12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 7: Provide Scaffolding for Challenging Tasks

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools have been closed and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]

This is the seventh one. Stay tuned for more! We (Mirjam and Paul), together with ExCEL’s – the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning (of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor) Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen (researchers at ExCEL and also authors of the book), and Tine Hoof (also a researcher of ExCEL), we’re working hard to translate the next 9 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, into English.

Surma and his co-authors write:

Supporting learners is a key part of effective instruction. When learners aren’t ready to complete a task independently, as an instructor/facilitator, you need to give them temporary, individual, and adaptive support. This is usually called ‘scaffolding’. Over time, when learners become more capable, scaffolding fades.

This building block is about supporting learners when they complete tasks and activities. While the first four building blocks – [1) Activate Relevant Prior Knowledge, 2) Give Clear, Structured, And Challenging Instruction, 3) Use Examples, and 4) Combine Words and Visuals] – focus on how to present new subject matter, building block number 7  is about providing support so that learners can complete tasks successfully. Initially, learners need intensive support to be able to do so, but over time you can decrease the support gradually. Of course, you keep monitoring the learners’ progress.

The authors give examples of scaffolds, like  reminder questions (‘What was the first step when solving problem X?’), hints, step-by-step plans, checklists, or worked examples [see Mirjam and Paul’s blog on worked examples here]. Social interaction plays an important role as well.

How can you facilitate scaffolding with learning technology?

  • Any learning content can include ‘scaffolds’, such as questions, hints, prompts, step-by-step plans, and so forth. These scaffolds can be presented as text, animation, images, video, or audio and often, learners can choose whether they need them or not.


The image below is from an online course from the Open University in the Netherlands on ‘Blended learning as an education innovation‘. The task explains what is expected of the learner. When needed, learners can select ‘Behoefte aan een voorbeeld?’ [‘Do you need an example?’] and can then look at a text or video example before they actually start working on their task.




  • As the instructor/facilitator, you can easily add this type of scaffolds to your content. The image example demonstrates the use of an accordion functionality [a graphical control element stacking a list of items that the learner can expand when needed]
  • Chatbots can also be used to ask learners questions and to give them hints. Learners can decide if they want to have a conversation with the chatbot or just ignore it. I [Wilfred Rubens] have blogged about this several times. For example, ‘De toegevoegde waarde van chatbots voor leren, opleiden en onderwijs’ [The additional value of chatbots for learning, training, and education].
  • Most learning technologies include functionalities so that you, as the instructor/facilitator can monitor learners individually and in groups. In order to be able to do so, learners must of course complete learning activities [otherwise, there’s nothing to monitor]. Also, education/training institutions often have access to tools for learning analytics. These provide richer insights into learner progress.
  • There’s also an option to register face-to-face learning activities online in a so-called ‘learning record store’ (thanks to xAPI) [links added by us; also see Mirjam and Paul’s blog on xAPI here]. As the instructor/facilitator, you can analyse this data. Also, a digital portfolio provides the opportunity to get insight into learners’ progress/development. Of course, when you need quick insight into progress/development you’d need a more uniform structure.
  • When it comes to support, most people prefer face-to-face interaction. However, learning technology can surely be deployed to encourage social interaction. You can use both synchronous and asynchronous tools. For example, using a tool like BlueJeans, you can organize online Q&As, in between virtual instructor led sessions or in-person sessions [if your solution is blended). Of course, you can also answer questions via messaging. When you opt for this, beware that not to provide more intensive support than you normally would. This is a pitfall as the tools are so easily accessible and they make it possible to interact with learners 24/7.
  • Online interaction can also have benefits over face-to-face interaction. For example, when it comes to asynchronous communication, you have more time to think about what you would like to contribute. Also, in face-to-face communication, non-verbal signals can distract. Last but not least, in online communication, you often get to the point more quickly.


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