Scaffolding In Education

This essay has a total of 4403 words and 25 pages.

scaffolding in education


The World Wide Web is being seen more and more as an effective and above all inexpensive means of delivering courses in the tertiary education sector. It is important however that financial imperatives to not take precedence over educational goals. In the search for an effective approach to Web learning, an re-examination of learning theory is required. This paper examines the three broad philosophies of Behaviourism, Cognitive Theory, and Constructivism and reviews their potential for delivering tertiary education via the Web. Problems with the Web are identified, such as the abstract textual nature of current Web technology, and the poor interactivity resulting from limited bandwidth.

One theory, Social Constructivism, views learning as a process of enculturation brought about through social interaction. This paper proposes a pragmatic approach to the implementation of Social Constructivist approaches. As the Web develops, and environments rich in media and possessing a high level of interactivity become possible, the need for Social Constructivist strategies may be reduced. In the mean time, the potential of the Web as a communications medium rather than a mere content provider must not be ignored.

Education and the Web

The growth of the Internet and the Word Wide Web, in particular, are attracting the attention of tertiary educational institutions worldwide. This is manifest in the increasing number of distance education courses being offered in this medium (University of Texas, 1997; Pagram & McMahon, 1997). It is significantly less expensive to produce materials electronically than in printed form, and the material may easily be kept up to date (Eklund, Garrett, Ryan, & Harvey, 1996). These reasons, combined with the cost savings of a 'virtual campus' in real estate and contact time for the university, are leading to the Web being seen as an effective alternative to traditional face to face modes of education. It has been argued that students do not like to learn at a distance (Simonsen, 1995), but the convenience and flexibility of an external mode of delivery for those with busy life styles is making distance education an attractive proposition for students (Truman, 1995).

Caution is required to ensure that these financial imperatives do not dominate the push for Web based learning. The proliferation of research which finds "no significant effect" for technology still raises concerns (Russell, 1997). The Web and the Internet itself is, after all, another in a long procession of technologies which offer much but whose promise not always fulfilled; and the rabid enthusiasm of many Internet proponents is tempered by the jaded cynicism of others. For every Nicholas Negroponte espousing the Internet as "humankind's best chance to respect and nurture the most obscure languages and cultures of the world" (Negroponte, 1996) there is a Clifford Stoll, presenting the Net as a chimera of unfulfilled promise, which actually works against literacy and creativity rather than promoting them (Stoll, 1995).

There is little doubt that the Web is a significantly different medium to CD-ROM based Interactive Multimedia (IMM). While some argue that the Web is becoming a strong multimedia platform (Shotsberger, 1996), slow response times often make such environments impractical. In essence, the Web remains true to its initial objective of being a means of linking documents across a diverse network (Berners-Lee, 1989), and this raises concerns over the level of interactivity and engagement that can be supported. While there is no doubt that the potential of the Web as a global resource of information can have a strong potential for learning, it is worth being mindful of the fact that the Web does not ensure learning any more than a library on a university campus does (Reeves, 1996). Any approach to Web based learning must be guided by assumptions of what is to be learned and how learning itself comes about.

A Theoretical Approach

I have argued elsewhere for the need to find Web learning solutions that are explicitly grounded in theory, since learning strategies are informed by specific epistemological assumptions (Ring & McMahon, 1997). At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, much learning can be defined within the parameters of one or other of the three broad theoretical approaches of Behaviourism, Cognitive Theory, and Constructivism.


Behaviourism argues that learning takes place through a mechanism of stimulus and response - a convenient approach since both the stimulus and response are manifest and therefore measurable, and offer an empirical legitimacy to the 'soft' science of education. The operant conditioning of Skinner (1974), with its focus on unpleasant and pleasant consequences (reinforcement) as a means of shaping behaviour is perhaps the best known educational application of behaviourism, and has lead to the development of tangible guidelines for learning strategies such as a focus on incremental learning (Slavin, 1991) and the need for consequences to be intermittent and timely (Slavin, 1991; Langford, 1989).

These tenets have been rapidly adopted into models for instructional design and can easily be adapted to the Web. Skinner himself advocated the use of teaching machines to provide modularised learning based upon concrete behavioural objectives (Kratochwill & Bijou, 1987). Behaviourism does appear to be limited, however, in the types of learning it supports:

The origin of the decline in adherence to behaviourism was not that classical conditioning, operant conditioning and imitation do not exist but that behaviourists made the mistake of thinking that these three learning processes could explain all learning. (Langford, 1989, p. 4)

Since it relies almost exclusively on observable behaviour and does not account for individual thought processes, the roll of behaviourism in learning is necessarily limited to the types of learning which can be easily observed such as factual recall, rather than less clearly defined learning which involves internal conceptual change within the learner.

Cognitive Theory

In A Study of Thinking, Bruner (1956) provided a strong argument for why behaviourist theories have fallen from grace in favour of those that acknowledge the role of the individual in mediating learning, claiming:

It has resulted from a recognition of the complex processes that mediate between the classical 'stimuli' and 'responses' out of which stimulus-response learning theories hoped to fashion a psychology that would by-pass anything smacking of the 'mental.' This impeccable peripheralism could not last for long. (p. vii)

More recent developments in understanding of how the brain processes information have become influential to the extent that techniques of encoding and retrieval from memory have become integral to most models of Instructional Design. Gagné's Events of Instruction (Gagné, Briggs & Wager, 1998), for example, has a strong focus oon cognitive aspects such as stimulating recall of prior learning and enhancing learner retention, as well as behaviourist sequences of presenting stimuli and eliciting performance.

