The use of a scaffolding model to increase interaction and learning in web based teaching in tropical forestry – Københavns Universitet

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The use of a scaffolding model to increase interaction and learning in web based teaching in tropical forestry

Carsten Smith Olsen (a)*, and
Anita Monty (b)

(a) Section for Global Development, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen, Rolighedsvej 25, 1958 Frederiksberg C, Denmark
(b) Former IT Learning Center, Faculty Library of Natural and Health Sciences - Frederiksberg Campus, University of Copenhagen, Dyrlægevej 10, 1870 Frederiksberg C, Denmark
* Corresponding author

In recent years, KVL has been involved in developing and implementing distance learning in its tropical forestry teaching programme. This paper reports on experiences with using Gilly Salmon’s five-stage scaffolding model with the particular aim of increasing student participation in computer mediated conferencing in order to promote joint knowledge construction and increase learning. The model is briefly introduced as are the two courses used as a case. Emphasis is on describing considerations behind the move from theory to practice, the experiences gained at each stage of the model, student behaviour, and the changed role of the teacher. It is concluded that teaching based on the model did result in high degrees of student participation and interaction with indications of higher than usual student grades.

1. Introduction

The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL) in Denmark (now Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen) has developed and implemented web-based distance teaching since 2002. Experiences from the first years revealed that the largest challenge was to establish on-line interaction and discussion among participants (Olsen et al. 2004). To meet this challenge, we adopted the use of a five-stage scaffolding model (Salmon 2004) that has been developed specifically to promote interaction among students. This paper briefly presents the model and how it has been implemented in tropical forestry teaching at KVL. In addition, the new role of the teacher (when moving from traditional face-to-face teaching to web-based teaching) is commented upon and we provide suggestions for further developing the model. The key question we are trying to answer in the paper is: can we increase interaction and improve learning in distance education?

2. The model

Students’ learning environment is continuously changing. In recent years, it has changed from being exclusively associated with auditoria, labs and books to including internet pages, virtual discussion fora, video clips and social activities such as group work. In online work and studying, the learning environment is always at hand; students are not limited by space or time but can study when it best fits into their portfolio of activities. Online studying is thus not simply a new teaching tool but provides a new context for learning (Bates and Poole 2003; Salmon 2004). The role of the teacher changes from giving lectures and supplying facts to being a guide or facilitator, with emphasis on helping students to construct their own knowledge. Students should use their computer for solving problems, collaborating and as a tool to make (better) decisions (Salmon 2004). Technology-enhanced teaching should thus result in more student-oriented teaching, more group work and improved learning.

As noted by Salmon (2004), there are many differences between oral and written communication forms; this needs to be explicitly considered when designing online teaching. It can not just be assumed that online students will start to share views, collaborate, etc. It is necessary to create an environment facilitating online work and co-operation. Salmon’s (2004) five-stage scaffolding model has been designed to promote online networking and group work while also allowing for scaffolding of individual development. There are two basic building blocks in the model, both of which are essential in promoting student interaction and learning:

  1. The teacher is an e-moderator, i.e. responsible for starting and moderating discussions in order to promote student learning. She prepares exercises, including e-tivities (see below), facilitates discussions, for instance by making summaries, providing different angels on issues and asking new questions.
  2. Use of e-tivities. These activities (exercises) contain an explicit purpose, task and deadline. Contents vary across the model’s five stages. They are designed to develop students’ abilities to collaborate online with the ultimate aim of starting to construct new knowledge via discussions.

Students learn to use the e-learning system (learning management software) along with learning about tropical forestry; this is integrated from the start of the courses. The scaffolding model is presented in Figure 1.

The 5-stage model


Fig. 1. Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model (Salmon 2004)

Individual access and the induction of participants into online learning are essential prerequisites for online conference participation. Stage 1 aims to provide students with a good start: welcoming them and providing support to tackling any technical challenges. Stage is over when students have posted their first messages. In Stage 2, individual participants establish their online identities and start interacting. Students are getting used to the virtual learning environment. At Stage 3, participants start to engage in mutual exchange of information and focus on the learning management software as a human network rather than a technology. In Stage 4, group discussions develop and the interaction becomes more collaborative. Students embark on knowledge construction and working towards a common group goal; they share information and intellectual resources and learn from each other as well as from learning materials and the e-moderator. The main role of the latter is to weave discussions and share summaries (akin to face-to-face teaching). The promotion of independent critical thinking and reflection is at the core of Stage 5.

3. The case

We used the model on two courses, that are part of the two-year MSc programme in Agricultural Development (, in autumn 2005. Both courses are 7.5 ECTS and concerned with aspects of tropical forestry (see course descriptions at and Both courses last nine weeks; in each course students are expected to work around 20 hours per week. There were 15-20 participants in each course; from a large number of countries. Almost none had any previous experience with using information and communication technology in teaching. Course materials are hard copy compendia, online supplementary materials, and online cases and exercises.

