Developing Creative Learning Environments in Problem-based Learning
Developing Creative Learning Environments in Problem-based Learning
Sari Poikela, Pirjo Vuoskoski,* and Maija Kärnä †
University of Lapland, *Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences, and†Pirkanmaa University of Applied Sciences, Finland
This chapter explores through two Finnish case studies the use of problem-based learning to provide a creative learning environment. In the first case, online supervision and collaboration during clinical placement of students in a problem-based physiotherapy course were carried out in the virtual learning environment Moodle and using the desktop conferencing tool Marratech. The second case examined business students' perception of the usefulness of pre-tutorial discussion conducted asynchronously in a discussion forum and in Wiki, both built into the Moodle environment, in constructing students' individual and group knowledge bases. The results of both cases show benefits as well as challenges in facilitating computer-supported collaboration and learning. The lessons learned from the case studies and the implications are discussed.
Problem-based learning (PBL) was introduced in Finnish higher education in the 1990s. Since then, its use has spread to various disciplines and programs, and it can be said that PBL has now entered the second phase of development in Finland. What distinguishes PBL as a teaching methodology, perhaps more of an educational strategy, is the change in the whole learning environment that it requires. And this involves the holistic consideration of a number of elements: the organizational context, curriculum content and design, as well as teaching and learning approaches, including methods of assessment and evaluation. For students, PBL provides a creative learning environment in which knowledge is constructed. For teachers, it offers an effective tool for facilitating learning and nurturing active learners. However, the use of this tool demands faculty cooperation rather than the traditional approach of working alone (Poikela & Poikela, 2006).
In this chapter, we examine the development of creative environments in PBL through two case studies investigating the integration of online collaboration with problem-based pedagogy in a business and a physiotherapy course in Finland. Based on the findings, we consider the lessons learned and the implications.
PBL for a Creative Learning Environment
Savin-Baden and Howell Major (2004) have noted different approaches to PBL adoption. Among them are what they describe as the "PBL funnel approach" and "PBL on a shoestring," which involve implementation on a macro level where individual teachers experiment with PBL in their own courses or modules within traditional subject-based curricula. These "patchwork" PBL models adopt a two-pronged approach, using lectures and other traditional teaching methods on the one hand and group work along the line of PBL on the other. An integrated curriculum, in contrast, allows PBL to be implemented on a macro level across the entire curriculum. On a broader scale with a cross-disciplinary approach, problems from different disciplines are integrated into the curriculum. This is a strategy for transforming curricula. At its best, it leads to fundamental pedagogical changes, redirection of teachers' work, and transformation of the entire learning culture (Barrett, 2005; Chen, 2000; Poikela, 2003).
The PBL curriculum provides a collaborative knowledge-building and self-directed learning environment that can be simplified as shown in the schematic in Figure 5.1. This concept has been adopted in many disciplines in higher education institutions in Finland. From our experience, it is very important to understand PBL as a whole system rather than merely an instructional technique. Such a learning environment promotes empowerment and creativity for both learners and teachers.
The core of the PBL method is the tutorial, a small group session with 7–9 students and a teacher acting as tutor. Tutorials are held once or twice a week with the same participants throughout the study module or semester. Another fundamental element of PBL is a self-directed study period between tutorials when students are required to explore various kinds of information resources in their search for solutions. Group members share responsibilities for conducting information searches focusing on sources of theoretical knowledge with the aim of gaining sufficient understanding to allow deeper exploration of the problem at hand. Additional information can be obtained by interviewing experts or conducting Internet research.
The purpose of integrating shared research and self-study into the curriculum is to reduce the time spent in lectures while increasing the time for independent study and information search. Lectures become a learning resource like any other type of resource, including published literature, practical training, and assignments. New kinds of demands are placed on the quality of lectures and assignments; they need to be tailored and timed according to the process of problem solving. New demands are also placed on the quality of learning materials. For instance, Web-based material provided for solving the given problem needs to be relevant, useful, and up-to-date. At the same time, the material produced by students themselves is of increased importance because the learning is shared and collaborative. For PBL implementation, broad cooperation across the institution is required. Teachers cannot handle the curriculum by themselves because PBL demands institution-wide planning and implementation.
