Problem-based learning and social software

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This wiki explores some of the links between problem-based learning and social software.

Leonia Card
Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador

Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an innovative educational approach that transforms passive learners into active participants who construct knowledge by building upon previously gained knowledge and experiences (Luppicini, 2003; Major & Palmer, 2001). PBL reflects certain principals of constructivism such as understanding deriving from interactions with the environment, the need for the learner to focus on a stimulus or goal, and the evolution of knowledge through the social environment (Savory & Duffy, 2001).

PBL is utilized in many disciplines to help students develop advanced cognitive abilities including critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills (Major & Palmer, 2001). It is often used in medical education. The PBL approach presents a realistic case that students work collaboratively to solve. The problem solving process requires students to clarify terms and concepts, define and analyze the problem, formulate and synthesize ideas, and present and reflect upon their solution (Woltering, Herrier, Spitzer & Spreckelsen, 2009). PBL stimulates students by providing practical problems, cooperative work environments, and the chance to organize the learning process. Cognitive science research about the nature of learning has shown that students benefit from working together, and they learn best by teaching or solving problems, therefore, a paradigm shift towards PBL is necessary to develop an approach to instruction that is consistent with research (Major & Palmer).

Upon examination of the empirical and theoretical evidence reported in three PBL reviews, Colliver (2000) found PBL ineffective in fostering the acquisition of basic knowledge and clinical skills (p. 259). However, Albanese (2000) conducted a more comprehensive review and found that PBL is a worthwhile strategy because of its effectiveness in information processing, cooperative learning, and improving the learning environment for students and faculty. Colliver summarized the advantages of PBL to the learning environment and noted that it, “may provide a more challenging, motivating and enjoyable approach...” (p. 266). Camp (1996) supports the use of PBL in medical schools. She found that medical students taught in a PBL environment retain knowledge for longer periods, provide better causal explanations and are more motivated than students taught conventionally.

Social software and PBL

Robertson (2008) found that using social software tools (SSTs) can aid constructivist and PBL by supporting team knowledge building through communication and collaboration among peers. In general, McLoughlin and Lee (2007) argue that Web 2.0 technologies, such as (SSTs), have a foothold in lifelong effective learning and have considerable potential to address the diverse needs of students. Web 2.0 is an umbrella term for Internet technologies such as blogs, wikis, social bookmarking applications, social software and networking tools, and media sharing sites (McLoughlin & Lee). McLoughlin and Lee claim that these technologies are opening doors to more effective learning and competence development through visual and verbal connectivity. Ninety-six percent of students with online access report that they use social networking technologies, (NSBA, 2007). The Internet can be used as a readily accessible platform to promote team and peer group communication, collaboration and construction of knowledge rather than just as a source of content (Robertson, 2008).

SSTs are not created specifically for educational purposes but they can support learning in problem-based activities (Dalsgaard, 2006). These tools are useful when learning is a self-governed, problem-based, collaborative process because they strengthen relationships between students. The PBL approach requires students to work in groups in an open-ended environment. SSTs make student work visible to others and allow users access to similar networks of people and references. Through the sharing of work and engagement in discussions social software tools facilitate closer relationships and more frequent interaction between students and teachers (Dalsgaard).

The PBL approach also requires that knowledge develop through the social and cultural environment (Savory & Duffy, 2001). According to Luppicini (2003), the social aspect of constructivist learning is rooted in argument, discussion and debate, therefore, students need to continually communicate and make decisions together. SSTs support continuous interaction by giving students the opportunity to create their own learning environments, by allowing flexible work hours, and by providing global access to individuals (Brodie, 2009) thus, increasing awareness and appreciation of different cultures and societies. The two-way nature of social software make it possible for students to share experiences and lessons when gathering knowledge and ideas on a wide variety of case studies (Alexander, 2008). SSTs also allow individuals to be exposed to a diverse range of interpretations and points-of-view that can be integrated into learning activities (Luppicini). For example, wikis can be used to support discussion, group case studies, as a journal of completed work, and as a forum for product development, publishing, and reflection (Robertson, 2008).

