Meaningful Technology and Curriculum


Julia Green

Julia Green (
York Region District School Board


Technology has been an integral part of education as teachers strive to prepare students for the twenty-first century. In order for education to be pertinent, productive, progressive and proficient, technology is an essential tool (Abbas, Lai-Mei, Ismail, 2013). Problem-based learning (PBL) is grounded in meaningful and experiential situations. In PBL, students learn by solving problems, becoming active learners, situated in real-world problems and allowing students to be responsible for their learning paths (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Modern-day educators require innovative teaching methods which promote skill acquisition and are problem-based, “Millennial students can benefit from this approach as they work collaboratively, construct integrated knowledge, develop problem-solving skills, experience self-directed learning, and become intrinsically motivated” (Matthews & Dworatzek, 2012, p.196). Technology can be defined in a wide variety of ways, and the multitude of methods in which technology can be used to support PBL is equally as diverse. (Brush & Saye, 2014). The purpose of this chapter is to discuss how technology can support the implementation of PBL in educational settings. The key characteristics of both technology and PBL are examined in order to guide educators to make informed decisions to support deep and authentic learning.

Keywords: collaboration, critical thinking, learner-centered, problem-based learning (PBL), real-world application, technology


Problem-based learning has been in the realm of education for the past fifty years (Wood, 2008). Its implementation in educational settings has promoted collaboration, problem-solving and independent acquisition of new knowledge. With changes in education (for example; the flipped classroom, online courses and students in charge of their own learning journeys), there has been a natural move towards the utilization of technology. Twenty-first century learners are more adept at using technological tools than ever before. Students are accessing tech platforms to communicate with each other, research topics of interest to them and learn about world issues.

Technology refers to the designs and environments that engage learners (Abbas et al., 2013). The integration of technology in problem-based learning supports exploration, collaborative inquiry and the development of the skills required for students moving into the modern world. When done effectively, technology can support problem-based learning because of the wide range of tools available; the way in which technology naturally lends itself to collaboration, and its ability to help students explore problems. Problem-based learning’s scope has become even wider with the integration of tech in the classroom. The possibilities to promote the objectives of PBL (discussed later in this chapter) are flexible and ever-changing, allowing PBL to exist naturally in modern learning environments.

Background Information

Problem-Based Learning

Developed in the late 1960s for primary use in medical schools, problem-based learning or PBL is grounded in the constructivist learning theory (Wood, 2008). This theory posits that learning is an active, constructive process. Constructivism states that learning takes place in contexts (Abbas et al., 2013). PBL was developed by Barrows and utilized at McMaster University in 1968 for the first time. Barrows proposed the following three objectives of PBL:

  1. Students acquire knowledge that is retrievable and usable.
  2. Students develop the cognitive skills appropriate for reasoning.
  3. Students extend and improve knowledge to remain current with new problems that may arise (self-directed learning skills), (Taylor & Miflin, 2008).

Other educational models emerged from this such as Bruner’s ‘discovery learning’ (Taylor & Miflin, 2008). PBL was innovative because of its shift in teaching strategies and outcomes. It was predicted that PBL created better learning environments, knowledge, skills, and attitudes (Wood, 2008). PBL focuses on meaningful tasks which are practical in their approach and experiential (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Theorists such as Dewey (1938) explained that learning was most authentic when done through experience. He believed that education and learning were a social and interactive process. Students should experience and interact with curriculum and take part in own learning (Talebi, 2015). Similarly, in PBL, students solve problems which are related to the real-world, construct knowledge and develop strategies for problem-solving (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). One of the defining features of the PBL approach is that students investigate and work collaboratively to find out what they need to know in order to solve the presented problem (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Today, PBL is a construct of previous research and practices. It has been adapted to modern learning environments, is flexible and dynamic.

The teacher’s role in PBL.

In problem-based learning, the teacher acts more as a facilitator to student learning than being in complete control. Facilitators progressively fade their scaffolding as students become more experienced with PBL until finally the learners adopt many of the facilitators’ roles (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). The teacher helps students acquire the skills necessary for problem-solving and collaboration (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Modern PBL approaches vary depending on norms, beliefs and values of PBL practitioners. Furthermore, PBL and its implementation also rely on the cost, the extent of influences, understanding and interpretation by the teacher and institution (Taylor & Miflin, 2008).

The modern teacher is one who recognizes, encourages, facilitates and stretches student learning. Teachers are considered partners with their students and no longer need to teach by telling. Teachers should foster creativity and real-life problem solving, purpose and passion (Fullan, 2013). Allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge of technology is a great way for teachers to work alongside students.

Considerations and applications for technology in PBL

Technology is an integral and supportive factor of learning in PBL. The following section delineates characteristics of problem-based learning in the twenty-first century learning environment, and how technology can best support them.


With students at the forefront of this style of learning, teachers are able to engage and motivate learners. In learner-centered environments, the focus on abilities and process of the learner are of priority. This strategy also centers on what the students already know which encourages motivation (Megwalu, 2014). Student skill-level and interests are considered in a PBL environment. Web 2.0 for example, allows users to browse topics and explore (Tambouris, Panopoulou, Tarabanis, Ryberg, Buus, Peristeras, Porwol, 2012). Students can use their own preferred technological tools to solve problems and show their understanding of topics. They may prefer to use their personal devices or engage in new tools.

With this in mind, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the learners are considered. Preconceptions, cultural differences, comfort level in various group settings are crucial to creating a positive learning environment. Attention should be given to individual progress and material needs to present the right amount of challenge. In order to achieve this, teachers and schools need to understand student knowledge, skill levels and interests (Donovan, 2002). Tools such as online surveys, polls and collaborative online workspaces engage students and help teachers check in with student progress, better understand their interests and their position as a learner.


