A multi-million dollar centre out to revolutionise tertiary teaching methods has offered funding for two university departments to explore its ideas. The Hong Kong Centre for Problem-Based Learning, launched last August, wants to see teaching in higher education move towards students actively solving tasks and questions. In problem-based learning (PBL), teachers create practical problems and discuss solutions with students who are split into small groups, instead of focusing on lectures. 'It turns the traditional teaching method completely on its head,' said centre director Professor David Johnston. 'Limited research has been done on its effectiveness but there is consistent evidence showing that under it, students are far more motivated to learn, and what is learned is remembered for a long period of time,' he said. Professor Johnston helped implement PBL at the Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore before coming to the Hong Kong last year. His centre, housed on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus, was launched with $6 million from the University Grants Committee, and will next month sponsor staff from two local university programmes, planning to implement PBL, on one of its training courses. The centre will announce the chosen departments shortly. In recent months, Professor Johnston has given talks on PBL at universities, and offers monthly lunchtime seminars for those wishing to find out more. PBL was first introduced in the medical faculty at Canada's McMaster University, in the late 1960s. It has since been adopted by most medical schools in Canada and by Harvard University, among others. The medical faculty at HKU adopted a hybrid model in 1997, as advocated by family medicine professor Tony Dixon, who taught at McMaster University when PBL was launched there. The method fits in with the curriculum reforms planned for the secondary and primary sectors, Professor Johnston said. 'It equips students with workplace skills, such as communication and leadership skills.' But Professor Dixon said that if university resources continued to shrink and student numbers increased, PBL would be harder to implement. The Faculty of Dentistry and the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department at HKU are among the few local programmes so far running a PBL-oriented curriculum. First-year speech and hearing sciences students go to only one conventional lecture per term. In the past, they would have had more than 10 hours of lectures per week. Professor Paul Fletcher, head of the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department, said: 'Many people thought Hong Kong students would not like the new approach, but they adapted to it very well. We have found the change very successful. One difficulty, though, is that staff have to spend a lot of time constructing problems,' he said. The Departments of Rehabilitation Sciences and Nursing Studies at Polytechnic University started to use PBL in 1998, while HKU's Department of Social Work and Social Administration incorporated it into its curriculum in 1999. An associate professor in the HKU department, Ernest Chui Wing-tak, said his working hours had increased under the new method, but he preferred it to traditional modes. 'There is the bonus of seeing students become more active learners. There are much stronger dynamics in class now as students come up with all sorts of questions that challenge us.' A number of departments in other universities have expressed interest, said Professor Johnston. Both he and Professor Dixon believe PBL can be applied to a wide range of disciplines, including the humanities. 'It is a natural way of learning and bridges the gap between theory and practice. PBL creates a whole new culture for faculties. Teachers from various departments must collaborate to create problems and there will be a cross-fertilisation of ideas,' said Professor Johnston.