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Multimedia design using problem based learning for pasture management

Iain McAlpine
ILFR, The University of Melbourne
Problem-based learning (PBL) was selected as the design basis for a web-based multimedia package to teach grazing management to third year tertiary students. The multimedia package needed to be practically focused and to provide a resource that would support the teaching of the subject across several campuses. The particular attributes the multimedia materials needed to have to apply a PBL approach were: a realistic presentation of genuine problem scenarios; access to a range of resources (information and tools) for problem-solving; facilitation for individual and group work; facilitation for realistic problem presentation; and authentic assessment based on problem solving. The multimedia materials were designed to present a realistic problems based on interviews with farmers, and a range of resources for students to use in resolving the problems. These include tutorials, maps, and databases. The materials were tested in a formative evaluation that included participant observation, a questionnaire, a focus group, and feedback from the subject lecturer on the quality of student output. Data on the evaluation are included in the paper.


Problem Based Learning (PBL) as an educational framework has qualities that make it particularly suitable for an application at the Institute of Land and Food Resources, involving the teaching of grazing management practices. The subject requires the students to have a comprehensive practical understanding of how to manage pasture. They need to be able to take into account climate, soils, and uses of pasture such as the intended animals and stocking rates, and to budget for an overall management process. To apply the PBL approach, students need to be given complex real-world problems to solve (Boud & Feletti, 1997). This is exactly what is needed for this subject.

Another particular need is that students on several campuses, and possibly external students, need to study the same subject. A multimedia approach, using PBL, was seen to be the solution. This approach will enable all students in the subject to access the same resources, to engage in the same problem-solving tasks, and to have access to specialist computer-based tools such as specialised spreadsheets and a simulator, to aid them in reaching appropriate solutions to the problems. This approach will enable the students to deal with authentic, complex problems without the need for field trips to different regions in the state to experience the problems associated with pasture management in different climate zones.

Background and rationale for PBL

The PBL approach evolved from some innovative approaches to teaching and learning in medical faculties. Traditionally, teaching in these faculties was strongly focused on disciplines, based on basic science and clinical practice. Rapid increases in knowledge and technology, and changing demands in clinical practice, meant that this teaching approach was seen to be ineffective as students could not keep up with the required knowledge (Boud & Feletti, 1997). Some of the difficulties associated with traditional curricula in this area were: the curriculum was directed towards learning facts and technical skills without concern for understanding and reasoning; examination systems promoted rote learning rather than understanding; students were required to learn excessive and irrelevant detail; and it was doubtful whether students had a broad enough understanding and experience to carry out independent practice (Shanley & Kelly, p. 1). These issues are not limited to medical faculties. Koschmann et al., (1996, p. 85) conclude from studies of the literature that:
... existing educational systems are producing individuals who fail to develop a valid, robust knowledge base; who have difficulty reasoning with and applying knowledge; and who lack the ability to reflect upon their performance and continue the process of learning.
To overcome these difficulties a student-centred multidisciplinary approach was developed to enable the students to be more engaged in independent study using small group problem solving sessions, that integrated learning across disciplines (Boud & Feletti, 1997).

The issues that led to the development of PBL are not limited to medical, dental or veterinary faculties. By taking a problem based learning approach the type of real world problem that students need to be able to resolve on graduation can become the focus for learning activities in many subject areas. This approach has been found to encourage the students to be more enthusiastic, more cooperative with other students and staff, and to produce higher quality learning outcomes (Margetson, 1995).

PBL has the potential to be more effective and engaging for the student as it introduces additional forms of activity to the learning process. Biggs (1989, cited in Margetson 1995, p. 58) suggests four conditions that facilitate sound learning: well-structured knowledge; learner activity; interaction with others; and a motivational context. Figure 1 compares the PBL approach with traditional subject based approaches in relation to these conditions.

Well-structured knowledgeYESYES?
Learner activityYESNO
Interaction with othersYESNO
Motivational contextINTERNALEXTERNAL

Figure 1: Broad contrast between problem-focused and subject-based learning
(Margetson, 1995, p. 59)

PBL has the potential to be an educationally sound, dynamic and engaging approach to many subject areas.

