Questions have recently been posed about the ability of engineering graduates to meet new world challenges, such as the ability to transfer basic knowledge to real-life engineering situations; ability to work in virtual global multidisciplinary teams; ability to adapt to changes and solve problems in unusual situations; ability to think critically and creatively; and a commitment to continuous life-long learning and self-improvement (Ribeiro & Mizukami, 2005; Thoben & Schwesig, 2002). As a consequence, a new era is emerging in professional engineering education largely driven by a recognition that university graduates need to be better prepared for today's rapidly changing professional environment. This has led to recent changes to both curriculum and pedagogy in some engineering faculties in Australia.
One of the changes made at the Faculty of Engineering and Surveying (FoES) at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) to help address these emerging needs was to adopt the problem-based learning (PBL) educational approach (Brodie & Porter, 2004a; 2004b; Gibbings, 2008). PBL is a specific instructional approach based on engaging the learner in activities that simulate the demands of real life professional practice. In the context of this paper, PBL is defined as a constructivist learning paradigm where small groups of students engage in cooperative learning and collaboration to solve complex problems in authentic project contexts. Although PBL has some critics (for example, Kirschner et al, 2006; Mayer, 2004), its merits are well documented in the literature. From its beginnings in medical schools (Barrows, 1986; 1992; 1994; 2000; Newman et al, 2001), PBL has now been incorporated into a wide range of professional studies including nursing, dentistry, social work, management, engineering and architecture (Boud & Feletti, 1997), and has been linked to a variety of theoretical ideas, such as experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), the reflective practitioner (Schon, 1987), and constructivism and social learning (Lave, 1993; Piaget, 1952; Vygotsky, 1979). Consequently, numerous instructional models that focus on PBL are popular today, though most proponents (as an example, Ryberg et al, 2006, pp. 156) agree that the PBL strategy is entirely in accordance with the "constructivist paradigm" (Biggs, 1999; Resnick, 1991; Salmon, 1993) and "collaborative learning" concept (Dillenbourg, 1999; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995). One example of PBL is the course, ENG1101 (Engineering Problem Solving 1), which is the first of a strand of four consecutive PBL courses and is compulsory for all students in FoES. In this course, students learn to work together in teams to solve open-ended problems (Brodie & Porter, 2004b; Gibbings & Brodie, 2006a; 2006b). The main learning objectives of this course are to develop the fundamental skills needed to participate effectively in multidisciplinary teams, develop communication skills, and for students to be exposed to a wide range of problem-solving tools (Gibbings & Brodie, 2008).
Conducting PBL at FoES is challenging due to the exceptional diversity of the student cohort. Approximately 75% of FoES' 2500 students study in the external (off-campus/distance) mode. Students studying ENG1101 in this mode do not meet face-to-face and conduct their studies entirely in virtual space. External students study from various geographic locations around the world and most elect the external mode because they are already employed in some professional capacity, and this allows them to study and work at the same time. The management of this diverse student cohort is further complicated by the fact that students in FoES may be studying Associate Degree (two years), Bachelor of Technology (three years), Bachelor (four years) or Double Degree (five years) levels. Students enrolled in FoES may also be studying different majors: Agricultural, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Electrical Engineering; Electronic and Computer Engineering; Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering; and Surveying and Land Information. …