ASET 2002 conf logo
[ ASET ] [ Proceedings Contents ]

Problem based learning and authentic tasks for IT leadership development

Dianne Chambers
University of Melbourne
At the University of Melbourne a Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach to learning has been implemented in a technology rich environment that supports undergraduate education students develop into independent learners and school IT leaders in coming years. PBL requires both students and staff to take a new approach to learning and provides challenges for all. Students must take responsibility for their own learning and for shared outcomes with team members. Staff must learn to step back and allow control for learning to be held by the students - a role vastly different to the 'lecture theatre approach' of most university teaching! It was found that, initially, both students and staff found these new roles challenging but, by expressing concerns to each other and exploring them, the new roles became not only easy, but the preferred mode of learning.

Students approached four problems in teams of four students and each student was a team leader once during the year. The problems were all set in a fictional school that was richly described in a supporting website. Teams were presented with a challenge that had been set by the school's principal or School Council and teams had to prepare a presentation and recommendations to the School Council a month later. Problems that the teams undertook were: IT in Curriculum Design; Developing an IT Budget; Developing an IT PD Plan; and Developing a Three Year IT Plan.

This subject involved students in the final year of their studies and many students commented on the benefits of this approach to learning. Students recognised that as graduates they would be taking responsibility for their own learning and saw that participating in a PBL class supported their transition to the world of a practising teacher.


A teacher has many roles, including curriculum planner, decision maker, human resources manager, technology manager, team member, and team leader ( yet most teacher education courses focus only on classroom activities. With the decentralisation of management of schools (Walker, 1994) even new graduates take on leadership roles within schools as a member of a school committee, or other teams with responsibility, in their first year in a school, something that only senior teachers would have taken on in the past. By developing in our students an understanding of the 'whole school' that they will be a member of and by preparing our students to take on the leadership roles that they will step into soon after graduation we address this common gap in teacher education. This is achieved by utilising a problem based learning (PBL) approach in the subject Information Technology (IT) in Primary Schools. This approach enables us to project undergraduate students into their future role as teachers, to enhance their learning, and to prepare them for the varied roles of a teacher, in particular leadership roles, through authentic tasks and scenarios. The tasks undertaken by students (in teams) are those that a committee of teachers with an IT leadership role would undertake, such as developing an IT budget for the school and an IT strategic plan for the school. The subject is supported by a website that includes a rich description of a fictional primary school [named 'Federation Primary School' in honour of Australia's Centenary of Federation in 2001] and its inhabitants in which the problems are set, and the subject is conducted in a technology-rich teaching space (see Arnold & Gruba, undated, for a description of the teaching space and the resources available in it). Although the teaching space is very well-equipped, the level of technology is not considered to be vital to running a program such as that described here, but it does support and enhance the learning experiences.

This subject is part of the Bachelor of Education (Primary) [B.Ed.(Primary)] degree, which is a four year course of study and the principal vehicle for the education of primary (elementary/K-6) teachers at the University of Melbourne. During the third and fourth years of the B.Ed. (Primary) degree students select one optional subject each year, allowing students flexibility to strengthen an area of interest or to broaden their knowledge. IT in Primary Schools is an optional subject and runs over two semesters with a two-hour block each week. The tasks students undertake are designed to develop their content knowledge about IT and its uses in a school, to give students experience of working as a team, and to develop skills and knowledge about being a leader in the context of decision-making about IT issues in a school. It is considered that the leadership skills developed will be transferable to other roles of leadership in schools and elsewhere.

Using a PBL approach for this subject (first taught in 2001) was examined for a number of reasons - new graduates told us that in their first years of teaching they were made members of the Information Technology Committee (or equivalent) at their school (a big role for a new graduate!) and PBL appeared to be an excellent means of facilitating the transition of our students from the role of a student to that of an education professional. Thus, this subject gives our students experience in tackling the kinds of IT issues that they are likely to encounter when a teacher and to experience the roles of committee member and chair of a committee with responsibilities for developing a report with recommendations for a School Council or the principal. PBL allows students to develop both the content knowledge and the transferable skills required for the many roles of a teacher, with this subject having a particular focus on IT and on leadership.

Using PBL to support learning

Finkle and Torp (1995) describe problem based learning (PBL) as:
"a curriculum development and instructional system that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing students in the active role of problem solvers confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world problems". Finkle & Torp (1995)
The subject employs a problem based learning approach (see also Stover, 1998; Stepien & Gallagher, 1993) and each problem is explored in a four week cycle (see Table 1). The students work in teams of four students and tackle four problems involving IT in a fictional primary (K-6) school over the course of the academic year (two semesters). The problems are: Integrating IT into the Curriculum; Developing a Three year IT Budget; Developing an IT Professional Development Plan; and, Developing a Three year IT Strategic Plan. For each problem the team prepares a written report that are the recommendations to the School Council and the team presents their proposal, as if to a School Council meeting.

