Using Problems for e–Learning Environments

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Using Problems for e–Learning Environments

A World of Change
Education, Instructional Systems, and Problems
Problem-based Learning and Its Effectiveness
PBL and e-Learning

Oon-Seng Tan

A World of Change

The fast pace of change in the 21st century calls for an ever-greater ability to cope with change and to adapt. The problems confronting the world, and the individual, will come with increasing rapidity, complexity, and diversity. We will face problems of increasing quantity and difficulty, more new problems and shorter time frames for their solution, and more global (i.e., larger-scale) problems requiring integrated solutions.

The development of computer technology aptly illustrates the pace and complexity of change and its impact. Some 50 years ago, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the transistor. At that time, the transistor was a great invention to physicists and engineers, as it solved two major problems they faced. Firstly, it replaced the problematic and inefficient triode tube, which consumed considerable power and produced too much heat in just amplifying an electrical signal. Secondly, the transistor allowed us to do away with the mechanical switch and relay system with its wear and tear tendency. It was not unusual even up till the mid-1960s for Singaporeans to use vacuum tube radio sets. The transistor radio was a luxury then. Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, science and engineering textbooks still devoted chapters to vacuum tubes and transistors!

The greatest revolution in recent times probably began with the invention of chip technology. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce independently invented the IC (integrated circuit) chip in 1959. Kilby, who boasts over 60 patented inventions, is well known as the inventor of the portable calculator. Noyce, with 16 patents to his name, founded Intel, the company that invented the microprocessor in 1968. The 4004 microprocessor, which was launched in 1971, paved the way for intelligence to be embedded in an inanimate object for the first time. The power of the microprocessor became even more evident with its evolution into Intel Pentium, which can process data in video, audio, and graphic forms with great speed. The present Intel Centrino mobile technology has tremendous computing power coupled with built-in wireless and mobile capabilities. The original IC, which comprised only one transistor, three resistors, and one capacitor, was the size of a human finger. Today, each transistor is less than 15 nanometers (15 × 10-9 meter) in diameter, which is about one-thousandth the width of a human hair. A typical personal computer today uses over 250 million transistors. A technological revolution, inevitably, brings changes to the way we deal with information and learning.

Apart from having to deal with the rapid changes in technology and the transition to a knowledge-based economy, we also face more complex world problems today. The uncertainty of a flu pandemic, the unprecedented scale of environmental disasters, the constant threat of terrorism, and the complex political and socioeconomic challenges all point to the need for education to prepare our students for a fast-changing and increasingly sophisticated world. The need to learn when plunged into an unfamiliar situation and to adapt positively to constantly changing demands is a reality for every worker today. Our students not only must learn to confront problems as a matter of necessity, but they also should develop an inquisitive mindset such that observing and tackling “problems” with the aim to improve or invent processes and products becomes second nature. Problem-solving acumen is developed through experience, immersion, and acute observation to see the possibilities and opportunities behind the problems. Problem solving in real world contexts involves looking at problems from multiple perspectives, exploring multiple knowledge sources, and engaging in multidisciplinary learning (Tan, 2003). Knowledge in this new economy is increasingly characterized by the creative integration of information and learning from diverse disciplines. In recent years, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, scientists and researchers from various fields, and entrepreneurs have shed much light on the nature of creativity, innovation, and enterprise. Education has to prepare the young to function in changing and new environments. It is often too easy to get locked into paradigms and perspectives, but I think it is important today to be aware of different worldviews and paradigms, gain different perspectives, develop multiple viewpoints, and be open to different ways of reasoning and thinking so that we can be highly flexible in our thinking and be able to cope well in new environments.

