Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Pre-class Planning to Scaffold Students for Online Collaborative Learning Activities

Xun Ge, Kelly Ann Yamashiro, and Jack Lee
Department of Adult Education, Instructional Systems, & Workforce Education and Development
The Pennsylvania State University
315 Keller, University Park, PA 16802 USA


In recent years, there is a growing interest in developing online collaborative learning environments. In a learner-centered online collaborative environment, students work together to construct knowledge and negotiate meanings through collaborative learning activities. Computer-mediated conference can not only greatly amplify human intellect online, but also enhance collaboration and facilitate active knowledge construction (Harasim, 1990). However, anecdotal experiences indicate that problems may arise in online learning environments without appropriate guidance and support for students. According to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), scaffolding is an integral part of the meaning making process in a collaborative learning environment. Therefore, a case study was conducted on an undergraduate online seminar to explore whether and how the pre-seminar designing and planning process had scaffolded the student online activities and affected online moderation. Qualitative data were gathered and analyzed by comparing and relating the student online activities logs to the pre-seminar design and planning documents as well as the post-seminar evaluation documents, including the students’ reflective journals. The findings revealed that the pre-class designing and planning activities had served as means to scaffold students' cognitive and affective behaviors. In addition, the study also implied that pre-class preparation had also facilitated the online moderation process.

Keywords: Scaffolding, Online collaborative learning, Pre-class designing and planning, Facilitating, Cognitive and affective behaviors


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in developing online collaborative learning environments. In a learner-centered online collaborative environment, students work together to construct knowledge and negotiate meanings through group-based collaborative learning activities. Online collaborative learning is supported by Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory that an individual’s cultural development appears twice and on two levels--first on the social, and later on the psychological level, first between people as an interpsychological category and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological category (Salomon, 1988). Based on this theory are the assumptions of collaborative learning and knowledge building, which require communication, collaboration and negotiation on the common ground of shared ideas, values and beliefs (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996; Pea, 1996). Many recent practices have contributed to the growing body of knowledge of collaborative learning, for example, Scardamalia and Bereiter’s Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) project (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996) and Pea’s distributed multimedia learning environments (Pea, 1996). Therefore, it is believed that computer-mediated conference as an on-line educational tool (which is the focus of this study), can not only greatly amplify human intellect online, but also further enhance collaboration and facilitate active construction of meaning and knowledge building (Harasim, 1990). Harasim also emphasized that collaboration “enhances connectivity and socio-emotional engagement to the learning process, as well as creating an intellectual climate that encourages participation” (p. 54). In other words, a well designed online environment is conducive to both learners’ affective and cognitive development.


Problem Statement

However, anecdotal experiences indicate that problems may arise in online learning environments without sufficient or appropriate guidance, support and facilitation. For example, students do not feel as comfortable in online collaborative learning environments as in classroom settings, especially adult learners (Thomerson & Smith, 1996). Some novice computer users may experience varied degrees of anxiety when using a new online application. Other students may feel confused and become lost or overloaded by disorganized, purposeless, or opinionated dialogues that come across over the online discussion. Problems like these become more prominent in a synchronous than in an asynchronous online environment. Several studies (as cited in Thomerson & Smith, 1996) revealed that affective experiences were found to be correlated with students’ cognitive achievement.

From the sociocultural perspective and according to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) (as cited in Bonk & Kim, 1998), scaffolding is an integral part of the knowledge building and meaning making process in a collaborative learning environment. Thus, in order to make online collaborative learning successful, it is necessary to scaffold the collaborative learning activities with some kind of facilitating strategies. According to Bonk and Kim, “scaffolding is a teaching method that provides the learner with support or assistance to complete a task or solve a problem that would not have been mastered without help (p. 70).” The function of scaffolding is to recruit the person’s interest in the learning task, control frustration, mark discrepancies, reduce task complexity, and demonstrate expert performance when necessary (Rogoff, 1990, as cited in Bonk & Kim, 1998). Scaffolded instruction makes the task evident, promotes a feeling of ownership, is individually appropriate, promotes collaboration, and fosters internalization (Bonk & Kim, 1998).


