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PBL and Online Learning

Research Synthesis
EDET 755-Summer 2014
Chris Humphreys


The need for project-based learning in an online environment is an important aspect of 21

century education. This is largely impart to the increasing popularity of online education where
more and more students are seeking to be a part of this type of learning and schools and
universities are scrambling to design and implement the constructivist approach of project-based
learning to support those learners. However, after conducting this research synthesis it was found
that the merging of these two ideas is still in their infancy. There is a great deal of research on
each of these separately, but very little on the two together.

This review of selected research and literature did provide some interesting insights into
important recurring themes when considering best practice. First, the use of between-group
collaboration allowed for learners to share ideas amongst themselves and share with other
groups. This offered each member of the group an equal opportunity to learn from others.
Second, the idea of participation was a major factor in several research studies. The participation
or lack thereof was when learners failed to participate in group discussions and reflections about
ideas or products. This led to learners losing trust in members of their group because they may or
may not complete their share of a project. Lastly, creating an online learning community is
difficult when keeping cultural differences, learner backgrounds, and technology access in mind.
There are research articles that discuss the implementation of online discuss boards and project-
based learning opportunities for groups to work to overcome differences and support one another
can be successful with thoughtful design and implementation of the course. Feedback and
support by the instructor was also a reoccurring theme amongst the research in this synthesis.

Research Papers/ Reports

Lou, Y. (2004). Learning to Solve Complex Problems through Between-Group Collaboration in
Project-Based Online Courses. Distance Education, 25(1), 49-66. Retrieved from:
The purpose of this study was to explore whether between-group collaboration in project-
based online courses can promote student learning of complex problem solving. A
common problem with PBL is that some teams work together and some do not. This is
due in part to a lack of communication between members, which in turn, can be related to
Hou, H. (2010) study on the Exploring the Behavioral Patterns in Project-Based Learning
with Online Discussion. Another problem is the lack of information sharing among the
small groups. This is when using the PBL model for a class groups are made in 3-5
members and a successful group completes the project. However, when groups share
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their learning with other groups through between-group collaboration this lack of
information sharing is reduced and each group gets the opportunity to share their
experiences and findings.
This study directly correlates to our current class by using between-group project
implementation. The study uses this to overcome the lack of between group interaction
and learning. They do this by establishing a 2 week mini course and groups invite other
groups to participate in their courses which in turn ensure the learning of everyone. The
study did find that online group work can be both rewarding and frustrating. The majority
of frustration can be found in any work environment when some group members fail to
participate in the given activity.

Hargis, J. (2005). Collaboration, Community and Project-Based Learning--Does It Still Work
Online?. International Journal Of Instructional Media, 32(2), 157. Retrieved from:
The purpose of this paper is to inquire as to the relevancy and relative usefulness of
virtual communities in an educational environment. In a PBL classroom, students discuss,
collaborate and try out their ideas and challenge the ideas of others. The author discusses
that using a virtual community as an educational platform has many obstacles. It has been
said by (J. Stuit, 2002) that putting stuff online is easy creating an online learning
experience is hard. This article describes the need to identify online motivators for
students. Those motivators are described as intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is the
motivation to engage in an activity or assignment for its own sake. That is students who
are motivated by this do the work because they find it enjoyable. The extrinsic motivation
is dealing with the external rewards sought by students such as grades or recognition for
their work. The article states that this is a poor motivator for students. The article
discusses the need to develop this intrinsic motivation in online learning by providing
tangible, useful products or rewards for the student. This is where PBL comes into play
with these motivators.
In 2005, when this study was conducted a Google search was conducted using the key
words collaboration in education and it returned 1,967 sites. In 2014, while doing this
synthesis the same words returned 168,000,000 sites. Also, in 2005 a search was
conducted with the term communities in education resulting in 1,120 hits. In 2014,
same search with 270,000,000 hits were found. Even more interestingly is the in 2005 the
term project based learning resulted in 39,000 hits. In 2014, same search term resulted
in 166,000,000 hits. Interestingly enough is that the term virtual communities only
resulted in 32,000,000 hits. This is still a relatively new instructional method as you can
see by the number compared to the other terms searched. So, in less than ten years you
can see that project-based learning, collaboration, and communities are all examples of
Does It Still Work Online?

