gain a coherent experience. Carefully designed assignments, such as an essay based on empirical research, help students learn valuable skills and improve their critical thinking faculties.


This fall, I have taught classes on US-China relations and China’s Belt & Road Initiative. In both classes, the backdrop is international political economy and China’s central importance to the world economy. By exploring a specific case, students learn about these broader themes. They then produce a final presentation and an essay based on their own research under my supervision.


Higher education is undergoing a major transformation, as the need for flexible pedagogy continues to grow in a complex world. By combining technical strength in online education with innovative, problem-based learning, we at ViaX aim to keep with the times and continue innovating.


If you are interested in learning more about online teaching, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


About the Author

Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Washington DC, USA). He is the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP). He serves as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education, a a Beijing-based learning and education company.


Johannes Urpelainen works as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education. The views presented in this blog are the author’s alone.