Types of problems

A desirable attribute of problems used in PBL is that they should be 'ill-structured' (Koschmann, Kelson, Feltovich, & Barrows, 1996). Many academic tasks require well-structured problem solving, in which the student works towards a convergent or single known solution. Many problems, however, are complex and are open to several different solutions. Dealing with problems of this nature may require different skills from problems that have a single solution (Jonassen, 1997). Problems are ill-structured or ill-defined if the problem statement does not readily specify the solution, so that the learner must learn to identify the real nature of the problem, any information that is necessary but missing from the problem statement, and a process for arriving at a solution (Jonassen, 1997).

Reeves and Laffy (1999, p. 221) describe an example from an engineering course, in which students are given three major tasks: " 1, transporting a research team to Mars; 2, siting and constructing a research station on the Martian surface; and 3, operating and maintaining an energy plant there". As there are no clearly defined solutions to these problems, students must work out their own interpretation of the problem, then design and test models to reach their conclusion. They are then required to report their solution to the whole class and the teachers. These problems are the focus of their learning activities over a whole semester (Reeves & Laffey, 1999). Albion and Gibson (1998) describe an example for Teacher Education students in which the students must analyse the requirements for teaching in specific situations in order to solve the problem of how to apply for a position to teach in that situation.

Instructional design for PBL

In a situation in which technology is being used to support the implementation of PBL the challenge for instructional designers is to create instructional materials that facilitate problem presentation and the required investigation, analysis and interaction. This includes group work on the problem where required and, possibly, the final presentation of a solution. The design team needs to recognize the cognitive processes required, and to facilitate these processes. A strength of PBL is that it requires students to actively use the higher order cognitive processes that lead to deeper learning (Biggs, 1999). The instructional technology needs to be designed around these processes to ensure that they occur.

Within a PBL framework the major elements that can be facilitated by the use of technology are: presentation of information; support for investigation of the problem; access to information and resources; access to analytical tools if needed; support for reflection of the problem (perhaps through group discussion); and presentation of a solution. Each of these elements is related to a number of cognitive processes that need to occur to ensure effective learning. Instructional technology can be used to make the implementation of PBL more effective, by providing resources to support the process. Some problems related to using PBL have been identified as:

(1) PBL is an inefficient method of instruction since it requires students to gather information through self directed learning, (2) PBL is perceived as costly since it requires a greater investment of faculty time to function as tutors, and (3) PBL is more difficult and costly in terms of student learning (Farnsworth, 1994, cited in Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997, p. 102).
The way to overcome the above problems of PBL can be identified by considering how technology can be used to facilitate the major elements of the PBL process and to support appropriate cognitive processes.

Presentation of information

Given the nature of PBL, the learner needs a representation of the problem that is as close as possible to the real task (Hedberg, Brown, & Arrighi, 1997). By use of graphics, animation, audio or video, the learner can experience an information-rich representation that can alert the learner to important physical and social contexts that are relevant to the task (Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997). This leads to greater cognitive fidelity between the real world and the learning task.

Investigation of the problem

Students need a range of sources of information in order to investigate the issues raised by the problem presentation. In many cases the problem statement does not specify the information needed for a solution. Students need to be able to investigate a range of sources of information to enable them to understand the broader context in which the problem exists, to find additional information that may be needed to broaden their conceptualization of the problem so that they can begin to hypothesise a solution. Farnsworth (1994) points to this as a problem with PBL, due to inefficiency. Instructional technology can be used to gather, annotate, and link a range of resource materials so that the students can exercise choices about what they select and the sequence as they carry out their investigation. This can be done with great efficiency as one source can link to everything and students can select materials at the time that they need them (Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997). Students interact with the materials in the genuine sense of interactivity - not merely selecting among options, but thinking about the problem before making the next investigation needed for a solution (Hedberg, Brown, & Arrighi, 1997).

