Solutions Based Learning Model: A Model for Online Education and Beyond

September 11, 2000
Kristin & Cole Camplese

Author’s Note: This white paper was written in 2000. The overarching model for Solutions-Based Learning is largely the same, however (as with technology and eLearning in general) it has evolved and our perceptions on some activities have changed.

The History of Solutions-Based Learning (SBL)

A unique challenge was presented to the IST Solutions Institute in the Fall of 1999: to create an online, problem-based, real-world, modular, reusable curriculum for the new School of Information Sciences and Technology. In addition, these courses could not spend years in development. There was a big need to roll them out quickly in order to prove that IST was an asset to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Another slight complication was the fact that this technology-based curriculum would be changing very rapidly—a content management strategy would be imperative. In addition, it would be very difficult to take time from our traditional, tenure-track faculty because they are so inundated with getting the resident curriculum up and running. The online courses would also have to be used in many different delivery methods: hybrid delivery (mostly online, but some face to face sessions) for resident students, asynchronous delivery for resident students and rolling enrollment, and “pre-packaged” delivery for other institutions.

The Education and Training Solutions group within the Institute would be responsible for this initiative. Just to create an online course is a challenge—few people have done it well to date. In addition, adding a problem-based layer in a distant setting would be another layer to the challenge. All of this had to be accomplished in a way that allowed us to roll out courses quickly and reuse/repurpose content in a modular fashion. Many challenges to say the least.

One of the biggest challenges has been to flesh out a problem-based, online instructional design model that meshes with all of our other unique, market-driven needs. What has evolved through our team process seemed to take some of the best elements of many approaches and combine them in a way that has allowed us to make our online curriculum a reality. It is not problem-based learning in its truest fashion. It is Solutions-Based Learning—a real world model that focuses on teaching and learning within a business-oriented, team-driven process. Solutions-Based Learning not only focuses on students finding solutions to real world problems; it is a solution to the many instructional design challenges that universities and schools face today.

Student Need

First of all, I feel it is important to state the educational mission of the School of Information Sciences and Technology. We are striving to create leaders for our new, information and technology-driven society.

Technology is no longer its “own” field; indeed it crosses the boundary of every single domain that exists today. It used to be that a computer science program was the way to educate students desiring a computer-related degree. But now, however, we see every field being impacted by technology. It is not only impacting the person at work, though. Every use of technology has a social impact on an individual’s daily life.

  • Nurses use intranet systems to manage patient care… Patients use internet systems to manage their own care.
  • Libraries maintain their collections through powerful information processing systems… Students of all ages do research for learning, or for pleasure, using those systems.
  • Large retailers maintain their storefronts on database systems accessible through the world wide web… consumers purchase goods by accessing these systems.
  • Online investing systems allow trading without a stockbroker … What do stock brokers do now?

Many of these systems have been in place for quite some time. However, accessibility to the systems because of networks has eliminated the “middle man” in many cases. Not only do students in our curriculum need to understand the fundamentals behind the systems; they need to understand the impact that the systems can have on society and in business. As in the stockbroker example above, our students need to recognize that entire fields and jobs are being redesigned to deal with technology. Now a stockbroker needs to add value to his customers’ buying process because of the ease of trading online. Our students need to see these impacts and be able to analyze them.

So, we are not only giving students the fundamentals to understand the systems, but we are giving them the problem-solving, analytical mentality to understand how these systems impact business and society. We need to train students to be able to work in diverse teams that allow them to have a taste of the real world. In addition, we need to assist them in problem solving as individuals. Most problem solving activities have both group and individual learning components.

Overview of Solutions-Based Learning

Solutions-Based Learning relies on presenting students with a real-world problem or case study at the beginning of an instructional module. Within that module, topics (and lessons that make up those topics) support both the traditional instruction, as well as the problem-solving activity.

IST 110 Course Structure

Modules = Groupings of content topics.
Topics = Groupings of related lessons.
Lessons = Groupings of related content pages.

As the students work through the traditional content, they are not only gathering information for the problem solving process, they are participating in traditional online activities such as reading, responding to discussion questions which are posted to the online bulletin board, and interacting with multimedia exercises which enhance the content.

Comparison to Traditional PBL

This is a difficult piece to write because there is much confusion around what problem-based learning (PBL) really is. Everyone has his or her own view about what it must include and how it must be included. In a review of problem-based learning literature in medical education, it was stated that:

The basic outline of the problem-based learning process is: encountering the problem first, problem-solving with clinical reasoning skills and identifying learning needs in and interactive process, self study, applying newly gained knowledge to the problem, and summarizing what has been learned. (Barrows 1985, p. 15)

Wilkerson and Feletti state that it is crucial that “the problem raise compelling issues for new learning and that students have an opportunity to become actively involved with appropriate feedback and corrective assistance from faculty members.” (Wilkerson and Feletti 1989, p. 53)

Many people have many different views about what PBL is or is not. However, the following concepts are generally held to be true. PBL:

  • Relies on a real world, authentic problem presented up front to students.
  • Is facilitated by an instructor. The instructor must “guide, probe, and support student initiatives” not just purely lecture or operate as a “sage on the stage.” (Kaufman et al 1989, p. 286)
  • Is generally considered to be collaborative in nature.
  • Is assessed in the purest form “in the context of the problem.” (Duffy and Cunningham 1996, p. 170). Rubrics are generally used to evaluate student solutions and very few, if any, multiple choice-like instruments would be used to evaluate learning.
  • Is designed to facilitate deep and meaningful learning. Content coverage cannot be as easily ensured in a true PBL curriculum (as compared to a traditional course).