The Problem-solving Process
The process of problem solving may be structured in different ways. One of the most well-known models was developed by Barrows at the University of McMaster, Canada (Barrows, 1985; see also Barrett, 2005). Another is the "seven jump" model of Schmidt (1983) at the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands, and its many variations from other institutions. The cyclical model developed at the University of Linköping, Sweden, has been widely applied, too. For this reason, it is not possible to identify a single, "best" model of PBL.
PBL offers a framework for structuring and facilitating learning and group processes based on creative problem solving. Carefully designed work-related problems create a solid base for learning. The problem-solving process is facilitated by the teacher in tutorials lasting two to a maximum of four hours at a time.
The PBL process begins with students working toward a shared understanding of the problem presented to them. They then brainstorm ideas about the content area related to the problem using their existing knowledge and prior experiences. Similar types of ideas are grouped into named categories. The most important and actual problem areas among the named categories are determined. The first tutorial session is then held to decide on the learning tasks to undertake and the goals to achieve. Following the tutorial, students engage in information search and self-study, working both individually and in pairs or in small groups depending on the learning tasks and goals as well as the strategy deemed most appropriate for seeking information. The second tutorial is the time for applying the new knowledge acquired, to tackle the learning tasks, and to reconstruct the problem in a new way. New and deeper knowledge is synthesized and integrated to provide a basis for deeper learning. Participants clarify and reflect on the whole problem-solving process and the learning process in the light of the new knowledge. The PBL process, or cycle, is summarized in Figure 5.2. In the diagram, assessment is placed at the center, as it is part of every single phase of the process. However, it is still necessary to close the tutorial with feedback about students' own learning, their information-seeking behavior, their problem-solving skills, and the group processes so that improvements can be made.
Students may need to learn information-seeking skills when they start doing PBL. It is not enough for the tutor to simply ask students to go and find information from the library or the Internet. It is essential that tutorials include discussion about where and how the most relevant information can be found and what the most important resources are. Students need practice and guidance to familiarize themselves with different kinds of information resources before they can become effective, competent information seekers. Librarians and other information specialists can also provide the necessary guidance.
Virtual and Web-based environments are becoming increasingly important as forums for guiding study and for finding, sharing, and evaluating information. Such concepts as Web 2.0, social media, and mobile learning have been the subject of lively discussion concerning the next stage of development of the Finnish technological society. Social media (Web 2.0), including the notion of online collaboration, is the most rapidly evolving phenomenon on the Web. The various facilities of the social media, such as blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and Internet calls, are widely used by the young generation. Thus, it is only natural that the educational possibilities that social media offer should also be seriously considered. Moreover, mobile technology provides new ways for teachers and learners to augment and improve learning and teaching, especially when working with geographically dispersed groups.
There has been a growing interest among educational researchers recently in computer-supported PBL in online environments (Donnelly, 2004, 2005; Strømsø et al., 2004; Valaitis et al., 2005; Savin-Baden & Wilkie, 2006; Portimojärvi, 2006a, 2006b). The networked environment can provide a space for constructive learning that enables interaction between learners as well as extensive information search from diverse sources. And students are expected to enhance each other's learning by using various tools and resources for collaborative problem solving. When students work remotely, they need effective tools for communication. The combination of online technology and PBL challenges not only learners but also educators to adapt their existing skills as well as to adopt new skills to enhance learning in virtual environments.
We will next analyze two cases, one in physiotherapy education and the other in business education, where PBL has been successfully implemented for several years and advanced technological solutions have been deployed recently to support PBL online.