Education, Instructional Systems, and Problems

The goal of education today is to equip people with the cognitive and socioemotional skills to adapt well to fast-changing environments. In science and technology fields, it is now well recognized that multidisciplinary pursuits are essential for advancing knowledge and fostering innovation. This can be seen in areas such as biotechnology, telecommunications, material science, nanotechnology, and supercomputers. In industry and business, innovative advances are often made without the benefit of the traditional paradigms of learning. In fact, the real world thrives on both evolutionary and revolutionary innovations. What is often lacking in education today is the effective use of inquiry and problem-based learning approaches. There is also a need to draw from the best of the theories of the psychology of learning and apply them to education. All theories are based on man-made models, and in the progression from research to theory and finally application we can only hope to approximate reality as closely as possible. Hence, rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all model, we need to explore behaviorism, social learning, and humanistic as well as cognitive psychology to understand the multiple perspectives of learning. Our understanding of human learning has in many ways undergone dramatic changes as a result of the past four decades of research in various disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and education (Bransford et al., 2000). Research on memory and knowledge, for example, points to the role of memory not only as associations but, more importantly, as connections and meaningful coherent structures, suggesting that learning involves not only being systematic and breaking inputs into small parts but also seeing the big picture. Although the whole is more than the sum of its parts is not a new concept, learning to get an overall picture first and then to selectively delve into important details as and when we need to was not the common approach in the curriculum. But we now know more about “novice” learners and “expert” learners. We can improve learning in individuals by providing opportunities for the acquisition of skills for dealing with information in a problem setting and the learning of general problem-solving strategies. We need to emphasize thinking processes and strategies and not just content and factual knowledge. Instead of traditional schooling, we may need to look at new ways of engaging the individual, taking into account “plasticity of development” as well as the cultural, community, and social environmental contexts. Apart from focusing on behavior and performance, we must realize that individuals can be taught metacognitive processes and self-regulatory thinking. The traditional systematic and linear approach in instructional design may have outlived its usefulness in many instances given our new understanding of human learning and considering the technological, philosophical, and psychological configurations of the cyber world.

While there may not be a need for a total shift to the cyber-world paradigm (which is elaborated elsewhere in this book), we have to understand the balance required. Many educators struggle with change, as they do not want to throw out what is working for them. Essentially, human mind learns through two mechanisms: habit and novelty. The first way is to learn through structured routines, memory, and modeling. The brain and mind is wired in such a way that we learn well through pattern recognition, observation, and imitation. The mind, however, can also be stimulated by novelty, through dealing with new situations. It seeks change and new environments as well as situations of challenge. This often calls for a different way of thinking and a different perspective and would require a more holistic and integrative approach. Many educational and training systems tend to emphasize learning by habit and imitation. This instructional approach, which is primarily linear and systematic with a stimulus-response feedback loop, is prevalent not only in schools but also in the current e-learning programs. This is not surprising as we do need to learn through imitation, modeling, and memory. Learning by memorization begins in preschool and continues all the way to college with a prevalence of information accumulation and knowledge recall. The predominance of paper-and-pencil testing and examinations also contributed to this mode of learning. In many ways, the so-called “problems” that students are given to solve in many of our classes are actually exercises rather than problems. Teachers typically present in class a large number of worked examples accompanied by comprehensive guidelines and step-by-step solutions. Students are then given similar exercises of a variety of challenges. Often, there is very little novelty involved, although these “problems” may call for synthesis and application of the knowledge learned.

There is nothing wrong with this method, as we need such a structured and organized approach for acquiring basic knowledge and building foundations, such as learning basic axioms, definitions, and principles, particularly in disciplines like mathematics, language, and basic science. There is, however, an overdependence on learning through worked examples and routine exercises. As a result, the power of problems is hardly exploited. For simplicity, we may classify the types of problems along a continuum of routine, artificial at one end and novel, real-world at the other. Routine, artificial problems are the homework exercises and examination-type questions that our students are used to.

Shulman (1991) borrowed from Jerome Bruner’s essay “The art of discovery” an English philosopher Weldon’s aphorism about three kinds of challenges in this world. They are troubles, puzzles, and problems. Troubles are unformed, inchoate, and hard to manage.

Puzzles are well structured, neat, and artificial. When you have a puzzle to place on your trouble, that is when you have a problem to work on. According to Shulman, “Education is a process of helping people develop capacities to learn how to connect their troubles with useful puzzles to form problems. Educators fail most miserably when they fail to see that the only justification for learning to do puzzles is when they relate to troubles.” What Weldon, Bruner, and Shulman alluded to as troubles are what we refer to as real-world problems. Problem-based learning (PBL) involves learning to solve novel problems in real-world contexts.

Problem-based Learning and Its Effectiveness

PBL is a learner-centered active learning approach that uses unstructured problems as the starting point and anchor for the inquiry and learning process. PBL has attracted increased interest in recent years because of several developments, including (1) a growing call for bridging the gap between theory and practice, (2) increasing information accessibility and a knowledge explosion, (3) the emergence of new possible ways of using multidisciplinary problems in learning, (4) an educational emphasis on real-world competencies, and (5) advances in the areas of learning, psychology, and pedagogy (Tan, 2004b).

