Asking the right questions about online learning technology

networked learning

It’s helpful to step back and ask a series of questions about how technology assists, or hampers, your online learning efforts.

Some of the questions you should consider include the following:

  • How well does your organization’s online learning match up with the technological capabilities of students and prospective learners? On the one hand, can you meet the needs of those with smartphones and other mobile devices? On the other hand, can you provide access to those in low bandwidth environments or those who have disabilities?
  • Does your organization provide a learning platform that is easy to navigate and offers the interactivity and communication tools your learners need? Can it handle third-party plugins (Adobe Connect, Facebook, etc.)?
  • Is your organization making effective use of video in your online learning? Are you leveraging available software to offer the most engaging learning possible?
  • If you are using content or courses from third parties, does your learning management system have the capability of integrating standardized content packages such as SCORM or LTI?
  • Are you prepared to handle technology issues raised by learners? Is your IT help desk or customer service function ready to handle, and resolve, complaints and concerns?
  • What about organizational technology challenges? Does your organization have contingency plans in place to deal with system failures or service interruptions?
  • How is your organization monitoring new developments in technology and how they impact online learning? Do you have members in your organization who are following the latest trends?

Organizations that seek continuous improvement are asking these questions on a consistent basis. The process of questioning your organization’s use of technology can help you enhance and elevate your online learning now and in the future.

Copyright © 2013 MindEdge, Inc.

The Benefits of Instructional Scaffolding

Often, students struggle to understand new or difficult concepts and tasks on their own. Instructional scaffolding is a technique that incrementally guides students through these tasks by providing temporary support until the student is able to operate independently.

To prevent learners from becoming dependent on instructor assistance, successful scaffolding should be broken down into three stages: planning, execution, and fading. These stages create an arch-like process by gradually increasing instructor assistance and then gradually removing assistance. We’ve found this technique conforms nicely to the flow of online course assignments and helps course developers focus on what students need to learn rather than just what information needs to be presented to them.

The Stages

In the planning stage, break down the concept or task into manageable pieces or segments and consider how you can support the completion of the task. As students learn more and gain more experience, they require less assistance, so you should gradually remove the support to encourage the student to operate independently.

As you decide what support to provide at what time, you’ll also need to consider what the student already knows or is capable of and what kind of support they’ll need. In live teaching sessions, you can use polling or live-quiz techniques to assess what your students know already. In an online course, you’ll need to do plenty of research on your learners to figure out what they are likely to know. Then start by providing a bit more scaffolding than you think they will need. Advanced learners will find the first part of the lesson easy, but they’ll likely be satisfied with the extra practice. Just be sure that you don’t provide too little support for learners who actually need it. So start easy.

There are several ways to provide instructional support during execution. Popular methods include modeling the task or activity for the learner, providing annotations that explain any steps in the process.

When it’s time to offer less support, allow the learner to complete more of the task, but provide opportunities for coaching. The online medium allows you to provide on-demand coaching in the form of pop-up explanations that display only when the learner asks for them. An interactive technique such as this one is beneficial when students come to an online course with varying levels of background knowledge or proficiency. As an added benefit, students tend to retain information better and grasp concepts more quickly when they can actively engage with the material.

Real World Applications

One final advantage of using instructional scaffolding in online learning courses is that exercises that use scaffolding allow learners to apply themselves to real-world work, when they might not be practiced enough in the skills to work such a difficult problem on their own.

For example, in MindEdge’s Project Risk Management: PMI-RMP® Exam Prep, we ask learners to work with a case study in which they create a list of risks ranked in order from most severe to least severe.

The process is a bit too complicated to complete without scaffolding. The learner must consider the risk and determine its probability of occurrence and impact to determine the severity. Based on that severity, the risks must then be ranked in order, and resolutions must be documented. This is too much to do for a novice to do without help. So we break the process into a few steps.

Below, you can see an activity in which the learner determines whether there is low, medium, or high probability and low, medium, or high impact. Once a learner chooses the right answer for each category, the resultant severity is confirmed in the right column.


After completing this activity, the learner then sees the information provided in a static chart, which he or she must use to rank risks.

As you can see above, the learner isn’t asked to exercise more than one skill at a time. He or she doesn’t have to remember how to format a risk register. The template provides headers and instructions are provided above each step to make sure the learner knows how to employ the information provided and how to input answers.

No one single type of instruction will ever be sufficient to maximize student learning or retention. And instructional scaffolding poses challenges of its own. It’s not always possible to accurately determine what a learner is already capable of, what kind of support they’ll need, and when to let them try things independently. But scaffolding gives instructors an opportunity to guide students to the point where they can understand tasks and concepts on their own and this makes instructional scaffolding a valuable tool in the instructor’s toolbox.

Copyright © 2012 MindEdge, Inc.

Meeting the quality challenge in online learning

The question of whether online learning represents an effective way to educate and train has been answered. It’s clear that e-learning works for both institutions of higher learning and for corporations and other organizations by providing a convenient alternative, or supplement, to face-to-face learning.