The role of the team is that of the fictional school's IT Committee that respond to briefs developed by the principal or School Council. The team leader is in the role of committee chair and the team members act as committee members. Teams meet in scheduled class times once each week and may also meet - electronically or in person - outside scheduled classes. Students used telephones, email and short messaging system (SMS, on mobile telephones) extensively to communicate outside class times. As the year progressed scheduled classes were reduced.

The subject had no lectures or formal workshops about any of the content areas. The first two sessions of the subject were used for the class to discuss issues that would prepare students for this mode of learning, as this was the first subject the students had undertaken using a PBL approach. Discussions included how the subject would operate and students were directed to resources about problem based learning and the roles of team members and team leaders were discussed extensively and students defined the characteristics of a good leader and team member. These introductory sessions were time well invested for both the staff and students. The shared understandings developed in these sessions made explicit to all what were seen as good team behaviours and what was unacceptable.

The class (20 students in 2001) met for a two hour block each week with staff only addressing the whole group at the start of each problem (week 1) to raise general issues about the topic and field questions and in the class that teams presented their recommendations (week 4) staff chaired the session and managed the discussion and the students critiquing of presentations.

Table 1: Activities during the four week cycle of each problem

Week 1 (of 4 week cycle)
  • An introduction to the problem & a discussion that raises general issues related to the topic. This is supported on the subject's web site with notes, links to useful sites and articles, and supporting artefacts about the scenario for the problem.
Weeks 2 and 3 (of 4 week cycle)
  • Teams work on the problem, with staff available to mentor the teams. Staff & mentors (practising teachers) are available via email to team leaders.
Week 4 (of 4 week cycle)
  • Teams present their recommendations to the group, the style is similar to a School Council meeting and students critique and discuss the recommendations of each team.

Development of leadership skills

Students are assigned to the role of team leader on a rotating basis and are responsible for compiling and submitting the report and coordinating their team's presentation. This allows students to gain experience in working as a team and in leading and coordinating a team to meet a deadline. These are highly valued transferable skills for students to gain, in addition to the content knowledge developed. In the first sessions of the subject students, as a group, described the characteristics of a 'good leader' and the sorts of behaviours a good leader would have. Characteristics and behaviours of good team members were also described and discussed. This discussion was quite extensive with students drawing on both their positive and negative experiences of working with teams. Students were also encouraged to engage with literature about team leadership skills, team management and team participation via links on the subject's website.

During the course of the subject each student was team leader for one problem and the leadership role was taken seriously by students and by staff. At the conclusion of each problem students were required to reflect on a number of aspects of the problem including on how the team process had worked and how they would have handled the team had they been team leader. This reflection enabled students to consider how well the team leader had managed the group and to consider alternative ways the process could have been handled. The reflective process as part of the cycle is an important aspect of PBL (Holen, 2000). Thus, although each student was team leader for only one problem, they had many opportunities for critiquing the leadership of others and projecting themselves into the role of team leader.

The following quote from a student at the end of the subject exemplifies some of the learning students had about working in a team and in leading a team.

The subject has many strengths, these included working in a team and having team-leaders. Having experienced four different teams, it was clear to see when a team had a leader with the right qualities. For successful leadership, organisation, initiative, vision and negotiation is needed. At times the leader has to be frank and direct and keep things moving along. In successful team work, there has to be balance of roles and work load, there has to be sharing of ideas and there has to be a willingness to help out each other and be honest to each other about concerns that might be facing the team.

Developing content knowledge

In this subject there were many aspects of knowledge development. Some of these are: It must be noted that none of the content was 'taught' to the students - that is, there were no lectures or tutorials in which staff did traditional teaching about these content areas. Students developed their own knowledge in the various aspects of implementing IT to support teaching and learning in a school as it was required for each problem, which highlights the importance of well-designed problems. As the students defined what they needed to know to work through the problem they were in an optimal state for learning.

When students approached staff with questions about finding information or how they might tackle a problem, staff did not take on a didactic role at any stage and did not tell students where to find information or what the next step might be. If the problem was informational, staff modelled to students how they might go about finding out such information (but did not give the information to the student) or bounced questions back to the students to get them to find the next step. This methodology of scaffolding students worked extremely well. As the year progressed the scaffolding was progressively withdrawn as students developed skills and no longer required support to tackle the problems. By the final problem the class did not meet between weeks 1 and 4 of the problem (a staff member was available in his office if any help was required - it wasn't!) and teams worked on their own on the final problem. This is pleasing as these were final year students who will be practising teachers within months of completing this subject.

Student responses to the subject

The subject was offered for the first time in 2001 (February to October 2001). Students responded very positively to this style of learning and developed skills and understandings not developed elsewhere in their studies. The results from the university's 'Quality of Teaching' survey (University of Melbourne, 2001) were excellent - with a 'perfect five' scored on four of the nine questions - which indicate that all students surveyed gave the highest rating for that question. Average scores of other questions ranged from 4.6 to 4.9 - which are well above the university averages. That the response to the statement 'The subject was taught well' scored 4.6 in semester 1 and 4.9 in semester 2 is both pleasing and interesting, as there was no 'teaching' (but lots of learning!) in the subject. Student satisfaction with the subject is also suggested by an almost doubling of enrolments in the subject for 2002 as positive 'word of mouth' about the subject was passed onto the students of the following year.