Such approaches can be easily supported by the Web. The implementation of Common Gateway Interface Forms as well as Shockwave (Macromedia) and Java (Sun Microsystems) applications as well as commercial applications available such as Web Test (University of Waterloo, 1996) greatly assist with the development of tutorials and assessment within such a paradigm However, while the Web in its current form is a good delivery medium for finite knowledge and can incorporate strategies to aid encoding and retention, the goals of cognitive learning are often broader, and incorporate skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. It is when these educational outcomes are confronted that the Web becomes severely challenged.


Constructivism goes beyond the study of how the brain stores and retrieves information to examine the ways in which learners make meaning from experience. Rather than the transmission of knowledge, learning is an internal process of interpretation:

Learners do not transfer knowledge from the external world into their memories; rather, they create interpretations of the world based upon their past experiences and their interactions in the world. How someone construes the world, their existing metaphors, is at least as powerful a factor influencing what is learned as any characteristic of that world (Cunningham, 1992, p. 36)

While Constructivism does not necessarily deny the existence of an objective reality, it does deny the existence of an objective knowledge since "there are many ways to structure the world, and there are many meanings or perspectives for any event or concept." Thus, "there is not a correct meaning that we are striving for" (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). It is this rejection of absolutism that characterises constructivist approaches to learning, and it is a radical ontological departure from the previous theories discussed.

Most cognitive theory, and the constructivist approaches that have grown out of it, argue that learning should be durable, transferable and self-regulated (Di Vesta and Rieber, 1987 cited by Hannafin & Rieber, 1989). Mechanisms need to be in place to promote the deeper internal processing required for such learning to occur. The high level of interaction required for such processing, however, clearly demands more of the Web than merely being a delivery vehicle for information. While some view the Web itself as a cognitive tool for investigating and representing knowledge (Reeves & Reeves, 1997) and as a semantic knowledge space which will mirror learners' own developing cognitive structures (Lambert & Walker, 1996), attempts to create specific Web sites which are constructivist in nature are rare. While high fidelity simulations and microworlds are now common place with CD-ROM based Multimedia, bandwidth issues conspire with the primitive nature of HTML to create pages that are usually flat and lacking in the interactivity required within a constructivist approach.

Social Constructivism

Beyond Cognition

In many respects the Web is an ideal forum for constructivist learning, and despite its limitations, HTML does offer some interesting opportunities. Hypertext links work by association rather than indexing and it could be argued that this "free association" can be disorientating. Yet, the counter argument that it operates much like the way humans think (Gygi, 1990) suggests intriguing possibilities for the meaningful linking of data required for the information processing within a cognitive framework.

Cognitive Constructivism, as derived from the work of Piaget (1977) defines learning as a process of accommodation, assimilation, and equilibration (Piaget, 1977). This is a "dialectic process in which the subject resolves perturbations in the coherence of his or her structuring activities by coordinating and constructing new, more adequate cognitive structures" (Saxe, 1991). One complementary approach, Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro, 1995), may be particularly informative. This theory argues for multiple representations of content where knowledge is highly interconnected and complex (unsimplified) (Archee & Duin, 1995). The potential of the Web to present a variety of information sources may help to stimulate the cognitive conflict required within a Piagetian approach. This theory, though, also calls for cased based authentic learning, and does not provide specific strategies for how engagement with the disparate complex information that the Web offers can be ensured.

It is here that Social Constructivism may offer some hope. Pioneered by theorists such as Vygotsky (1978), this paradigm argues for the importance of culture and context in forming understanding. Learning is not a purely internal process, nor is it a passive shaping of behaviours. Vygotsky favoured a concept of learning as a social construct which is mediated by language via social discourse.

Social Constructivism and Contextual Learning

While Piaget did account for the social transmission of knowledge (Langford, 1989), "the interplay between social life and cognitive development processes was not a core concern", his focus instead being on "the formal properties of action without regard for the situatedness of actions in a sociohistorically articulated web of meanings" (Saxe, 1991, p. 6). Traditional behaviourist/instructivist approaches strive for context independence, whereas a Social Constructivist paradigm views the context in which the learning occurs as central to the learning itself.

Underlying the notion of the learner as an active processor is "the assumption that there is no one set of generalized learning laws with each law applying to all domains" (Di Vesta, 1987, p. 208). Decontextualised knowledge does not give us the skills to apply our understandings to authentic tasks because "we are not working with the concept in the complex environment, experiencing (exploring, evaluating) the complex interrelationships in that environment that determine how and when the concept is used" (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). One Social Constructivist notion is that of authentic or "situated learning", where the student takes part in activities which are directly relevant to the application of learning and which take place within a culture similar to the applied setting (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Cognitive Apprenticeship has been proposed as an effective constructivist model of learning which attempts to "enculturate students into authentic practices through activity and social interaction in a way similar to that evident -- and evidently successful -- in craft apprenticeship" (Ackerman, 1996, p. 25).

Reeves claims that "most existing examples of WBI [Web Based Instruction] employ academic tasks, but WBI can be designed to focus on authentic tasks relevant to learners" (Reeves & Reeves, 1997). Yet this assertion is yet to be demonstrated with research and existing examples on the Web. Some sites, such as Virginia University's Interactive Frog Dissection (Kinzie, 1994), use video to provide realistic representations of content, but interactivity is limited to "hotspots" which judge responses and dictate navigation through the tutorial. Also, video is slow to download and does not account for authentic activity rather than merely authentic representation.

In highly concrete knowledge domains this is a very real problem. A trade such as Plumbing, for example, requires skills which involve enactment on a physical environment. The difficulty the Web has

Read essay without registering

Donate an essay now and get the full essay emailed you

Acceptable files: .txt, .doc, .docx, .rtf

Email Address