How is this different from Solutions-Based Learning? In many ways, not very! Solutions-Based Learning, from the standpoint of the model, is really on a PBL continuum. It is not PBL in its purest form, but it does hold many of the same characteristics. We focus on real world problems presented up front. And the instructor definitely acts as more of a facilitator. We all probably agree that a problem-based learning model is the most authentic way to learn—it is how we learn throughout our lives. But it is not always easy to translate into traditional education.

Where SBL is different is in the fact that we feel it is practical and applicable within most traditional educational settings. Our model can be collaborative or individual, depending on instructor needs. Our model allows assessment to take place in a variety of ways. We incorporate instruments that allow for demonstration of learning from a depth and breadth perspective. Let’s face it, most educational institutions, governments, and money granting institutions want to see how an educational experience can be quantified, i.e. what the grades were. They give us curricula that need to be taught, i.e. standards. And most instructors and students alike still focus on tests as skill demonstration. While we feel that this is not necessarily correct, it is still an important component to take into consideration. By including problems, discussion activities, labs and some opportunities for traditional quizzes, we feel that we can ensure the maximum amount of learning from both a depth and breadth perspective. Individual instructors can re-weight activities that they feel are the most important.

Assessment Strategies

Assessment takes place at each level of the course. At the module level, students are assessed within the context of the problem based on their solutions. A detailed rubric is used to evaluate each problem deliverable. In addition, when a team-based component exists, a “teaming” grade is formulated based on the average of each team member’s self and team evaluations.

Also at the module level, we have designed criterion-referenced quizzes. These were formulated to assess content coverage of objectives throughout the course. While this does not necessarily fit with a true problem-based approach, it does fit with a Solutions-Based approach. Problem-based learning does a fantastic job ensuring deep, meaningful learning; however, in introductory courses, especially, we need to ensure that students take away the basic introductory knowledge that all IST students need to have (the basic lingo, definitions, procedures, etc.). For this reason, we have developed short (15-20 item) online quizzes to motivate students to interact with all content, not just the content that is covered in the problems. The quizzes are timed, but not proctored. This means that they could “cheat.” We are not as concerned with that as we are with the students just preparing themselves for such a learning opportunity. Because they are timed, they will have to move through items in a manner that does not allow for extensive use of resources.

In an online or traditional setting, it is very difficult to ensure that students read and interact with the content. Because our content has been developed exclusively for this course (meaning that it is all relevant), students need to interact with it. They need to know (independently) what the definition of an information system is; they need to be able to list the basic steps in systematic design and development; they need to know the basic differences between relational and flat file databases. Employers expect this! Many high level concepts can be covered in problems or case studies; however, many of the IST fundamentals need to be adequately covered as well. Our basic approach is that problems are used to assess high level learning objectives; however, quizzes are used to assess lower level content objectives.

At the topic level, students are assessed through applied Lab Activities. IST 110 is a 4 credit course, so this is imperative. However, other courses may or may not have this component. Lab activities are applied, “internship-ready” activities. Students are required to learn a skill such as Microsoft Excel, but then apply it to a knowledge worker task, such as creating a spreadsheet that evaluates several different hardware systems. These types of skills make our students much more ready for employment than if they were simply asked to create a random spreadsheet with little need for context.

At the lesson level, students are assessed using Discussion Activities. Discussion Activities are based around one page of content and require students to think about it in a deeper manner. For example, when the content discusses the unbundling of hardware and software, students are asked to envision what the computing world would be like if this never happened. These generative learning activities require students to read and respond to the content in a way that makes them reflect and create new knowledge.

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 9.01.36 PM

More details around each activity can be found below:

Description of Problem Activity

  • Can be team-based or individual-based.
  • Focus on real world questions and present multiple perspectives.
  • Must replicate the motivation factor that is present in real world problem solving.
  • Do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer.
  • Students need to utilize course content and outside research to construct their answer.
  • Require a “deliverable” and a presentation (if hybrid approach) to defend their solution.

Description of Module Quizzes

  • Individually completed.
  • Criterion-referenced.
  • Ensure more adequate content coverage by students.
  • Can be online or face to face, depending on how facilitator wants to set up the course.

Description of Lab Activities

  • Individually completed.
  • Focus on a topic of information.
  • Require students to read content, perform outside research, and respond by generating a solution.
  • Implemented in Communication Space (e.g. WebCT)

Description of Discussion Activities

  • Individually completed.
  • Thought provoking questions related to course content.
  • Require students to read content and generate a response based on prior knowledge.
  • Lead to active discussion among students and facilitator.
  • Implemented in Communication Space.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.