The Purpose of the Case Study

Despite the importance of scaffolding, there is minimal explanation of how scaffolded instruction can be employed in adult-learning situations (Bonk & Kim 1998). Although there have been increasing discussions on moderating skills for computer-mediated conferencing in recent years, such as Mason’s (1991) three moderating categories that include organizational, social and intellectual dimensions, they are mainly from the instructor’s or moderator’s perspective and are more focused on the instructor’s moderation than students’ preparation, more on the online moderating process than on the pre-class designing and planning process. Therefore, a case study was conducted on an online seminar which focused mainly on the pre-seminar designing, planning and developing process as well as the pre-seminar instruction and preparation on the part of the student. The seminar participants were undergraduate, graduate, and adult learners of whom the majority were communications majors. The purpose of this study attempted to explore the following questions:

  1. How did the pre-class design and planning and pre-class instruction facilitate students' cognitive and affective behaviors for their online collaboration?
  2. How did the pre-class design and planning affect the online moderation process?


Description of the Case Study

The virtual online seminar was part of an advanced undergraduate communications course on computer-mediated communication (CMC) and its applications that was taught at a distance at a medium-sized American university during the fall of 1998. As previously mentioned, seminar students consisted of undergraduate, graduate, and adult learners of whom the majority were communications majors.

The online communication application chosen for this seminar was the virtual reality (VR) tool, The Palace (, a web-based chat, client/server program. Since it was a new application for the students, the goals of the seminar were to gain knowledge and skills on the Palace and to critique its application in a learning environment. To help students achieve the learning goals, a role-play activity and a follow-up discussion were designed and planned for students. The role-play activity was intended for students to familiarize themselves with the communication functions and features of The Palace, to communicate and collaborate with each other, to make decisions, and to solve problems. The follow-up discussion was designed for students to reflect upon their virtual reality experiences and The Palace application in communication and education.

Although the seminar was only an hour long, it took many hours of pre-class preparation for both the instructors and the students. The instructors’ preparation included conducting a needs assessment; designing and developing the VR online environment; preparing for technology facilitation and setup, such as setting up servers, checking computer systems and confirming on-campus computer labs; and designing and providing pre-class instructions to students. The students’ preparation included completing pre-class reading assignments, practicing using the functions of the Palace tool by following instructions for The Palace, and sending email messages to the instructors if they needed clarification on any of the pre-class instructions or the upcoming online seminar, particularly any questions related to the use of technologies. All preparation documents were archived.

Three instructors/moderators were involved in the design, development, and delivery process of the seminar. They played the roles of facilitators by opening seminars, announcing agendas, asking questions, facilitating discussions, and solving any emerging problems. Students’ pre-, actual, and post-seminar activities were carried out according to a lesson plan designed by the instructors/moderators.

The entire instructional design process was documented from the needs assessment to the evaluation of students’ reflective journals. In addition, the students’ online activities in The Palace were video-recorded. The documents for the seminar included:

  • A lesson plan for the seminar
  • Pre-seminar web-based instruction
  • Pre-seminar email instruction
  • Pre-seminar email exchanges between the instructor and the students regarding the use of The Palace
  • Seminar logs/transcripts
  • Students’ reflection journals
  • Video tapes of students’ online activities during the seminar


Research Method

This case study took the approach of action research. Qualitative data analysis was conducted by comparing and relating the online activity logs to the pre-seminar design and planning documents as well as the post-seminar evaluation documents, including the students’ reflection journals. The primary intention was to find the gaps between the pre-seminar preparations and the actual online activities—how the preparations (i.e., design, planning, development, and pre-class seminar instructions) facilitated not only the students’ online activities, but also the instructor’s moderation. Patterns emerging from the data were analyzed and interpreted, and inferences and generalization were made based on the analysis.


Results and Discussion

Table 1 below lists the specific pre-seminar activities and the corresponding means, or facilitating strategies, used to scaffold students' cognitive and affective behaviors. Pre-seminar activities were designed to scaffold both cognitive and affective behaviors since The Palace application could potentially have not only a high learning curve, but also a high comfort curve due to the nature of it as a VR chat application which attempts to immerse the user in its environment. The scaffolding strategies shown in the table are taken from Rogoff (1990, as cited in Bonk & Kim, 1998) and from Bonk and Kim (1998); however, in order to address the first research question, the authors have separated the strategies into those that focus upon scaffolding in the cognitive domain and those that focus upon scaffolding in the affective domain. See Appendix A for a more detailed explanation of how each pre-seminar activity scaffolded students' cognitive and affective behaviors.


