Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Scaffolding: A model for learner support in an online teaching environment

Catherine McLoughlin
Teaching and Learning Centre
University of New England
Linda Marshall
Kurongkurl Katitjin, School of Indigenous Australian Studies
Edith Cowan University
    In the design of online teaching environments, considerable attention has been paid to the nature of the interface and to the streamlining of activities for learners to engage with. Much less attention has been given however to the nature of the learner support system that is created for novice users learning online. Support systems are essential for learners to engage in the processes of learning and need to be developed in response to needs. It is also imperative that a range of support systems be put in place to enable learners to become competent in learning online, and to learn to interact in a virtual environment. Such skills are now recognised as part of the lifelong learning competencies or generic attributes that universities seek to develop in their graduates. In this paper we offer a theoretical and pragmatic rationale for the development of learning support for online learning, which comprises both resources that learners can access in order to achieve learning outcomes and procedural scaffolds that support the communication process. Examples of support mechanisms are drawn from two pre-tertiary bridging units offered to Indigenous external students studying online.
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When students are introduced to online learning, they are faced with a new learning environment and the expectation that they will have independent learning skills and the capacity to engage in activities that require self direction and self management of learning. While universities are now fostering lifelong learning skills and preparation for the workplace, the cultivation of these skills is now core business at tertiary institutions across Australia. The learning opportunities of Web based instruction are enormous. Students can select and employ resources, employ strategies and assess their overall progress. Yet, how do students respond to such environments? Are they capable of maximising the learning potential of the Web, developing metacognitve awareness, identifying learning needs and revising plans and actions?

In our experience, we have found that learners first need 'learning how to learn' skills to be effective online learners, and that these skills need to be explicitly supported and taught.

Learning to learn online: Deconstructing the notion

Effective learning online requires a number of skills and cognitive abilities that are not merely intuitive, nor can they be assumed in novice university students or those unfamiliar with learning online. These skills are drawn from an extensive range of literature on learning, psychology and educational theory (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Grabinger & Dunlap, 1994; Vygotsky, 1978; Shuell, 1992; Vermunt & Verloop, 1999).
  1. Articulation: being an aware learner; being aware of one's own thinking and how one comes to conclusions

  2. Self regulation: Being able to plan one's own study and adjust one's strategies in order to achieve a goal or complete a task.

  3. A repertoire of learning strategies: Being able to plan and implement a flexible range of learning strategies (note making, analytical reading, critical processing and metaskills strategies such as attention to task, concentration and self motivation).

  4. Self assessment/self evaluation: Being able to anticipate problems and areas in need of improvement, have the capacity to seek help when needed.
To illustrate each of these component skills that are essential for study in an online environment, we provide examples of each showing strong and weak dimensions in student performance.

Table 1: Strong and weak demonstrations of learning to learn

Skill Strong demonstrationWeak demonstration
Articulation Able to articulate misconceptions and reflect/identify areas in need of remediationDoes not think about the learning process, but simply follows instructions
Self regulation Capacity to plan and study independently and formulate goals; adjusts time to meet task demandsLacks skill in planning and goal setting
A repertoire of learning strategies Chooses and uses appropriate learning strategies, notetaking, self testing and revision/application of ideasIs unaware of the range of possible strategies that can be used; expects to understand by simply reading the material
Self evaluation skills Self tests and monitors own understanding; searches for ways to improve and revise understandingFinds evaluation stressful; cannot self monitor understanding effectively or plan for assessment

Scaffolding: A conceptual framework for learner support online

Assuming that novice users of the WWW do not have the component skills needed to execute tasks and access learning resources independently, how do we support learners to develop these essential skills? We suggest that enabling contexts that provide advice, support and guidance to learners are needed. Support provided to learners also needs theoretical grounding in contemporary learning theory so that there is a rationale applied to the design of such support.

Educational research in online environments has turned to socio-cultural theory to evaluate and understand technology supported learning environments (Vygotsky, 1978; McLoughlin, 1998; McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998). The theoretical perspective is that learning involves social interaction and dialogue, negotiation and collaboration and that 'scaffolded' or assisted learning can increase cognitive growth and understanding. What is scaffolding? Scaffolding is a form of assistance provided to a learner by a more capable teacher or peer that helps the learners perform a task that would normally not be possible to accomplish by working independently.

Integrated into pedagogical practice, scaffolding is intended to motivate the learner, reduce task complexity, provide structure and reduce learner frustration. Scaffolding can be provided both electronically and by an online tutor. Electronic scaffolding might be a progressive self test, hints about solving a problem or completing a task, examples of completed work or guided tasks that lead the learner towards more complex, extended, independent performance. The most important point about scaffolding is that it engages the learner actively at his/her current level of understanding until the point where the support is no longer required. In the present context, Indigenous students completing a bridging unit online, we combine electronic scaffolding with tutor scaffolding as this best meets learner needs.

Design principles to support component skills of learning to learn

Each of the learning skills in Table 1 was supported by designing tasks, monitoring learners and providing appropriate forms of assisted learning and reducing task complexity.