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Kim, P., Hong, J., Bonk, C., & Lim, G. (2011). Effects of Group Reflection Variations in
Project-Based Learning Integrated in a Web 2.0 Learning Space. Interactive Learning
Environments, 19(4), 333-349. Retrieved from:
This study was conducted to study the eects of group reection variations in project-
based learning integrated in a Web 2.0 learning space. The research shows that a Web 2.0
environment is described as online learning where web-based tools are combined with
other interaction methods and modalities to influence team learning outcomes. The study
describes reflections as an effective strategy to help the learner recognize deficiencies in
the learning outcome. There are various methods for reflections that teams can use to be
successful in a PBL type project. They are self-reflection, group reflection, and
instructor-supported reflection. Another tool used in determining whether or not a team
was effective or not is the use of the team effectiveness assessment. This assessment uses
a scale of 15 on the Likert scale and responses focused on assessing T.E. based on
shared vision and goals, role distributions, interpersonal interactions, and processes
involved in completing the team project. This along with the reflections showed to
increase the effectiveness of the online course and the satisfaction of the students. At the
end of the study the instructor-supported group was the most successful, however, all
three groups showed improvement by the midway point in the course.
This study is interesting because it relates to the online courses that I am taking now. I
see that issues that have arisen and have been discussed in discussion boards are points in
this study that support our viewpoint of the effectiveness of online learning. This study
shows that the instructor plays an important role in the effectiveness of the group on
online learning. Not by giving information, but by giving feedback and support that helps
breakup a deadlock on an issue or to guide the learning of the group.

King, E. (2008). Can PBL-GIS Work Online?. Journal Of Geography, 107(2), 43-51. Retrieved

This exploratory article describes how the authors evaluated critical thinking in an online
collaborative Problem-based Learning (PBL) tutorial built on a platform integrating a
well-known course management system and a voice-over the Internet communications
tool. The article is aimed to assist medical students gain a greater breadth of knowledge
and experiences by taking PBL to an online environment. Using VoIP, WebCT, and
eLive Elluminate tools allows students in smaller rural areas the opportunity to see a
greater range of illnesses otherwise not seen as is larger metropolitan areas. It also offers
students to work together to solve problems, research, and communicate with to expand
their learning.

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The use of online learning to support PBL by medical students ensures that every student
in a program receives the same high quality experiences as their peers and offers various
types of learning to occur. This article does come with limitations identified by the
authors as a lack of context by the students. They would need more background before
using this in the field by medical students.

Hou, H. (2010). Exploring the Behavioural Patterns in Project-Based Learning with Online
Discussion: Quantitative Content Analysis and Progressive Sequential Analysis. Turkish Online
Journal Of Educational Technology - TOJET,9(3), 52-60. Retrieved from:
This study conducted an empirical case study of an online project-based learning activity
in a management course, in which 70 college students participated. Project-based
learning is a learner-centered instructional method that allows students to learn skills in
peer discussion, data collection, and information analysis. This study describes the use of
online learning to give students the opportunity to use PBL in an area other than the
classroom. The use of web-based instruction has grown in the past few years
exponentially. The authors noted that past studies have shown students to have
deficiencies in all of these areas described. The study also takes into account the lack of
peer communications and time management in a particular course. It uses both
quantitative content analysis and progressive sequential analysis to identify the patterns
of students online behaviors using PBL. The study also intends to give teachers
strategies to use when developing online project-based learning.
The study did show limitations in the areas of time management and data collection.
These limitations among others showed that the students in the study had issues with the
course due to inter-behavior interactions and more support from the instructor. The use of
online problem-based learning needs to be further investigated with other subject and
grade levels to truly identify the know issues found in this study.

