Designing to Empower Learners through PBL

problem based learning for students

Have you ever faced a problem thinking that you would never be able to solve it as you do not have the skills or competencies to come up with a solution? Have you ever taken a course and come across content and thought “Well great, thank you for telling me about this, but I still have no idea how to apply it to my actual job!”

As companies are becoming more focused on employing skills and competencies, jobseekers are becoming more focused on acquiring these in the shortest amount of time possible. In the ed-tech space, a push has come to turn online courses not only into consuming knowledge but rather a learner-centered experience that promotes problem-solving, critical thinking, and autonomy in a subject field. In learning pedagogy, this is known as problem-based learning (PBL).

How can learning designers design courses to empower learners with what they need by using PBL as the starting point?

My Step-by-Step Process to Successful PBL Implementation
1. Get Stakeholder Buy-in

So you know that a PBL approach can be beneficial to learners, but how do you convince the client and subject-matter experts that you want to take their content and re-design it to suit the learner and go against their personal teaching methodologies?

Having prior knowledge of the content you will be working with is beneficial here, this allows you to come up with an example problem and sketch a scenario and narrative which invites them into their own ‘knowledge world’. The buy-in comes when they realize they are drawn in by this and now want to be part of this journey the learners will be going on.

2. Design Intentionally

Once you have decided on a problem and a narrative approach, you need to immerse yourself into that and design everything to make this journey you are sending learners on engaging, exciting, and insightful. This means every piece of written text needs to contribute and refer back to the problem, every activity needs to be a piece of the puzzle being solved, and every piece of media needs to be a graphical representation of the ‘knowledge world’ the learner is in.

Reaching the final objective of solving the problem will only happen if there is a flow to the journey and the learner can connect the dots. This empowers the learner by building confidence that they can apply the knowledge and the skills in a real-life environment.

3. Don’t be Boring

There are very few people taking courses with the intention of opening up a platform and working through content they could have Googled or read from a textbook. Using PBL as a starting point gives you every opportunity to create courses that are not boring, with that I mean keeping the learner’s attention and interest.

Knowing your target audience allows you to make it personal and fun. There is nothing wrong with incorporating humor into your writing, using industry-specific jokes or puns, and even painting a picture of a typical person in the industry for the learner to identify with. Think out of the box and come up with practical alternatives to the usual design approaches you tend to lean towards.

4. Test and Adapt

Learning designers often find themselves in a position where the creation of a course becomes so personal, and the bias they have towards what has been put together makes them blind to the potential mistakes that might have crept in. This is where testing comes in, asking subject-matter experts and even non-subject matter experts to take the course and provide feedback on whether they feel they have reached the set outcomes and objectives after taking the course, is critical. This is the fail-safe to ensure you are not conforming to your own biases and taking constructive criticism to improve the course to create a learner-centered experience.

Learners are facing the ever-increasing pressure of being workplace ready and as a learning designer, you have the power to contribute to them feeling “I got this!” after taking a course you designed. And although there might be many other points to consider when designing courses using the PBL approach, using these four steps as a starting block, sets you up to give learners a course that promotes their problem-solving, critical thinking, and autonomy in their subject field.

Remember you need to get everyone on board with the idea, make every decision keeping your learner-centered design in mind, make learning fun, and test if you will reach the set objectives.

Natassia Beetge

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