Access to analytical tools

Resources for problem-solving may include databases, spreadsheets, simulators, and other forms of software that are used as 'cognitive tools' in analysis and problem solving (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). These 'tools' can enable learners to choose their own representation of a problem (such as selecting their own data to graph for comparison rather than accepting those of others) and promote deep reflective thinking. In this way, learning can be a challenging process that actively engages the learner (Reeves, Laffey, & Marlino, 1997). The costly aspect of PBL in tutor time referred to by Farnsworth (1994) is offset using instructional technology as students carry out these tasks for themselves with a minimum of tuition. The instructional technology itself has a cost however, which must be taken into account. The important points for design of the materials are to ensure that the appropriate tools, such as comprehensive and accurate databases, pre-designed spreadsheets, are built into the materials, with clear guidelines as to how to use them.

Support for reflection

PBL is usually structured around group work, to encourage additional thinking and sharing of ideas relating to the problem. By taking account of the views of others, students must reflect on their own ideas, challenge and expand their own conceptions, and engage in further learning to reach a solution. This can be carried out in tutorial groups, or it can be achieved using synchronous or asynchronous computer conferencing (McAlpine, 2000).

Presentation of a solution

To maintain authenticity to the task, students should present a solution using the means that is likely in the type of scenario presented in the problem statement (Hoffman & Ritchie, 1997). Instructional technology can be used as the tool for presentation if this is appropriate to the real situation, such as making a computer based slide presentation including graphs from a spreadsheet analysis (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). Appropriate presentations may also take the form of a written report. An integral part of using instructional technology for PBL is the final delivery of a solution in whatever format is required. In this way the use of technology may go part of the way to overcoming Farnsworth's third problem with PBL, that it is more expensive to assess. It is likely that assessing PBL may take more time than the traditional exam. By using instructional technology to create templates, enable group presentations, and deliver assessment items directly to the lecturer or tutor, some of the difficulty can be eased.


Instructional design for PBL essentially involves creating the computer based framework, presentation mechanisms (such as audiovisual), access to the range of learning resources (including the creation of these resources), and creating or facilitating the tools needed for analysis and presentation.

PBL for Grazing Management: A case study

The multimedia materials for Grazing Management needed to enable the students to: understand the major influences on pasture growth; assess the merits of different pasture species and cultivars; understand different pasture growth systems and the effect of grazing animals; and be able to budget and manage pasture on a systematic basis. The particular attributes the multimedia materials needed to have to apply a PBL approach were: Instructional design for the multimedia materials focused on creating materials that would facilitate or promote the learning processes related to PBL, using the above key attributes. These were implemented in the design in the following way.


A formative evaluation study was carried out with a group of nine students, using a regular class time of four hours. The classroom session was held in the computer laboratory, so that all students had access to a networked computer. The format for the classroom session was: The study considers four specific indicators of the students' progress and the effectiveness of the role played by the computer based PBL materials: 1, observation during the class session; 2, questionnaires with Likert scale questions and space for open-ended comments complete by the students at the end of the session; 3, the focus discussion between the author, students and staff at the end of the session; and 4, observations by the staff relating to the quality of the students' output of solutions to the task. Data are based on notes taken at the time, the student questionnaires, and the individual and group solutions to the problem task written by the students on a pre-prepared template.

Observation during class session

Difficulties relating to connection with the computer based PBL materials were quickly overcome, however the materials were slow to download which caused some frustration. Many of the web pages of instructional material used graphics, which slowed down access. This problem appeared to diminish over time. While the technical problems caused some frustration, the students were sufficiently interested in the task to persist. An important part of the learning resources for the task is a pasture species database that provides a wide range of information on each plant species and cultivar. The students appeared to find this very valuable and absorbing. The students used this frequently during the preparation of both their individual and group solutions to the problem.


The questions are organized into four groups: 1, questions on the use of technology; 2, questions relating to cognition, including aspects such as activation of prior knowledge, level of challenge, and development of new knowledge and skill; 3, effectiveness of group work in developing a deeper level of understanding; and 4, the students' subjective view of their own learning.