Zhang, K., Peng, S., & Hung, J. (2009). Online Collaborative Learning in a Project-Based
Learning Environment in Taiwan: A Case Study on Undergraduate Students' Perspectives.
Educational Media international, 46(2), 123-135. Retrieved from:

This case study investigated undergraduate students first experience in online
collaborative learning in a project-based learning (PBL) environment. The students that
participated in the study overall greatly showed increased learning using PBL in an
online environment. However, given that this study was conducted in Taiwan the students
had several issues that arose during the study. The first of these issues being the changed
role of the instructor from teacher-centered to student-centered learning environment.
The second is the cultural differences of students in an online environment. Many of the
students from the study identified learning as a competition and less on learning
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collaboratively. This poses several challenges that the study identifies such as using
others work to help ensure that theirs is on the right track rather than reflecting or
sharing ideas with one another.
Given the increased number of international students using online learning, we as
instructors and designers, need to understand the cross-cultural impacts of the different
educational backgrounds students are coming from and how the course can support each
students needs.

Chen, C. (2011). Transforming Online Professional Development: The Design and
Implementation of the Project-Based Learning Management System (PBLMs) for In-Service
Teachers. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 42(1), E5-E8. Retrieved from:
The purpose of this study is to explore how online professional development for
educators has been lacking in the hope of fully integrating technology into the
curriculum. There are several reasons for this insufficient training most have to do with
budgetary and technical problems. Teachers need to participate in online learning to
become familiar how to effectively integrate lessons and support students in online
learning. The project-based learning management system (PBLMs) was developed to
support the development of in-service teachers technological pedagogical knowledge
and skills. The study showed that it was effective in increasing teachers ability to
integrate technology into their lessons.
The course designed for in-service teachers to use to develop comfort with technology
integration was successful in the study. Given the nature of most teachers trying to bring
technology into the classroom this study provided the support needed for other schools
need to implement he PBLMs in their school. This gives the teachers practice using
project-based learning in an online educational environment.

Orrill, C. (2002). Supporting Online PBL: Design Considerations for Supporting Distributed
Problem Solving.Distance Education, 23(1), 41-57. Retrieved from:
This study considers how four groups of education graduate students worked in a
distributed problem-based learning (PBL) environment using an asynchronous threaded
discussion tool. The research sought to find how students interacted with one another
while solving a problem in a distributed environment. The purpose of this report was to
examine the use of one tool in an effort to identify ways in which online PBL might best
be supported. The team designed the Asynchronous Conferencing Tool (ACT) to give
discussion space for threaded and linear messages.

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This study was successful in demonstrating that a tool could be used to support
knowledge building in PBL in a distributed learning environment. It was found during the
course of the study that with a more complete learning environment for supporting
communication, organization of resources, and issue development, that it is possible to
create a rich online learning environment.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Chernobilsky, E., & Jordan, R. (2008). Understanding Collaborative
Learning Processes in New Learning Environments. Instructional Science: An International
Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 36(5-6), 409-430. Retrieved from:
The goal in this article is to demonstrate how visually representing the chronology of tool
use and discourse in an activity can enhance analysis of collaborative learning in a
computer supported learning environment (CSCL). The study used a tool called the
Chronologically-Ordered Representations of Discourse and Tool-Related Activity
(CORDTRA). This tool is used to study extended engagement in an online problem-
based learning activity. This information is placed in a linear graph for easy
interpretation. The use of the Socio-Technical Environments for Learning and Learning
Activity Research (STELLAR) is an integrated online PBL environment for pre-service
teachers that contain a learning sciences hypermedia, a library of video cases, and online
personal and collaborative spaces for students to work in.
This study is interesting and does explore challenges faced by online learners. A
restriction of this study was the small sample size. The premise of collaboration in online
learning as an instructional device does need to be explored and fully understood by
teachers and learners. The research shows that in constructivist learning environments
that the need for instructor support is still necessary. In the end the CORDTRA helped to
analyze the learning environment for effectiveness and user friendliness.

