Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations – v2.0

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the thesis. It’s a re-do of an earlier post, I’m a bit happier with it than v1.0. I’m posting it here because it connects with some work I’m doing preparing to work on BIM v2.0 and also because it summarises what I think may areas of further research in e-learning would be, if I were to do any.

First, there is a definition of what I mean by scaffolding conglomerations, then there is some brief justificatory knowledge on which this very early, rough idea is based.

The last sentence in the following, summarises why I think this idea has some value. To put it another way, I’d probably argue the following:

  • The vast majority of university e-learning is not very good.
  • The common response is based on a deficit model of the academic.
    i.e. the academic doesn’t know enough about learning and teaching, so let’s force them to do a formal education qualification and all will be good. Alternatively, lets send them on some LMS training or require them to complete checklists. At best, let’s employ educational developers to work with the academics to design their courses and course sites.
  • This type of approach fails to connect with academics and their intrinsic motivation and subsequently is very unlikely to work.
  • This type of approach fails to recognise that much of the deficit in the university e-learning system arises not from the academic, but from the information systems used to implement it and the general university environment.
  • The proposition is that adding well-designed scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations addresses the limitations in the information systems and improves the level of knowledge within the system in a way that may be more effective.
  • However, adding the conglomerations is only one step. Fixing the limitations in the university environment (e.g. research is more important than teaching; bad management robbing academics of their passion etc.) is also required.

What are scaffolding conglomerations?

The design of e-learning in universities requires the combination of skills from a variety of different professions (e.g. instructional design, web design etc), and yet is often most performed by academics with limited knowledge of any of these professions. This limited knowledge creates significant workload for the academics and contributes to the limited quality of much e-learning. Adding experts in these fields to help course design is expensive and somewhat counter to the traditional practice of learning and teaching within universities. This suggests that e-learning in universities has a need for approaches that allow the effective capture and re-use of expertise in a form that can be re-used by non-experts without repeated direct interaction with experts. Such an approach could aim to reduce perceived workload and increase the quality of e-learning.

An emergent university e-learning information system should:

  • Provide the ability to easily develop, including end user development, larger conglomerations of packaged services.
    A conglomeration is not simply an e-learning service such as a discussion forum. Instead it provides additional scaffolding around such services, possibly combining multiple services, to achieve a higher-level task. The scaffolding should generally embody and provide easy access to forms of expert knowledge that help encourage and enable effective use of the service. On the other hand, while many conglomerations would be expert designed and developed, offering support for end-user development would increase system flexibility and serve to embody and enable the re-use of contextual knowledge. The Webfuse default course site approach (Section 5.3.5) is one example of a conglomeration. A default course site combines a number of separate page types (services), specific graphical and instructional designs, and existing institutional content into a course website with a minimum of human input. Another form of conglomeration that developed with Webfuse was Staff MyCQU. This “portal” grew to become a conglomeration of integrated Wf applications designed to package a range of services academics required for learning and teaching.
  • Design conglomerations to provide a range of scaffolding to aid users, increase adoption and increase quality.
    There is likely to be some distance between the knowledge of the user and that required to effectively use e-learning services. Scaffolding provided by the conglomerations should seek to bridge this distance, encourage good practice, and help the user develop additional skills. For example, over time an “outstanding tasks” element was added to Staff MyCQU to remind staff of unfinished work in a range of Wf applications. The BAM Wf application was designed to support the workload involved in tracking and marking individual student reflective journals (Jones & Luck, 2009). A more recent example focused more on instructional design is the instructional design wizard included in the new version of the Desire2Learn LMS. This wizard guides academics through course creation via course objectives.
  • Embed opportunities for collaboration and interaction into conglomerations.
    An essential aim of scaffolding conglomerations is enabling and encouraging academics to learn more about how to effectively use e-learning. While the importance of community and social interaction to learning is widely recognised, most professional development opportunities occur in isolation (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Conglomerations should aim to provide opportunities for academics to observe, question and discuss use of the technology. Examples from Webfuse are limited to the ability to observe. For example, all Webfuse course sites were, by default, open for all to see. The CourseHistory Wf application allowed staff to see the grade breakdown for all offerings of any course. A better example would have been if the CourseHistory application encouraged and enabled discussions about grade breakdowns.
  • Encourage and support conglomerations that are context-sensitive.
    Effective integration with the specific institutional context enables conglomerations to leverage existing resources and reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, the Webfuse default course site conglomeration was integrated with a range of CQU specific systems, processes and resources. The Webfuse online assignment submission system evolved a number of CQU specific features that significantly increased perceptions of usefulness and ease-of-use (Behrens et al., 2005).

Some justificatory knowledge

The concept of constructive templates (Catlin, Garret, & Launhardt, 1991; Nanard et al., 1998) was developed in response to the difficulty faced by content providers in developing hypermedia structures that followed the known principles of interface and hypermedia design. Constructive templates helped content experts to create well designed hypermedia (Catlin et al., 1991). The “conglomeration” principles build on the constructive template idea through insights from distributed cognition and related ideas. Amongst other important aspects, Hollan et al (2000) describe how distributed cognition expands what is considered cognitive beyond an individual to encompass interactions between people, their environment and the tools therein. Boland et al (1994, p. 459) define a distributed cognition system as one that “supports interpretation and dialogue among a set of inquirers by providing richer forms of self-reflection and communication”. Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations aim to improve or increase the quality and quantity of cognition within an e-learning system and support self-reflection and communication.


Behrens, S., Jamieson, K., Jones, D., & Cranston, M. (2005). Predicting system success using the Technology Acceptance Model: A case study. Paper presented at the Australasian Conference on Information Systems’2005, Sydney.

Boland, R., Ramkrishnan, V., & Te’eni, D. (1994). Designing information technology to support distributed cognition. Organization Science, 5(3), 456-475.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Catlin, K., Garret, L. N., & Launhardt, J. (1991). Hypermedia Templates: An Author’s Tool. Paper presented at the Proceedings of Hypertext’91.

Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2), 174-196.

Jones, D., & Luck, J. (2009). Blog Aggregation Management: Reducing the Aggravation of Managing Student Blogging. Paper presented at the World Conference on Education Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2009. from

Nanard, M., Nanard, J., & Kahn, P. (1998). Pushing Reuse in Hypermedia Design: Golden Rules, Design Patterns and Constructive Templates. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 9th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia.

4 thoughts on “Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations – v2.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *