Global Challenges: Engaging Undergraduates in Project-Based Learning Online




project-based learning, problem-based learning, online learning


In summer 2020, Northeastern University developed a fully online curricular pathway for incoming fall first-year undergraduate students who could not learn in residence. This pathway included 18 Global Challenge (GC) courses, each designed around project-based learning (PBL), grounded in a complex problem defined by Northeastern University research faculty, and based on the classes’ individual research agendas (e.g., social justice, health, the environment). The GC courses were designed to help students develop key intrapersonal and interpersonal skills as well as academic proficiencies. The GC development team conducted a systematic study of the courses during the first three semesters of their development and implementation. The investigation’s guiding question was, “To what extent, and in what ways, can learning experience design, online structure, and facilitation support PBL learning, teamwork, and a sense of connection among students in asynchronous courses?” Data sources included student surveys, instructor reflections, and course observations. Findings highlighted the importance of a learning experience design infrastructure to support PBL challenge development; that design supports for challenge development are necessary, but not sufficient, and an online course architecture that reinforces PBL also needs to be developed; that student attention to course resources needs to be scaffolded within the course and optimized for the online modality; and that a system for instructor mentoring in online PBL pedagogy is important to course success.

Read the corresponding ISSOTL blog post here.


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Author Biographies

Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Northeastern University

Gail Matthews-DeNatale, PhD (USA), is the senior associate director—faculty development for the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at Northeastern University. Her areas of specialization include online learning and qualitative research.

Laurie Poklop, Northeastern University

Laurie Poklop, EdD (USA), is a senior associate director for the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at Northeastern University. With expertise in online learning, her current work focuses on global student mobility and the future of learning with technology.

Rachel Plews, Suffolk University

Rachel Plews, EdD (USA), directs the Center for Teaching and Scholarly Excellence at Suffolk University. She was formerly an associate director for the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at Northeastern University.

Mary English, Northeastern University

Mary English, PhD (USA), is a senior associate director for the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at Northeastern University. Her areas of specialization include learning design and project-based learning.


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A diagram with "Global Challenge" centered with four quadrants branching from the center discussing "build global mindset..."; "develop capacity for..."; Online project-based structure...'; and "distinctively Northeastern challenges."




How to Cite

Matthews-DeNatale, Gail, Laurie Poklop, Rachel Plews, and Mary English. 2024. “Global Challenges: Engaging Undergraduates in Project-Based Learning Online”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 12 (February).