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Collaboration amongst strangers is a tricky one. I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it fail.
Fig. 1. Performing in an amateur production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. The ultimate collaborative exercise?
1) It requires scaffolding in the form of rules, or guidelines, mentor or leaders, and incentives in the form of punishments and rewards i.e. the risk of failure as well as recognition and some kind of reward (which might be a qualification, a monetary award, or part of a completed artefact, or pleasure of participation).
2) It requires people with an obsessive common interest; I don’t believe having a common interest is enough. There needs to be an obsession, which means that the level of expertise can be mixed, indeed, thinking of the John Seely Brown concept of ‘learning from the periphery’ this might be best as invariably the natural human response IS to support those on the edge. The classic example is the young and eager student or junior employee keen to learn from his or her elders.
My concern with the role of collaboration in a module on e-learning is that the above don’t fully apply. We are not GCSE or A’Level students. Most are MA ODE students who need this towards their MA, but I’ll stick my head out and say the pass mark is, in my opinion, too low. I believe that it matters to be paying for it out of your own pocket or to have a commercial sponsor expecting results. I know that some working for the OU do these modules almost on a whim because they are free and they do the minimum to pass – I’ve seen this on various courses, seen it myself and have had it corroborated by other students. Anyone who is along for the ride in a module that relies on collaboration is a weak link – of course plenty of OU people do take seriously, but some don’t and no line manager is looking over their shoulder. At Carnegie Melon they ran an MA course where students gave each other, on a rolling basis, a mark for collaboration – those with the lowest mark risked failing that module. In fairness some people are not born collaborators, whereas others go out of their way to be a participant, potentially at the expensive of other parts of their studies.
To my tutor group I’ve posted too long a piece on a collaborative exercise I have been doing on and off for the best part of twenty years – I’m researching and writing my grandfather’s memoir from the First World War. The Internet has exposed me (in a good way) to several sleuths.
I can however give an example of the learning design MOOC earlier this year that whilst having a good deal of scaffolding and human support relied on strangers each coming up with project ideas then joining forces to complete one. In a rush of activity, with some big name e-learning folk and too much formal theorizing, reading and activities to groups formed. I had no takers and joined a group of three that became five, but very quickly this became two of us … we gamefully pressed on but at some stage felt we were missing out on the real action so eventually pulled out as active participants.
Then there is a two week exercise in a subgroup of an MA ODE module where circumstances brought a magic bunch of strangers together – this has proved to be the exception rather than the rule.
Amateur dramatics, even volunteer cricket, to take a couple of examples, work because the show is the collective reward. We have bonfire societies here in Lewes that rely on volunteers too – though the complaint will be that it is always the same handful of people who do everything. In a work or academic setting should everyone be rewarded and recognised in the same way? It depends very much on a group dynamic or bond, a common sentiment that comes from working together in the flesh.
I believe that the First World War, now that I am an active member of a society and studying it on a formal course, is largely of the type 2 participant. We are ‘trainsporters’ in that nerdy, glazed eye way – with specialists who know everything about uniforms, or tunnelling, or submarines, or dental decay on the Western Front, or a particular general, or like me – a grandfather, or great-grandfather who was a combatant.
My worry about e-learning as a collaborative arena is that it is the process, so we are a cookery or gardening club. However, there is significant variation in each of these – vegetarian cooks, cupcake bake off specialists and Heston Blumenthal wannabes – amongst the gardens there are PhD research students growing dwarf barley and weekenders who’ve keep an allotment. Whilst we have interest and the module to sustain us, only in a conort of 1000 or more would for some, there be enough likeminds to form a team.
I’m off to the School of Communication Arts in London. It operates from a workshop like open studio. Students are put into pairs to work. There is collaboration here between an art director (visualizer) and copywriter (words). Whether students are forever looking each other’s shoulders when they are working on a competitive brief is another matter. I’ve noticed how one creative brief given to the whole studio has now become three. What is more, the ‘collaboration’ as such, comes from a couple of full time tutors, principal and then a ‘mentors’ who go in as a sounding board cum catalyst cum different voice or perspective. What these people are doing is ‘creative problem solving’.
Why, historically, does one band stay together while another falls apart? Collaboration is a tricky business – and maybe only in a business setting between employer and employee, or between contractor and client can it be sustained?
B822 Block 1 Book 1 Chapter 2
Having come through three modules of the MAODE I am used to a set of rail-tracks, or perhaps a ladder, that includes every activity, each presented with the opportunity to offer your responses in a forum, whether this is required or not. I have become used to this as an incentive to get activities done, share my thinking, see the thinking of others and move on. B822 is different in a number of respects:
1) there is a book or a PDF file of the book. I can see from week 1 to the end of this block. It isn’t presented or offered in a way to expect let alone facilitate snaring.
2) there is a fraction of the theory or scale or scope of reading (thus far). There isn’t so much to have a difference of opinion about or to share with others what you have read that others may have chosen strategically to skip.
3) almost every question is applied to you considering your current organisation. Not what you think, but the practicalities of analysing the systems and people around you. This is NOT conducive to sharing, neither exposing your employer or business to open scrutiny or expressing an opinion that might reveal its underbelly.
