Scaffolding

Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain
Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain

What does scaffolding mean (in education)? This is the question I was asked recently during a meeting with a group of colleagues. I think this is a term that many of us have been using and taking for granted. Some entering careers in instructional design may not completely understand what the word means. I am finding that many of the folks I have been working with recently have not had the opportunity to teach a course of their own. Many instructional designers are working with faculty and subject matter experts that teach and have been for many years. So, when this question came up…we hit the brakes and had a conversation about scaffolding and shared some examples.

In the field of education, the term scaffolding refers to a process in which teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. Psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner first used the term scaffolding in this context back in the 1960s. The theory is that when students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Bruner recommends positive interaction and three modes of representation during teaching: actions, images, and language.

When leading in-person courses faculty may do a lot of modeling without even knowing that they are doing just that. For example, when faculty show how to solve a mathematical equation, they explain their thought process along the way. When faculty share examples, they are showing how to connect concepts for a deeper understanding. And, when faculty ask critical questions, they are modeling how those in that discipline make sense of theories and approaches to challenges.

Faculty have the opportunity to explain things, step-by-systematic-step, to help students learn and perform successfully on exams, projects, papers, and other assignments.

This kind of modeling and scaffolding doesn’t take place quite as naturally in online courses, where real-time interactions are limited.

To help students achieve success, faculty must be creative. Faculty should scrutinize their assessments, both large and small. Have the students had the opportunity to build step-by-step, as they would have in an in-person course? Do they have the knowledge and skills they will need to do well on the assessments?

Here are some examples of how faculty can scaffold activities in an online course. When possible, the faculty should make these an opportunity to give incremental feedback so students know whether or not they are on the right track:

  • Many faculty want students to record a video presentation of their research topics. It’s hard enough to give a good presentation without the video-recording element. Faculty can help their online students gain experience with the technology before they have to use it on a high-stakes project. For example, in the first module of the course, faculty can give the students a low-stakes, low-stress assignment: Ask students to record and post a two-minute video introducing themselves to the class.
  • As part of an orientation module, faculty can ask students to send a message using the LMS messaging/email system so they know how to do this later in the class if they have a question or are in need of support. Students can answer a question about the syllabus or list two goals for their learning in the course. Faculty should reply with a short personal greeting so students know the message was received and support is available.
  • During the first module/week of a course, ask the students to upload a PDF of their handwritten work related to solving some type of problem. This exercise will help them learn how to create, locate and submit a PDF file as an assignment in the LMS. It’s a good way to correct any missteps early on.
  • Another idea to consider is that of asking the students to create a concept map of what they already know about the topic of the course, during that first module/week. As the course moves along, ask students to submit a concept map to help them make sense of topics presented in each module/week.

Faculty should look for ways to break down complex tasks so that students can make progress in a timely manner and receive feedback on their work while there is still time to adjust their approach if needed.

-RG

Provide Directions & Explain Your Expectations

Directions – CC0 Public Domain
Directions – CC0 Public Domain

Faculty that stand in front of their students in a traditional classroom setting and assign work don’t simply hand out written directions without saying another word about the expectations. Faculty also do not simply display assignment directions on a PowerPoint slide without explaining what the expectations are or what students can do to be successful.

Unfortunately, this is often what happens in online courses. Directions often come in the form of written text. While faculty may feel that the writing is clear, but the nuanced detail that is usually provided in a traditional classroom is missing.

Faculty must remember that online students work in isolation. They don’t have the built-in opportunity to ask for, or receive clarification, while in-the-moment of first receiving assignment or project directions. This is why it is crucial for faculty to clearly explain what the expectations are in an online course.

Caution should be used to carefully create directions that don’t become overly detailed or provide pages and pages of directions that may be completely ignored by the students. Try to find that balance..the right mix. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • If available, consider providing an example of student work that received high scores, an example that received an average score and an example that received a low score. A brief explanation of why each example received the score that it did will help students better understand the expectations.
  • Provide a rubric. In most cases, a simple rubric that outlines the EXCEEDS, MEETS and NEEDS IMPROVEMENT levels of achievement will help students achieve success.
  • Create a brief assignment overview video to go over the details that could be problematic for students. Generally, a 1 or 2 minute informal video will help students as they begin the work.
  • Create the directions in the form of a conversation that might take place with a student. Use bullet lists as opposed to long paragraphs that might be found in a text book.

So students don’t have to guess what the expectations are…provide meaningful support in a short and concise manner.