Lo, H. (2009). Utilizing Computer-Mediated Communication Tools for Problem-Based
Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 12(1), 205-213. Retrieved from:
This study aims to strategically use computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools to
build online communication environments for problem-based learning (PBL). There are
various forms of CMC, such as instant messaging, peer-to-peer networks, e-mail, bulletin
boards, online chat rooms, and massive multiplayer online (MMO). Usage is either
synchronous or asynchronous. Based on accessibility, feasibility, and cost-effectiveness,
this study aims at strategically using open-source software as CMC tools to build an
online course for PBL. The objective of this course was to develop students abilities in
constructing new knowledge through the researcher-designed PBL approach. The results
indicated that the online PBL course was successful as shown by the results of the pre
and posttest as well as the peer assessment of the group learning activities.
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This was a well-developed course and with thorough research that supported its results
with formative and summative data. It shows that with the successful development of an
online course with open-source tools such a wikis students can be successful in an online
learning environment using a PBL methodology.

Scholarly Papers/Articles/Resources

Tambouris, E., Panopoulou, E., Tarabanis, K., Ryberg, T., Buus, L., Peristeras, V., & ... Porwol,
L. (2012). Enabling Problem Based Learning through Web 2.0 Technologies: PBL 2.0. Journal
Of Educational Technology & Society,15(4), 238-251. Retrieved from:
The main objective of this paper was to investigate Web 2.0 technologies potential for
enabling diverse, innovative pedagogies of PBL. The study discusses the differences
between Web 2.0 as technologies (blogs, wikis, podcasts) and Web 2.0 as practices
(blogging, podcasting, and writing collaboratively). Web 2.0 learning is not only about
adopting these technologies, but equally about the degree to which teachers adopt more
learner-centered, participatory or collaborative practices.
The study found to have both successes and failures after analyzing the results of the
study. The study was a success due to the course being implemented smoothly and the
new learning experiences were accepted by the students. The study surprisingly failed
largely impart of what the students failed to do. They were not as active online as hoped,
they did not include as many resources, and preferred face-to-face collaborations for their
group assignments. It was interesting that due to resistance to change and difficulty to
adapt to new ways of working that the PBL 2.0 wasnt as successful as in this instance.

Yun-Jo, A., & Reigeluth, C. M. (2008). PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING IN ONLINE
ENVIRONMENTS. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 9(1), 1-16. Retrieved from:
This study proposed a series of guidelines for designing and implementing PBL in online
environments. The authors provided practical tips for diverse stages of the design and
implementation of online PBL. Due to the growth of online learning and the need for
innovation in instruction, many instructors at universities are trying to implement PBL in
their courses. This study was conducted due to the lack of guidance on the design and
implementation of PBL in online learning environments. The study found that students
who worked in peer groups online had better outcomes than those who worked
individually. These findings supports more recent trends and finding in online learning.

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The study found some guidelines to help with the design and implementing PLB in an
online course. During this research this table showed the closest resemblance of the
current structure of PBL in an online course. This study also found that instructor
supported the learning by providing detailed feedback on the process and the product of
the PBL that had taken place during the course.

Rye, J., Landenberger, R., & Warner, T. (2013). Incorporating Concept Mapping in Project-
Based Learning: Lessons from Watershed Investigations. Journal Of Science Education &
Technology, 22(3), 379-392. doi:10.1007/s10956-012-9400-1. Retrieved from:
This study was conducted to develop and apply a computer-based concept map in
project-based learning (PBL) units that investigated local watersheds. Although most of
the research found in this synthesis is related to online instruction, this article is related to
using PBL with an online tool to support instruction. The teachers attitudes from their
schools of employment contributed to the study not being as successful in fully
developing their abilities to be prepared to support the students while using computer-
based projects.
The analysis about concept mapping encourages teachers to make extensive use of this
strategy and hope they use computer-based concept maps in their classrooms. However,
increasing the adoption of these learning tools by teachers and students remains a
challenge. Some of these challenges are teachers limited technology access at their
schools, lack of time for teachers to learn new technology skills, lack of motivation by
students to learn a new concept, and difficulty by students to link terms. Concept
mapping can be difficult if not practiced with lower level concepts and worked up to
more difficult ones particularly if using computer-based tools.

