Scaffolding & MOOCs

I came across a great blog by Mark Sample, a literature and new media professor at George Mason University, looking at scaffolding, MOOCs, and MOOC pedagogy.  I thought Dr. Sample’s argument was spot-on about the problems of attaching training wheels to coursework, but had trouble with his association with that as scaffolding, which I look at from Vygotsky or Bandura as an integral part of the student-teacher relationship, and is one of if not the most important function of a teacher.  I might not be Laura Riding as far as definitions and ambiguity are concerned, but I feel like in order to have discussions about a topic we all need to define like terms before looking at points of contention.  I responded to Dr. Sample’s blog, but thought the write-up summarized the difference between classic and contemporary instruction fairly well, so am putting it here too.

I like where you are going with this argument, but your definition of scaffolding is not congruent with the scaffolding in educational theory as derived from Vygotsky and Bandura, which is why you have to specify obstructive scaffolding when making the parallel to your training wheels narrative. Scaffolding is what is necessary to allow the novice to engage in practical application towards mastery of whatever the venture is. Inherent in the definition is the idea of growth, movement, and mastery. You hit the nail on the head that training wheels allow a child to ride a bike without teaching them to ride a bike…but that’s not scaffolding. That’s augmenting, shortcutting, de-enriching. The skuut sounds like a better parallel to educational scaffolding, whereas the training wheels are more didactic or behaviorist.

A lot of the problem is in what is expected of teachers. Educational research shows better results in terms of student abilities with constructivist or cognitive pedagogical approaches…but those are tough for administrations to measure. It’s much easier to measure student outcomes in regards to a set rostrum of information or expectations. A scaffolded approach to computer programming would be to assign the students to program a set of commands, and as a teacher base your level of interaction with each student dependent on their needs…some might need help researching, others fixing typing errors, others visualizing the end result…the assistance is in direction, not in doing. A behaviorist approach to computer programming is to provide a list of instructions to achieve an end result, and then have the students follow the list. Or in terms of art education, scaffolding would be to draw a picture in the style of Monet, and as a teacher assist students with colors, techniques, or visualization based on their needs, whereas behaviorist would be to have students follow along in doing the steps you are doing, resulting in a created Monet. One system (scaffolding) involves mistakes, obstacles and could result in less than perfect product…but gives full agency to the student, providing them foundation for further development. The other (behaviorism) provides a glossy product, but replication in the future is likely dependent on more scaffolding, so results are rarely duplicated in the real world.

Why do we teach like this? Administrators and parents like the gloss. It’s tough to tell a principal or parent that a student is struggling but getting there, and the teacher can be blamed for falling through the cracks. If the system is gamed to show progress, we look at progress in finished result of product rather than the methodology to get there.

How this deals with MOOCs…well, there is no opportunity for teachers to utilize skill to scaffold and tailor to students. There is discussion of personalization, but that comes out of HCI, AI and maybe a touch of cognitive style, with very little (if any) attention to pedagogy. If statistics says it will show you how to run a regression, they will provide you the training wheels to do that. A few students will do well with that and get out their on their own to replicate, but most will still need the training wheels. And unlike with kids and bikes, students who have difficulty replicating in the real world are more likely to give up than keep trying.

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3 thoughts on “Scaffolding & MOOCs

  1. Pingback: Ignoring Education Research & History | All MOOCs, All The Time

  2. Pingback: Ignoring Education Research & Historymoocdesign | moocdesign

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