-RG

Visually Appealling

Colorful Eye – CC0 Public Domain
Colorful Eye – CC0 Public Domain

It may come as no surprise that students in a traditional classroom setting report being more engaged in their courses when their surroundings are more appealing. Students would prefer to learn in bright modern-looking spaces as opposed to older buildings that haven’t been updated for fifteen or more years, as an example. This does not mean that large scale renovations are or new construction is required on an on-going schedule that may not be sustainable. Small upgrades such as paint, fixtures and commercial-grade carpet can make a big difference in a traditional setting.

Students that attend courses online have similar needs related to being engaged in a visually appealing environment. Online courses can at times appear to be text heavy and boring to the students. Faculty and instructional designers can make some minor changes that can have a big impact in terms of presenting an appealing environment.

Faculty should give serious consideration to the look of their course, they may be surprised by what an impact a few small changes can make. Inspiration can come from favorite websites, magazines or online courses of their online-saavy colleagues. A great deal of time and energy has gone into the content for an online course, why not dedicate some additional time and energy into visual considerations?

A graphic designer or a degree in graphic design is NOT needed to make a visual impact in an online course. Text chunking is often the first consideration when addressing course appearance. Here are a couple of suggestions (Keep in mind that all visuals should be made accessible to all students):

  • Text chunking – the process of breaking down content into smaller, bite-sized bits of easily digestible information that are easy to comprehend, learn, and commit to memory.
    • Accessibility consideration – use the formatting tools in your text editor, such as heads and subheads, to enable screen readers.
  • Images – to start, look for simple images that are attractive and appropriate for the course. Many faculty will choose to use banners to introduce images in their course to help students understand where they are in a course. For example, Module 1, Module 2 etc. 
    • Accessibility consideration – images, graphs, and formulas need alternate text descriptions. For some images, when appropriate simply use an alternative tag to indicate that the image is decorative.
  • Videos –  another great way to make online courses visually appealing is to embed appropriate videos that are short in duration. For example, a 2-5 minute video that provides a general overview of the topic from TED Talks or YouTube are favorites of many faculty. Another popular option used by faculty are self-created videos for Course Tours, Module Tours and Assignment Overviews.
    • Accessibility consideration – all videos should be captioned or a written transcript provided.

Don’t let the need to add visually appealing elements to your course deny some students from being able to fully access the content. Universal Design Principles for Learning tell us that this additional support benefits all learners, not just those with disabilities.

-RG

Organizing Course Content

Course Organization – CC0 Public Domain
Course Organization – CC0 Public Domain

Over the years one of the things that online students share through their end-of-course surveys is that they can easily become frustrated, confused or disengaged because the course is difficult to navigate and find what is needed to be successful. When students have to use their cognitive energy to figure out where to access videos, discussions, readings and quizzes they have little energy left to engage with the content. This results in students who are less likely to engage and learn.

In both traditional face-to-face courses and online course offerings the organization and support services should be easy to locate. The sequence and the design of the content as well as activities should have some kind of system and purpose behind it. For example:

  • If students have to click out of a module and into another to simply watch a video that can be a distraction.
  • If students have to navigate away from a module to review a discussion board, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate back to the lesson.

Faculty in traditional in-person courses have the added advantage of giving additional verbal explanations and reminders about where items can be located in the course. The same advantage is not available for faculty that teach online. Faculty need to provide clarification and structure ahead of time to proactively avoid any confusion. A couple things to consider:

  • Faculty should take advantage of any functionality that allows them to view their course in the LMS as a student. Review the entire course from “student view”.
  • While viewing the course as a student, is it clear where items are located? Is there ever a time when it’s not immediately known what a student should do? Whenever possible provide additional text or guidance such as “click the SUBMIT link above to access the assignment submission area”.
  • Faculty should make the effort to provide any quick pointers or videos to help students along the way in their online courses.
  • Faculty should think about creative use of menus, modules and folders when organizing their course content. Minimizing the number of courses navigation items will help reduce any anxiety felt by students during the course.
  • Faculty should look for a way to find the perfect balance between a single scrolling webpage and an overwhelming number of folders and nested folders to hold their course content.

Overall faculty should strive for organization that is clear and intuitive. Faculty should help students move through their content easily so that the students attention will remain on the learning of the material and in being successful in the course. Faculty may ask an instructional designer for support in the area of course organization and also ask an experienced online colleague for help and simply providing an extra set of eyes on the finished course. Often times faculty are too close to the course content and are not able to see it from the perspective of a student.