Case 1. Enhancing Learning and Supervision via Online Collaboration during Clinical Placement in a Problem-based Physiotherapy Course
This study is an integral part of a wider development project launched in 2005 at the Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences, Finland. The project aims to utilize information and communication technology (ICT) along with problem-based pedagogy to enhance learning and supervision during clinical placement. A fully integrated PBL curriculum has been implemented in this bachelor-degree physiotherapy course since 1998. Integrated blocks of academic study alternating with practical training periods have been designed to enhance the integration of academic and clinical learning. Since its launch, a range of electronic resources and online communication tools have been introduced to staff and students. This study examined online collaboration between students on clinical placement and with their teachers and supervisors using the virtual learning platform Moodle (http://www.moodle.org) for asynchronous communication and the desktop conferencing tool Marratech (http://www.marratech.com) for synchronous communication. Marratech, used together with a laptop, a Web camera, headphones, text-based chat, and a shared whiteboard, offers a multimodal channel for real-time online communication and mobile learning.
Research question and methods
The aims of the study were to examine online collaboration between the participants during clinical placement to find out which aspects of the collaboration were problematic and what improvements could be made to enhance the integration of academic and clinical learning.
The study was conducted in autumn 2006 over a five-week period of clinical placement in private and public health organizations located in different parts of Finland. The participants were 24 third-year physiotherapy students, 3 teachers, and 21 clinical supervisors (physiotherapists). A problem scenario related to recording patient information and making decisions in physiotherapy was integrated into the clinical training. The first tutorial was held before the placement, and the second tutorial following the first. As an integral part of professional training, the clinical posting offered an opportunity for independent study and information seeking on the given problem scenario. During clinical placement, students were required to record how they identified and recognized patients' needs, assessed and gathered information, made diagnoses, analyzed and synthesized information, and applied problem-solving strategies and clinical reasoning in order to plan, prioritize, and implement appropriate physiotherapy. For the tutorials, the students were divided into three small groups of 7–9 students at the beginning of the term. One off-campus group engaged alternately in synchronous and asynchronous online collaboration and self-study. The two groups remaining on campus engaged in computer-supported collaborative knowledge construction and documentation, traditional face-to-face tutorials, and asynchronous online collaboration between tutorials.
All participants had access to Moodle during clinical training. The students were required to post their written learning documents, case reports, learning agreements, and reflection diaries onto Moodle. The case report was an account of the student's own clinical experiences together with relevant research literature. The learning agreement was a written agreement negotiated between the student, the teacher, and the clinical supervisor on the learning objectives and resources, the learning criteria, and the learning outcomes. At the end of each study week, students were expected to reflect on their own learning and understanding in their reflection diary. The teachers and supervisors would guide and give feedback on students' learning documents via Moodle, while students were required to comment on each other's documents in the same forum. Additionally, two students on clinical placement abroad used Marratech to communicate with their teacher.
Textual data consisted of individual students' learning documents as well as written comments and conversations between students, teachers, and supervisors made over Moodle. Videos were recorded of conversations conducted between students and teachers using Marratech. Qualitative content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005) was done to define the type of online collaboration. The comments and conversations were coded and then, based on how the various codes were related and linked, sorted into the categories of clinical behavior, content knowledge, and reflective writing. Content analysis continued with a comparison of the content of the categories against students' individual learning documents. This combined analysis became the basis for interpreting and presenting the findings.
The data indicate that online communication appeared to create more opportunities for versatile collaboration, thus enhancing the integration of academic and clinical learning during clinical placement. On the other hand, the lack of ICT skills, time, motivation, or access to appropriate communication tools was a hindrance.
Asynchronous online collaboration in Moodle enabled physiotherapy students to receive and post written comments and feedback on their learning and to reflect on the feedback. Most of the collaboration in Moodle was between students and teachers. The content of collaboration was divided into three categories: (1) clinical behavior, comprising comments about students' behavior in clinical situations; (2) content knowledge, consisting of comments on the given problem scenario relating to recording information and making decisions in physiotherapy; and (3) reflective writing, comprising students' reflections on their own learning and understanding. While most of the comments and feedback on students' reflective writing and content knowledge were given by teachers, students commented most often on each other's clinical behavior. The supervisors' written comments related only to the learning agreements.
