MET:PBL Online

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Craig Brumwell and Theo Dykstra in 2014

Problem-based learning online (PBL online) is an instructional strategy and a philosophy of curriculum design that integrates learning focused on real-life problems with developing technologies. It is also known as 'computer-mediated problem-based learning (CMPBL)' and 'online problem-based learning'. Educators are shifting in varying degrees from a traditional face-to-face to an online approach because of the affordances offered through new media. This has produced a number of challenges and criticisms such as putting technology ahead of pedagogy, the effectiveness of interactive media environments and the training of facilitators.


Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a constructivist approach first introduced by Barrows and Tamblyn in 1980 as a new methodology in medical school education at McMaster University in Canada. It is now used around the world in various forms in a variety of disciplines and professions primarily in higher education in such programs as healthcare, education and social work but also in a limited scope with design adaptations in K-12 classes. It is characterized by teams of students working on a solution to an authentic problem through a process of inquiry. Learning Management Systems (LMS), web-based communications and new media allow students to collaborate, conduct research and complete coursework from a distance. These technologies also support pedagogical approaches to PBL that combine, or “blend” face-to-face and online learning environments.

The adaptation of PBL to an online format has been attempted through learning management systems known as virtual learning environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard, Moodle and WebCT. These systems combine computer-mediated communications software such as email and chat with online content. They are designed for a broad spectrum of teaching styles but are not specifically designed for application to PBL. VLEs typically offer synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (time delayed) chat capabilities. Some students regard communicating in such a manner as inauthentic while others believe that feedback on each other’s work is more detailed and considered. Other common synchronous functions included in some VLEs are whiteboard (group collaborative work space), video conferencing and group browsing.

Design Examples

Different approaches to the designs of PBL online environments have been in use since 2006 that combine elements of communication and content management with varying degrees of face-to-face and online interaction. 'Single module online at a distance' are stand-alone, focus-specific modules comprised of resources, activities and communication capabilities all located on a virtual learning environment.[1] Programs using this model include: medicine (many countries) physiotherapy (Finland), specialist nursing (Scotland), and medicine (Norway). 'Single model blended' programs attempt to maximize student flexibility with teacher support through by combining face-to-face and online activities and research, such as the 'eSTEP' system for preservice teachers, the 'SONIC' (Students Online in Nursing Integrated Curricula) program for UK universities in nursing, and the 'Designing for E-Learning' program for lecturers and librarians in Ireland.[2]

Learning Management Systems

Learning management systems are designed to accommodate a number of pedagogical approaches. Learning management systems specific to PBL online have been developed by a number of institutions. 'PsyWeb' is a system for pyschology education that categorizes thousands of learning resources into a variety of visual and text-based resources that students select based on a range of learning styles.[3] 'POLARIS' (Problem Oriented Learning and Retrieval Information System) is an enhanced threaded discussion board developed by Maastricht University in the Netherlands that allows for greater activity and collaboration in small groups than is typically offered by LMS communication.[4] The University of Queensland and Massey University in New Zealand have produced a suite of programs to examine complex global problems called 'PBLi' (Problem Based Learning Interactive) to create and deliver interactive scenarios. Instant or delayed online feedback is then available enabling students to diagnose and resolve specific problems.[5]

Pedagogical Considerations

Creating PBL in an online setting presents pedagogical considerations. A common debate is whether pedagogy is taking advantage of the available technologies or if technology is driving the pedagogy.[6] Some[7][8] argue that technology has always influenced pedagogy, while others[9] suggest that learning only benefits from the use of technology if it follows a designed educational strategy. It is also argued[10] that technology and pedagogy are intertwined and influence one another.

PBL online is often confused with problem-solving online. PBL online makes use of open-ended problems that can be answered in a variety of ways with information gathered from many different sources. In comparison problem-solving online guides students through a specific set of resources in order to solve problems in a prescribed way.[11]

Web 2.0 tools have allowed for pedagogical developments in PBL online which promote collaboration and the development of organic learning communities. Wikis, social networking, blogs, collaborative work-spaces and resource sharing allow for a community approach to learning which educational theorists such as John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky promote as significant. PBL online can help develop critical thinking skills within the learner in particular content domains.[12]

