Online PBL – The new standard?

Different definitions of PBL in the literature address three basic principles.  Triggering learning, PBL is not an isolated instructional technique but a holistic approach, and finally PBL is student-centered.  These three approaches trigger prior knowledge and have meaningful content, research and organized information.  Schmidt (1993) maintains that PBL is based on information processing theory, in which learning requires learners to participate actively in the process of retrieving, constructing and using information and then relating it to their prior knowledge.  Norman and Schmidt (2000) explain PBL through a constructivist approach where information is acquired and general principles are learnt during problem solving practices to be used for similar future problems.  Hoffman and Richie (1997) consider PBL as a student-centered strategy that has significant contextualized, real-world, ill-structured situations while providing resources, guidance, instruction and opportunities for learners to develop content knowledge and problem solving skills.

PBL activities are designed in a way that is possible for instructors to offer guidance in developing problem solving and critical thinking skills.  Ill-structured problems are similar to those that students will encounter in real life situations.  By providing these situations to students you are sparking their critical thinking skills.  PBL is shown to positively influence learning outcomes as well as the learners higher order thinking skills.  Research has shown that students who learn in PBL settings have higher levels of achievement.

Because the education trends have moved from the traditional classroom setting to using more of a distance learning setting, PBL has to transition as well.  Online learning environments are flexible, attractive and interactive, it is more convenient to implement constructivist and PBL practices through online learning environments.  Online PBL applications should support access to information and collaborative learning and sustain interaction among learners.  It is also suggested though that before an instructor decides to implement the PBL method in their online course, that the course be appropriately structured with logical timeframes or the method becomes cumbersome.  Overall PBL is an excellent instructional methodology and when used correctly is extremely effective and beneficial for the students and their academic success.

Gibson and Gibson (1995) describe an alternative approach in which a learner is engaged with a problem individually and prepares a written analysis of the problem, in preparation for group interaction.  The PBL Instructional Model includes five phases

  • Presentation Phase – where the learner is situated in the problem context and to begin the process of activating relevant prior knowledge.
  • Exploration Phase – provides opportunity for recall and reconfiguration of prior knowledge relevant to the specific problem and exploration of additional, content specific knowledge and experience gained during problem solution.
  • Integration Phase – emphasizes relevant knowledge transfer, analysis, integration, synthesis and evaluation of selected, content specific knowledge and problem based experience.
  • Solution Phase – encourages learners to further integrate knowledge experience and artifacts gathered through the problem solving process into their cognitive structures as through products of real experiences
  • Reflection Phase – learners are encouraged to conduct self-assessment of their artifacts assessing the content and organization of the learning modules according to the particular domain of technology integration

This instructional model is just one of many possible implementations of PBL.  As technologies and methodologies advance there will be future instructional design models that are even more innovative.  In a survey constructed by my group members and I we found out the following information on what students think about PBL and how they have used it in their courses.  The results were as follows –

  • 7 students took the survey.
  • 6 out of 7 online students have utilized problem-based learning in their online courses.
  • All six of those students utilized wikis and blogs for the problem-based learning.  Using email and student-created media were the next most popular tools.
  • 5 out of the 6 students agreed that wikis were the most beneficial.
  • All 7 students agreed that using problem-based learning would aid them in learning concepts in their courses.
  • All 7 students thought they would like this form of learning.
  • 6 of the 7 students thought that problem-based learning prepared them for their career fields.

Overall PBL seems to be an accepted approach to teaching “real life” problem solving skills.

References –

Malopinsky, L., Kirkley, J., Stein, R., & Duffy, T. (2000). An instructional design model for online problem based learning (pbl) environments: The learning to teach with technology studio. National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 2,

Sendag, S., & Odabasi, H. (2009). Effects of an online problem based learning course on content knowledge acquisition and critical thinking skills. Computers & Education, 53, 132-141.


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One response to “Online PBL – The new standard?

  1. Pingback: Online PBL – The new standard? « cleave21

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