In their reflection diaries, students expressed disappointment with delayed feedback on their learning documents. However, they were generally satisfied with their peers for their helpful observations and good questions, and with the teachers for being the most reliable evaluators of curricular expectations. It must be noted that the students did not place emphasis on teachers' feedback on their clinical learning. Similarly, they did not expect their clinical supervisors to comment on their reflection diaries and case reports, but instead they attached greater importance to their face-to-face interactions with the supervisors in daily learning situations. They also highlighted the benefits of getting feedback during placement from all parties—peers, teachers, and supervisors. Table 5.1 summarizes these observations.
The two students on attachment abroad highlighted desktop conferencing as a versatile and efficient way of communication during placement, enabling synchronous collaboration remotely with sight and sound. It allowed the students to get immediate feedback and response from their teacher, reassuring them that they were "on track." Additionally, the textual communication in Moodle enabled them to follow parallel discussions about similar questions that concerned them. This seemed to ease their anxiety about being "isolated" or "uninformed." There were other students echoing this sentiment.
The results of this case study are compatible with those of other studies. It was reported that medical students' expectations of tutor involvement
|Clinical behavior||Content knowledge||Reflective writing|
|Participants' contributions||Peers giving good questions and helpful observations||Most feedback from teachers||Most feedback from teachers, while supervisors comment on learning agreements|
|Noteworthy observation||Decreased expectation of tutor involvement||Reliance on teacher as evaluator of curricular expectations||Disappointment with delayed feedback; importance attached to feedback from all parties|
in problem-based tutorials conducted remotely during clinical placement decreased compared with face-to-face tutorials held within the institu-tion (Strømsø et al., 2004). A similar decrease was noted in our physiotherapy students' expectations of teacher involvement in their clinical learning. Several possible explanations may be offered, such as the characteristics of the communication media used (Portimojärvi, 2006b) or the teacher's and the supervisor's competence in working in and guiding interaction in the virtual environment (Donnelly, 2004). The online environment differs from the face-to-face environment in a number of ways, accompanied by its specific tensions. As such, the expertise and skills required for online instruction are different. "Going online" does not necessarily lead to savings in staff time (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2006), an indication of the complexity of the work involved.
The context of clinical placement must also be considered in this regard. Physiotherapy students gained greater access to experts during clinical placement, and this may have reduced their need for guidance and feedback from their teacher on their learning. It is also important to note that, while these students expected feedback from their peers and teacher, it was on different aspects of learning from what they expected from clinical experts. Well-timed synchronous and asynchronous virtual communication during clinical placement seemed to create a conducive environment for collaborative learning, joint knowledge construction, and information exchange. It can be concluded that this enhanced the integration of academic and clinical learning as well.
However, it might be insightful to examine more closely the different expectations of the students about the role of the teacher and the clinical supervisor. It became clear that guidance was focused on individual learning processes. It could be useful to design collaborative activities conducive to joint guidance, such as online tutorials with the participation of both the teacher and the clinical supervisor, as well as synchronous online sessions for group interaction and guidance during clinical placement. Prior to that, clearly we need to train teachers and clinical supervisors to use online environments and communication technology to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous communication between all parties—students, teachers, and supervisors.
Case 2. Using Web 2.0 to Create a Common Knowledge Base in Business Education
This study is part of a development initiative undertaken at the Ikaaline Business School, Pirkanmaa University of Applied Sciences, to create an innovative learning environment combining PBL and Web 2.0. The first phase of the project was to develop the curriculum for a Bachelor of Business Administration program based on PBL. The new integrated curriculum was introduced in 2005. It was quickly followed by a plan to integrate Web 2.0 facilities into the PBL environment, so as to encourage students to actively engage in online collaboration, not just to use the existing information resources on the Web.
