Vygotsky and Online Learning

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The purpose of this wiki is to explore the following questions:

  • How might one apply Vygotsky's learning theory of scaffolding to an asynchronous learning environment?
  • How might one create an online space that promotes Vygotsky's theories of Social Learning and Zone of Proximal Learning?

Lev Vygotsky[edit | edit source]

Lev Vygotsky 1896-1934

Biography:[edit | edit source]

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who published multiple books on topics related to child development and education.[1] He died at a very young age, only 37, but during his short life he was able to make lasting contributions to the field of psychology that would be relevant to researchers and educators long after his death. He is best known for his work on social learning theory, scaffolding, and the zone of proximal development. More information regarding Vygotsky’s life and work can be found here.

Vygotsky's Theory of Social Learning:[edit | edit source]

Vygotsky’s seminal work in the area of human development and learning was his theory of social learning, which posits that the “origins of learning are social in nature and, through the use of language, internalization occurs to a psychological plane.”[2] Vygotsky believed that learning and cognitive development are determined by how people interact with one another in specific socio-cultural environments. He believed that people use socially and culturally developed “tools” such as language to engage in these interactions and learning occurs as a result.[3] Vygotsky stated that the inner workings of the mind and the external workings of society are intertwined and define each other and therefore cannot be discussed separately.

A Constructivist Approach to Learning:[edit | edit source]

Constructivist theories of learning state that people construct their own meaning of new information based and built on past knowledge and experiences.[4] Learners are responsible for their own knowledge construction, which results in deeper and more meaningful learning experiences. Vygotsky’s theory takes a social constructivist approach to learning in that knowledge is constructed by learners through their social and dialogue-based interactions with the world. Meaning is negotiated and defined in collaboration with others.

Learning as a Shared Experience:[edit | edit source]

Society and culture are central components to Vygotsky’s theory of learning. He believed that learning is a process that first develops outside of a person as people interact with the society and culture in which they exist. These external experiences are then internalized through the use of culturally developed tools such as language.

Vygotsky emphasized the fact that learning does not simply occur as an isolated and independent process within an individual. It is a shared cultural experience that happens when people interact and co-construct knowledge as a group in specific cultural contexts.[3] He described learning as a transformation of shared activities and experiences amongst members of a society into internal cognitive structures and processes.[3] These activities and experiences differ from one person to another as each person brings their own unique identity (gender, attitudes, values, etc.) and background (experiences) to their interactions; therefore, the result of learning can be described as culturally conditioned sets of knowledge.[3]

Language as a Learning Tool:[edit | edit source]

If society and culture set the stage for learning to occur, then societal and cultural tools such as language finish the job by translating experiences into actual cognitive change.[3] Vygotsky believed that communication essentially re-organizes thinking structures.[5] He stated that language is a driving force behind people and societies developing and evolving over time. Both social and internal speech allow people to take in and interpret the world around them, define their cultural attitudes and values, and find their place in society amongst others.

Vygotsky also stated that social speech and how we process social speech have a reciprocally dependant relationship. How we construct social speech is defined by how people cognitively interpret social speech; and how we cognitively interpret social speech is defined by our interactions with social speech and how others construct it.[5] Both our speech patterns and knowledge of the world change and evolve over time.

Zone of Proximal Development:[edit | edit source]

ZPD online learning diagram.jpg

"Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the [learner] is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers."[6]

Vygotsky described the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as being located in between what a student can do (what is known) and what a student can’t do (what is not known) (see diagram). Learning occurs when students are guided cooperatively through learning as assistance like scaffolding (refer to the next section for a description of scaffolding) is provided. Vygotsky believed that in order for learning to take place, students must be presented with tasks that are challenging and should be completed by themselves. With the help and guidance of teachers and peers, students are able to complete and achieve tasks independently. If the task is too easy or already known, then learning does not occur. On the contrary, if the task is too complicated, then students may experience frustration and be demoralized. Thus, it is important that teachers are constantly assessing students and their abilities and making adjustments to the curriculum as needed. In order to assess whether the students are in the ZPD, the teacher can (1) see whether the child can imitate what’s been demonstrated, (2) start to solve a problem and ask students to complete the rest of the problem, and/or (3) have students work with skillful peers to solve the problem themselves.[6]

Example of ZPD[edit | edit source]

Jeremy is a second grade student and has trouble concentrating. When given tasks, he would try on his own for several minutes and slouch in his chair, complaining he doesn’t know what to do.

During a math lesson in subtraction, Jeremy attempted a word problem:

At the bake sale, Sonia sold 23 cupcakes. She started the bake sale with 50 cupcakes. How many cupcakes are left?