SSTs enable user customization and allow learners to make decisions about which tools best suit their goals and needs (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007). In a PBL situation the learner has control over and responsibility for learning, by using SSTs learners receive scaffolding through the help of others. SSTs enable multiple forms of support as they allow people to connect, interact and share ideas in a fluid way (McLoughlin & Lee).

SSTs help students develop a positive attitude towards using technology, and allow them to edit and customize the content (developing creativity skills) they are sharing online (University of Minnesota, 2008). Reflection upon work created and construction of a solution to a real world problem are important in PBL environments; discussion forums, chat rooms and email are complimentary to these steps (Donnelly, 2006).

Griffith, Liyanag and Hansen (2008) advise that, because social networking sites have increased in popularity, students are using them academically for group work but the use of SSTs should be monitored due to vulnerabilities related to privacy and security. However, when used correctly, SSTs can support PBL by providing a medium to share information with others, work collaboratively, present and publish individual work, as well as the opportunity to generate new ideas and transform understanding through reflection.


Albanese, Mark. (2000). Problem-based learning: Why curricula are likely to show little effect on knowledge and clinical skills. Medical Education, 34, 729-38. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [1]

Alexander, Bryan. (2008). Social networking in higher education. The Tower and the Cloud, 197-201. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [2]

Brodie, L. M. (2009). eProblem-based learning: Problem-based learning using virtual team. European Journal of Engineering Education, 34(6), 497-509. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from ERIC. doi: 10.1080/0304379092943868

Camp, Gwendie. (1996). Problem-based learning: A paradigm shift or a passing fad? Medical Education Online, 1(2), 1-6. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [3]

Colliver, Jerry A. (2000). Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: Research and theory. Academic Medicine, 75(3), 259-66. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [4]

Dalsgaard, Christian. (2006). Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning. Retrieved Jan. 16, 2010, from [5]

Donnelly, Roisin. (2010). Harmonizing technology with interaction in blended problem-based learning. Computers & Education, 54, 350-9. Retrieved Jan. 2010 from ERIC. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2009.08.012

Griffith, Sharon., Liyanag, Liwan., & Hansen, Steve. (2008). Virtual worlds: membership structures of Internet social networks. IADIS International Conference on Web Based Communities (University of Western Sydney). pp. 239-43.

Luppicini, Rocci. (2003). Towards a cyber-constructivist perspective (CCP) of educational design. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 29(1), 5-13. Retrieved Jan. 2010 from ERIC.

Major, Claire H., & Palmer, Betsy. (2001). Assessing the effectiveness of problem-based learning in higher education: Lessons from the literature. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 5(1). Retrieved Jan. 15, from [6]

McLoughlin, Catherine., & Lee, Mark J.W. (2007). Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era. ascilite: Proceedings of ICT: Providing Choices for Learners and Learning, Singapore (pp. 664-75). Retrieved Jan. 15, from [7]

NSBA. (2007). Online social networking and education: Study reports on new generations social and creative interconnected lifestyles. Retrieved Jan. 15, 2010 from [8]

Robertson, Ian. (2008). Learners’ attitudes to wiki technology in problem based, blended learning for vocational teacher education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(4), 425-41. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [9]

Savory, John R., & Duffy, Thomas M. (2001). Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework (CRLT Technical Report No. 16-01). Indiana University; Center for Research on Learning and Technology. Retrieved Jan. 2010, from [10]

University of Minnesota. (2008, June 21). Educational benefits of social networking sites uncovered. ScienceDaily. Retrieved Jan. 2010 from [11]

Woltering, Vanessa., Herrier, Andreas., & Spitzer, Klaus. (2008). Blended learning positively affects students’ satisfaction and the role of the tutor in the problem-based learning process: Results of a mixed-method evaluation. Advances in Health Science Education, 14, 725-38. doi:10.1007/s10459