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Problem based learning online

Ken Gooding
Chisholm Institute


When was the last time you learnt something? I mean really learnt something. It probably wasn't sitting in a classroom being told the facts. More than likely it was in response to an issue or situation in your work place or at home. You might have reflected upon your or others' past experiences of similar situations. You may have discussed the situation with your colleagues, friends or, if it was something to do with computers, may even have consulted your children. You may even have read the instructions or looked at the manual. Adults learn by doing, experiencing and constructing the learning for themselves. Being told and memorising facts plays only a small part in the learning that is required to meet the needs of the workplace and our life.

Problem based learning is a pedagogy that reflects the way that learning takes place in the real world, in the work place and in every day life.

It is recognised by professional bodies and educators that changes to the design of education are required to better prepare our students for a fully productive participation in today's workforce. Key skills required for the 21st century will be those outlined in the Meyer key competencies such as decision making skills, problem solving skills, communication skills and the ability to work in a team environment along with the ability to research and undertake life long learning.

What is problem based learning

Problem based learning (PBL) was initially developed for the training of medical students in the 1960s in a response to trainees' inability to apply skills and knowledge developed in one area to other aspects of their work.

PBL moved into the business schools during the 70s and 80s. Today a growing number of undergraduate and school curricula are being developed in the PBL model.

"The problem based learning (PBL) approach combines both the development of the curriculum 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." (Stover, 1998).
In PBL students need to develop skills in the knowledge acquisition, problem solving, self-directed learning and team participation. These skills will enhance the student ability to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career.

The traditional roles teacher and student also undergo change In problem-based learning, The responsibility for learning lies with the student rather than with the teacher. This provides the student with an increase in motivation and feelings of accomplishment, setting the pattern for them to become successful life-long learners.

In a problem based learning environment students will:

The role of the teachers changes in problem based learning, where the learning focus moves off the teacher as being the primary source of information and the director of the learning activities to the teacher becoming a learning resource, a tutor, and evaluator, guiding the students in their problem solving efforts. The role of the teacher is to model, coach, and provide a scaffold for the apprentice investigators and then fade into the background to become an observer and tutor of meta-cognition (the function in thinking: sensing, goal setting, judging resources, managing time, reflecting).

The problem is the central element of the PBL process. It provides the context for the learning and needs to be selected or developed so that it is engaging to the student providing a reason for the student to get involved in the learning activities. The selection of the problem may involve the student being engaged in cross discipline learning providing a more realistic and effective learning experience.

Problems are developed which are ill structured, that is the answers or solutions are not obvious, and the problem needs to be redefined by the students into problem statements that can be engaged with and worked on. Perhaps the most important aspect of the problem is that it cannot be solved easily. Students need to seek more information, define the problem in terms of their own experience and analyse a range of possible solutions. The problem should be one that the student can relate to and reflects real world situations.

Learning online

As the use of information and communications technologies become more widely used to support education programs, teachers and designers need to look at strategies that provide a rich and engaging learning environment that is centred around the students' learning needs. The move to learner centred learning does not need to occur online but if online learning is established then it must be based on a learner centred model. One of the failures of online learning has been the concept that placing information on the internet is all that is needed for students to be able to learn effectively online.

As institutions embrace technology, designers and developers should endeavour to use effective strategies that emulate the instructor-student interaction of a traditional classroom and engage the students in an active learning process by applying problem-solving strategies and modelling that use many different forms of instructional technology. These methods should provide authentic experiences with adaptive learning contexts that enable the learner to immediately apply the knowledge gained. (Atkinson, 2001).

The incorporation of problem based learning strategy into an online learning environment provides the engaging, collaborative and learner centred activities that are required to encourage a student to fully participate in the learning program.

Advantages of PBL online

Sourcing information

The gathering of information is one of the most important aspects of the PBL process. Students are required to develop their knowledge about the aspects of the problem by researching relevant information. In many cases initial sources of information are presented as part of the problem and these lead the student into further research. By using the internet and teacher generated web based resources the student is able to access an enormous amount of information, which is current and relevant. As students access information for themselves they need to develop a high level of searching skills and an ability to filter information for what is appropriate.

Communicating with peers

The connectedness of the Internet allows students to communicate more freely than in class based work. Threaded discussions and bulletin boards enable communications to grow over a period of time. These methods provide not only an effective way of communicating but also provide a record of people's contributions. Synchronous communications such as chat means that students can work in groups at times other than during class times providing for a degree of flexibility in the way students can participate in the learning activities.


In developing the solution to most problems students need to access a range of information sources to develop a well thought out solution to the problem. By working in a collaborative environment in which the students share the results of their investigation the student is able to achieve a deeper and more complete understanding of the problem.

The sharing of information allows the development of interpersonal skills that reflect the ways in which people need to work on a day to day basis. Sharing also brings to the problem solving process a variety of views that will need to be considered. Learners will need to negotiate the relevance and importance of information in developing solutions to the problem.

Collaborative teamwork is an essential aspect of problem based learning. Students are required to share and review information sources, develop an understanding of the learning issues involved in the problem and develop responses to the issues identified within the problem. The ability to communicate online, as a group, using discussion boards and email lists and to share documents as attachments to these messaging systems provides a flexible, easily accessed method for collaboration. In some systems such as WebCT it is possible to have shared documents available to a group from the course server.

Constructed learning environments

The use of emerging online technologies can create an engaging, realistic online environment in which the students are able to gain a full understanding of the contexts in which the problems are set. These technologies include dynamic html (dhtml) animated and interactive elements within Flash, streaming digital audio and video along with digital images

Taking on a role

Role playing is an important part of every day life as people assume particular roles within their daily activities. The skills learnt in the PBL process can provide valuable lessons in this. The role taken on by the student directly involves them in the problem, getting them inside the problem. The student is encouraged to own the problem.

