Schools, Skills and Scaffolding on the Web

Bernie Dodge
Ed Tech Department, San Diego State University


Opening Question The Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, is arguably the most talked-about new technology since the post-War invasion of television. By now, even the most technophobic or disadvantaged North American has heard something about it, and has heard more than one metaphor used to describe it. Like the blind men confronting the elephant, we sometimes perceive the Internet as a highway, other times as an arcade or playground, and still other times as the ultimate shopping trip.

From an educational point of view, the Internet seems more like the world's largest library, or at least the world's largest idiosyncratic bookstore. It brings into classrooms a huge amount of information, some of it fresher than this morning's newspaper... some of it biased, some of it just plain wrong. At the same time (and somewhat related to the quality of the information), the web makes it possible for anyone with access and skills to publish their thoughts for a world-wide audience. For some, there are no editors, no distributors, and no paper costs to deal with. This breaks down the classroom walls in both directions: students have access to far more information than before, and they have a wider potential audience for their products.

Learning With The WebLearning Pre-WebIt seems useful, then, to think of the Web on both sides of our schools, as a vast source of data and as the gateway to millions of readers. What goes on in the middle is the transformation of information. How does that compare with traditional schooling in the long dark years B.W.? To some extent, schools seemed hermetically sealed from the outside world. Children were somewhat limited to the books and magazines in their school library as sources of information, a source that has never been very timely or deep. As for outlets for student creativity, the most common endpoint for a child's best work was in the kitchen of his or her own home. And, in the worst of classrooms, information was rarely transformed and was more often simply recorded long enough to be played back for a test.

If this seems to the reader as a useful way to think about schools and the Internet, here's a mnemonic to help make it memorable.

Typical Inputs What makes this an exciting time to be an educator is the input side of the model. Though the Web is still in its infancy, we already have the possibility of putting our students in touch with experts who would otherwise be inaccessible. We can let our students analyze the same data being analyzed by stock brokers and scientists. We can design experiences that require them to search through reference materials that our schools will never buy. We can show them museums and artworks and photographs. And we can turn them loose in a flood of news more detailed than they will ever see on their home television screens. According to David Jonassen and his colleagues, among others, the most effective learning contexts are those which are problem- or case-based, that immerse the learner in the situation requiring him or her to acquire skills or knowledge in order to solve the problem or manipulate the situation.

Input SkillsTransformationOutput Skills

To make the best use of all these inputs requires that students have certain skills; and in the excitement of bringing the Internet into our classrooms, we sometimes forget to prepare our learners appropriately. This can lead to what might be called virtual learning, in which students are busily engaged in exploring the Web or chatting with distant experts, but are not sufficiently prepared to learn much from the experience. It looks like learning to the principal as she walks by, but little of it sticks.

If there is one key idea in this presentation, it is this: students of any age need to be supported in acquiring information processing skills as we integrate this technology into our schools. What distinguishes excellent telecommunications activities from merely good ones is the degree to which the designers pay attention to this support.


What Is Scaffolding?One way in which these thinking and communications skills can be nurtured is through scaffolding. Scaffolding essentially means doing some of the work for the student who isn't quite ready to accomplish a task independently. Like the supports that construction workers use on buildings, scaffolding is intended to be temporary. It is there to aid the completion of a task and it is eventually removed.

According to theories developed by Lev Vygotsky, problem solving and other skills can be placed into three categories:

  • those performed independently by the student;
  • those that cannot be performed even with help; and
  • those that fall between the two extremes, tasks that can be performed with help from others.

This last category is what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development, the domain in which the student is ready to grow.

How to ScaffoldSo how do we bring this about? Good teachers have always used scaffolding, and the Web allows us some unique new opportunities to do it differently. For example, we support the acquisition of new vocabulary when we link words on a web page to a separate page with definitions and examples. We can also create performance support documents to help our students master specific information processing and communication skills. For example, see...

An Exercise

Examine the following three sites for their potential use by students at your school:

Summary As you explore each site, tally up the kinds of skills your students would need in order to effectively use these sites as inputs. What kinds of transformations could they make with this information and how could you support them in that transformation? What kinds of outputs could they create, and what skills will they need to acquire?

The world that today's students spend most of their lives in will be very different from that of today's teachers. As we continue to integrate the Web and other communications technologies into our work, we need to keep in mind the ultimate goal of such integration.

For Further Reading

Jonassen, D. , Mayes, T., McAleese, R. (1992). A manifesto for a constructivist approach to technology in higher education. In T. Duffy, D. Jonassen, & J. Lowyck (Eds.) Designing constructivist learning environments. Heidelberg, FRG: Springer-Verlag.

Mayes, T. (1992). Mindtools: A suitable case for learning. In P. Kommers, D. Jonassen, & T. Mayes (Eds.) Cognitive tools for learning. Heidelberg, FRG: Springer-Verlag. 

Last updated December 2, 1998