It is important that a technological tool create a community of learners by broadening repertoires and personal resources (Conoley, 2010). Collaboration promotes engagement as well as positive well-being. Collaborative spaces have proven to positively impact well-being, “People with relationships to other individuals they trust and depend upon are healthier, more productive, and happier”, (Uchino, Cacipo, Kiecolt-Glasser, 1996 as cited in Conoley, 2010, p.77).

When technology tools are appropriately selected, they promote the collaborative production of knowledge through engaging with real-world problems or cases (Tambouris et al., 2012). The emergence and re-conceptualization of online systems supports collaboration between learners and teachers. It affords learners and facilitators access to external resources and resource persons. Donnelly (2010), suggests that the social processes of learning in PBL and through the enabling power of online asynchronous communication, actively engage students in their own learning. Current trends focus on virtual learning environments, but also a shift to personal online learning environments, which allow students to customize their learning journey (Tambouris et al., 2012). Additionally, there exist a plethora of collaborative online platforms from which to choose such as online classrooms, synchronous and asynchronous learning spaces as well as web-based software which allow multiple users to work, revise and comment simultaneously.

Real-life applications.

When students are able to make connections between new material and the real-world it creates for authentic learning environments, “Learning is stronger when it matters” (Brown et al., 2014, p.11). Repetition has not shown to remain in long-term memory, however, when connections are made to real-life problems, the learning is better retained (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Research has shown that rereading, for example, is a time-consuming learning strategy which does not result in lasting learning. On the other hand, students exploring real problems that exist in relation to the subject matter can deepen the learning. That being said, it is important for educators to take risks and allow students to connect with their communities and the world. Learners should apply new skills in context which can be facilitated through tools such as virtual reality, online forums, blogs and discussions and communication tools to connect via video chat across the world.

Optimal learning occurs with the development of norms and connections to the outside world. In these settings, intellectual camaraderie is promoted to build a sense of community. Students build upon each other’s knowledge, questioning, make suggestions and work collaboratively towards a common goal. Problem-solving, argumentation, a sense of comfort, an excitement of learning, and a sense of ownership are developed. Furthermore, classroom learning should be connected to aspects of students’ lives (Donovan, 2002). Educators play a key role in developing questions and creating tasks, “Real learning involves students immediately using what they learn to do something and/or change something in the world” (Prensky, 2010, p.20). Teachers set the learning goals and offer guidance and questions for students and then allow them the freedom to explore but also apply their learning in a real context. The notion of positioning learners as active and productive in real practices seems to correspond well with many of the ideas and ideals associated with Web 2.0 in learning (Tambouris et al., 2012).

Engages critical thinking.

In order to help students adapt to ever-changing situations and problems, critical thinking is an essential skill; “Higher level questioning requires students to further examine the concept(s) under study through the use of application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (Nappi, 2017, p.1). As questioning is an important teaching tool, questions which are simply recall of information are considered lower level questions and do not encourage higher order thinking (Nappi, 2017). Students can use the internet to research and seek solutions to complex problems.

Because of the influx of information available to them, students require questions which allow them to investigate rather than completing a simple search. The use of subject specific technological tools can enrich student experience and close gaps which were previously roadblocks in the problem-solving process. Such an example is explained by Taradi et al. (2005), “Virtual environments encourage students to explore a topic beyond the boundaries of given material, thus supporting the proactive and exploratory nature of learning that allows the student to become self-reliant” (p. 38).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

The integration of technology and problem-based learning is complicated since individually they each demand that staff and students possess a complex array of different teaching and learning capabilities (Donnelly, 2010). Together they are complementary to learning. By combining PBL with collaborative technological tools, educators can create active, vibrant learning environments that enhance student learning (Taradi et al., 2005). Problem-based learning affords students the flexibility of exploring concepts and acquiring skills through the learning process and co-create problems and solutions. Student engagement increases as they are active participants in their own learning (Wirkala, Kuhn, 2011). PBL has a clear connection with the promotion of twenty-first century skills, it “offers an opportunity for moving beyond content acquisition to develop skills and dispositions needed for lifelong learning” (Taradi et al., 2005, p.35).

With student success in mind and preparing students for the world beyond the classroom, PBL encourages problem-solving and collaboration. Furthermore, it allows students to engage in critical thinking and make real-world connections. The advancement of technology has further supported the integration of PBL in learning environments. The wide array of available tools, the collaborative nature, and links to the outside world lend themselves suitably to PBL.

Due to the range of technological tools available, it is challenging to identify exactly which tools best promote PBL. Consideration should be given to whether the tool is enhancing the learning experience or if the same problem-solving strategy could be used without the technology? In fact, several questions should be considered when selecting the appropriate tool for PBL:

  1. Does the tool encourage a learner-centered environment?
  2. Will the tool allow for collaboration among students?
  3. Does the tool promote real-world application?
  4. Can the tool be used to facilitate investigation, problem-solving and inquiry?

Technology has an ability to increase the complexity with which students create and implement a multitude of roles. This can lead to specialization and promote in-depth investigation. Technology in PBL learning environments lends itself to authentic and challenging tasks which support communication with others and promotes active learning (Abbas et al., 2013). The blending of technology in PBL encourages students to become twenty-first century problem-solvers. While there are many factors which contribute to the effective implementation of tech in PBL, it is undeniable that there are positive correlations between the two.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Julia Green is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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