Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding Online (Distance Learning)


While developing our courses, we realized the importance of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) in supporting our students. Learners’ experience s and backgrounds influence the learning process by bringing together the current learning situation with their individual social and historical backgrounds. Vygotsky (1978) defined the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). Learners move from needing constant assistance to becoming knowledgeable participants who at times may need to review previous learning. Each student has the potential to provide needed scaffolding for others in the group by becoming the knowledgeable other in appropriate situations. This shared power based on “levels of understanding” (Driscoll, 1994) allows the learners to achieve a state of intersubjectivity.

Since students needed to learn course content and many needed to learn the technological skills to use the course software, we recognized that they would require support in both areas. Vygotsky’s (1978) construct of the ZPD is adaptable to the electronic environment. The notion that “learning leads development” (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985) is a useful concept with adults as well as younger students. During the learning process, students need support. Adults may require more technological support than younger students, even as they both need academic assistance in the content area. Therefore, an electronic dyad may need to be established between the professor and the students, to be accessed by the students as they develop their technological abilities. An academic dyad may also be necessary for the under-prepared students in the course. They may need to have background material available in order to succeed.


Learning is taking on a whole new dimension with distance and Web-based learning environments. dickering and Gamson (1987) identified seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. Others have furthered the work on these principles of good practice in adult learning (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Poe & Stassen, 2002; Provost’s Task Force on Student-Centered Learning, 1997; Richard, 2003). Incorporating these principles into distance or Web-based learning is a significant challenge. In addition, adult learners are often required to master more than the coursework. They may need to become proficient in computer technology as well as the academic content of their courses. The use of Web-based technologies such as Blackboard or WebCT have made the creation of electronic courses and supplements much easier for the instructors to develop and more uniform for the students to use.

Constructivism has also informed the creation of electronic support (Gifford, 2003). It is with caution that we use the term “constructivism” because, as Phillips (2000) points out, the terrain of constructivism lies between the poles of social constructivism and psychological constructivism, and the “between” is a varied field of definitions. For our purposes, the term applies to knowledge that is constructed socio- culturally through interactions between individuals and the world in which they live. According to Bruner (1966), constructivism involves the creation of new knowledge based on prior understanding, so there is a natural link between cultural historical and constructiv-ist approaches to be used when creating and teaching electronic learning environments.

Chickering and Gamson (1987), through their seven principles of good practice, argued that students should actively participate in the acquisition of knowledge. “Student-centered learning activities are designed to provide students with opportunities to take a more active role in their learning by shifting responsibilities of organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating content from the teacher to the student” (Means, 1994, in Brush & Saye, 2001). By providing various layers of explanation and recognizing the different needs of individual students, the creation of scaffolding opportunities on Blackboard or other electronic learning environments shifts some of the learning acquisition to the students themselves, thus making them more active participants.

Contact between students and faculty is another measure of good practice (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Contact can and should occur both in and out of the classroom. With the level oftoday’s technology, contact can also occur electronically through e-mail, discussion boards (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996) and instructional dyads. Scaffolding can be done electronically as well as in face-to-face situations, thus maintaining a focus on student learning by giving them access to assistance outside the classroom.


Vygotsky (1978) identified the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as the distance between what individuals can learn by themselves and what they can learn with the help of a knowledgeable other. Asynchronous instructional dyads can be established that enable learners to access instructional material when they require it, at their own convenience. Most institutions provide academic tutoring, but the statistics indicate that certain groups of students do not take advantage of this opportunity. In one of our institutions, the students in low-level mathematics courses visit the Academic Resource Center once every ten weeks for assistance (Bilics, Lerch, & Colley, 2004).