The PBL approach adopted in a curriculum usually has the following characteristics (Tan, 2003):

  • The problem is the starting point of learning.
  • The problem usually is set in a real-world context and appears unstructured. If it is a simulated problem, it is designed to be as authentic as possible.
  • The problem has to be explored from multiple perspectives. The use of interdisciplinary knowledge is a key feature in many PBL curricula. In any case, PBL encourages the solution of problems by integrating knowledge from various subjects and topics.
  • The problem challenges students’ current knowledge, attitude, and competencies, thus calling for identification of learning needs and new areas of learning.
  • Self-directed learning is a primary feature. Students are to assume major responsibility for the acquisition of information and knowledge.
  • Harnessing of a variety of knowledge sources and the evaluation and use of information resources are essential processes.
  • Learning is collaborative, communicative, and cooperative. Students work in small groups with a high level of interaction carrying out peer learning, peer teaching, and group presentation.
  • The development of inquiry and problem-solving skills is as important as content knowledge acquisition for solving the problem. The tutor facilitates and coaches through questioning and cognitive coaching.
  • The learning process closes with the synthesis and integration of the new knowledge.
  • The PBL cycle concludes with an evaluation and review of the learner’s experience and the learning processes.

The PBL method involves confronting ill-structured problem situations—situations in which we are uncertain about information and solutions—and mastering the art of intuitive leap in the process of solving the problems. While many instructional designers support the need to develop multiple intelligences in students, few realize that one of the best ways to draw forth these intelligences is to make use of real-world problem scenarios in lessons. In PBL, problems are employed as triggers of learning in a learning system that includes these stages: (1) meeting the problem (i.e., problem identification and ownership), (2) problem analysis and development of learning issues (for self-directed learning, peer teaching, and team problem-solving), (3) discovery and reporting (i.e., collaborative inquiry and sharing of knowledge), (4) solution presentation and reflection, and (5) overview, integration, and evaluation. These stages appear to be a linear progression, but several iterations are often needed at the problem analysis and discovery stages. Figure 1.1 illustrates the key components in the PBL approach.

The goals that PBL is designed to attain include content learning, acquisition of process skills and problem-solving skills, and lifewide learning. Carrying out PBL is more about the ability to be flexible in the use of one’s knowledge base (Chung & Chow, 2004), building on prior knowledge and connecting new knowledge meaningfully to real-life situations (Tan, 2003; Carder et al., 2001). Breton (1999) found that students undertaking PBL in accounting education were able to relate theory to practice and they developed a greater ability to remember and reuse what they had learned. Darvill (2003) observed that nursing students engaging in PBL made use of prior knowledge in solving the problems and they became more confident and were able to use the acquired knowledge in practice. Nelson and associates (2004) reported that, by reflecting upon prior learning, students were able to analyze and synthesize contextual information, acquire further knowledge, and assimilate it into their existing knowledge base. Dochy and colleagues (2003) concluded from their meta-analysis that PBL has a significant effect on the knowledge application skills of students. Tan (2003, 2004a) explains that, through PBL, students learn to connect information to prior knowledge and past experience, theory, new facts and ideas, others’ perspectives, and the real-world context; as such they develop the capacity to apply knowledge gained to a variety of problem situations. Major and Palmer (2001) found that students trained in PBL were more likely to use versatile and meaningful approaches to studying, compared with non-PBL students.

The development of problem-solving skills and problem-solving acumen is an important objective of PBL. Students develop problem-solving skills by learning to transfer the problem-solving strategies that were modeled for them in PBL lessons to a similar problem on a related topic (Pedersen & Liu, 2002). Cognition, metacognition, and self-regulation characterize effective PBL (Tan & Ee, 2004), and the ability to apply appropriate metacognitive and reasoning strategies is fostered (Chung & Chow, 2004). Students learn to critically question and draw their own conclusions (Nelson et al., 2004). They develop proficiency in problem solving, in applying theory to practice (Bechtel et al., 1999), and in critical thinking (Weissinger, 2004; Cooke & Moyle, 2002). I would also like to point out that PBL provides a learning environment where cognitive immersion takes place. Traditional approaches and didactics cannot provide the opportunities for learning in which intuition and insight can occur.

Morrison (2004) argues that PBL creates intrinsic interest and enhances self-directed learning skills. Tan (2003) notes that PBL creates goal-directed as well as goal-mediated learning behaviors. Self-directed learners become proactive in striving to achieve their goals, adapting their personal strategies according to situational demands. According to Hmelo-Silver (2004), students develop strategies for coping with challenges to their self-efficacy and they reflect on their learning and information-seeking strategies. The more reflective learners become, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to adapt their self-directed learning strategies. The strategies adopted interact with the students’ prior knowledge, self-regulation strategies, self-efficacy, and features of the learning environment. Students are able to transfer hypothesis-driven strategies from problem solving to their self-directed learning as they plan their learning using their own hypotheses.