The use of role play also can increase the interactions within the group learning environment. With each student taking on a particular role, the solution for the problem can only be arrived at if all of the aspects represented by the roles are considered by the group.

The teacher is instrumental in preparing the student for the role by providing information and the context for the role. The result is a greater investment in the process than if it were just another traditional class exercise.

By having a role to play in the activities associated with the problem the students are forced to put aside their own beliefs and ideas for at least part of the time and consider the problem from different points of view.

To gain the fullest understanding the student needs be a part of the problem and feel that what they are doing may be able to influence the outcomes. Of course, this requires a lot of thought and planning in the nature of the problem and the resources that are made available. By working in groups where participants take on differing roles the students can appreciate the problem from different view points and construct solutions that are multifaceted.

PBL in Recreation Management

The Office of Employment Training and Tertiary Education in Victoria have sponsored the development of a number of online problem based learning projects to be delivered within the TAFE Virtual Campus - a state wide online learning system which uses WebCT as its delivery platform. Chisholm Institute is developing a problem based learning program to support the Recreation Management and Ecotourism and the Facilities Management modules from the Diploma of Natural Resource Management.

The online resources provide the context for the learning experiences based upon a simulated recreation environment. The aim of the online park/recreation environment is to present to the student examples of the issues involved in the management of recreational uses of the site, activities undertaken in the area and the provision of facilities in parks and recreational areas.

The project is not aimed at creating a resource that can only be used in an online class but in developing online resources that can be used to support face to face, off campus or other flexible learning students as required. It is quite likely that most of the resources will be used to support on campus classes.

The Park Environment

The online park environment consists of a number of sites that are associated with different management issues. Each of the sites has the following features:

The Park Office

The park office acts as a library of resources from which the student is able to access resources that will assist in the development of management strategies to meet the issues presented in the scenarios and activities associated with the active learning area.

The park office provides access to a range of files including:

The problems

The problems that have been developed are presented to the student as letters from park management or from particular stakeholders and user groups within the park. This provides the problem with a feeling of authenticity and allows the student to feel that they are being drawn into the problem.

Working in groups

A number of features within WebCT have been used to facilitate and foster group collaboration.

Each student is allocated to a group within the student course database. This field is used to provide access to a private Discussion Topic area for each group. Group sizes of 4 - 5 students are created by the teacher.

Each group is also allocated a "presentations area' This is an area on the server where students in the group are able to store and access documents that the group creates. This facility provides a "shared document" library where the most up to date version of any group work can be located.

Students are able to take on particular roles within some of the problems. To facilitate the allocation of roles the students negotiate between themselves who will take on a particular role. Each student then selects the role in a WebCT quiz. Each option (answer) in the quiz is allocated a different grade. When selected this grade is recorded against the student's name in the course database. The value of the grade is used to release role specific information to the student and provide access to further discussion groups where students in different groups, but having the same role, can communicate with each other and share ideas.

The role specific information uses the "release" function of the settings for the resources to allow students to access their particular role information.

The learning processes

A number of learning support tools have been developed to assist students to access and organise the information and learning issues that are associated with the problems. These are located in a Learners Toolbox.

Links to a number of different search engines are provided in the students' toolbox area together with links to a number of resources that provide details and advice in how to effectively search the Internet for information. The search engines were selected so that the student can access the widest possible range of resources and use different search strategies.

The Know - Need to Know - How to learn analysis is a common tool used in problem based learning. This technique requires students, as a group, to work through all they know about the issues involved in the problem and identify gaps in their knowledge. These become learning issues that the group then needs to address. As part of this analysis the students then identify the best ways to fill in the gaps. A worksheet is provided in the learners toolbox which, once completed, is sent to the teacher. It is essential that the teacher reviews the ways in which the students have analysed their current knowledge and the learning issues that they identify. If any learning issues are not identified the teacher works with the group to review this process and assist them in identifying any missing issues.

Another widely used tool to assist in students in organising their ideas and develop a common understanding of the issues involved is the "concept map" or "mind map". There are a number of software programs available for developing and managing concept maps. Rather than require every student to purchase and download this software a simple concept tool was developed and located in the learner toolbox. This concept mapping tool is based upon a Microsoft Word document in which text boxes have been set up for Main Concepts and Linking Ideas. Graphic arrows are also provided. The student files in the text boxes and drags them to the mapping area. The ideas are linked by arrows and linking idea boxes. These concept maps can be completed by individual students or shared as attachments to discussion board postings or made available in the group presentations area.


The integration of online and problem based learning has the potential to create a dynamic, engaging learning environment which is centred on the needs of the student. PBL provides training for students not only in the content of the curriculum area but also in the development of skills that will enable them to continue to learn and apply what they know as they move through their changing career options. The incorporation of online learning strategies provides a degree of flexibility in the way students can undertake their learning and provide for a collaborative and interactive environment. It also allows students to develop skills in the actual application of modern information and communications technologies that result in real achievements. Problem based learning online is the vocational training for the problem solvers of tomorrow.


Stover, Dean (1998). Problem-based learning: Redefining self-directed instruction and learning. The Forum, Fall 1998, 7(1). [verified 13 Aug 2002]

Atkinson, Tom (2001). Creating online virtual environments for inquiry-based learning. EDUCAUSE - Effective Practices and Solutions. [verified 13 Aug 2002 at]

Please cite as: Gooding, K. (2002). Problem based learning online. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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Created 12 Aug 2002. Last revision: 12 Aug 2002.
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