Table 1 illustrates the questions and the levels of student response that relate to the technology itself. These indicate that while there were some difficulties with access to the materials, these were overcome and the materials were perceived to facilitate effective learning.

Table 1: Questions relating to the use of technology

1The way to use the online technologies was made clear to me from the beginning.33
2I experienced difficulties in gaining access to the online subject materials.
3After the initial problems of connection were overcome, access to the online materials was consistent and effective.
4The multimedia-based technology helped me to learn effectively.2511

Table 2 illustrates the questions and levels of response on some issues relating to cognition. These deal with orientation, activation of prior knowledge, development of existing schemata, and the level of outcome in terms of skill development. The trend is for students to feel that they developed their knowledge and skill as a result of the activity. The open-ended comments following this group of questions were generally favorable about the subject material. These are exemplified by this comment: "Exactly what a farmer would want when selecting pasture species."

Table 2: Questions on cognition and learning

5The best way to approach learning was clearly explained in the online subject materials.1314
6The problem situation had some features that were familiar to me.351

7I found the problem situations challenging.1412
8The problem tasks enabled me to develop my existing knowledge of the topic.27

9I gained a greater understanding of how to meet farmers' needs from working on the problem solving tasks.27

Table 3 illustrates the questions that concentrate on the value of group work in PBL. The responses to these questions indicate that the students placed a high value on the group activity. The open ended responses after this set of questions support this observation, as illustrated by the following comment: "It helped to make sure I could justify the choices I made and did not allow you to go through and just pick cultivars".

Table 3: Questions on group work

10I had to consider several different points of view in the group discussion of the problem tasks.17

11I worked closely with other students on the group learning tasks.17

12I learned a lot from the other students while working on the group learning tasks.


The questions in Table 4 relate to perceived level of understanding and skill development in areas that the students will need to practice following graduation. The responses are generally favourable in this area also, indicating a perception of skill development that will be of value to the student as a working professional. This perceived value is illustrated by this student comment: "I think that it is great being able to relate to situations right back to the paddock".

Table 4: Questions relating to overall level of learning

13The subject lecturer provided effective guidance and feedback.18

14I felt that I developed a deep understanding of the subject content.
15My studies in this subject helped me to develop problem-solving skills that will be useful to me professionally.252

16I learned a method of approaching new problems by carrying out the problem tasks.25

Lecturer assessment of the quality of outcomes

The subject lecturer reported that the normal way of teaching this particular topic is to have a lecture on the topic, followed by a field trip to a farm to examine the pasture and discuss renovation. Students are then asked to examine a paddock on a property that is familiar to them, and suggest a pasture mix that would renovate the paddock. This activity takes considerably more time than the four hours that students spent on this task. The lecturer's report was that the quality of the student's responses was far higher than is typical with the usual way of teaching the topic. From this activity, the students were much more accurate and mindful of the many variables that influence pastures than is exemplified in the responses that would be expected in a typical group.


PBL appears to have a high potential as a basis for the design of multimedia materials in this subject area. After graduation many of the students will work in a consultancy role in which problem-solving is a critical skill. The experience of problem-solving using real situations is important preparation for this role. The multimedia format enabled the students to experience many of the issues associated with a real problem, and to quickly access the resources to enable a solution to be reached. The subject lecturer feedback indicated that the quality of learning was high. Student feedback indicated that they perceived the value of the activity in building skills in a consultancy role.

By extrapolation, this approach to using PBL for multimedia design can be applied to many other subject areas also. PBL is applicable in any subject area where investigation is needed because solutions are not algorithmic processes with specific answers. As this includes a wide range of subject areas, this approach to instructional design has the potential for a wide range of applications.


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Author: Iain McAlpine, ILFR, The University of Melbourne
Phone (03) 8344 9749 Fax (03) 9348 2156 Email

Please cite as: McAlpine, I. (2001). Multimedia design using problem based learning for pasture management. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 506-515. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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