PBL, PBLOs and Professional Learning

FULL TITLE: Research Approaches to Problem-Based Learning Objects (PBLOs) and Professional Learning Environments for Learners and Teachers

Roland vanOostveen, PhD

Roland vanOostveen

These twin bodies of research explore methodologies for assessing the efficacy of problem-based learning objects (PBLOs) and professional development learning environments (PDLEs) with reference to both the role of learner and teacher. [Keywords: problem-based learning, learning objects, professional development, pre-service teacher, video cases, learning environments, research methods]

Problem Based Learning Objects: Research Process

To date, research processes have included the following: 1) pilot tests of learning processes, 2) video recording of pairs of learners while working within the environment, 3) use of pre- and post-concept mapping, 4) use of repertory grids derived within a focus group setting, 5) studying files produced by learners within the environment, 6) modified problem-based learning techniques, 7) using a series of tasks focused on problem-based learning objects (PBLOs), and 8) using the environment for alternate purposes.

Problem-Based Learning Objects (PBLOs)


Learning objects can be found in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Typically, they are characterized as small, reusable, digital resources which support learning. This includes larger environments that were designed for similar purposes.

Learning objects can be classified on a grid created by the intersection of two domains. As shown in Figure 1, one of these domains relates to control of the learning enterprise. The second relates to the process/content dichotomy. PBLOs can be placed in the upper right quadrant of the grid because: 1) they are student (or learner) directed in their use, and 2) the overall orientation of the objects is one of process. (That is, their intended purpose is not to call attention to specific problems or solutions but rather to understandings arising from interaction with objects and other members of the environment.

In a PBL environment, a “problem” is a context within which to learn. It also functions to motivate learners. Problems can be viewed as indirect objectives as there are obstacles which must be overcome (Watts, 1991).

LO DiagramFigure 2 offers a more precise definition of a problem. It is the difference between the desired objective and the current situation. The level of difficulty that can be expected to resolve this differential can be determined in an inverse relationship with the amounts of knowledge and resources accessible by the learner. Thus, if the learner has a great deal of knowledge and/or resources and knows how to apply these to the differential, the problem should be easy to solve. Problems can be categorized by level of complexity depending on how much contextual information is given to the learners. ‘Given’ and ‘goal’ problems (Watts, 1991, p. 8) vary by the type of information given to the learners. ‘Given’ problems contain statements of both the goal and strategies for solving the problem. ‘Goal’ problems have the goal stated but no strategies are suggested. ‘Own’ problems (Watts, 1991, p. 8) include neither the goal nor the strategies. Problems of this type include a context. Learners are required to identify the problem(s) embedded in the context. In learning contexts such as those employed in the PBLOs, learners will collaboratively identify, access and use resources to solve problems of all three types. Since PBLOs combine theoretical elements, video exemplars and reflective questions, they encourage pre-service and in-service teachers to critique the techniques and activities displayed in the video, and to allow the teachers to determine the place of those techniques and activities in their own practices.

PBLOs should be included within an infrastructure that provides opportunities for users to communicate their responses to the scenarios and questions, share their insights and perceptions, and build consensual knowledge. A Collaborative Online Learning Environment (COLE) has been developed with embedded PBLOs. The environment assumes the role of recorder but it also provides tools such as video conferencing, scheduling and a wiki, all of which promote collaboration (Desjardins & vanOostveen, 2008a)

Professional Learning: Research Process

Research processes include:

A. Case Study Development: Semi-structured interviews conducted with teachers as they view video records of their program activities and lessons. Anecdotal records of program activities and lessons.

B. Case Study Analysis: Semi-structured interviews conducted with student-teachers. Volunteering student-teachers complete a questionnaire. Student-teachers’ answers to questions built into the case study programme activities. On-line course participants’ evaluations of the programme. A subset of the course membership complete an online questionnaire.

Professional Development Learning Environments (PDLE)

There is very little research on the use of video cases in teacher professional development (Copeland & Decker, 1996). Consequently, this project investigates the use of this method within the structure of the PDLEs. In many respects PDLEs can are aggregations of learning objects (LO). However, PDLEs are more complex as they include video cases, supplementary documentation and an assortment of associated tools. This proposal responds to the call of Downes (2001) and others for better production and sharing of LOs.

The project examines a series of interactive web-based PDLEs, designed by teams of professional educators serving as facilitators. Each environment includes common features such as the establishment of a community of practitioners, the use of video case-based instruction, synchronous and asynchronous (voice, video and text) communication tools. Pre-service teachers would be exposed to these learning environments as part of their in-class training and in-service teachers would access the PDLEs as part of their overall professional development program. The adult learners would participate in a PDLE chosen from a menu of offerings that would be content and/or process based. For instance, they may elect to participate in PDLEs that offer them information about teaching strategies and/or classroom management, or PDLEs that focus on theoretical aspects of subject-based teaching and learning.


Desjardins, F.J. & vanOostveen, R. (2008a). Collaborative Online Learning Environment: Towards a process driven approach and collective knowledge building. Proceedings of the Ed-Media Conference on Education Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Vienna, Austria, June 30 – July 4, 2008, CDROM.

Desjardins, F.J. & vanOostveen, R. (2008b). Implementing PBL online as a collaborative learning strategy for teachers: The COLE. A presentation at The Eleventh IASTED International Conference on Computers and Advanced Technology in Education, September 29 – October 1, 2008, Crete, Greece.

Watts, M. (1991). The Science of Problem-solving. London: Cassell.