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