The establishment of asynchronous instructional dyads provides another means for the students to access help. These are detailed instruction sheets that supplement explanations given during regular class sessions. Most courses present areas students traditionally find difficult to understand, and the asynchronous instructional dyads open a line of communication on these specific topics. Those students who need help with specific processes can access a more in-depth explanation than the time allows during class. The explanation sheets provided on Blackboard present alternative processes for the individual student to implement if he or she so chooses, since “learners seldom come to a learning setting with the same background knowledge” (Bull et al., 1999). These sheets enable the creation of an individual dyad between the student and the professor. A zone of proximal development is established where, when, and at what level the student needs the assistance.

Another area that leads to difficulty for many students is the ability to take accurate and complete notes during class. Students should be engaged with the material during class by reading and note taking, but their notes are generally not complete. By making presentation slides (using PowerPoint or other software) available for the students at the end of the day, the instructor can provide them with access to all slides used throughout the course. Students can review various processes when they come up again in the coursework, thus implementing Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) principle of respecting diverse talents and ways of learning. For example, Jake, a student in a low-level math class, discussed how these slides helped him learn a difficult mathematical procedure. He printed out the lecture slides and the appropriate instructional unit and used them in conjunction with his notes and the textbook. Jake was very pleased with his ability to learn a complicated mathematical process and was confident in his ability to use the procedure when taking the test on this material. An asynchronous learning dyad was formed on a specific topic, Jake was able to progress in his development with assistance, and a sense of accomplishment was engendered in him.

The data from a survey administered at the end of the Fall 2003 semester shows a very positive response by the students regarding the course Blackboard site and information contained therein. Eighty-eight percent of the students enrolled in a mathematics course used the material on the site at least once per week, a much better rate than for the same group using the Academic Resource Center. The number of hits over a two-week period on a specific instructional dyad indicate that students are accessing this material as needed for understanding and review while doing homework and before the test. The only day with no hits was February 1, Super Bowl Sunday—not unexpected. The survey showed that students access the information every day of the week: Mondays have the most use, averaging nine hits, while Friday shows the least use with an average of two hits.

Student use by hours of the day speaks to the need for access to information on an as-needed basis. The students reported that they used the information on a specific topic over a twelve-hour period, with most usage in the afternoon, but a considerable amount—23%—in the evening hours. Students tend to do homework in the evening, and this is when assistance is most needed. With access to written instruction, diagrams, and worked examples, students can support their own learning when they need the assistance. Of the mathematics students surveyed, 77% in one course and 84% in the other felt the material supported their own learning. These data show the importance of allowing the creation of individual dyads, creating separate ZPDs for each student to obtain the assistance he or she needs, when it is needed. Having the information available without leaving one’s dormitory room is also an advantage especially for students who historically do not seek tutoring.

Because of the different levels of technical skills the students possessed in another of the courses discussed in this study, the professor decided that their first foray onto Blackboard would be an exploratory assignment that would allow them to adjust to the tools, arrange their home page, and try their hand at having a focused discussion with a fixed group of people. According to Bull, Kimball and Stansberry (1998), scaffolding in the ZPD differs depending on the level of knowledge learners have. To account for the variance in learning, a step-by-step instruction sheet was developed that provided enough information to help the first-time user as well as the student with little or no experience with Blackboard. Using a laptop and data projector in class, the instructions were discussed point-by-point to clear up any confusion students might have. In the process, students with expertise using technology were able to contribute to the conversation by giving shortcuts and explanations based on their own experience. This helped to develop Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) principle of developing reciprocity and cooperation among students. As Brush and Saye (2001) pointed out, the instruction handout became a tool to support students in attaining a higher level of understanding.

Once at the course Blackboard site, the instructions for the assignment built upon what had been discussed and given out in class. They had read the chapters dealing with education of African Americans after the Civil War and seen images on video of the conditions of classrooms and debates on how this population of students should be educated. There was a Help Discussion Board for interchanges between the professor, “expert” students, and anyone who might be having difficulties moving from one document to the next. Using Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) principle of giving quick feedback, contact with students was established via Blackboard early on as they responded to the first part of a three-part assignment. One of the complaints of students using e-mail and Blackboard was that faculty members never responded to their questions or assignments. As Chickering and Gamson point out, prompt feedback creates a supportive online environment.

