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Developing interactive multimedia using a problem-based learning framework

Peter Albion
Department of Education
University of Southern Queensland
Recent trends in the design of educational interactive multimedia (IMM) have tended to move away from instructivist approaches and towards constructivist designs. Problem-based learning (PBL) is one of a number of constructivist approaches to educational design, best known for its use in medical education. Application of PBL as a design framework for design of educational IMM (IMM-PBL) has been proposed previously. This paper describes the derivation of nine guiding principles for IMM-PBL design from the relevant literature, together with examples of their application to an IMM-PBL package for use in teacher education.


Constructivist approaches to educational design are underpinned by the propositions that understanding is connected to the interaction between learner and environment, that cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning, and that knowledge evolves through social negotiation (Savery & Duffy, 1995). Several variations of such approaches to educational design have been described (Reigeluth, 1999). Among them, problem-based learning (PBL) has been advocated as one of the best exemplars of a constructivist learning environment (Savery & Duffy, 1995). PBL was first introduced for medical education in the mid-1960s (Norman & Schmidt, 1992) and has since been adopted in many different fields. Its advocates point to strong connections to practice, motivational effects and encouragement of lifelong learning as particular benefits it offers for the education of professionals.

PBL has been proposed as the basis for educational design of interactive multimedia (IMM) which would support flexible and powerful approaches to the initial and continuing education of professionals (Albion & Gibson, 1998b). Both PBL and IMM are sufficiently well established to have built up conventions and expectations about their implementation. Some challenges arising from the combination of IMM and PBL to create IMM-PBL have been identified and approaches to their resolution in an IMM-PBL product, Integrating Information Technology into Teaching (Gibson & Albion, 1999), for use in teacher education have been described (Albion & Gibson, 1998b, a). That product, comprises a set of four problem-based scenarios built around the context of a teacher seeking contract employment. Each scenario begins with an advertisement for a position and requires the user to respond to a selection criterion which is intended to stimulate prior knowledge. The four scenarios deal in turn with use of a single computer in a classroom, planning a unit of work to incorporate the computer, participating in an email discussion list and conceptualising a classroom project using the World Wide Web. Each is scaffolded by presentation as a series of tasks to be completed by the user. Feedback is provided in the form of alternative responses generated by a panel of teachers. The IMM-PBL materials are accessed in a web browser environment and may be delivered on a CD-ROM or web server. The materials (excluding the longer video clips) may be viewed at

This paper describes nine principles for IMM-PBL design which were derived from consideration of the relevant literature and informed the design of the IMM-PBL materials. PBL is a well established and powerful design for professional education. The principles described in this paper are intended to provide direction for the application of PBL to design of IMM.

Principles for IMM-PBL design

There is an extensive and rapidly growing literature relevant to constructivist educational design and to problem-based learning in particular. The principles described here are derived from wide, but not exhaustive, review of that literature. Nine principles are stated together with a brief summary of supporting sources and a description of how the principle was implemented in the specific IMM-PBL materials on which this paper is based.

Principle 1: Begin with an authentic problem


Problem-based learning should begin with an authentic problem, which is genuinely problematic for the learner and representative of problems found in professional practice (Bridges, 1992; Charlin, Mann, & Hansen, 1998). Other constructivist designs use similar "anchors" to make a connection between learning and reality. Situating learning in the context of experience should increase the availability of that learning in future problem solving episodes and reduce the incidence of inert knowledge (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).


Each of the four scenarios included in the IMM-PBL materials is located in the general context of a teacher applying for a temporary teaching position, which provides the context for dealing with a series of tasks related to information technology integration. Stimulus materials such as advertisements for the positions, correspondence from the schools, school documents and other details of the schools were carefully selected or created to be as convincing as possible. All problem outlines and the associated stimulus materials were reviewed for plausibility by several qualified and experienced teachers, namely the developers, research assistants and the co-operating teachers. Care was taken to ensure the tasks to be undertaken had relevance in the real world of teaching and a logical purpose in the context of the scenarios.

Data from evaluations (Albion, 1999, in review) suggest that the materials are successful in presenting a problem and establishing a context for solution. This principle is fundamental to the claim that the IMM-PBL materials are a genuine expression of PBL. The anticipated benefits of the use of media, including video, audio and photographs, for presentation of problems (Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997) appear to be confirmed.