ChanLin, L. (2012). Learning strategies in web-supported collaborative project. Innovations In
Education & Teaching International, 49(3), 319-331. doi:10.1080/14703297.2012.703016
Retrieved from:
In the study, students use of learning skills to achieve online learning goals was explored
by the relationship between students online interaction and learning achievement with
study strategies measured by the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI), as
well as, other strategies that are needed for online learning not covered by the LASSI.
The students participated in a 12 week online course to work in 3-5 person groups to
complete a group project. At the end of the study, it was observed that the number of
students online postings was correlated with some LASSI questions, including: attitude,
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motivation, information processing, selecting the main idea, use of support/material and
test strategies. This indicated that the students online strategies are important for
understanding their learning processes.
The learning strategies in a web-supported collaborative project allowed students to work
in a learner-centered environment. This type of constructivist approach to learning using
project-based learning is a reoccurring theme amongst all of these articles for the research
synthesis. This study indicates that students who were apart of the online course are new
to this type of learning environment and that further study will need to be conducted. This
article was completed in 2012 which was surprising because of the large scale use of
online learning.

THE WEB. International Journal Of Instructional Media,36(2), 221-233. Retrieved from:
This article mainly describes the use of jigsaw collaborative learning strategy in online
discussion to foster the form of an online learning community, called Web-enabled Pro-
ject-Based Learning Community. This article further finds that online discussion is an
important aspect of developing an online learning community. It was found during this
study that the development of an online community supports online learning. That
without the support of the community the learner would be alone and less or no learning
would take place. It also discusses that online discussion assists in the development of the
community by group reflection, social interaction, and personal association. It also
identified the formula for the degree of participating in online discussions which had not
been mentioned previously in any of the research. The study used jigsaw as an approach
to peer interaction because learners were part of one group, then lent out to discuss
similar information with another group, and returned with new ideas and thoughts about
the subject. This type of learning proved successful in this study because of the depth of
collaboration between the learners.
This study brought up several interesting ideas that indicated the reason PBL in online
instruction can be successful. One of the most important was the need to organize groups
based on: common interests, common majors, experiences with technology, geography,
topical focus, and professional discipline. The second was that students need to take on
different roles as learners to improve collaboration skills. Both of these areas can be
found in the 755 course we are in currently. We are taking turn with online discussions,
being a part of different groups based on common interest, and experiences with

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Bulu, S., & Yildirim, Z. (2008). Communication Behaviors and Trust in Collaborative Online
Teams. Journal Of Educational Technology & Society,11(1), 132-147. Retrieved from:
The case study design was used in this study to investigate the group trust and
communication behaviors of online teams across online discussions. This study directly
relates to the effectiveness of online discussion forums. The participants were foreign
language students taking an online technology class from a university in the United
States. The students worked in collaborative groups on 6 activities during the course.
They were given timely feedback as each activity was turned in by the instructor. The
study uses the Learning to Teach with Technology Studio (LTTS). This tool helps
instructors with integrating technology into their teaching and support inquiry and
problem solving in the classroom. The study found that the content analysis of online
groups discussion archives revealed that groups with different trust levels showed
certain collaborative communication behaviors such as leadership, feedback, social
interaction, enthusiasm, task and technical uncertainties, and task oriented interaction. It
discussed that during the half way point of term the trust level rose significantly.
However, it was noted in the open-ended questions gathered in the questionnaire that
students felt those who did not give feedback or limited feedback were trusted the least.
The need for trust among group members is imperative in anything we do. However, this
is especially important when working in an online environment. This is due to the
dividing of responsibilities to complete a project on time. If a member isnt giving regular
or supportive feedback other members will lose trust in their abilities to do the work
given to them in fear of a reduced grade because of it. This causes other members to
occasionally take on the work of that member because of that lack of trust.