Although for my benefit I am picking through the reading and completing each activity in relation to that organisation where I work, none of this will be offered up beyond my tutor group. I wonder therefore if I should look into my past at other organisations where I have worked, particularly in TV production where as a Producer I often therefore had a leadership/management role.
As interesting to me is the learning design, after all my goal is an MAODE not an MBA. And the role, the motivation to post to a peer group in a tutor group, to reveal our respective approaches to the task in hand.
How to improve retention – scaffolding, mentors, interaction and community
Fig.1. For online learning to work you need scaffolding – Drawing by Simon Fieldhouse
Levels of interaction and support
- Drop out rates from 20-50% for online courses … more than for traditional courses.
A full breakdown of the figures, how prepared, representing which institutions and student groups would be helpful. Anyone can use a statistic if they don’t identify its source.
Really this bad?
But if they’ve paid their fees the college has its cash and can free up resources. Do the bean counters recognise the contribution those quitting to make a course viable, let alone profitable? Educational Institutions should go to extraordinary lengths to attract and retain the right people to courses and to keep them on board and fully engaged.
A major issue is the degree of academic integration.
- Academic self-esteem
- Identity as a student
Against sticking with a course are :
- instructional ineffectiveness
- failing academic achievement
- negative attitudes
- overall dissatisfaction with the learning experience
Self-directed skill set:
- the ability to work alone
- time management
- learning independence
- a plan for completing
Especially Self-directed learning skills … that are developed in a social context through a variety of human-oriented interactions with peers and colleagues, teams, informal social networks, and communities of practice.
‘These challenges to the retention of distance learners, interestingly enough, have something in common, they seem to hinge on learners’ need for significant support in the distance learning environment through interaction with others (e.g. peers, instructors, and learner support services personnel).’ Tait (2000)
The central functions of learner support services for students in distance education settings are:
Scaffolding – ZPD (Vygotsky, 1934) Scaffolding involves providing learners with more structure during the early stages of a learning activity and gradually turning responsibility over to learners as they internalize and master the skills needed to engage in higher cognitive functioning. (Palinscar, 1986; Rosenshine and Meister, 1992).
Scaffolding has a number of important characteristics to consider when determining the types of learner support services distance students may need:
Academic course ‘scaffolding’:
- Provides structure
- Functions as a tool
- Extends the range of the learner
- Allows the learner to accomplish a task that would otherwise not be possible
- Helps to ensure the learner’s success
- Motivates the learner
- Reduces learner frustration
- Is used, when needed, to help the learner, and can be removed when the learner can take on more responsibility.
(Greenfield, 1984; McLoughlin and Mitchell, 2000; Wood et al., 1976)
‘Scaffolding is an inherently social process in which the interaction takes places in a collaborative context.’
In relation to learning with the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA)
- Are people coming onto the Level II course who are not yet suitable? Do they submit a learning orientation questionnaire?
- Is the candidate’s club or pool operator giving them ample assistant teaching opportunities and support?
Mentors utilise the items gathered during the admissions process – data from the intake interview, self-assessment, diagnostic pre-assessment, and Learning Orientation Questionnaire – to develop to Academic Action Plan, that provides a roadmap for the learner’s academic progress including information about learning resources and assessment dates.’ At WGU.
Learning is a function of the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs – i.e., it is situated (Wenger, 1998).
Successful completion of and satisfaction with an academic experience is directly related to students’ sense of belonging and connection to the program and courses (Tinto, 1975).
Social learning experiences, such as peer teaching, group projects, debates, discussion, and other activities that promote knowledge construction in a social context, allow learners to observe and subsequently emulate other students’ models of successful learning.’
‘A learning community can be defined as a group of people, connected via technology mediated communications, who actively engage one another in collaborative learner-centred activities to intentionally foster the creation of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices, including diversity, mutual appropriation, and progressive discourse.’
N.B. ‘Creating a positive psychological climate built upon trusting human relationships.’
Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaserm, 453-494.
Duguid, Paul (2005). “The Art of Knowing: Social and Tacit Dimensions of Knowledge and the Limits of the Community of Practice”. The Information Society (Taylor & Francis Inc.): 109–118.
Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap. (2003) Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for success in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 4, 10, 1 (2003)
Palincsar, A.S. (1986). Reciprocal teaching. In Teaching reading as thinking. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
Rosenshine, B. & Meister, C. (1992) The use of scaffolds for teaching higher-level cognitive strategies. Educational leadership, 49(7), 26-33.
Seely Brown, John; Duguid, Paul (1991). “Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation”. Organization Science 2 (1).JSTOR 2634938.
Tait, J (2004) The tutor/facilitator role in retention. Open Learning, Volume 19, Number 1, February 2004 , pp. 97-109(13)
Tinto, V (1975) Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research. Review of Educational Research Vol.45, No1, pp.89-125.
Vygotsky. L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of the higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press Vygotsky, L. S. (1998a). Infancy (M. Hall, Trans.). In R. W. Rieber (Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Child psychology (pp. 207-241). New York: Plenum Press. (Original work written 1933-1934)
Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2.