Thursday, 2 June 2011

10 dimensions for designing learner support

'Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’ (McLoughlin, 2002)

McLoughlin's paper explains scaffolding ("the effective intervention by a peer, adult or competent person in the learning of another person") and gives some of the history and background, particularly Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. 

The paper compares scaffolding in face-to-face learning with that which might be required in online and distance situations, and argues that the principles of learning support can still apply to these newer teaching and learning contexts.

McLoughlin refers to seven short pieces of advice:
  • Provide experience of the knowledge construction process
  • Provide experience in and appreciation of multiple perspectives
  • Create learning asks that are relevant and authentic
  • Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process
  • Embed learning in social experience
  • Encourage the development of multiple modes of representation
  • Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.
McLoughlin also argues that effective scaffolding is characterised by:
  • increasing the learners’ chance of succeeding in a task
  • helping them to do something they couldn’t accomplish on their own
  • moving them to a ‘new and improved zone of understanding’
  • helping them to operate independently.
McLoughlin provides ten design guidelines/dimensions of successful learner support. Each dimension is represented as a continuum with contrasting values at the ends. She points out that it is necessary to combine the individual dimensions in order to create effective instructional scaffolds. 
The dimensions are:

(1) Goal orientation (i.e. the goal of the support; support should be planned, not only when learners are having difficulties)
Highly focused <-----> Unfocused

(2) Adaptability (meet the needs of a diverse range of students)
Fixed <-----> flexible

(3) Accessibility (available when the student needs is - "just-in-time")
High <-----> Low

(4) Alignment (support is aligned with task goals and learning outcomes)
High <-----> Low

(5) Experiential value (learners' experiences allow them to plan, act, reflect and transfer knowledge of skills to new tasks/contexts)
High <-----> Low

(6) Collaboration (emphasis on social constructivism and use of web tools to support collaboration suggest this dimension is already well accepted)
Supported <-----> Unsupported

(7) Constructivism (support knowledge construction (strong scaffold), not memorization (weak scaffold))
Strong <-----> Weak

(8) Learning orientation (scaffolds allow learner to progress from teacher regulation to self-regulation and self-direction)
Teacher regulation <-----> Learner regulation

(9) Multiplicity (various types of scaffolding to support aspects of learning such as metacognition, reflection, articulation and comparison)
One-dimensional <-----> Multi-dimensional

(10) Granularity (high granularity allows learners to select and reconstruct the parts that are meaningful to them in a task)
Low granularity <-----> High granularity

For H807, we were supposed to read the ten dimensions, and pick any two we thought are important and think about why they are relevant to the learning materials that we would like to design. 
I think Alignment is an important dimension. No online course can succeed if it doesn't carefully articulate its goals, and follow these through the activities to appropriately fitting and related assessments (not necessarily only at the end either). It seems that it would follow that you need to also ensure support is aligned to your goals, tasks, activities and intended outcomes. 

Given the wealth of affordances of technologies available for online learners, and the benefits of studying surrounded by a community rather than alone, I would also pick Collaboration as an important dimension. It has clearly been designed in to every aspect of H807, the hyperbole around web 2.0 tools is primarily centered on opportunities for collaboration, and it supports the constructivist theories of learning which are now widely valued.

The paper suggests that scaffolds can be created by software, technological tools and web-based functionalities. Previously I conceived scaffolding to be something the might be provided by another person (peer, tutor, etc), or might be provided through the design of course materials (for example, interactive computer-based training with progressively lesser levels of hints or support provided). The idea that technological tools such as collaborative conferencing, document sharing, social forums or web 2.0 tools might offer scaffolds was new to me - but was something that was easy to accept, not least from observation of the provision of such methods throughout H807.

There are implicit value judgements in the ten dimensions, for example, that alignment should be high, adaptability should be flexible, etc, and the desirable ends of the continua (continuums?!!) don't all point in the same direction . It's unlikely you could design scaffolding which 'scored' highly on all ten dimensions, although overlaps exist, for example between Collaboration and Constructivism, and between Goal Orientation and Alignment. I think possibly the most helpful use of the ten dimensions might be in using them as a checklist to review, revise and improve scaffolding once it is designed. 

We were also supposed to answer the question "What are your first thoughts on how you’ll design your materials?". For me, this was an example of a poorly scaffolded activity! I didn't understand the context - was it supposed to relate to our End of Course Assessment designs, to the materials which we design in our jobs (in which case another assumption that H807 students are in e-learning roles), or to our general aspirations? Clearly I want to design the best materials I can, but they will be different in every situation. Having a framework like these ten dimensions in my toolkit is useful, but is a long way from knowing "how I'll design my materials".

McLoughlin, C. (2002) ‘Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’, Distance Education, vol.23, no.2, pp.149–62.

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