Principle 2: Incorporate relevant cases


Learning from examples or cases, especially when accompanied by explanations, has been found to be effective for developing expertise (Chi & Bassok, 1989). Cognitive apprenticeship depends upon access to a suitable master who exemplifies the processes to be learned (Brown et al., 1989) and cases have been recommended for inclusion in design for ill-structured problem solving (Jonassen, 1997) and in a general model of constructivist environments (Jonassen, 1999).


Each of the scenarios was, in effect, a relevant case for solution by the users of the materials. In addition, the materials included other "cases" for reference. Video and transcripts of interviews with seven co-operating teachers talking about their use of computers were incorporated into the scenarios (Albion, 2000). Permission was obtained from the copyright holders to include a collection of over 40 descriptions of exemplary teacher practice in the use of IT in Australian schools (ACT Department of Education and Training, 1996).

The video clips of the co-operating teachers were the feature most commonly mentioned by users in the evaluations. They referred to "real teachers there in the video" adding to the relevance of the materials and noted that the videos were "relevant because they are real life experiences of how these teachers used computers." There is also evidence that the video was effective as a means of communicating significant ideas about teaching with computers.

Principle 3: Represent multiple viewpoints


Cognitive dissonance induced through group discussion of problems is an important feature of PBL (De Grave, Boshuizen, & Schmidt, 1996; Schmidt & Moust, 1998) and has been noted as a feature of teachers' learning through case methods (Levin, 1995; Lundeberg & Scheurman, 1997). Presenting alternative points of view should challenge learners to examine their own knowledge and beliefs. It is characteristic of ill-structured problems that there is no single correct solution (Jonassen, 1997). In such situations beliefs may be more easily accessed than knowledge and the capacity to access the same memories from different perspectives is important (Nespor, 1987). Cognitive flexibility theory suggests that this capacity can be built through accessing the same cases using different pathways (Spiro & Jehng, 1990).


The seven co-operating teachers provide different perspectives on the use of IT in teaching. In addition they offer sample responses to each of the tasks embedded in the scenarios. Thus users were provided with several alternative sample responses to each task as they completed it.

Evaluation responses indicate that students value seeing "how other teachers operate, solve problems and integrate computer technology" and the inclusion of "alternate responses to the same questions - different doesn't mean wrong." Others mentioned how their ideas about the use of computers had been changed or challenged by their encounters with different viewpoints in the materials. There were no suggestions, in any of the participants' responses, that the juxtaposition of alternative points of view had resulted in confusion or that they would have preferred a single "correct" answer to any of the tasks.

Principle 4: Stimulate activation and elaboration of knowledge


Activation of prior knowledge to facilitate linking to new learning and elaboration of new knowledge through immediate application are key tenets of PBL (Charlin et al., 1998; Schmidt, 1983). Although these concepts are drawn from an information processing view of learning rather than typical constructivist frameworks, there is support for viewing different theoretical frameworks as complementary (Jonassen, 1999). The emphasis in constructivist systems on creating a context for learning (Brown et al., 1989) and engaging students in activity (Schank, Fano, Bell, & Jona, 1993) are directed towards similar ends.


Each of the four scenarios was introduced with a task in which the user was invited to respond to a selection criterion for the advertised position around which the scenario was based. The selection criterion for each scenario was constructed to elicit responses based on knowledge that was considered directly relevant to the issues around which the corresponding scenario was built, thereby ensuring that users would have opportunity to activate prior knowledge prior to dealing with the issues in the scenario. For example, the selection criterion in the first scenario required a response about how a classroom may be organised to enhance learning outcomes. The subsequent tasks in each scenario were structured to encourage the user to elaborate knowledge that they had brought with them to the materials or had acquired while working in the scenario. The form of elaboration varied. A key task in the first scenario was to plan the location of a new computer in the classroom. Other tasks dealt with preparing outlines of plans for teaching and preparing summaries of ideas presented in the materials.

Evaluation data confirmed the presence of opportunities for activation and elaboration (Albion, 1999, in review). Users indicated that the materials had encouraged a reappraisal of existing knowledge, commenting that they "realised how much (they) need(ed) to catch up" and that they "felt overwhelmed by (their) feelings of inadequacy" in relation to writing to criteria for employment. Decomposition of each problem-based scenario into a series of tasks, which were designed to encourage activation and elaboration (Albion & Gibson, 1998a), was an effective method of encouraging users to access and review their existing knowledge.