Zones of proximal development can be supported by students themselves through the use of small-group pairings or discussion boards. Through a Help Discussion Board, areas of difficulty can be readily identified and assistance provided by a knowledgeable other. In another course involved in this study, a research course, the class range of skills and knowledge was great. One student struggled with an old Macintosh computer that seemed to be very incompatible with the PC-based Blackboard on campus. For many students, this was their first intensive Blackboard-based course. It was hardly intensive compared to an online course but, for the computer challenged student who is working on old equipment because that is all he or she can afford, this was indeed a computer-intensive course. Students were expected to submit drafts and assignments through Drop Box. If they did not use Drop Box, their work would still be returned that way, with an e-mail telling them to find it there, thus communicating specific expectations (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) on their adaptation to the use of technology.

As the students became more aware of the need to use Blackboard, the Help Discussion Board became a tool for answering questions. Students would ask other students how to do something. For example, Jane needed assistance and used the Help Discussion Board to find it by reaching out to knowledgeable others within the class. Suzy, who is extremely knowledgeable about computers and Blackboard, readily scaffolded her classmate and offered to support other classmates. The students had created their own zone of proximal development. They were structuring support for others in the learning experience. Reciprocity and cooperation among students (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) had become a major aspect of the learning experience.

The Help Discussion Board also indicated the computer literacy of the students. By determining what resources needed to be posted on Blackboard, various documents would be provided that demanded various levels of computer expertise. Samples of assignments or guiding questions would provide the needed scaffolding for students to progress through their assignments. As a result, when students were able to work within their specific ZPD, they were more willing and open to approaching the challenge of understanding and designing research studies.

As mentioned earlier, online discussion groups created specific ZPDs within the group. In creating a learning space online for small groups to work together, students were forced to work with their developing research skills. The class was broken into groups of four or five. The online discussion groups were created by incorporating several of Chickering and Gamson’s principles (1987). First, the development of reciprocity and cooperation among students was critical to the research project. Students had to work in groups. They knew they had to make significant contributions, not just comments like “I agree” or “It looks fine.” They were able to ask questions to clarify their individual understandings. Their discussions challenged them to consider threats to internal validity they might otherwise have missed working individually. Next, the assignment encouraged active learning, another principle. Students had to engage in the material. They needed to consider the various designs that were to be presented in class, as well as the articles they had reviewed and then apply this knowledge in a new situation. Eventually the designs would be presented in class and critiqued. And finally, the assignment addressed the principle of time on task. Students had to engage in the material over time, not just in class.

It is difficult to separate out the various aspects of teaching/learning methods in an integrated environment. The ZPD and scaffolding are part and parcel of an environment wherein students construct their learning. One of the authors made her constructivist philosophy explicit at the beginning of the semester with her students. The very first assignment in this course required students to interpret a quote from Frederick Douglass on struggle and power during class time. After all students completed this activity, they were put in five groups of 4-5 students where they would share their interpretation and develop one sentence that they felt summarized the quotation. Each group then shared its sentence with the whole class. The class then reorganized the sentences, joined them with connectors, and created a whole class interpretation of the quotation. This was the first opportunity for students to see themselves as producers rather than consumers of knowledge. A discussion followed to fill in any gaps in understanding, and the students were asked to save this assignment as it would relate to the Blackboard work.

For their first online assignment, students had to construct their own meaning/interpretation of photographs of slaves and recently freed slaves. The context had been explored in class, and the text for the photographs had been removed so that their interpretation would not be based on another explanation. There were three activities students had to complete individually.

