Problem-Based Learning – Thriving during the Crisis

by Dr. Jim Guilkey

If there is one thing the coronavirus has taught us all is that training, as we know it, is neither resilient nor flexible. Classroom training that requires facilitators and participants to fly to various locations and pack arm-to-arm in a classroom is no longer an option. But as organizations consider replacing their current programs with virtual training, do they understand that simply converting existing materials is neither effective nor efficient? Do companies realize that virtual distribution of learning requires a much different instructional design methodology — a transformation? Probably not. Corporations have never been forced to totally redesign their training to focus solely on virtual distribution.


So, what exactly is a training conversion and why is it not the answer to our current challenges? Conversion, simply put, means trying to duplicate everything as it was previously done in the classroom. If slides were used in the classroom, convert those for use in a WebEx. If facilitators used lecture, have them lecture virtually or record them and have learners watch those.

Companies tend to utilize conversion because it is fast and efficient. There is also an assumption that if it worked in the classroom, it should work in the virtual classroom. But instructor-led classroom training is a much different learning environment. Participants are a “captive” audience. The facilitator can see participants’ faces and reactions. Group activities are simple to conduct. Converting classroom-based training by attempting to duplicate it fails to consider all the differences and challenges associate with virtual distribution. Classroom training cannot simply be converted. It must be transformed.


Transformation means duplicating and improving the learning outcomes from previous classroom programs. The traditional classroom cannot be directly converted for virtual distribution. Instead, the classroom must be transformed for maximum learning effectiveness. Transformation takes the existing content and incorporates a blended approach that utilizes problem-based learning as its foundation. Problem-based learning produces highly effective training programs. Problem-based learning is one of the instructional design techniques underlying M-Pact Learning, which produces innovative, highly effective learning solutions.

Step one in the transformation process is to determine which parts of the current content can be transformed into digital, self-paced learning modules. This is normally foundational knowledge such as introduction to processes, overview of products, etc. But these self-paced modules can’t be traditional “page turners” in which learners read page after page and then take a quiz. Instead, it must include engaging, problem-based modules that result in application of skills and knowledge rather than simple memorization of facts.

Step two is to identify which content can be utilized for interactive virtual classroom. Again, this is not the lecture format utilized in most traditional classroom training. Rather than focusing on the facilitator, the interactive virtual classroom puts the impetus for learning on the learners. Using the problem-based approach, the learners are given exercises to complete, problems to solve, etc. Then, rather than lecturing, the facilitator can facilitate these activities and add his or her experiences, provide guidance, aid in the problem-solving process, etc. This M-Pact Learning approach results in higher levels of learning and is much more engaging for the participants.

The third step is to identify content that can be transformed into performance support tools. For example, under the current environment, many sales associates cannot conduct face-to-face sales presentations. So, the business can create tools (e.g., a tool that helps sales associates conduct sales presentations via phone, Skype, etc.) that support their performance from home. This blending of digital self-paced modules, interactive virtual classroom and performance support tools will allow former in-person classroom programs to be transformed into innovative, highly effective virtual learning solutions.

Virtual Learning – How to Transform Training for Maximum Effectiveness

Companies must utilize problem-based learning and the associated blended approach to transform their training for virtual distribution. But how should organizations incorporate problem-based learning? Is it as simple as teaching the facilitators to use virtual technologies and techniques? No, it’s about incorporating problem-based learning into the instructional design methodology.

It Isn’t about the Technology or Techniques

In a response to the virtualization movement, organizations are focusing on two components: virtual classroom technologies (WebEx, Skype, Zoom, etc.) and virtual facilitation techniques.

Companies are beginning to review their technology options for virtual classroom. What features and benefits do each provide? For example, some technologies allow for video, whiteboarding, document sharing and virtual collaboration rooms. Although it is beneficial to have a set of virtual tools, the technology is secondary to how the training is designed. It is the same with virtual facilitation techniques. The web is now full of “tips and tricks” for effective virtual facilitation. But these tips and tricks assume the facilitator is still utilizing a lecture format and showing slides. The foundation of effective learning is always instructional design.

Blending for Effective Transformation

M-Pact Learning is a methodology that results in application of knowledge and skills and an associated competitive advantage. So how do we utilize M-Pact Learning to ensure effective virtual training? Existing classroom materials need to be transformed into a blended learning approach utilizing problem-based learning as the foundation — a blend that is specifically designed to be conducted virtually. There are three main components related to this blend.

Self-paced digital modules: The first component is self-paced digital modules. Self-paced digital modules should be short (micro-mods) and contain foundational knowledge. As an example, associates selling medical devices need a number of foundational elements that include anatomy, physiology, disease state, introduction to the product(s), etc. Anatomy is especially tuned to self-paced learning; we, for instance, created an interactive eye model that allowed users to understand refractive disorders like nearsightedness. Learners are asked to diagnose various patients (problem-based learning). The entire micro-mod takes seven minutes to complete.

Virtual classroom: As mentioned previously, the impetus for learning must be transferred to the learners. Continuing the example of training sales associates, for a virtual classroom session, we would break the participants into groups (group A and group B), and have them prepare a presentation where they discuss one product against a competitor’s product. While group A is presenting, group B evaluates that presentation, using an evaluation tool that identifies the key characteristics of a good presentation, including evaluation criteria. Then the teams switch roles: group B presents and group A evaluates. Instead of lecturing, in this model, the facilitator can actually facilitate these exercises and provide additional insights.

Performance support tools: The final component of the blended virtual learning solution involves the creation of performance support tools. Performance support tools help learners apply their knowledge in the field and more rapidly gain expertise. Continuing the example for training sales associates, we would provide a tool that helps sales associates conduct virtual sales presentations. The tool could include a customer-profiling element that allows associates to ask specific questions based on the profile. The tool could also provide ways to overcome objections, etc. Learners can also be provided example problems and use the tools to solve for those problems.

The Future?

Knowing that the coronavirus crisis will eventually pass, some organizations believe the movement toward virtual training will be temporary. But, when done correctly using a transformation strategy, virtual learning can actually be more effective than in-classroom training. Organizations that want to thrive and prosper in the future will not only transform their current training for virtual distribution, but will continue this approach to ensure they can withstand any adverse global events.

Jim Guilkey, Ph.D., is the author of M-Pact Learning: The New Competitive Advantage — What All Executives Need To Know. He is president and co-founder of S4 NetQuest and a nationally recognized expert in instructional design and learning strategy, with extensive experience in leading the design, development and implementation of innovative, highly effective learning solutions. Under his leadership, S4 NetQuest has transformed the learning programs for corporations that include Johnson & Johnson, Chase Bank and Kaiser Permanente. Guilkey received a B.S. in aviation and an M.A. and Ph.D. in instructional design and technology from Ohio State.

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