Problem–Based Learning and E–Learning

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Problem–Based Learning and E–Learning

Developments in Internet Communication Technology
PBL and Learning Management Systems
Innovating e-Learning

Developments in Internet Communication Technology

A discourse on PBL as an educational innovation would not be complete without a discussion on e-learning. Chen and Tan (2002) observed that we are bombarded by reports of rapid and constant changes in Internet communication technologies (ICT). There have also been ample claims of breakthrough technologies and promises of new ways of learning and a new generation of learners. The power of ICT in terms of communication and information accessibility (e.g. e-mail, World Wide Web, Internet telecommunications, video-conferencing) is obvious. I mentioned in Chapter 1 that the information age makes the traditional means of information dissemination obsolete. However, if teaching continues to be primarily teacher-directed and didactic, there is little need for students to go to the Internet for information. Problems given only after the knowledge has been disseminated through lectures do not optimize on the availability of and the accessibility to information.

The use of PBL empowers students to not only take advantage of the accessibility as well as the wealth of knowledge but also to discover the means of knowledge sharing, knowledge propagation and knowledge enterprise through the use of learning management systems, Web-based learning and Internet communication.

PBL and Learning Management Systems

The nature of PBL and PBL processes provide ample opportunities for PBL curricula to make full use of learning management systems available to educational institutions today. Learning management systems like WebCT, Topclass and Blackboard provide excellent tools for the dissemination of problem scenarios, accessing online resources and linkages to Web sites, and for group discussions. For example, in the educational psychology PBL unit described in the previous chapter, all problem scenarios and course details are presented through the Blackboard platform for students to access.

Since PBL requires a mindset change in students that calls for initiative, ownership and independence, such online learning management systems are fitting for facilitating the learning process. Although PBL is totally student-centred, PBL tutors' role is critical in developing the environment of learning and helping to facilitate communication, problem inquiry, critical evaluation and metacognition. In PBL, students are encouraged to hold discussions beyond the tutorial sessions. Apart from face-to-face communication, many-to-many discussions and chats are possible through online learning platforms. Figure 8.1 illustrates how a learning management system facilitates the PBL process.

Currently, many learning management systems, such as Blackboard, provide convenient tools and resources, such as announcements, course information, course documents, assignments, books, communication system, virtual classroom and discussion board. With rapid improvement, the tools and sequencing are becoming more flexible and user-friendly. This means that we will be able to customize the learning management system to suit a particular PBL programme. Furthermore, problems can be easily presented in a variety of innovative ways, including text, hypertext, photographs, graphics and digital videos. A rich amount of data, Web sites and Internet links can also be conveniently incorporated.

To facilitate the PBL process, we suggest making the following information and resources available online 24 hours:

  • PBL homepage
  • Course objectives
  • Course structure
  • Portfolio of problem scenarios
  • PBL cycle and inquiry tools
  • Tutor's guide
  • Student's guide
  • Resources and links
  • Assessment criteria
  • Communication system

The opportunities for PBL and e-learning integration abound considering what learning management systems and Web-based learning could offer. Since PBL involves immersion in the problem as well as the collection, connection and communication of information over an extended period of time, such learning management systems will support and facilitate the learning and communication process.

The effective integration of PBL models and e-learning appears to be a promising way to go in educational and training innovation. The creative combination of face-to-face mediation and technological mediation will characterize learning in the future. It would be unwise for educators to ignore the use of problems and the psychological and motivational benefits of PBL processes. In PBL, face-to-face interaction is important for learning the complexities and heuristics of thinking, problem solving and application through inquiry and discussion. It is difficult to structure and sequence such metacognitive learning. Perhaps artificial intelligence and more sophisticated multimedia delivery and interaction will assist in more domains of metacognitive learning in the future.

Innovating e-Learning

Whilst a blend of face-to-face teaching and the use of technology is preferred, there are many instances where circumstances call for human—machine interaction as a primary mode of learning. Making e-learning work has, however, been a challenge. Not too long ago, e-learning business was one of the gold rushes during the dotcom fever. High return on investment in e-learning was predicted, but, as Welber (2002) noted, nearly all the e-learning companies have yet to make a profit. Many online providers are struggling with the design of interactivity. Many universities and online companies have invested heavily in their attempts to harness the power of technology in instructional design with a view to launching commercially viable e-learning programmes. Some institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided instead that they would simply provide free resources. In April 2001 MIT announced its OCW (OpenCourseWare) and promised to put a comprehensive range of its professors' course material for free access to the world. A good range of content is now available on the MIT Web site ( The institute made it clear that it was not generally making available its courses for interaction; OCW is in no way close to an MIT education. For MIT, education is face-to-face interaction with lecturers, sharing their knowledge, expertise and inspirational personal qualities.

However, we still need to make e-learning work because it is useful in situations where there are geographical and time constraints, as in distance learning, learning from remote sites and just-in-time training. There are also circumstances such as the recent SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic when educational institutions in certain affected countries were ordered to close for several weeks. A professor from a university in Hong Kong told me that they had to consider seriously the use of e-learning as an alternative and complement.

One serious consideration for e-learning programme providers is to take the PBL approach and make the best of technology to facilitate the collaborative and problem-solving learning processes. By using problems as triggers for learning and interactivity, the potential of technology could perhaps be more fully harnessed. Table 8.1 summarizes the paradigm shift when we move from current e-learning practices to the use of PBL in e-learning.

The best instructional strategy for e-learning is to use problems as triggers of learning. The e-learning environment is perfect for PBL cycles. PBL approaches provide the motivation for online learning engagement in terms of connecting to resources, peers and experts .

Some of the underpinning principles of the use of PBL in e-learning are:

  • Make use of the power of real-world problems to motivate learning
  • Design the learning environment such that it employs the global information network
  • Encourage the development of learning-to-learn processes, heuristics, and thinking skills
  • Emphasize problem solving and decision making rather than content learning
  • Provide for systems of engagement and collaboration
  • Provide opportunities for active application of knowledge and self-review
  • Optimize the use of flexible structures to support and sustain independence and interdependence
  • Develop evaluative and critical use of information sources
Table 8.1 Using PBL in e-learning
Current e-learningPBL e-learning
Changes mode of deliveryChanges paradigm of learning
Passive definition of scopeActive definition of scope
Retrieval of contentLearning of process
Primarily linear structuring of contentScaffolding of thinking
Little activation of prior knowledgeActivation of prior knowledge
Limited engagementInevitable engagement
Flexibility usedFlexibility optimized
Single disciplineMultiple disciplines
Primarily convergentEncourages divergence
Communication mainly one—oneCommunication one—many and many—many
Individual learningPeer/Collaborative learning
Information search minimalInformation search extensive
Little evaluation of information sourcesEmphasizes review and critique of information sources

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Problem–Based Learning and E–Learning

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