Kurzel, F., & Rath, M. (2007). Project Based Learning and Learning Environments. Issues In
Informing Science & Information Technology, 4503-510. Retrieved from:
The study was conducted to identify the correlation between project-based learning and
learning environments. This included the online learning where students had a discussion
board to post and answer questions and participated in asynchronous discussions. The
learners used this as a way to establish individual weekly goals. Each took turns leading
the discussion as a facilitator guiding the groups focus and providing feedback. This is a
strong point for this blended course where the first have is instructor lead in a face-to-
face environment and the second have is moved to an online learning environment.
This study found that the materials used in an online learning environment are similar to
those found in a face-to-face classroom. One of the major differences found in the study
was the fact that online discussions was the most important in helping complete the
project because of the collaboration, setting of weekly goals, and the assessment of these.
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The findings are in line with other research about the strong use of discussion boards to
share, reflect, and question the learners and others thoughts and comments.

Boubouka, M., & Papanikolaou, K. (2010). Promoting collaboration in a project-based e-
learning context. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 43(2), 135+. Retrieved from
This study was conducted to promote collaboration in a project-based e-learning context.
Students participated in a MyProject class which is a Web-based
adaptive learning environment that supports learners in understanding the issues of a
project and accordingly organizing their work to complete it. In the MyProject students
are given learning activities that are organized into a cycle. The student is able to move
through the course in any way they wish but are given adaptive guidance. The students
are then able to use a peer assessment functionality that allows others to give feedback
and allows for the user to do the same for others. Having the ability to publish their ideas
and solutions promotes peer interaction. The results of the study show that the number of
messages, as well as, the content of the messages showed that collaboration was the most
effective tool a student had while using MyProject. This socially shared reflective
thinking about alternative solutions promotes self-knowledge as students try to
understand, evaluate, and integrate them into their own products or a final group product.
Given that the MyProject course was designed to be completed individually. It is
interesting to note the success of incorporating the ability for the user to publish their
findings at certain points during the course to allow asynchronous reflection, as well as,
others abilities to reflect on their ideas and to be able to use them in their final projects.
This holds true to other research that supports collaboration as a major factor to the
success of project-based learning in a online environment.

Augar, N., Farmer, J., & Goold, A. (2006). Learning in virtual teams: exploring the student
experience. Journal of Information Technology Education, 5, 477+. Retrieved from
This study was conducted to plan, develop and implement the new Information
Technology (IT) Professional Practice course. Prior to becoming an online class the
undergraduate students were in a face-to-face classroom setting. Since becoming an
online course the school is looking to improve the design and these are their findings. The
school also has added a (PBL) project-based leanring pedagogy incorporating a case
study for the students to work in collaborative groups. The students were broken into
three virtual-learning teams. These teams were to work towards solving problems of a
fictitious company. For each topic, students were required to discuss particular aspects of
the topic, to complete group activities and to complete an assessable group task. The
results found most of the students were successful with tasks given to them.

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One of the major limitations found in the study goes hand in hand with several other
research articles and studies found within this research synthesis. The problems were
students lack of participation, cultural differences amongst the learners, and trust in
peers as a number of students withdrew from the course. These students probably failed
to participate and in turn felt alone and ultimately causing those to be displeased with the
direction of the course and withdraw.

Guthrie, C. (2010). Towards greater learner control: web supported project-based learning.
Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(1), 121+. Retrieved from
The study reports on a class where web-based learning technologies were used to
support PBL. The objective was to improve the understanding of how students use these
technologies in a PBL context. The students were randomly selected and put into groups
of three. The objective is to build a website to improve a company. It basically followed
the ADDIE method of design. There was a class website developed for information to be
gathered and reflected on. However, there was no mention of communication between
groups. Each group worked and turned in their task. The instructor-led class graded it and
offered feedback on each groups work. Then the groups were to make corrections based
on the feedback of the instructor.
At the beginning of this course I felt that it was right on track with the development of
collaborative groups and a project-based learning task for each to complete. Then the
study got to the procedure part and I felt that a major component that numerous research
articles and studies touched on was the communication part. There was no discussion
board to post ideas or reflect on others views or thoughts. The students were left to make
corrections based on the thoughts of one person. This instructor-led environment could
have easily been fixed by having students post their projects on a web-based tool such as
a wiki and incorporate a discussion board for others to respond to every ones work.