Friday, 3 June 2011

Strategies for scaffolding learner support

‘Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success’ (Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap, 2003)

This paper describes a number of learner support strategies implemented with the aim of reducing students' feelings of isolation, lack of self-direction and motivation, and which lead to higher drop-out rates for online courses (typically 20-50% according to the authors).

Key points:
  • Self-directed learning skills are developed in a social context, through interactions with peers, teams, communities of practice, etc.
  • To be successful, learners need the skills required for effective online learning; these skills need to be explicitly taught and supported.
  • "Most descriptions of learner support focus on systemic characteristics" (e.g. administrative, registration, etc) - the cognitive function (e.g. guidance, counselling, assessment, coaching etc) is often ignored. 
The authors describe the following programme, specifically designed to help students to choose the right course, to identify and develop the skills they will need, and to feel part of a community:
  • Diagnosing fit between learner and education provider
    • intake interview - discusses expected learning outcomes of a course and relationship to the learner's goals
    • online tools to enable self-assessment of eligibility and preparedness - students assess their competencies, learning objectives, short and long-term goals, etc.
    • diagnostic pre-assessment of learner's strengths, weaknesses, etc - used as a tool to identify strengths and areas for improvement
    • Learning Orientation Questionnaire from ( - determines readiness for online learning - looks at 3 factors: learner's emotional investment in learning, strategic self-directedness and independence/autonomy.
  • Orientation to the online learning experience - a 4-week course with a high level of structure, introducing learners to the community, communication tools and learning skills required. 
  • One-to-one advice provision - encouraging learners to articulate their learning goals and plans, helping them to understand their learning orientations, strengths and areas for improvement, advising on the exploration and selection of learning opportunities and encouraging learners to evaluate their own progress.
  • Access to a community of learners - allowing a sense of connection with the institution and with other learners - the learning community is based on the programme in which the learner is enrolled and includes threaded discussions, online chats, role plays, interviews, etc, organised by mentors on specific topic areas. More experienced learners move from the periphery to the centre of the community - "legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991). 
The authors cited DeVries and Wheeler (1996), arguing that students may drop out of a course because they do not feel part of the community. I found this hard to relate to. I feel that if I need the qualification or have any other motivation for my learning, other than a desire for academic community engagement, then I can't see that I would quit. I might be disappointed, and I might be benefiting less from the course than one which offered substantial interaction, but I feel I would still be likely to continue. Perhaps this is a reflection of my personality, generally fairly independent and self-motivated, or perhaps it's something to do with a degree's worth of distance learning which very little community engagement (OU 2002-2005 - face-to-face tutorials, and online group activities only in a couple of courses, and then only a fraction of the activities), so again, I got used to studying without a community around me. That said, I was aware that I wanted community, and the desire to be part of an academic community was one of the motivating factors in applying for my PhD at a campus-based university.

The orientation programme described seems a thorough start to getting students engaged in the community and the distance learning environment. It has a lot of similarities to early stages of Salmon's five stage model. However, the orientation seems to happen separately to the learner's subsequent courses, i.e. with a different community to that which the student will then interact with. The monthly rolling start of courses mean that students will not be progressing in parallel with a large cohort, so the community is deliberately created from students in related courses, but not all at the same stage. While this allows students with increasing expertise to take a more central role, including scaffolding new learners, Salmon's model is harder to apply as students will not be working on tasks together, and I was concerned that the progression through the model's stages may be interrupted if students develop early socialisation with their orientation group, but then have to move on to a different community for their main studies. For me, this provision of community access and development tools, joining students from a wider network, was also reminiscent of the unofficial OU student society online conferences, particularly psychology, which I experienced 5-10 years ago. These were entirely separate from the official courses, but included much inter- and intra- cohort sharing and discussion, and were extremely valuable as the courses at the time had little or no 'community' built in. 

I feel uncomfortable about the LOQ. Psychological instruments which are a) for sale b) include "testimonials" on their web site, and c) include the words "recent advances in neuroscience" in their overview blurb ring alarm bells for me. I don't have time to research the deep background of the LOQ... but was reminded of this ;-)

Perhaps I've been reading too much Ben Goldacre.

Ludwig-Hardman, S. and Dunlap, J.C. (2003) ‘Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [online]

The current Western Governors University guidance on admission:

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