Each course started with a two-hour face-to-face session. Participation in this session is not compulsory (as some participants live and work abroad); the session focused on introducing the scientific purposes and contents of the course. Participants are not introduced to the used software (ABC Academy); written guidelines are, however, available (Monty 2005). Each course is designed to make participants familiar with the software through step-wise introduction of functions. Each participant needs access to the internet (min 56K) and a browser; no software needs to be installed.

Each course is made up of a number of modules; typically participants have to complete one module per week. Each module has the same structure: Introduction, Overview, Read and Exercises. A detailed module description is provided by Olsen et al. (2004). Exercises are multiple-choice questionnaires and e-tivities. The former provides participants with an opportunity to check if they have understood terminology and the most important points and arguments in the text material; in case of wrong answers each participant immediately and automatically receives a brief text explaining why the chosen option is not correct. The latter are assignments that participants solve in collaboration. Each e-tivity is build up around a Title, Purpose, Task and Deadline. An example is provided in Figure 2. An excellent description of e-tivities is found in Salmon (2002).

E-tivity 1.4: Working with the first case

Purpose: to gain experience with working together in the small groups on a case

Task: Read the newspaper article “They speak for the trees”. You will find this case text under exercises in the “Paradigms in tropical forestry” module. You can also click here. Think about: (i) what is the main conflict described in the article? Can you describe the conflict in your own words? (ii) how can the conflict be explained using the forestry paradigms introduced in the compendium? Each group member should contribute to answering these two questions by posting messages and responding to comments. Your e-moderator will summarise the discussion.

Deadline: Friday 9 September 14.00 CET.

Fig. 2. Example of structure of an e-tivity

Participants work with e-tivities in groups of 4-8. In the later stages of a course, we also use e-tivities that are discussed across all course participants. In order to allow participants to ask questions directly to the responsible teachers, we also organised a small number of chats with each group. From stage 4, we designed and implemented e-tivities where a participant functioned as e-moderator. This included preparing summaries of group discussions and posting of summaries for discussion in plenum (across all participants). This increased sharing of knowledge across groups and served to establish a common group identity (“we are many on this course with similar interests and concerns”).

4. Results and discussion

From theory to practise

We aimed at supporting the participants through the entire learning process: (i) reading and reflection over chosen subjects (compendium), (ii) checking understanding of basic elements within each subject (multiple-choice and chats), and (iii) working with and critically discussing each subject (e-tivities). This paper focuses on experiences with (iii), i.e. designing e-tivities, creating interaction between students, promoting participants possibilities for critical reflection and common knowledge creation, and establishing a close connection between the completed work and the evaluation form. In connection to the organisation of each course, the following points were emphasised:

  • Consequent structure. Building on our earlier experiences (Olsen et al. 2004) and the work by Salmon (2002), we decided to make e-tivities well defined with explicit goals. E-tivities are all structured in the same way and can be completed within a week. 
  • High degree of flexibility. To provide participants with the greatest amount of flexibility as to when and where they work with e-tivities, almost all e-tivities were designed as asynchronous net-based plenum discussions. But there were also tight deadlines, typically at least one per week in order to close one module before moving on to the next.
  • Cogent implementation. In each e-tivity there are explicit goals and specification of participation requirements. Roles are clearly distributed, e.g. individuals are assigned responsibilities before e-tivities are initiated. The teacher strives to show his virtual presence, especially in stages 1-3.
  • Participant input to improved implementation and contents of courses. To ensure the best possible inputs from the participants, we designed e-tivities focusing explicitly on reflection over course contents and form.

There was a high level of activity in both courses. The average number of scientific postings per participant was around 30 and 20 on the two courses (in addition to multiple-choice questionnaires, participation in chats, and written assignments). The ratio of student/teacher postings was around 5. In general, student postings were longer than teacher postings and the number of teacher postings decreased in the later stages of the courses. It should also be noted that the scientific quality of student postings were generally high (using compendium material as theoretical framework for discussions, innovative and sound application of theory on cases, critical discussions of compendium papers, etc.). There is also no doubt that many participants highly valued the teachers’ virtual presence (welcome greetings, comments to postings, asking new in-depth questions, etc.).


We attempted to connect the working mode (multiple-choice and e-tivities) closely to the evaluation of the performance of each participant. This was done by making exercises, including e-tivities, count with 50% of the final mark (with the remaining 50% from a written exam). For instance, each e-tivity counted with a certain weight of the final mark (e.g. 1%) and the final mark was decided using a scale of 0-100%. Furthermore, in order to gain access to the written exam, participants had to successfully pass at least 75% of exercises. Participation in e-tivities was evaluated as pass/failed based on an individual assessment of the quality of participant inputs. Drop-out rates were as in ordinary class-room courses.