Principle 5: Scaffold learner performance


In conventional PBL, scaffolding is usually in the form of support from a tutor or facilitator (Boud, 1985; Savery & Duffy, 1995; Schmidt & Moust, 1998). Providing an interactive tutor in IMM through the use of intelligent systems may be an achievable goal for the future but it is not yet practical. Alternative approaches to scaffolding for PBL could include decomposition of problems into sub-problems (Savery & Duffy, 1995) or the inclusion of heuristic aids (Ritchie, Norris, & Chestnutt, 1995). Other approaches to constructivist learning also incorporate scaffolding as a key component.


The primary form of scaffolding offered in the materials is the decomposition of the problems into sub-problems or tasks (Savery & Duffy, 1995). Additional scaffolding is provided in the form of detailed contextual help which, at each point where the user is required to perform, describes the steps to be undertaken and offers links to relevant resources within the materials and on the Internet. Reviewers of the beta version gave a median rating of 4.5 (on a 5-point scale) to the scaffolding of activities in the materials. Participants in the final evaluation commented favourably about the help system.

Scaffolding in conventional PBL is provided by the tutor, who is able to adjust the guidance or assistance offered to suit the circumstances. By comparison, the scaffolding in the current version of the IMM-PBL materials is inflexible, being limited to predefined decomposition of the problem into tasks or access to the help system. The latter, though contextual, always offers the same help for a particular location regardless of the specific needs of the user. These mechanisms are better than nothing, but future developers of IMM-PBL could usefully investigate the possibilities for creating scaffolding systems that are more responsive to the individual needs of the user. Models exist in the "guides" or "assistants" provided in some modern software, but the necessary programming was beyond the limited resources of the current project.

Principle 6: Provide a strong narrative line


Navigation in multimedia environments can present difficulties for learners (Lawless & Brown, 1997), even to the point of obscuring the message by causing learners to focus on the mechanics of the software rather than the content (Laurillard, 1998). Providing a strong and explicit narrative structure can create coherence and support learning (Bielenberg & Carpenter-Smith, 1997; Laurillard, 1998; Plowman, 1996). It is desirable to design a narrative in such a way that the interactions fit logically and, with appropriate design, it may be possible to engage the learner as a participant in the story rather than as an observer (Laurillard, 1998; Sims, 1999).


Each of the four scenarios provides for the user to progress through a series of episodes in a story. In a manner reminiscent of early movies (Plowman, 1994), screens between key points in each scenario display short segments of text, intertitles, which describe some of the story. Names and other details of characters in the scenarios are provided along with photographs of locations and appropriate sound effects to provide an appropriate sense of simulated reality. The name of the user appears in appropriate places in correspondence and other parts of the materials.

An open-ended question on the evaluation questionnaire asked participants to describe the materials to a colleague. Some of the responses outlined the sequence of tasks in the scenario and one referred explicitly to role-playing, but none recounted the story associated with the scenario. Based on the evidence from the participant journals, it seems possible that relatively few users in the evaluation trial progressed far enough into any of the scenarios to develop a strong sense of the narrative. Many users appear to have spent a large proportion of their time exploring the resources and some worked with the initial part of each scenario rather than all the way through one scenario. The narrative might become more evident to users if they spent more time in a single scenario. Making additional time available for each scenario or structuring class activities which depend upon and support sustained interaction with the materials might encourage students to spend more time engaging with the scenario.

Principle 7: Provide access to relevant information


In conventional PBL, students analyse the problem, determine what information is needed and then seek it out (Boud, 1985). Supporting students' information needs has been suggested as one benefit of multimedia for PBL (Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997). Jonassen (1999; 1997) has argued for the inclusion of information resources in constructivist learning environments and links to theory and other relevant materials are a feature of cognitive flexibility environments (Spiro & Jehng, 1990). The inclusion of information resources in IMM offers a level of convenience but does not preclude students going outside the materials in search for additional resources. Depending upon the design of the environment it may include links or references to external resources.


In addition to original content developed for the project, the package includes a substantial collection of materials reproduced with permission from web sites created by the Open Learning Technology Corporation (1996). Together these sites constitute over 100 pages of material related to learning theories and the educational applications of information technology. The approach adopted to including resources has been described thus:
Because PBL is intended to increase the capacity of learners to solve real problems (Boud, 1985) and because identifying critical elements may be counter-productive (Savery & Duffy, 1995), the selection of resources for inclusion in the package is gauged to require judgement in selection from what is provided and initiative in employing material from alternative sources. (Albion & Gibson, 1998a)
Beta reviewers of the materials gave high ratings to presentation of resources and relevance of reference materials. The data suggested that there was little room for improvement in these aspects of the materials at the beta stage. Participants in the final evaluation appeared to concentrate on the video interviews and sample responses generated by the consultants. Users indicated that they found the resources they encountered both relevant and useful.

