The Virtual Mystery Webtool: Open access online Hybridized Problem-based Learning

Sherry Fukuzawa, University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada

As blended course modalities increase, assessment methods incorporating active learning practices such as problem-based learning (PBL) must also transform. In PBL small groups of students work on a practical case study, both independently and collaboratively, to come up with open ended solutions (see Fukuzawa & Boyd, 2016). The educational model was started in medical schools where clinical scenarios required students to think practically and collaboratively to develop important critical thinking skills.

The Virtual Mystery Project (VMP) was created in a large first year Introduction to Biological Anthropology and Archaeology course (N=800 students) to provide a hybridized PBL project for small groups of students (N=5 students) without the added resources a small group active learning activity would require in a large classroom (Fukuzawa & Boyd, 2016). Initially the VMP was run through the course learning management system to release a unique anthropological case scenario to each PBL group, comprised of three weekly clues culminating in a larger VM report at the end of the term.  The VMP content spans the subfields of biological anthropology (evolutionary, primatology), and archaeology. Each clue includes images and/or link to an open access website (e.g. Smithsonian Institute). Students independently submit responses to each clue. Once they submit their comment they see the responses of their team members, as well as feedback from the facilitator, to use on subsequent clues. The team then collaborates to put the clues together in a larger VM report. Examples of VMPs range from setting up a display in a local museum called “Primates in Motion”, writing a grant proposal for a specific archaeological site, creating a fund raising campaign for an endangered primate species, creating an interactive display on the evolution of a Pliocene hominin (see Fukuzawa & Boyd, 2016; Fukuzawa, 2018).

Recently the Virtual Mystery Webtool was created to implement the Virtual Mystery project in a user friendly and easily accessible manner. Over 300 virtual mysteries have been created with clues auto-released weekly to the students. Students login to see their VMs and collaborate asynchronously with their team and facilitator as they work through the clues and collaborate on the larger VM report (see Fukuzawa et al., 2021). Student evaluations of the Virtual Mystery Project have been overwhelmingly positive. In the introductory course in biological anthropology and archaeology, “92% of students agreed that the Virtual Mystery web-tool helped them understand what a professional anthropologist does; 88.3% found the web-tool to be user-friendly; and 72% would like to see virtual mysteries in other courses” (Fukuzawa et al., 2021, p. 36). The VM project has expanded across disciplines (e.g. Psychology and Forensic Chemistry), and Institutions. It is open access and free to use for anyone who is interested in incorporating problem-based learning principles in their courses.

Fukuzawa, S., Ranlett, S., & Yasui, E. (2021). The virtual mystery web-tool: An online hybridized problem-based learning teaching tool created by students for students. Currents in Teaching and Learning, Special Issue: Digital Pedagogies 12(2), 33-43. 

Fukuzawa, S. (2019). A “techno-phobe’s” journey to creating a Hybridized Problem-based Learning Web-tool. Journal of Research and Practice of College Teaching. Special issue: Innovative Teaching Personal Essays, 3, 2, 8-14.

Fukuzawa, S., & Boyd, C. (2016). Student Engagement in a Large Classroom: Using Technology to Generate a Hybridized Problem-based Learning Experience in a Large First Year Undergraduate Class. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning7(1), 1–14.

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