The process of building common ground for a group formed the focus of this study. The common information base, or common ground, is necessary for a group to operate, to achieve its objectives, and to create new knowledge. The concept of collective information processing was first introduced by Kathleen Propp in 1999. The process consists of four stages, beginning with the construction of the individual information base. The individual information base consists of the knowledge that each member possesses of the task concerned and which the member brings to the group, including the person's past experiences in similar situations, general knowledge, and any information that he or she has collected before meeting with the group. At the second stage, the individual knowledge bases are connected and a new group knowledge base is formed. This group knowledge base includes all the collective knowledge available to the group as a whole. At this stage, there are several group-level factors that might affect the rest of the process, such as group size and composition, internal relationships, and preexisting preferences of group members. The impact of communication and discussion becomes the central focus at the third stage. The information that the group members exchange and shape during group discussions forms the communicated information base. At the final stage, the outputs of the previous stages are processed. The final collective information base includes the information that is accepted and utilized by the group to reach a decision on the task at hand (Propp, 1999, pp. 231–236).
Research question and methods
The aim of the study was to first explore whether it was possible to create a common information base using two Web 2.0 tools: an asynchronous discussion forum and Wiki, a Web-site engine that allows visitors to edit its contents. Both tools were embedded in the Moodle virtual learning platform. Moreover, we wanted to find out if there were any differences in students' use of these resources.
Nine first-year business students volunteered to participate in this study, which was conducted in the second term of academic year 2005/ 2006, consisting of two eight-week study periods. The students used the discussion forum during the first study period and Wiki during the second period, both to support self-study between weekly tutorials. For each period, the students worked with a different tutor, both of whom were interviewed after they concluded their work with the students. Learning diaries were collected from students after each period, and at the end of the second term a group interview was organized. The interview was recorded and transcribed. The data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis.
The students used the Web discussion space to get new ideas, find new sources of information, and refine their own information search. The space became a forum for sharing the knowledge that each student possessed. There was a general effort among the students to always find unique information to share on the forum. The students reported frequently a reluctance to repeat any information already given by others. The messages contained mainly facts culled from various sources, whereas own experiences were not shared except at the very beginning of the first period.
According to the students, the Web discussion helped them form a holistic picture of the topic at hand and focused their own information search. It was considered valuable in expanding individual knowledge bases. Additionally, it generated a pool of shared information that served as a basis for subsequent face-to-face tutorial discussion.
However, there was a general dissatisfaction among the students with the nature of the discussions. The messages were mostly long, unconnected statements of facts clearly copied directly from various sources. The students reported that hardly any real discussion, questions, or exchange of opinions could be found. New information introduced by fellow group members was not internalized.
After using the discussion forum for eight weeks, the students switched to Wiki. Wiki was a new tool to the students and, in spite of training given at the beginning of the period, they found it difficult, awkward, confusing, and time-consuming to use and the structure of the Wiki environment unsuitable for actual discussion. They used Wiki in the same way that they did with the discussion forum: for sharing the information that they possessed individually, for helping them to refine their own information search, and as a source of new ideas. Compared with the discussion forum, the students found Wiki more convenient for storing information because information on it was well organized and easy to locate. Both Wiki and the discussion forum restricted the topics of discussion in the face-to-face tutorials. Only issues introduced on Wiki were discussed, as the topics for the tutorials were determined based on those found on the Wiki index page.
The results show only minor differences in application between the discussion forum and Wiki. Both tools appeared to form a source for building up individual knowledge bases and a space for storing shared information. Wiki seemed to offer a more structured and organized resource for broadening the knowledge base than the discussion forum, where the shared information was scattered in the messages.