Support articulation and goal setting

Guiding students towards learning to learn online requires understanding of social and motivational processes underlying learning. Both Learning Pathways and Introduction to Computing Applications have a number of design features that enable students to express their ideas and to formulate realistic goals.

Foster self regulation through task design

In designing environments for Indigenous learners entering university, tasks must be planned for engagement, relevance and constructive learning. A major goal of constructivism is to emphasise the unique interests, styles and motivations and capabilities of individuals so that the learning environment can be tailored to them. Jonassen et al (1993) state that learners should be: In the Indigenous online units, tasks are designed for independent study and extension tasks were provided for those students wishing to extend their skills. Many of the tasks require students to draw on experiential, cultural knowledge that validates their particular viewpoints yet allows practice of essential literacy skills (McLoughlin, 1999a).

Support learner development of independent study strategies

Pretertiary students need to develop independent study habits and to develop self responsibility. This is achieved by providing learners with an introduction to learning online, examples of study timetables and guidance in creating their own plan and study goals. In our experience, motivating students to create this plan presented no major obstacles, although it became apparent the notion of planning time and tasks was a new experience for many. Students are encouraged to set short term or weekly goals, which could be reviewed and revised using an online timetable template, created for this purpose.

Create an environment which enables reflection and self monitoring

An online design for Indigenous learners can support community processes and communication and thereby support learning. For example, Lave & Wenger (1991) propose that social practice is the primary generative phenomenon, and that learning within a social environment provides the supports that community members need. The processes of learning are achieved through "increased access of learners to participating roles in expert performance (Lave & Wenger, 1991: 17). In this framework, learning is fostered through active participation and conversation, not merely by observation. Students make use of an online journal where they record their progress, make note of difficulties and keep track of the strategies they use in dealing with tasks. Metacognition is fostered by encouraging self questioning and by prompting students to comment on the efficacy of their study strategies (Boekaerts, 1997).

Scaffolding learning to learn processes through design features

Provide peer support and communication for learners

A key part of the student experience in an online community is to learn to communicate and participate. Opportunities for interaction are created throughout the online module by allowing scope for students to work in groups, comment on each other's work and offer suggestions, advice and feedback to each other. The tutors can engage with students in dialogue though the message forums, and can provide help when needed. Also, more able learners can share their skills with others through bulletin boards.

Provide for learner control and autonomy

Students need to feel empowered by the technology, not overwhelmed by it. Tools for empowerment in the online environments are the navigation tools, the content provided and the form of learning activities and assessment. The navigation tools allow for exploration and multiple paths through the website, but also provide sufficient structure to those learners who need support. The design is therefore a delicate balance between support and autonomy.

Provide prompt relevant feedback

In order for learners to develop new skills they need to be supported and challenged by regular, prompt and constructive feedback. In an online environment for Indigenous learners this is provided through email, bulletin boards and other forms of text based messaging systems. Students can ask for individual help and tutors are available both online and via telephone to offer individualised support and guidance. Regular quizzes and self tests allow students to check their own progress and predict where they are experiencing difficulties.

Implement a multisensory approach to learning

In order to support comprehension, the same information is presented in multiple domains simultaneously. In an online environment for Indigenous learners, this is achieved by use of visualisation tools such as graphics, illustrations and pictures which make possible the association of new concepts with familiar phenomena. In addition, various learning styles are catered for by incorporating multiple modes of presentation of information (verbal, pictorial and diagrammatic) to ensure that learners interact effectively with content. The use of organisers and overviews of the content enable students to think wholistically and supports visually oriented learning (McLoughlin, 1999b).

Clarify roles and expectation for learners

Learning online for the first time can be a bewildering experience for novices. It is important to begin with an orientation to the skills and communication protocols required and to allow students to get to know each other. Sharing expectations about the course by posting them to an online journal or work space which is shared helps students to articulate their views. The first task in Learning Pathways asks students to introduce themselves and talk about their interests and backgrounds. This eases the isolation of distance learners and brings the group together.

Support technological literacy through hyperlinked resources

In a flexible open learning environments students need to develop the skills of searching, browsing and viewing hyperlinked resources. The study guide for Pathways to Learning are placed on the website and materials are organised into modules and topics with hyperlinks that allow students to relate and connect different skills and course components. Additional resources are provided for extension work and students also have the capacity to create their own links to relevant Indigenous resources.

Conclusion: Scaffolding as an essential design feature in online environments

The online environments described here are based on tertiary bridging courses for Indigenous learners. The design features of the environment are based on social constructivist pedagogies and address the learning needs of the students. Assisting students to plan and manage their time are still major concerns, and for the online tutors these aspects of the course require instructor monitoring and observation. Stimulating and motivating students to take responsibility for their own learning remains the biggest challenge. The design, development and implementation of networked learning environments need to be grounded in learning theory which recognises the central role of scaffolding learning processes that enable students to learn how to learn online. The research is still inconclusive about the forms of mentoring or support that are most effective in networked learning environments, but our research indicates that scaffolding self regulatory and communicative support will remain a priority for bridging course students.


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Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. and Marshall, L. (2000). Scaffolding: A model for learner support in an online teaching environment. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/mcloughlin2.html

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