Now the challenge has become one of quality. It’s time for a renewed focus on upgrading the quality level of online learning. Some schools and organizations relied on instructors and self-taught course designers for their initial online offerings to students. These do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions often failed to leverage the strengths of online for engagement, interactivity, and focused instruction.

Students have noticed. A report from Eduventures, a Boston-based research and consulting firm, has found that student interest in a virtual academic experience has plateaued, and that quality concerns are part of that leveling off of interest.

Eduventures reported that there has been “only a small bump over the last six years in the percentage of adult students who said online college is equal in quality to campus learning,” according to

The report also notes the growing competitiveness of the online education market with the arrival of massive open online courses (MOOCS) and new, innovative venture-backed entrants. Learners have many more options today—from both academic and non-academic players.

The quality challenge

We’re convinced that future success in online learning means developing courses and simulations that students will see as clearly better in quality than current offerings. That’s the quality challenge those of us creating online courses and simulations need to address.

Courses need to engage and encourage critical thinking (where we think narrative learning is key). They should make use of video, interactivity, and cloud-based tools, and empower instructors to coach and guide (rather than simply present). They should address different learning styles, and be accessible to all. Their content should flex to the new smartphone and mobile devices, and should incorporate external resources whenever appropriate.

When we design and develop online learning at MindEdge, we keep these factors in mind. We also recognize that a continuous improvement process is vital because the technology and platforms learners uses remains in a state of flux. For example, our new Online College Courses (OCC) have been designed to fit on the smaller screens of the next wave of smartphones and mobile devices, and elements (games, exercises) in these courses will automatically adapt to a more limited viewing canvas.

Raising the quality level of online learning isn’t a one-time effort. It means listening to learners, our academic and corporate partners, and focusing on what works and what enhancements we should make. The educator John W. Gardner once said: “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” We agree. So we’ll meet the challenge of quality by doing our best to make the ordinary, extraordinary.

Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders

The Guerra Scale: reflections

It’s been five years since Tim Guerra and Dan Heffernan outlined the Guerra Scale, a tool that describes types of online learning. As Guerra and Heffernan noted, their tool described “an increasingly interactive user experience using a one-to-ten scale, in which ‘one’ involves the common experience of simply reading text on a screen and ‘ten’ represents a virtual reality scenario.”
Each step up the Guerra Scale represents a more interactive user experience and, consequently, more complexity, functionality, and development time. The following chart provides a graphic view of the tool.

The Guerra Scale is great as a discussion-starter with development partners about interactivity and the need for a wide range of online learning content. It maps out different methods of effective teaching, explaining the options available to development partners and learners. But we’ve found that the scale needs some modification.

The Future is NOW

First, we can update the chart a bit. It lists “simulations with coaching” as a future capability, but MindEdge currently offers this experience to non-profit and project management learners. Through feedback tailored to the learner’s choices, our simulations provide coaching throughout. (What the authors call “MTV Culture” has made some advances as well—make no mistake that the popularity of simulation-type games such as Rock Band show that popular culture understands the value of a good simulation.)
Virtual reality is no longer a future capability. And anyone who has ventured into a virtual reality environment such as Second Life will see that, though some people find it a rewarding experience, many others don’t–they just end up walking around an unstructured and unfamiliar environment looking for something to do. That’s because throwing participants into simulations and virtual experiences without first providing schema for their understanding and participation is not necessarily helpful.

Is “Best” always Best?

“Obviously, it makes no sense to teach all educational contents using this technology…”

Another way in which we feel the need to modify our understanding of Guerra and Heffernan’s chart is that we don’t think of its “good/better/best” labeling as an indication that learning materials should exclusively fall under the “best” category (levels seven through ten.)
In Sanchez, Barreiro, and Maojo’s “Design of Virtual Reality Systems for Education: A Cognitive Approach,” the authors suggest that virtual environments (simulations of real-world experiences) are only really suitable for abstract concepts that cannot be taught otherwise. They write: “Obviously, it makes no sense to teach all educational contents using this technology, either because they can be directly learned using traditional techniques or because other educational technologies are more effective and cheaper.”

A Mix of Content

Learner feedback has taught us that a mix of content makes for the best online learner experience. Some content is best presented as static text first, before any interactivity is introduced; other content may be taught effectively through a video interview or multimedia; games and simulations have their place in teaching and testing abstract knowledge.
A modular instructional design that mixes levels of interactivity and employs varied learning tools has, in our experience, worked best. It provides variety for the learner, speeds development time, and can deliver engaging and cost-effective training and education.


Guerra, Tim and Dan Heffernan, “The Guerra Scale“. ASTD Learning Circuits (2004).
Sanchez et. al., “Design of Virtual Reality Systems for Education: A Cognitive Approach.” Education and Information Technologies 5:4 (2000) 345 – 262.