Academic journal article International Journal of Applied Educational Studies

Activity Systems within Blended Problem-Based Learning in Academic Professional Development

Academic journal article International Journal of Applied Educational Studies

Activity Systems within Blended Problem-Based Learning in Academic Professional Development

Article excerpt


This paper outlines the background and rationale for a qualitative study on blended problem-based learning within the context of academic development in higher education. The case study research is grounded in an activity learning theoretical approach, and it is argued that it is necessary to make a reflection of technology in relation to activities, learning principles, and a learning theory in order to qualitatively develop the field of academic development. The terms staff development, educational or academic development and faculty development are all used in different higher education systems across the world and although they carry slightly different meanings, they share a common core in referring to the work of developers in studying and enhancing the professional work of university academics. For this study, the term academic development has been used as it is more frequently recognized and utilized within a UK and I would similarly argue, an Irish higher education context (Macdonald, 2003).

Similarly, there are many definitions currently existing for blended learning and the definitional debates seem to converge around the idea of synthesizing eLearning with the more traditional forms of teaching and learning, drawing together the 'e' with the classroom, the laboratory, the seminar and the tutorial setting.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational strategy that involves the presentation of significant, complex and "real-world" problems to students that are structured in such a way that there is not one specific correct answer or predetermined outcome (Boud & Feletti, 1997; Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001).

Problem-based learning (PBL) and the social constructivist side of eLearning are both inherently collaborative. The essence of PBL can be challenging to move to a virtual environment, where students work in small groups with the guidance of a tutor, learning through solving real-life complex problems and reflecting on their experience. However, benefits of online PBL can be the provision of scaffolding to further support collaborative knowledge construction in a social environment (Sage, 2000; Ronteltap & Eurelings, 2002; Bjorck, 2002; Lehtinen, 2002; Orrill, 2002; McConnell, 2002; Wertsch, 2002). Tools and discourse necessarily play a vital role in mediating learning in such environs (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Blended PBL is a complex activity, related not only to pedagogic and subject expertise, technological resource and time availability, but also sensitive to the cultural contexts and traditions in which it is embedded. There are two goals of this paper; as well as focusing on the potential for activity systems using a blended problem-based learning approach, activity theory is used in this paper to serve as a lens for describing and understanding how learning occurs in a complex blending of PBL and eLearning in academic development in higher education. Activity theory theorizes that when individuals engage and interact with their environment, production of tools are resulted. These tools are "exteriorized" forms of mental processes, and as these mental processes are manifested in tools, they become more readily accessible and communicable to other people, thereafter becoming useful for social interaction (Fjeld, Lauche, Bichsel, Voorhorst, Krueger, & Rauterberg, 2002).

Following discussion of the context of the study and the issues of embedding a blended PBL approach, the paper then provides an analysis of the problems used in the PBL blended tutorial, how the participants approached the task, and the data analysed using the activity model.


As it is important to incorporate capacity development in formal courses on higher education, a postgraduate Postgraduate Diploma in Third Level Learning and Teaching was developed in 2001, and has over 100 graduates today. …

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