The effectiveness of this approach to teaching and learning is indicated by the following quote, which is from a reflective piece from a student in the subject:

I had to think about the school's philosophy and charter, as well as think about what the teachers hope to achieve and what learning environment they want. These were not easy, they took strategic thinking - hence a strategic plan - I was constantly asking myself, is this really achievable? Is this realistic?
The following quotes from students indicate the immense value that they found in this style of learning:
This is an amazing subject that has taught me an unbelievable amount of knowledge. When reflecting back on the year, I can see that I have grown personally, academically and professionally.

Through this subject, I have been prepared to face the challenges that come with including IT in a school's curriculum in a direct hands-on fashion, in that I was forced to think of the problems in a realistic manner, and solve it in a practical and sensible way that would work in a real school.

One of the things I really enjoyed was the problem based nature of the course. It gave me a sense of empowerment to know that we were directing our learning and were in control of it. That is how it really works from now on for us - that is, we need to have the skills to be able to go out and find things for ourselves.

These comments from students' reflective writing indicate the very powerful possibilities of using PBL as part of the learning process.

Pilot evaluation of the subject

At the conclusion of the subject, as a pilot evaluation of the subject and the students' learning, a subset of students (12 of the class of 20 students) were asked to complete a series of simple questions (Table 2). This was undertaken both to inform us of students' perceptions of their own progress and to direct them in reflecting about their own learning. As can be seen (Figure 1) both the confidence and the content knowledge of the students surveyed increased substantially over the duration of the subject. Although these data are from a pilot study with a small number of students and are not suitable for statistical analysis or the drawing of major conclusions, the data suggest that this subject has made a large impact on the students surveyed and, for these students, has contributed in their development as a professional and as a useful and valuable member of a school community. Thus, it appears that PBL can provide a rich learning experience for students developing both content knowledge of implementation of IT across a school and the transferable skills and knowledge for them to take up leadership positions in schools.

Table 2: Questions from a pilot evaluation of students'
perception of changes in their confidence and content knowledge

At the beginning of this subject my confidence level in taking on position on a school IT committee was ____ out of 10.
Now my confidence level in taking on position on a school IT committee is ____ out of 10.
At the beginning of this subject my confidence level in taking on a leadership role in a school was ____ out of 10.
Now my confidence level in taking on a leadership role in a school is ____ out of 10.
At the beginning of this subject my knowledge about issues a school IT committee would consider was ____ out of 10.
Now my knowledge about issues a school IT committee would consider is ____ out of 10.
At the beginning of this subject my knowledge about issues a leader in IT in a schools would need to consider was ____ out of 10.
Now my knowledge about issues a leader in IT in a school would need to consider is ____ out of 10.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Students scores (averages) of their confidence and content knowledge
before and after having completed this subject (N=12). [See Table 2 for the questions].


The resources and style of teaching used in this subject for undergraduate teacher education at the University of Melbourne allowed our students to investigate authentic issues involving IT in a school and to develop recommendations for a school. These experiences in working as a team member and being relied on to contribute, in leading a team and coordinating the process and the outcomes, and in presenting the findings to peers and staff give the students valuable opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in a way quite different to traditional university teaching styles. PBL, supported by appropriate technology and experts, has allowed our students to analyse authentic situations in a fictional school and consider alternative solutions or paths of action while working in a team. An element that strongly influenced students' experiences and learning is that students did not work on these materials alone, but rather discussed their findings with colleagues and worked as a team to arrive at conclusions. The need to reflect on observations and share with others and develop the skills required in being a successful team member will, we believe, serve our students well in becoming leaders in the rapidly changing environment of schools of the twenty first century.


Arnold, M. & Gruba, P. (undated). The Cecil Scutt Room. [viewed 24 August 2001, verified 13 Aug 2002]

Finkle, S. L., & Torp, L.L. (1995). Introductory Documents. Illinois Math and Science Academy. Aurora, Illinois.

Holen, A. (2000). The PBL group: Self-reflection and feedback for improved learning and growth. Medical Teacher, 22(5), 485-488.

Stepien, W. and Gallagher, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: as authentic as it gets. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 25.

Stover, D. (1998). Problem-Based Learning: Redefining Self-Directed Instruction and Learning. The Forum, Fall 1998, 7(1). [viewed 31 May 2001, verified 13 Aug 2002]

University of Melbourne (2001). Quality of Teaching Survey (QOT) [viewed 20 December 2001, verified 13 Aug 2002]

Walker, A. (1994). Teams in schools: looking below the surface. International Journal of Educational Management, 8(7), 38-44.

Please cite as: Chambers, D. (2002). Problem based learning and authentic tasks for IT leadership development. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

[ ASET ] [ Proceedings Contents ]
This URL:
Created 9 Aug 2002. Last revision: 9 Aug 2002.
© Australian Society for Educational Technology