Teaching an Experiential Problem-based Class Online during the Pandemic

5 mins read

written by Salimah Samji

MLD 103M Students and their authorizers at the final class presentations on March 11, 2021

BSC Faculty Director Matt Andrews and I have been co-teaching PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence at the Harvard Kennedy School since 2018. This is a field-lab class where students learn a research-oriented version of PDIA by working on real-world public problems – they learn by doing. The students work together in teams with an authorizer/client who gives them a problem to work on.

This year we had to teach this class virtually with students, as well as authorizers, based all around the world. We converted a 3-hour class on Monday evenings into two 75-minute classes on Tuesday and Thursday. To accommodate the various time zones, we offered two sections of the class. One at 7:30am and one at 4:30pm. Each week, students were required to complete a self-study module as well as a related assignment before class on Tuesday. We would review the assignments and use them to provide feedback, clarify concepts and answer any burning questions on the content, in our class session. The student teams would then meet on Thursday to complete their group assignment. Essentially, they went through the weekly content three times – on their own, in class with us, and in their teams – allowing for deeper engagement and learning.   

Learning from our experience last year, we asked the alumni of our HKS Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Executive Education program, if they wanted to nominate problems and work with our students. Eight IPP alumni, William Keith Young, Adaeze Oreh, Milzy Carrasco, Kevin Schilling, Artem Shaipov, George Imbenzi, David Wuyep, and Raphael Kenigsberg, who had been trained on PDIA and implementation, signed up to work with our students. They assigned the following challenges to our students:

  • Implementing reparations in Asheville, North Carolina
  • Tackling blood safety in Nigeria
  • Exploring police and community relations in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Access to affordable childcare in Burien, Washington
  • Legal education reform in the Ukraine
  • Exploring trade between Kenya and Canada
  • Abandoned projects in Nigeria
  • Radicalization in France

Thirty-seven students signed up to take the course beginning January 26th, 2021. Over the next seven weeks, the students worked across eight teams and adopted a problem driven approach to foster learning that could help their authorizers develop an action learning strategy to their challenge. They learned how to work together as a team, drew fishbone diagrams, conducted the triple-A change space analysis, identified entry points, spoke to stakeholders, undertook two iterations, and presented their lessons learned to the authorizers in class on March 11th, 2021 (see photograph above). 

In the second week of class, one student noted how it was hard to build bonds/relationships with groups on zoom – he noted how he was missing the lingering conversations after an in-person group meeting that would take place if we were on campus. He asked if we had any ideas of how we could help them build a sense of community in their group. We gave them some tips, then Matt had an idea he wanted to try. He asked them to pair up with one person in their group and each of them had to offer an act of kindness to one another before the next class. They were willing to try it out and we had no idea how it would play out. 

We asked them to share their acts of kindness in class the following week. The students had written poems to each other, shared readings and songs, delivered tacos, baked cookies, provided a recommendation on linked in – the variety of things they did was incredible. What was really striking was that they chose things that were meaningful for the other person. One student said that she had been moved to tears by a song that her colleague had sent her. Another noted that he received two acts of kindness, the first from the person who was assigned to him and the second from another group member who checked in on him because his uncle had had a stroke. The care and attention to detail was really valued by the students. This exercise far exceeded our expectations. We kept it for another week and then for the third week we asked them to offer an act of kindness to themselves. We learned that kindness can be a simple, yet powerful tool. 

Here are some of the key lessons the students learned. 

 On doing problem driven work

“The problem is never what it seems. Problems are complex and different people see the same problem in a different light depending on their perspective.”

The seductive pull to throw a preconceived solution at an unknown problem is incredibly strong and requires constant constraint.”

“At times, it felt like I was waiting for the problem to reveal itself and feeling frustrated with the slow process of unveiling different aspects of the problem and perspectives on it.”

“We must be comfortable being uncomfortable. Flexibility is a must.”

“I learned to keep asking questions, even when things start to seem clear.”

On working in teams

“It is fascinating to see how we being on the same team, exposed to the same material and stakeholders but still come up with a different understanding of the problem and are able to shed new light on some areas.”

“Being deliberate in building relationships can help in building teams in a short time.”

“A kind gesture amongst team members even when “forced” as a task still creates warmness amongst members.”

“I have learned that it takes constant clear communication within the team.”

“Psychological safety and trust is key to be able to function on a team. It helps inoculate against stress. It also helps create the base from which you can have heated debate and robust learning.” 

“I think it requires constant work, like any relationship; you get out what you put in.” 

“PDIA is not meant to be undertaken alone! The stronger, more diverse and more cohesive the team, the greater the experience and likely outcome.” 

On working with authorizers

“Having authorizers who were willing to spend so much time and energy working with us made this class work very well for my group.”

“It was also enriching to work with the authorizers as this is a problem that is very real for them and helped us understand the significance.”

“Strategizing how to communicate with authorizers was key to find ways to confront them with things that they might not want to hear while maintaining their authorization and support.”

“I generally find it difficult to challenge authority, but this experience taught me the importance of doing the work that allows you to slowly but surely change your authorizer’s perspective.”

Key Takeaways

“I learned to always keep a curious mindset, have “no solution” for the problem beforehand, and always iterate.”

“The hardest thing about this work was having to constantly move forward and take action while acknowledging that we still don’t (and probably won’t ever) have all the answers that we think we need to solve the problem.”

“Engage, engage, engage! Particularly with unknown problems. Engagement  must always be with stakeholders internal to the context and especially with  those directly affected.”

“Small progress is essential to set a solid foundation for big change. Moreover it also ensures momentum in the project rather than pinning all hope and effort on the one big step that is considered ‘the solution.'”

“I found reaching out to a new person every week to be very valuable and will continue using this in my career.”  

We were really humbled by how much they learned about (i) the problem they were assigned, (ii) effective teamwork, (iii) the value of engaging with people, and (iv) most importantly, themselves – all in a short period of seven weeks and working online! 

Each team wrote a blog about their learning journey. We also hosted a PDIA in Action event series, in April to June 2021, featuring the work of the student teams. You can find the blogs as well as the video recordings here:


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