UD hosts international PBL conference
to help shape future of education

Susan Groh makes a presentation at the conference in Baltimore.

The information revolution, which flows through the components of ever faster computers, is said to be as profound as the invention of the printing press or the Industrial Revolution. But, what will be the role of scholars and teachers when all human knowledge--including art, music and literature--is accessible from a miniaturized personal computer available as a neural implant?

At the University of Delaware's international conference on problem-based learning (PBL), held June 16-20 in Baltimore, more than 400 attending faculty heard that teachers of the future can continue to practice their traditional roles as guide, mentor and tutor, although a virtual reality may replace the instructor and college campus of today.

Attendees of the Baltimore conference learned from presenters, representing 95 institutions and 18 countries, about the newly popular instructional approach known as PBL, which challenges undergraduate students to think critically and integrate their knowledge. Along with the University's Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, cosponsors of the international conference were the Unidel Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts.

First practiced in the 1960s at Canada's McMaster University for medical education, PBL today is used by scientists, social scientists, business professionals, nurses, engineers, historians and even instructors in the fine arts and theatre.

In the PBL instructional method, a small group of students is presented a complex, real-world problem to solve. The process requires that they organize ideas and previous knowledge, define what they know and don't know, explore new information and reconvene to reconsider and refine the question. Ultimately, they produce a group product--a written report or an oral presentation--which launches a whole class discussion.

Since 1992, when interest in this learning method was sparked at UD, 250 members of the Delaware faculty have been trained in PBL and 3,000 undergraduate students each year are involved in PBL projects, Acting Provost Dan Rich told the conference participants.

"Many individuals are transformed by the act of creating and sharing knowledge through this method. It is today a key facet of UD undergraduate education," Rich said.

Among those presenting some 200 workshops at the conference were six UD faculty, including Deborah Allen, associate professor of biological sciences; Barbara Duch, associate director of the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center; Susan Groh, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Valerie Hans, professor of sociology and criminal justice; George Watson, Unidel Professor of Physics and Astronomy and an associate dean in the College of Arts and Science; and Hal White, professor of biochemistry and director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program.

Plenary speaker Clyde Freeman Herreid of the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, who is director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, chose to look ahead to 2061, a date when Hailey's Comet returns to earth and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hopes the U.S. will have a "complete scientifically literate population."

"Issac Asimov, biochemist, polymath and science fiction author, noted that a moon landing had been predicted for centuries so it was no great surprise when we did it," Herreid said. "What was most remarkable was that the whole world was watching it on television."

Today's classrooms would be recognizable to such scholars of the past as Plato and Socrates, Herreid said, because students copy down the words of the master as he lectures to them. Improved technology and computers have made some of a professor's work routine, allowing him or her to create web pages where students can see course policy, read the syllabus, take periodic quizzes or practice exams.

"This reduces some of the time and effort to run a class of 500 students, but have computers changed student performance on tests?" Herreid asked, adding that they have not.

Using computers, physiology students now can view a simulated dissection, geneticists can run simulated genetic crosses, and ecologists can plot computer models of rising sea levels, he said. "Amazing as all that is, Plato would be most impressed by distance learning," Herreid concluded, pointing out that 70,000 community college students in Texas learn via distance and UK's Open University has 160,000 students in 40 countries.

Computers today are 100 million times more powerful per unit cost than 50 years ago, he said, noting that MIT's Ray Kurzweil has remarked that if automotive technology had increased at this rate, "cars would cost 1/100th of a cent and go faster than the speed of light."

There's no end in sight for increasing the speed of computers, he said, as scientists experiment with components using photons rather than electrons, nanotubes or elongated molecules or plan computers with crystals for hologram storage. Quantum versus digital computing is the holy grail of speed, he said, comparing the difference to a hydrogen bomb versus a firecracker.

By 2010, Herreid said, the newest PCs will be wireless and vocal interaction will be routine. Computers will be embedded in everything we use, and papers and books will be fused with computer chips. Twenty years later, all human knowledge will be accessible by anyone's PC, and by 2061, the $1,000 PC will have the computing power of human brains, he said.

Virtual reality and simulated environments will allow individuals to walk into structures and study them from the inside out. "Virtual reality will train students in real life: novice surgeons can operate on a virtual patient, fledgling scientists can manipulate genes and students can become the individual who solves the problem, experiencing it themselves.

"One hundred years from now, we teachers will have the potential to be connected to everyone. We will become simulated teachers, and there will be a demise of the universities and libraries as we know them," Herreid said. "Faculty may wail and say it can't come to pass but, as in all life, they must adapt or die.

"Remember that only 35 years separate the discovery of DNA to the first patented animal."

P.K. Rangachari, professor of medicine and director of the honors biology-pharmacology coop program at McMaster University, also spoke of how problem-based learning can help students to process the information overload available on the Internet. "Teachers can return to their traditional role as guide, mentor and tutor, helping the students become active learners," he said. "Universities exist for the benefit of students and what benefits them most is autonomy. They can learn from authority or find out for themselves.

"The most human characteristic is not the ability to learn, but to teach and store what others have taught them," he said. "When cultures became more complex, tribes depended on education for culture transmission. All groups wanted to learn how to survive and how to pass on values or mores, traditions and law."

Quoting from Shakespeare's Henry V, Rangachari emphasized the nature of leadership, indicating the importance of administrative support in helping students and teachers fufill their obligations. Effective teaching, he said, includes not inflicting your opinions on the student and granting autonomy with careful limits--including narrowing the terms of debate by controlling questions or setting deadlines.