He read the question a couple of times and drew a tape diagram which helped him find the difference between 50 and 23. Finally, he wrote on his workbook "23 - 50 = ?" His teacher noticed that Jeremy was using the smaller number to subtract the larger number. She was observing Jeremy as he attempted to solve the equation and she was wondering if he would notice his mistake, but Jeremy’s frustration arose. He yelled, “I don’t know!” and slouched back into his chair again. The teacher noticed that Jeremy had the right concept of using a subtraction equation, yet needed reminding of the rules of subtraction. She walked over to Jeremy and said, “Jeremy, you’re doing a great job using subtraction to solve the problem. Let’s take a look at your number sentence though. What should a subtraction sentence look like? Does it make sense to use a smaller number to subtract a larger number?” Jeremy paused and suddenly realized his error. He quickly changed his number sentence to "50 - 23" and used a number bond to solve the equation by breaking 23 into 20 + 3 and subtracting 20 from 50, which gave him 30. Then, he counted back 3 from 30 and got the answer, which was 27.

In this case, Jeremy was in the zone of proximal development for knowing how to solve a subtraction equation using an efficient strategy. He also had the concept of finding the difference, but just needed guidance from a teacher to help him succeed in completing the task. When the teacher provided scaffolding, the student was able to achieve his goal. If assistance was not given, the student would be frustrated and thus learning would not take place due to the task being beyond the student’s ability.

Scaffolding:[edit | edit source]

Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term, scaffolding was first developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross, while applying Vygotsky's concept of ZPD to various educational contexts.[7] Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher or a more competent peer helps the student in his or her ZPD as necessary and tapers off this aid as it becomes unnecessary—much as a scaffold is removed from a building after construction is completed.[8] It is provided through social interaction with peers and instructors within a student's zone of proximal development, which is defined as the difference between students' potential and actual developmental levels. Instructors can use scaffolding strategies in various forms: For instance, by monitoring student progress and participation, providing feedback, and encouraging students to seek necessary help. Then, instructors gradually withdraw their provision of scaffolding when students can perform tasks independently (Woolfolk, 2013). Therefore, instructors' use of scaffolding strategies is critical for optimal learning, particularly in online learning environments, in which many students often find social interaction challenging.[9]

Here's a short and informative video about scaffolding from the Alberta ministry of education: Scaffolding for Success - Alberta education's inclusive education video series.

Implications for Online and Distance Learning[edit | edit source]

Online Culture[edit | edit source]

Learners exist in a group and culture of their own that is defined by the technology they are using and the rules regarding the use of that technology. One limitation to this in the application of Vygotsky’s theory is that online learning does not provide authentic learning environments—teaching is limited to the online classroom, which means that students do not get to experience the authentic learning that happens in the context of real world societies and cultures. [10] However, this does not mean that online learning environments adapted to Vygotsky’s framework can't still lead to greater student engagement and valuable opportunities for knowledge transfer.

Wikis as Online Learning Tools[edit | edit source]

“New web technologies are creating a ‘tectonic shift’ in the world because of what they allow us to do after we publish”.[11] The invention of new technology changes the way people interact with each other and also changes the way people learn. Collaboration can be done using tools, including software like wikis. What makes wiki a great asynchronous e-learning environment is the fact that “it offers a quick way for learners to collaborate and share ideas textually while creating a content-rich website.”[12] In virtual communities like wikis, members (experts and novices) are able to share their expertise and learn through scaffolding, much like Vygotsky’s concept of knowledge acquisition. The non-linear format allows people to go in and out quickly and easily, choosing only the sections that are relevant to their specific needs and adding their own knowledge when wanted.

The advantages of using a wiki are as follows:

  • Emphasizes the process of learning as opposed to outcome-oriented learning.[13]
  • Helps learners acquire collaborative writing skills.[14]
  • Allows highly knowledgeable learners and moderately knowledgeable learners to come together as a community to share and construct knowledge.
  • Places collective responsibility on everyone for the learning process as learners are required to maintain and update the page to keep it relevant and up to date.
  • Open editing: Provides an easy way for users to edit their own or other’s work, while encouraging online discussion.[13]
  • Multiple modalities: Allows learners to express themselves by incorporating graphics, audio, video, and animation within the content.[15]
  • Non-linear text structure: Learners can start reading at any section or node that they want to learn about.[16]

Discussions as Online Learning Tools[edit | edit source]

Online discussion tools are used both in K/12 and post secondary education environments to extend discussions beyond the traditional classroom setting. They are sometimes relied on heavily as a tool in distance learning to build an online learning community. Online discussions play a large role in Elaine Khoo and Bronwen Cowie's framework for developing and implementing an online learning community.[17] In their proposed framework, discussions can be used in the following ways:

  • Build culture and community.[17]
  • As a tool for mediated interaction and participation.[17]
  • As a situated activity.[17]
  • As a tool to promote distributed cognition.[17]
  • As a tool to promote goal-directed activities.[17]

Scaffolding in an Online Discussion:[edit | edit source]

Scaffolding strategies that promote interactions refer to strategies intended to promote learner-instructor and learner-learner interactions in contexts such as online discussions, individual learning, and group collaboration.[9]

Before Starting the Discussion:[edit | edit source]

In order to scaffold learning in student discussions and foster constructive learning, the instructor should take on more of a facilitator role and be seen as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”.[2] Doing this provides students the opportunity to socially construct and develop their knowledge as a group.