-RG

Walk A Mile

Walk A Mile – CC0 Public Domain
Walk A Mile – CC0 Public Domain

When online students are in their class, they aren’t anywhere near the faculty member. The students aren’t there physically. Most online students do their coursework when they are alone, and that means either at home or in a public space such as a library or a local coffee shop. These online students are not able to simply raise a hand and ask a question or turn to another student who is seated next to them and ask for clarification. This creates a strong sense of isolation and sometimes overwhelming need for support. Much different then when classes are conducted in the traditional in-person setting.

Faculty that have taught in a traditional classroom setting can pick up on those nonverbal cues from students. It is much easier to determine if students are tuning out, becoming bored, not understanding or just confused. Faculty can make adjustments on-the-fly much easier in a traditional classroom setting. When working with online students faculty aren’t able to determine if students are puzzled over what has been presented to them or if providing simple clarification is needed. 

The question then becomes how do online faculty support online students just as they would in a traditional classroom setting. By walking a mile in the shoes of an online student faculty will be able to anticipate their isolation and plan for it in better course design.

Instructional designers will encourage faculty members to try to make sense of what is being presented on a computer screen. It’s necessary for faculty to get outside of their own head where their own online course makes perfect sense to them and everything is clear. Faculty need to try to envision how their students will experience the course. Some questions to consider:

  • If your online course uses discussions is it crystal-clear how long the students responses should be? And should students cite their sources?
  • Are there detailed grading rubrics being used for all assignments? Will students be able to view the grading rubric before beginning work on any particular assignment?
  • Will examples of successful projects, from previous semesters be provided to the students?

Faculty that are offering their courses online should work closely with an instructional designer, and if possible ask a trusted colleague to evaluate their online course and explore the course as if they were students. Faculty may be surprised by the feedback they get by following through on this course review exercise. Common feedback may include things such as course materials being presented in an unorganized fashion, intimidating tones being used in assignment instructions and a lack of clarity of what to do on the very first day of the course. Faculty should take whatever feedback is provided and consider making a few adjustments to the course.

In a perfect situation, students should know it exactly what is being taught and what they are supposed to do as a result. Online faculty must be intentional and put themselves in the shoes of the student and designing for clarity must be the priority.

-RG

Online Courses & Student Success – Part 5

Online courses and student success - Part 5
Online courses and student success – Part 5

Not all students do well in online courses. In fact, the statistics indicate that online courses have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face courses. The dropout rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face courses. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

There are many different topics to cover and best practices to share in this area of Online Courses and Student Success. In an effort to break the information up into smaller chunks, a different topic will be covered each month for the rest of the year. The complete 5-part series will be seen here:

Humanize the course
Students report that one of the main reasons they drop out of online courses or programs is because they feel lonely and isolated. Learning is a social activity; we learn through interactions and discussions with others. In the absence of face-to-face contact, online learning can be an isolating experience if there are no opportunities to interact with others in the course. Humanize the online experience through personal interactions and stories and add the human touch to it.

  • Set a warm, welcoming tone right in the beginning of the course to connect with students and find ways to create the week-one excitement…every week.
  • Do ice-breaking activities to create a community; ask students to share personal profiles, bios, stories, and other examples of personal information.
  • Students will be less likely to drop the course and let others done if they have made a connection.
  • Offer a “live” orientation session through a Web conferencing tool so students have the opportunity to interact with the instructor in real time. For example, virtual office hours.
  • Provide a discussion forum for non-course-related social interactions. Keep it fun!
  • Encourage peer-to-peer support. Perhaps offer a general discussion area that is primarily for students.
  • Use group projects to build rapport among students.
    Provide a personal response to students on their personal profile. This is a MUST. Perhaps have a few canned comments ready to go that can be quickly personalized for each student.
  • Always let students know when you are available and that you are open to scheduling time to meet with them as needed. For example, use a closing sentence in all communications that lets students know you’re available. For example, “as always, contact me with any questions or if I can assist in any way”.

-RG

Online Courses & Student Success – Part 4

Online courses and student success - Part 4
Online courses and student success – Part 4

Not all students do well in online courses. In fact, the statistics indicate that online courses have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face courses. The dropout rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face courses. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

There are many different topics to cover and best practices to share in this area of Online Courses and Student Success. In an effort to break the information up into smaller chunks, a different topic will be covered each month for the rest of the year. The complete 5-part series will be seen here:

Chunk the content and scaffold instruction
Sometimes the workload and reading requirements in online courses may seem daunting to students, especially if they don’t have very good time management and prioritization skills. Chunking and organizing the content meaningfully into modules/units not only makes it easy for students to understand and remember the concepts but also makes it more manageable for them. By doing this, the instructor can present complex concepts/ideas as “bite-size information” so students can understand, apply, and retain the information. By incorporating assessments and feedback with every learning module, instructors have the opportunity to scaffold students’ learning.