Lee and Tan (2004) highlight the advantages of collaborative and communicative inquiry in PBL. Exchanging ideas is important for productive collaboration and also serves to enhance learning (Chung & Chow, 2004). Evidence appears to support the usefulness of PBL in encouraging students to learn to work as a group (Sharp & Primrose, 2003; Barrow et al., 2002; Shelton & Smith, 1998). Through experiencing group dynamics, students learn to deal with the dysfunctional aspects of a group and address them in a constructive manner (Sharp & Primrose, 2003). To become effective collaborators, students in teams learn to establish a common ground, resolve differences, negotiate group actions, and develop consensus. These tasks require dialogue as well as transparency and openness in the exchange of ideas.

Many studies have shown that students enjoy PBL and are very positive about its practical application (Winning et al., 2004; Sharp & Primrose, 2003; Price, 2000; Carey & Whittaker, 2002; Michel et al., 2002; Shelton & Smith, 1998). Baker (2000) reported a drop in learning environment stress together with a rise in student satisfaction and graduate satisfaction.

The PBL architecture typically involves a shift in three loci of teaching, namely: (1) from content coverage to problem engagement, (2) from lecturing to coaching, and (3) from passive learners to active problem solvers. PBL curricula also emphasize the acquisition of process skills and problem-solving skills along with the development of reflective and evaluative thinking (Tan & Ee, 2004). The hallmark of learning in all of these processes is the use of inquiry. While PBL holds promises for educational innovation, deficiencies often occur in implementation relating to problem design, facilitation processes, and student preparation and readiness (Tan, 2004c). The synergy of PBL and e-learning can help address some of these challenges. Current PBL curriculum tends to rely primarily on text-written description of problem scenarios. Sometimes photos and diagrams are used; but they provide only static and one-dimensional representation of the problem. The design of problems can be enhanced through multimedia and e-environments. We can also attempt to capture “best practices,” such as good templates for inquiry (e.g., key questions for identifying and understanding the problem), and provide e-templates for PBL development. The mediation and coaching process can also be explored for an optimal blend of face-to-face and e-coaching.

PBL and e-Learning

By using problems as triggers for learning and interactivity, the potential of technology use in education could also be more fully harnessed. Current e-learning programs tend to be characterized by the following features:

  • A change in the mode of delivery
  • Passive definition of the scope of learning for participants
  • Primarily retrieval of content by learners
  • Generally linear structuring of content
  • Little activation of prior knowledge
  • Limited engagement with the learning environment
  • Single discipline
  • Involving primarily convergent thinking
  • One-one communication
  • Individual learning
  • Little need for information mining
  • Little evaluation of information sources

By using the PBL approach in e-learning, however, the systems will be characterized by the following qualities:

  • A change in the paradigm of learning
  • Active definition of the scope of learning by participants
  • Learning of processes as well as content
  • Scaffolding of thinking
  • Activation of prior knowledge
  • Inevitable and enhanced engagement with the learning environment
  • Multiple disciplines
  • Encouraging connectivity and divergence
  • One—many and many—many communication
  • Peer and collaborative learning
  • More extensive information search
  • Emphasizing review and critique of information sources

The e-learning environment is also very conducive to the PBL process. At the same time, the PBL approach provides the motivation for online learning engagement to connect to resources. The following are some of the principles underpinning the use of PBL in the e-learning environment:

  • To make use of the power of real-world problems to motivate learning
  • To design a learning environment that employs the global information network
  • To encourage the development of learning-to-learn processes, heuristics, and thinking skills
  • To emphasize problem solving and decision making rather than content learning
  • To provide a system that facilitates engagement and collaboration
  • To provide opportunities for active application of knowledge and self-review
  • To optimize the use of flexible structures to support and sustain independence and interdependence in learning
  • To promote evaluative and critical use of information sources


One of greatest challenges in education is getting students to pay attention and staying engaged in the learning process. Problem-based learning has been promising as an educational innovation that can bring about greater engagement through self-directed and collaborative problem-solving processes. Problems in PBL are used to create learning by immersion where reflection, meta-cognition, and insightful learning occur. By considering the possibilities and impact of e-learning, PBL can take on new perspectives. Leading cities in the world are launching multibillion-dollar plans to become e-cities powered by state-of-the-art Internet communication technologies (ICT). Educators and instructional designers have been grappling with the challenges of e-learning designs and the use of ICT for learning. By merging the best of both worlds, new ways of learning can happen with e-PBL. Things on the web are not bound by sequential, linear, and analytical approaches that often limit creative design. On the web, the virtual world can be holistic, spiral, and multidimensional. In the following chapters, the breakthroughs in such multidimension on the web and cyberspace are further explained. Technology has made learning and problem-solving skills absolutely essential. Hopefully, the same forces of technology will also make problem-based learning effective and enjoyable.


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