Assessment Practices

PBL online can make use of self, peer, team and facilitator assessment in both formative and summative ways. It emphasizes responsibility and process skills while leveraging affordances of VLEs and new media. E-portfolios, online journals, team wikis and blogs are commonly used instruments that provide evidence of reflection and critical thinking. Case-based individual essays that link to class discussions allow students to respond to a new scenario using their PBL experience.[13] Team presentations can take the form of podcasts, movies or media-rich web tools such as Tiki Toki and Prezi. The “my story” approach involves the creation of a biographical record of learning and self-discovery that combines cognitive maps, web pages and hypertext compositions.[14]


The strengths of traditional problem-based learning are extended by the PBL online approach through rapidly developing new web-based technologies. The flexibility of communications tools and virtual learning environments offer team learning spaces regardless of geographic distances. Collaboration, management and administration of group interactions are enabled in the process. Online communication also reduces the social pressures of face-to-face interactions, allowing participants to react to content versus personalities and improving opportunities for reflection and self-expression.[15] Online facilitation can be more effective than face-to-face facilitation for similar reasons. PBL online reduces student isolation and provides more choice about when and how students learn. It potentially provides a way of engaging student learning that fit with social media and mobile technologies.

PBL online has many of the same pedagogical benefits as face-to-face PBL. It finds its roots within constructivism as a philosophy of learning. PBL online has been shown to promote deep learning, promote problem solving skills, develop metacognitive skills, prepare graduates for jobs, assist students to achieve competencies, promote critical thinking skills and promote team working skills.[16]

Issues and Challenges

Learner Participation

Learners within PBL online can feel that they are creating a persona that is different from their true self.[17] As a result, learners may regret comments or posts they make in online communities. Learners may also be hesitant to post to discussion boards because of the permanency of their comments.

Interactivity within PBL online needs to be planned carefully. Successful PBL online is dependent on collaborative learning.[18] Poor group dynamics can negatively impact the learners. This can be the result of member apathy, lack of focussed discussion, members who do not participate equally, group members being ignored, or members who dominate and prevent others from learning.[19]

Virtual Learning Environments

Technology issues can negatively impact learners. Early on in PBL online courses learners may spend a significant amount of time becoming comfortable with the VLE rather than being focused on learning objectives. Video and voice lag that occurs in online conferences can take away from the fluidity of conversations limiting the content and engagement of participants.[20] The necessity of some VLEs for learners to download and install plugins, internet bandwidth issues, as well as VLEs crashing or being down for upgrades may cause challenges for less computer literate participants and detract from their learning experience.[21]

VLEs can provide barriers to creativity for course designers. The structure of many VLEs do not allow for the layout to be easily changed leading course designers to create very linear and highly managed learning environments. Although VLEs are improving in their ability to be individualized to different learning designs, these modifications fall outside of the norm and are therefore not often undertaken by course designers.[22]


Facilitating PBL online is a difficult task, even for those with prior face-to-face experience. The shift in the teacher’s role from traditional instruction to facilitation in an online environment can be problematic. It is significantly different from e-moderation. Facilitation is characterized by such guiding skills as: promoting personal reflections, contributing to discussions, encouraging teams to take a critical stance, and being an active listener. Moderation involves a more hierarchical role of initiating and coordinating team activities, providing feedback and helping to resolve conflicts.[23]

Teachers who have the most success facilitating PBL online are those whose pedagogical philosophy and views on collaborative learning on the web align most directly to it. Feelings of ambivalence to a changing role and disjunction from a loss of teacher-centered control can result when facilitators are unsuited to the process or in cases where institutions have imposed the PBL online on teaching staff. Other complicating problems are the tendency of instructors to dictate values onto students, do too much for students and ask too many questions.[24]

Emerging Trends

The rise of web 2.0 and the semantic web provides many future possibilities for PBL online, but the current use of these technologies currently remains under utilized.[25] These tools allow PBL online to function as an environment that is more community-based, where participation is less structured and more fluid, where artifacts are never truly finished and are always being modified, and where ownership of artifacts and knowledge belong to the creative commons.[26]

Web 2.0 technologies provide PBL online practitioners with greater functionality than many current virtual learning environments. There is support that students engage more organically with informal learning technologies, such as SMS text, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Ning, blogs, wikis, Jaiku, Skype, Google Apps than formal learning management systems.[27] The emerging possibilities of web 2.0 and semantic web tools help align PBL online with the lifestyle of digital natives.[28]

Games and simulations as presented in 3D virtual worlds can benefit PBL learning online. Group activities within games can motivate learners and facilitate team building.[29] Whereas simulations may not replicate real life scenarios, which is often the focus of PBL, it can encourage the development or learning processes in participants.[30]


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