The first part of the assignment was to explain why he or she chose the particular photograph and to give an explanation of what he or she thought was happening. The second phase of the assignment – which was not available until the first part was completed, was to then describe what he or she thought was taking place “outside of the frame.” In other words, scaffolding on what had been read in the text, classroom discussions, and the individual’s past understandings on slavery, each student was to create a story about what life was like outside of the frame. The final activity was to view the photograph on the original site, with the text, and explain how this photograph was related to the Frederick Douglass quotation previously interpreted in class. With the completion of this final section, students individually and communally constructed meaning of this particular time and place in history. This aligned with the idea that the goal of education is to give students the opportunity to construct their own meanings (Collins, 1996).

After the first part of the assignment was completed, we had an in-class discussion to make sure everyone was able to follow through. The main topic of the discussion was the fact that they could each read the others’ contributions. Some students expressed the feeling that this might allow others to copy or paraphrase someone else’s work. Since this was at the beginning of the course, a sense of trust had not been established. We talked about what advantage someone would have in copying or paraphrasing, and since everyone could see all of the work, such cheating would be apparent. When students realized that they could review each other’s work, then the feeling of suspicion was removed. By the second and third parts, students had read other submissions, and the class discussions centered on how various classmates chose their photos.

Finally, a difficulty arose in assessing this assignment. The discussion board could not be used because everyone could read the comments. To resolve that challenge, the professor copied each of their three responses to one document and then responded not only to the content of each, but also to the progression of their thinking processes. In this way, she was able to determine which students needed more scaffolding in terms of their understanding of the contextual issues of the assignment (a particular time and experience in history), and those who needed to take their thinking to a different level. Her response (typed at the end of their combined Blackboard responses) was then e-mailed (individually), opening up a new portal for dyads. The next meeting was then used to engage in a whole-class discussion of this period in history and whether the use of images enhanced their reading of text. At this point in our level of interactivity as defined by Gilbert and Moore (1998), we were at the level of give and take between the professor, the learners, and the system.


As technology advances and educators incorporate more technology into their coursework, we need to be more aware of our students’ ability to adapt to this new environment as well as learn the course material. Online courses are replacing face-to-face sessions with increasing frequency. At the same time, there is great concern about current college students’ academic preparation and their ability to be successful in rigorous courses. We as educators must take advantage of all possible opportunities to support student learning, either through group discussion, teacher-student realtime dyads, or through electronic dyads.

Chickering and Gamson (1987) identified seven principles of effective teaching. These principles are just as important today as when they were when they were identified. Electronic delivery systems must be coordinated with support for the individual students’ needs. By forming electronic zones of proximal development through Blackboard discussion boards and extra supporting materials, students are able to begin to develop as learners at their own pace and on their own times. This is especially important for the nontraditional student.

The authors work with different student populations: urban, nontraditional, and traditional students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. The students come to higher education with various academic and electronic backgrounds. Our students are adjusting to college life while taking courses that require a great deal of independent learning. At the same time, we ask that they learn and use technology with which many have no experience, and some do not have the advantages of home computers. It is our responsibility to support these students in ways that will allow them to succeed in their pursuits. By recognizing and creating electronic zones of proximal development, we as educators provide the scaffolding where and when the students are seeking assistance.

Finally, we are attempting to create a learning environment, online and in class, where student and subject matter are not treated as separate entities but are, instead, on “a developmental journey of continuous reconstruction, and reweaving of the ‘web of meaning’” (Russell & Haney, 1999). When learning is connected to our experiences through scaffolding and technology that recognizes and supports our cultural historical differences, each of us can take ownership of that learning and see ourselves as producers, not consumers of knowledge.

key terms

Asynchronous Instructional Dyads: Material placed on electronic media for access by students as needed; detailed instruction sheets that supplement explanations given during regular class sessions.

Constructivism: Knowledge that is constructed socioculturally through interactions between individuals and the world in which they live.

Electronic Dyad: Teacher/student and student/student interaction through electronic media.

Scaffolding: Supporting student learning with assistance at the level of learning where it is needed.

Zone of Proximal Development: The distance between what a learner can accomplish by themselves and what they can accomplish with assistance (Vy-gotsky, 1978).

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