Principle 8: Encourage self-evaluation


Cognitive apprenticeship provides learners with frequent opportunities to compare their efforts with those of the master (Brown et al., 1989). Goal based scenarios which include simulations facilitate frequent checking of understanding (Schank et al., 1993).


Self-evaluation while using the IMM-PBL materials is encouraged by providing solutions with which users may compare their own responses. Offering worthwhile feedback on responses is one of the challenges to be faced in developing IMM dealing with ill-structured problems such as those that occur in teaching (Gibson & Albion, 1997). Jonassen (1997, p. 85) suggested that "it is important that learners be able to articulate the differing assumptions in support of arguments for whatever solution they recommend."

In these materials, each time users complete a task they are able to compare their response with those offered by the co-operating teachers. Although the materials are not able to offer any judgement of the user's response, they include a summary of key points from the sample responses and, in some cases, additional commentary. Comments made by participants in the evaluation trials, in their journals or elsewhere, indicated that the sample responses challenged their thinking and provided them with new ideas. Several individuals identified specific ways in which their thinking about teaching with computers changed as a result of using the materials. These data suggest that the materials are encouraging users to engage in self-evaluation.

Principle 9: Support individual and collaborative learning


Conventional PBL includes having students work in groups for a substantial part of the process (Bridges, 1992). PBL groups have been shown to effect learning through activation and elaboration of knowledge, and by stimulating conceptual change through cognitive dissonance (De Grave et al., 1996; Schmidt & Moust, 1998). There is evidence that students who listen but do not overtly contribute to discussion in PBL (Geerligs, 1995) or case methods (Levin, 1995) nevertheless learn from the discussions through exposure to different perspectives. Careful design of IMM might enable it to offer at least some of the advantages of participating in a group as a listener by including materials that present alternative perspectives.


Research suggests that one of the key benefits of interaction of groups of learners in PBL is the stimulus to conceptual change that comes from exposure to different ideas. The materials include interviews with, and sample responses prepared by, co-operating teachers with differing experiences and approaches to their use of IT in teaching. Exposure to these elements was intended to provide students with opportunities to reassess their own positions on relevant issues.

"Expert" evaluators (Albion, 1999, in review) agreed that the design of the IMM-PBL materials was consistent wit their use to support both individual and collaborative learning but comment on the absence of explicit encouragement for collaborative interaction. Students who participated in the evaluation were not required to participate in any related group activity and did not specifically mention collaboration although it is likely that they interacted with peers in the laboratory. The data from the evaluation do support the conclusion that students' thinking was challenged by the materials and that, for at least some of them, conceptual change did result.

No specific provision is made to support collaborative learning with these IMM-PBL materials. Where the materials are used by classes there would be value in having groups of students share their responses to the materials. The use of e-mail or other forms of computer mediated communication would allow for group interaction in response to the materials even where students are geographically separated.


The IMM-PBL design principles outlined above provide a basis for the development of IMM using PBL as the underlying framework for educational design.

Reviewers agreed that the IMM-PBL materials developed using the principles incorporate the key characteristics of PBL (Albion, in review). Final year pre-service primary school teachers who worked with the materials found them both enjoyable and educative. They found the video and sample responses provided by practising teachers especially engaging. Data from the evaluation revealed conceptual change as well as changes in attitudes towards the integration of information technology into teaching. Users reported changes such as new appreciation of the possibilities for use of computers across the curriculum rather than as time fillers or in isolated subject areas such as mathematics.

It seems unlikely that simulated experiences of the type provided by IMM-PBL could ever provide a complete substitute for practical experience in the education of teachers or other professionals. However, they may provide valuable preliminary and supplementary experiences. Certainly there are potential benefits in the self-instructional nature of IMM-PBL and its related capacity to support PBL experiences for learners who may be isolated by space or time from conventional PBL offerings. At a time when there is increasing demand for lifelong professional learning opportunities to be offered in flexible modes, this may be a significant advantage of IMM-PBL developed using the principles outlined in this paper.


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Author: Peter Albion
University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba Qld 4350
Phone (07) 4631 2356 Fax (07) 4631 2828 Email

Please cite as: Albion, P. (2001). Developing interactive multimedia using a problem-based learning framework. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 30-38. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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