Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Computer Technology and Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Posted on | December 7, 2015 | No Comments

Many computer labs are now designed around the concept of problem-based learning (PBL), a student-centered approach where participants work in groups to solve open-ended problems. Instead of teachers presenting relevant material first and then have students applying the knowledge to solve problems, PBL engages the students in the problem, inviting them to engage higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, creativity, evaluation, and logic while working cooperatively in teams. Computer labs can facilitate problem-based learning as they are increasingly being designed with an eye towards collaboration, critical thinking, communication, research, and project management.

Theory Based Pedagogy

PBL applies insights from social constructivist and cognitive learning theories to create educational environments that reflect real-world complexities and foster personal responsibility for problem-solving. It builds on prior knowledge and fosters multiple ways of understanding and solving problems. It is an active process that seeks to drive motivation and understanding through challenge, relevance and accomplishment. PBL can be framed within the theory of John Dewey and educational philosophy of pragmatism that believed human beings learn best through a practical ‘hands on’ process.

Applications of PBL

PBL emerged primarily in medical schools as a curriculum development and delivery system to help students develop and hone problem solving skills in an information intensive environment. Medical professionals need to develop life-long learning skills to keep up with new information and techniques in their field, so PBL was implemented to help students to acquire necessary knowledge and skills. PBL is increasingly used in corporate environments as it promotes stronger working relationships and problem-solving tendencies. The case study method is a classic example of problem-based learning used in business schools.

Advantages of PBL

Don Woods has suggested that PBL is any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning. The problem is meant to be the vehicle that moves the group and each student towards the cognition of the situation and the construction of a set of solutions.

PBL mainly involves working in teams but can include independent and self-directed learning. Teams offer opportunities for leadership, stress communication and listening skills, and reward cooperation. Technologies enable asynchronous and synchronous collaboration schemes that challenge leadership skill-sets but translate into real world capabilities to manage projects and facilitate teamwork.

Central to team success is the self-awareness of individual capabilities and the evaluation of group processes. PBL stresses competences in oral and written communication as well as the ability to explain and often visualize key concepts in schematic forms for infographic slide presentations and short videos.

Whether working in a group or alone, critical thinking and analysis are combined with the ability to do additional online in-depth research across various related disciplines. Independent work can facilitate self-reliance and a sense of self. Self-directed learning lets students recognize their own cognitive strategies and understand concepts at their own pace. Major components are the application of the problem to course content and being sure it is situated in real world examples.

What are the Steps Involved?

Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. The process generally involves these steps:

– Introduce the problem in a carefully constructed, open-ended set of questions
– Establish groups, including rules and etiquette
– Organize and define roles including a leader/facilitator and a record keeper
– Initiate discussion by examining and defining the problem
– Explore what is already known about the problem
– Clarify related issues and define variables
– Determine what additional information needs to be learned and who is it pursue it
– Determine where to acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem
– Pursue individual tasks
– Regroup, share, and evaluate possible ways to solve the problem
– Strive for consensus and decide on a strategy to solve the problem
– Report on their findings and proposed solutions
– Assess learning acquisition and skill development

Limitations of PBL Include:

– Participants may need fundamental knowledge in key areas
– They must be willing to work within a group
– Time to organize is needed to engage fully, and report findings in a coherent way
Assessment becomes more complicated and often less quantitative
– Teachers must learn to be facilitators of the learning process
– Group dynamics can compromise effectiveness
– Wrong decisions can influence real world solutions
– Results are better when working within flexible classroom spaces

PBL and Technology

This last risk raises questions of how technology and designed learning environments can assist the collaborative and research processes that are central to PBL. Educational technologies can help the learner and diminish many challenges faced by the instructor. Technology can streamline the instructional processes by structuring communicative interactions and knowledge finding. Group processes can proceed synchronously in a simultaneous face-to-face system or asynchronously online and across geographic divides. Web-based learning can offer personalized learning tools to students of different abilities in and out of the classroom.

Computers are increasingly being used in classrooms to provide interactive experiences. Students working around a table with one computer within reach and easy viewing can conduct collaborative, and group decision-making exercises. These desk-based terminals provide many kinds of curricular resources: informative websites, games, manuals, online books, simulations, etc. that present problems that can challenge the students and drive learning. Games, in particular, can engage students in relevant and rigorous “meaningful play” through structured activities that provide context and feedback in instructional learning.

Web-based tutoring systems have not consistently been designed to be challenging and deliver interesting curricular knowledge with a tested instructional pedagogy. However, computer-based learning environments based on PBL and gamification have come a long way in offering online and packaged media with problem-based learning and tutoring complete with homework assignments with grading and feedback.

To what extent are educational pedagogies limited by the architecture, spaces, and technology available to us? This is a major challenge now in education and seems to the be contingent on the willingness and creativity of educational professionals. While the most immediate responsibility rests on the shoulder of teachers and professors, it is also contingent on classroom designers and school administrators to construct spaces that support coherent strategies and technologies to implement problem-based learning.

In summary, PBL is a curriculum development and delivery system that recognizes the need to develop problem-solving skills, including information literacy and research capabilities that reach across disciplines. Many medical and professional schools already use these practices as the training they impart has real-world consequences. It requires a structured approach to communication and group organization while remaining committed to real-world relevance as well as a willingness to let the students control their own learning.


Monahan, Torin. 2002. “Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments.” Inventio 4 (1): 1-19.
Pawson, E., Fournier, E., Haight, M., Muniz, O., Trafford, J., and Vajoczki, S. 2006. “Problem-based Learning in Geography: Towards a Critical Assessment of its Purposes, Benefits and Risks.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1): 103–16.
“Problem-Based Learning.” Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2015. .
Woods, Don. “Problem-Based Learning (PBL).” N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. .



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii during the 1990s.


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