  • Break large assignments or projects into smaller milestones to help students manage the workload, and provide feedback at each step.
  • Provide review sessions or instructional videos where you notice gaps in learning to clarify concepts.
  • Release modules one at a time to help set the pace of the course and keep the students together in an effort to help create a learning community.

-RG

Online Courses & Student Success – Part 3

Online courses and student success - Part 3
Online courses and student success – Part 3

Not all students do well in online courses. In fact, the statistics indicate that online courses have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face courses. The dropout rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face courses. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

There are many different topics to cover and best practices to share in this area of Online Courses and Student Success. In an effort to break the information up into smaller chunks, a different topic will be covered each month for the rest of the year. The complete 5-part series will be seen here:

Preparation
Students often enroll in online courses without a realistic understanding of what it takes to be successful in an online environment. Online learning environments are better suited for students who are self-disciplined, motivated, and know how to manage their time. An orientation to online learning and tips on how to succeed in online courses can better prepare students for online courses. The student orientation should include discussions of:

  • Technical skills
  • Reasonable weekly time expectations (hours per week)
  • Study skills
  • Communication expectations
  • Resources for technical help, writing, accessibility and others
  • Welcome message and personal introductory video of the instructor in a nonacademic setting is a great way to build rapport

-RG

Online Courses & Student Success – Part 2

Online courses and student success - Part 2
Online courses and student success – Part 2

Not all students do well in online courses. In fact, the statistics indicate that online courses have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face courses. The dropout rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face courses. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

There are many different topics to cover and best practices to share in this area of Online Courses and Student Success. In an effort to break the information up into smaller chunks, a different topic will be covered each month for the rest of the year. The complete 5-part series will be seen here:

Communicate clearly
Many students report feeling lost and confused in online learning environments. Due to lack of synchronous and face-to-face contact, sometimes students are unclear on the expectations or need reassurance that they understand the expectations.

  • Instructors need to provide detailed and very explicit instructions about the course format and how students can locate support, if needed.
  • Instructors need to provide detailed and very explicit instructions about assignments, expectations, grading criteria and participation.
  • Provide an ongoing forum or discussion section that students find answers to their questions.
  • Provide and use rubrics that can accessed ahead of the due dates. Also provide sample assignments that are easy to locate. Creating a short video tutorial explaining the rubric and assignment would give students a very concrete idea of the expectations. In other words, an “assignment tour” or “assignment overview”.
  • A quiz tool can be utilized to ensure comprehension of course responsibilities as outlined in the syllabus. Students are allowed multiple attempts to take the quiz under low pressure, which ensures confidence when utilizing the quiz tool function. Use caution here, all too often instructors will update their syllabus from session to session yet fail to update the associated quiz. The goal with this type of quiz is to ease students into the course and allow for success on low stakes quizzes to build confidence.

-RG

Online Courses & Student Success – Part 1

Online courses and student success - Part 1
Online courses and student success – Part 1

Not all students do well in online courses. In fact, the statistics indicate that online courses have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face courses. The dropout rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face courses. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

There are many different topics to cover and best practices to share in this area of Online Courses and Student Success. In an effort to break the information up into smaller chunks, a different topic will be covered each month for the rest of the year. The complete 5-part series will be seen here:

Organization and layout of the course
As you might imagine, many students have reported dropping online courses because they are feeling overwhelmed and often frustrated with the amount of information that is presented. The way information is presented can make a big difference in retaining students. Students can experience “cognitive overload” if the information presented to them is not logically organized and the layout or course design is not easy to follow. Unfortunately, students may end up spending a lot of mental energy just trying to figure out how the course is organized and how to find information, and may end up feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. The design and layout of the course can minimize this frustration and help students focus on the content rather than on navigation issues. Ultimately the goal is to lower levels of anxiety as students enter a course. Here are a few things to consider:

  • When possible, follow a course template that can be used for courses that students might be enrolled in at the same time. Or for courses that will be found in the same program.
  • Provide a simple and consistent layout and navigation for the course. Use the same layout for each module (for example, overview, objectives, readings, viewings, assignments).
  • Make the effort to present some information visually and some information verbally.
  • Explain and show the structure and layout of the course by making a “course tour” video. Also consider “module tours” and “assignment tours” when appropriate.

-RG