The average student grade (using the Danish 13-scale system; the higher the number, the better the performance; scale average 8) in the past five years in one of the courses, using ordinary class-room teaching, ranged from 7.50 – 8.47. In 2005, using the scaffolding model, the grade average was 9.17; this was only significantly different from one of the previous years (2002, p < 0.05) but indicates an above average result. The same pattern was found in the second course.

In connection to course evaluation, we developed an e-tivity called “Leave your footprints”. Participants were asked to critically describe their experiences with course participation and to formulate advice and recommendations to the next class. This e-tivity generated a lot of highly useful feed-back and discussions. Regarding the computer mediated conferencing, participants generally agreed that discussions were most rewarding when all group members participated. It was also noted that the more postings there are, the more participants are motivated to log on and participate (we did not experience overload). Group members who are absent should in advance inform other group members that they will not be able to participate in a specific e-tivity. The flexibility was highly appreciated. One participant wrote ”... I have also understood that e-learning is actually not simply a way of teaching used by lazy teachers who don’t feel like teaching (hahaha). I think that it is a way of teaching/learning that has its place in the current institutions because it allows flexibility for the students and teachers, while keeping them at work on a steady rhytm.” Several participants also emphasised the importance of e-moderator visibility, e.g. ”I think that Carsten did a very good job in commenting and participating to our discussion. Furthermore, I really agree that e-moderator participation is crucial as I have felt over the last few weeks (when we have been having less comments and feedbacks due to exams and…) that my motivation has dropped considerably.” Many participants also appreciated the structured, step-wise approach offered by the modular course structure ”The good thing about having e-tivities and questionanaires during the week is that one is forced to read the texts in time and you don’t end up starting on the reading just before the exam – not that I would ever do so, but some students do :-)“.

The role of the teacher

Teaching using the five-stage model and e-tivities changes the role of the teacher from being a centrally placed instructor to being a more peripherally located coach. In our case, the teacher is still responsible for developing teaching materials and ensuring the academic quality of the teaching. But his main task is now to promote participant independence in the learning process and her ability to critically reflect over both subject matters and her own learning. The asynchronous net-based discussions are an important tool that promotes critical reflection. This can be supported by the teacher through constructive criticism and providing pointers that allow for further submersion and discussion. In our case, we found that the “… borders between the traditional and the more scaffolding oriented teachers are being broken down” (Jensen 2003:3). While the five-stage model is student-centred, it can also be adopted to suit more traditional teaching if so required.

Many authors have noted that the development and implementation of e-learning is time consuming and expensive (e.g. Heiberg 2004). However, our experiences from these two courses are that time required for course maintenance, development and implementation are comparable to ordinary face-to-face classroom courses. Of course, an investment is needed (Olsen et al. 2004) to convert from classroom teaching to distance teaching.

5. Conclusion

We found a high level of participation – with more postings by participants on one course using the scaffolding model and e-tivities than in all other university courses (using a standardised software system allowing posting) combined – and high quality of participation. Student performance was comparable, in terms of grade averages, with previous ordinary classroom teaching in the same courses, with a tendency to higher grades when using the scaffolding and e-tivity approach. Participants also provided critical reflection on learning processes and constructive feed-back to course responsible teachers. Based on our positive experiences with using the five-stage model and e-tivities, we see very good scope for using this approach as the basis for further development of university courses at KVL using Learning Management System software. The approach is useful in both distance courses (as in the present case) and in mixed mode teaching – in the latter case it is important to maintain sufficient time for on-line socialisation (this can probably not be substituted by, e.g., a face-to-face weekend programme). We used the scaffolding model with success in two courses, each with duration of nine weeks. It may be difficult to use the model on shorter courses, at least with inexperienced users, as there will then be insufficient time to move through all five stages.

We used the software ABC Academy but the model can be used on all types of Learning Management System software as long as there are good electronic conference facilities available. Of course, choice of software should also take other issues into consideration, such as structure of pages, ease of administration, costs, etc. There are also new technical features that are potentially useful in supporting learning processes such as electronic participant portfolios.

Finally, it should be noted that there are still ample opportunities for further developing the five-stage model and e-tivities. For instance, to develop standard criteria for assessing (i) the quality of participant inputs in e-tivities, (ii) when construction of shared learning is achieved, and (iii) individual participant’s ability to critically reflect on views and arguments.


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Olsen, C.S. & Monty, A. 2006. The use of a scaffolding model to increase interaction and learning in web based teaching in tropical forestry. Proceedings of The Biennial Meeting of The Scandinavian Society of Forest Economics. Uppsala, Sweden. Scandinavian Forest Economics Vol 41: 297-303