Digital Technologies as a Change Agent in Problem-Based Activities: A Comparison of Online and Campus-Based PBL in Swedish Firefighter Training

Digital Technologies as a Change Agent in Problem-Based Activities: A Comparison of Online and Campus-Based PBL in Swedish Firefighter Training

Robert Holmgren (Umeå University, Sweden)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0929-5.ch004
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This study deals with how problem-based activities were affected when digital technologies were integrated with PBL (Problem-Based Learning) in Swedish firefighter training. Based on socio-cultural perspectives on learning and a comparative distance-campus approach, the instructor and student roles and PBL activities were explored. Interviews with instructors and students from the two study modes were carried out at the beginning and end of the two-year training program. The results showed that, compared to the campus-based PBL, the problem-solving processes in the online PBL activities were characterized by greater individual responsibility, more authentic tasks and a clearer focus on literacy. Furthermore, the instructor's role as a teaching subject expert changed in favor of a tutoring approach, and the distance students developed a more self-directed learning approach compared to the campus students. The follow-up study in the latter part of the training program showed that the extended technology integration resulted in phases of both dissemination and normalization. The introduction of online PBL affected both the teaching design and educational discussions throughout the program. However, the prevailing teaching culture and the pedagogical and technological shortcomings of instructors unused to distance teaching resulted in a gradual normalization of the online PBL.
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This study examines the impact on problem-based activities and instructor and student roles that occurred when digital technologies were integrated with PBL in Swedish firefighter training. PBL (Problem Based Learning) had long been the established teaching approach in the campus mode of this training program when, a few years ago, a technology-supported distance mode was introduced. In this mode, the face-to-face based design was replaced by an online design, in which mediating technologies were used to distribute content and as tools for communication and collaboration between the students and instructors. Given the traditionally situated and practical nature of Swedish firefighter training, where the instructor-led teaching is predominantly carried out on training grounds and in practice rooms, the particular attention of this study is directed to the instructors’ and the students’ use of digital technologies, their perceptions of how the use of such technology affects the implementation of problem-based activities and their respective roles. In order to deepen the understanding of this integration process, the study has a comparative approach, where comparisons are made between the technology-supported PBL in the distance mode and the face-to-face based PBL on campus. A socio-cultural perspective on learning constitutes the study's theoretical base, in which social learning, mediating and situated aspects are emphasized (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch et al., 1995) This means that the integration of PBL and digital technologies in teaching is considered as a mutual impact process in which actors (instructors and students), tools (PBL and ICT) and the study modes (context) together contribute to actions and activities being able to take place. In line with this, Wertsch (1998) formulates the socio-cultural focus of research as “the relationships between human action, on the one hand, and the cultural, institutional, historical contexts in which this action occurs on the other” (p.24). In this relationship the mediating tools “provide the link or bridge between the concrete actions carried out by individuals and groups, on the one hand, and cultural, institutional, and historical settings, on the other” (Wertsch et al., 1995, p. 21).

This study incorporates several relevant aspects for the PBL and online PBL research areas. Firstly, a comparative approach is applied where problem-based activities, as well as students’ and instructors’ roles, are studied in both study modes. Thus, this study can be seen as a complement to previous research in which PBL to a great extent has been studied in comparison to traditional classroom teaching focused on learning outcomes or instructors’ and students’ satisfaction (see for example, Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Dochy et al., 2003; Strobel & Barneveld, 2009). Secondly, a longitudinal perspective is adopted, which makes it possible to see and identify changes over time. This longitudinal aspect is an important complement to previous research, showing among other things the retention effects of PBL after graduation (Strobel & Barneveld, 2009).

Last but not least, the study was conducted in an educational context which has been researched only to a limited extent. Previous research on PBL has usually been carried out in higher education and in vocational training in fields such as medicine, nursing, economics and teacher education (Savery, 2006). Studies on PBL in firefighter training have identified different views about this teaching method. For example, Göransson (2004) shows that the instructors’ and students’ lack of knowledge of the purpose and goals of PBL in combination with a strong knowledge-imparting tradition resulted in PBL not having any major impact. However, Streichert et al. (2005), who studied PBL in courses with participants from various rescue organizations, show that PBL was favoured over other teaching methods such as traditional exercises and other case methodologies (Harvard Business School). They suggest that PBL was considered to create more realism and greater interaction between different professional groups.

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