The instructor should stress the importance of participation and provide basic guidelines in regards to how students should post and reply to others–this will promote learner-learner interactions.[9] Students should be encouraged to take control of their own learning by leading discussions and responding to their peers. It's important to stress what level of participation is required as students who are not used to or comfortable with online learning may feel less inclined to actively get involved. They may consequently miss out on learning opportunities because of this.[2] Setting out guidelines as well as sending or posting messages that encourage open and accepting dialogue will make students feel more willing to open up and communicate with their peers and contribute to the learning community. This will lead to higher rates of knowledge transfer amongst students.

Other ways scaffolding can be used in online discussions are as follows:

  • Identify key concepts and encourage discussion around them by using well crafted questions or statements of inquiry.[18]
  • Produce supportive material that encourages students to explore ideas in an active fashion.[18]
  • Identify generally the areas that cause the greatest difficulties so that these can be tackled effectively.[18]
  • Provide examples of exemplary responses from previous discussions.
  • Provide a rubric or assessment criteria if this is an assessed activity.
After the Discussion Begins:[edit | edit source]

Opportunities to scaffold learning do not stop simply once the discussion begins. During the course of the discussion, the instructor could also scaffold learning as follows:

  • Participate in the discussions.[9]
  • Post regular messages.[9]
  • Encourage students to ask questions.[9]
  • Proactively monitor student progress.[9]
  • Recognize student contributions.[9]
  • Give prompts or pose questions.[9]
  • Provide timely and regular feedback on both student posts and interactions.[9]
  • Use learning analytics to assess the quality and quantity of interactions.

How to Make an Edit to this Wiki[edit | edit source]

We have created a short video to guide you through making your first edit. You can also visit the newcomers tour for other helpful tips.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Kendra, C. (2017). Lev Vygotsky Psychologist Biography. Verywell. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/lev-vygotsky-biography-2795533.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Welk, D. S. (2006). The Trainer's Application of Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development" to Asynchronous Online Training of Faculty Facilitators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9(4). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter94/welk94.htm.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 John-Steiner, V. & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 191-206. Retrieved from https://connect.ubc.ca/bbcswebdav/pid-240138-dt-announcement-rid-23222915_1/courses/SIS.UBC.ETEC.512.64A.2017W1.88768/reading.pdf.
  4. Constructivism and Social Constructivism. Retrieved from http://www.ucdoer.ie/index.php/Education_Theory/Constructivism_and_Social_Constructivism.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Glassman, M. (1994). All Things Being Equal: The Two Roads of Piaget and Vygotsky. Developmental Review, 14(2). Retrieved from https://ac-els-cdn-com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/S0273229784710082/1-s2.0-S0273229784710082-main.pdf?_tid=48785b94-cb45-11e7-9615-00000aab0f6c&acdnat=1510888589_6daab763a3df8dfc30d152fcdd5db83a.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. (M.Cole, V. John- Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. Zone of Proximal Development and Cultural Tools Scaffolding, Guided Participation, 2006. In Key concepts in developmental psychology. Retrieved from Credo Reference Database
  8. Zone of proximal development. (2017, October 22). Retrieved November 18, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development#cite_note-Scaffolding-5
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 Cho, M., & Cho, Y. (2016). Online Instructors’ Use of Scaffolding Strategies to Promote Interactions: A Scale Development Study. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6). doi:10.19173/irrodl.v17i6.2816
  10. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher. 18(1), 32-42.
  11. Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classroom. California: Sage Publications
  12. Ahmadi, S.D, Marandi, S.S. [http:// https://ac.els-cdn.com/S1877042814024859/1-s2.0-S1877042814024859-main.pdf?_tid=4bfedefc-cc5b-11e7-b677-00000aacb35f&acdnat=1511007995_455bc7faf02c62b8454212858ae1e75d “Social Software in the Classroom: the Case of Wikis for Scaffolding”], Iran, 2014. Retrieved on 19 November 2017.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Lamb, B. (2004). Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not. Education Review, 39(5), 36- 48.
  14. Engstrom, M. E., & Jewett, D. (2005). Collaborative learning the wiki way. Tech Trends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 49(6), 12-16.
  15. Jewitt, C. (2005). Multimodality, reading, and writing for the 21st century. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(3), 315-331.
  16. Ebersbach, A., Glaser, M., & Heigl, R. (2006). Wiki: Web collaboration. NY: Springer.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 Khoo, E. & Cowie, B. (2010). A framework for developing and implementing an online learning community. Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 15, 47-59.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Albert, S. & Thomas, C. (2000). A New Approach to Computer-aided Distance Learning: The 'Automated Tutor'. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 15:2, pages 141-150.