However, the students were unable to reach common ground over the Web. This is well in line with the findings of earlier studies. Clark and Schaefer (1989) note that before the participants of Web-based conferencing are able to reach a deeper level of interaction and learning they have to find adequate common ground in terms of shared understanding, knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, and presuppositions. For that to happen, all participants should show an interest and a willingness to continue discussion toward reaching common ground by providing feedback, questions, and support to their peers (Mäkitalo et al., 2002). In the present study, it was noted that students shared knowledge but not mutual understanding, beliefs, or assumptions. They failed to express support and give feedback to their peers, a fact that was clearly evidenced by the lack of discursive messages. Thus, the group was not able to reach mutual understanding and establish common ground during their Web interaction, and the negotiation of meaning was left for face-to-face discussions.
Figure 5.3 shows how the various stages of collective information processing of the study group were divided between Web interaction and face-to-face interaction. The information base is depicted as a triangle, with its tip being the individual information base that a student starts to build at the beginning of a learning task and the base being the common knowledge base of the group at the completion of the learning task. On the basis of the study findings, it is clear that only the first two stages— the expansion of individual information bases and the creation of the group knowledge base—took place over the Web, whereas negotiation of meaning started only during the face-to-face discussion in the tutorial. The line cutting across the triangle represents the border between the outcomes of Web interaction and those of face-to-face discussion (Kärnä & Kallioniemi, 2006). In order to further integrate and harness the full benefits of the online PBL environment, we must find a way to move the boundary between Web interaction and face-to-face discussion further down toward the final stage, which is the formation of the final collective information base or common ground.
Conclusion: The Lessons Learned
Both the business and physiotherapy programs under study have incorporated PBL for several years, with fully integrated problem-based curricula. At the beginning, when developing the innovative curricula, many issues had to be solved, such as the design and development of the new curricula, teachers' insecurity about shifting the focus from teaching to facilitating learning, as well as students' unwillingness to accept greater responsibility for their own learning. After resolving these issues, the focus has now shifted to developing even more creative and effective learning environments with the implementation of ICT.
The two cases represent different fields of professional studies as well as different stages of study (academic study versus professional training). However, in both cases, advanced technological solutions were applied to support PBL online. Despite the differences, similarities can be noted. Firstly, students used online collaboration to get reassurance for being "on the right track." This physiotherapy students got from their teacher and business students from their peers. Secondly, although students generally welcomed the introduction of new learning methods and the use of online facilities, there was still hesitation and doubt among teachers and supervisors, as well as among some of the students, about adopting ICT tools for learning and teaching. More training and support from ICT experts is needed to build confidence in using the facilities. Only when this is done will students and teachers be able to focus on learning and teaching and not get distracted by frustrating technical problems.
Thirdly, in both cases, one of the problems encountered was the lack of discussion and knowledge building among students. In the physiotherapy case, most of the collaboration in Moodle was between teachers and students during clinical placement. In the business case, there was a general lack of discussion and exchange of opinions, beliefs, and understandings among students during the independent study period. Thus, in both cases, the potential of the technologies was not optimally and fully exploited. The online collaboration did not lead to common ground, which would have enabled group members not only to share knowledge but also to create new knowledge.
In online PBL, there is an increasing focus on synchronous as well as asynchronous collaboration to meet the need for shared understanding and knowledge building. The aim is not only to enable online tutorials to be held but also to facilitate independent study between tutorials, when students share information in order to build mutual understanding and a common knowledge base. Further, desktop conferencing tools like Marratech coupled with Web cameras and headphones allow communication and group work to take place in online tutorials with sight and sound just like in face-to-face tutorials. Additionally, technological tools can be employed for recording, constructing, and visualizing the shared understanding and knowledge in face-to-face tutorials.
Finally, we consider the implications of the lessons learned for the design of problem-based curricula and the implementation of problem-based pedagogy. PBL does not follow the structure of academic subjects but that of problem solving within shared and individual learning processes. In a holistic approach to problem-based curriculum design, all aspects of learning, teaching, and assessment, regardless of the tools and environments used, have to be tuned to support the integration of shared learning and self-study, the integration of academic and practical learning, and the building of professional competence.
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