Table 1.  Pre-seminar activities and their corresponding scaffolding strategies


To answer the research questions, the following findings were obtained from the data analysis and interpretation:

  1. Pre-seminar instructions, email exchanges with the instructor, and hands-on experiences with The Palace prepared students for its use and made them feel comfortable using the new conferencing application thereby allowing students to be engaged in their collaborative learning tasks during the actual seminar. This is indicated in the transcripts excerpts that students were able to start role-playing once they were told to do so and the dialogue of the role-play flowed smoothly, spontaneously and creatively. Note: To keep the participants' names anonymous, students' and moderators' names have been coded according to the group they participated in.

    From Group C:

    Moderator C: "OK. Let's start. Light, Camera, and Ready!"

    Student C1 (Mom): "Hi son Maui"

    Student C4 (Maui): "you gotta start."

    Student C1 (Mom): "We have a problem."

    Student C3 (Granny): "What?"

    Student C1 (Mom): "There are not enough hours in the day."

    Student C1 (Mom): "We need more sunlight so we can do our farming."

    Student C4 (Maui): "hmm…let me see what we can do."

    Student C4 (Maui): "I got it…let's go see grandma"

    Student C1 (Mom): "I don't have enough time to do my laundry."

    Student C1 (Mom): "The days are toooo short."

    Student C2 (The Sun): "ha ha ha"

    Student C3 (Granny): "Who is causing all these problems"

    Student C4 (Maui): "must be the sun who resides within haleakala"

    Student C3 (Granny): "Ahhh, I know him well, the rascal."

    Student C2 (The Sun): "nah nah nah nah nah nah"

    Student C4 (Maui): "he has become quite the pest recently."

    Student C4 (Maui): "do you have any words of wisdom for me?"

    Even the course instructor, when interviewed, commented that the students "were more engaging in the role-playing [activity] than [compared to] other online seminars" and that the "activities served well to enhance interpersonal interaction."

  2. Pre-seminar preparations helped students to understand what to expect, what to accomplish and what the instructor meant during the online activities. This made the online moderation easier for the instructors/moderators. For example, having students complete The Palace online tutorial introduced students to the features and functions of the application as well as the jargon that moderators would use during the actual seminar. The excerpts of the online transcripts support this point:

    From Group A:

    Student A1: "sorry i lost my avator [avatar]"

    Moderator A: "I'll get it for you"

    Moderator A: "hold on"

    Moderator A: "drag them into your prop bag"

    Moderator A: "and double click on those pieces"

    Moderator A: "Your prop bag is next to the color palette"

    Moderator A: "great"


    From Group B:

    Moderator B: "OK, the group activitiy is …."

    Student B1: "okay, so what's [are] group discussion on tonight?"

    Moderator B: "that you will role play the legend of Maui."

    Student B1: "ahhh…"

    Student B1: "okay, I'll [be] the sun :)"

  3. Pre-seminar instruction brought the students to a common ground so that they could share their experiences, help and collaborate with each other better in order to make decisions and solve problems. For example, when some students failed to connect to the server at the beginning of the seminar, some students provided the correct server number right away:

    From Group A:

    Instructor: "some of my students cannot connect to that one [the server]?"

    Moderator A: "13, 16, and 19."

    Moderator A: "128. 118. 9. 13"

    Instructor: "In the email, it says 13, 20, and 21"

    Moderator A: ""

    Student A3: "There was a second e-mail with a correction."

    Moderator A: "128. 118. 9. 17"

    Student A1: "Yup"

    Moderator A: "Yup."

    Here is another example, when the moderator C announced the activity, the students understood right away the task without asking for further clarification. They made the decision about the roles among themselves without delay.

    From Group C:

    Moderator C: "OK, tonight's activity is to act out and role play this story."

    Student C1: "I will be the mother"

    Moderator C: "Each of you is going to play a role."

    Student C2: "Oh, okay, I'll be the sun."

    Student C3: "I'll be the grandmother"

    Student C4: "i guess i'll be maui then.."

    Because of the heterogeneity of the class in terms of technical knowledge, skills, and experience related to the use of a VR chat application, pre-seminar instruction--in class and online--was designed to scaffold not only the cognitive behaviors needed to perform in The Palace during the seminar, but also to scaffold the affective behaviors needed for students to feel comfortable and motivated to learn with this new application.

  4. Announcing agendas and assignments at the beginning of the seminar not only helped students to work toward the instructional goals, but also helped the instructors to organize and moderate the online activities. This is illustrated from the online transcripts that the three groups went through the same procedures: the moderator announcing the agendas and tasks, the students deciding what roles to play, role-playing, and cheering for the success of the role-play, and moderator leading a follow-up discussion after the role-play. There was no confusion or hesitancy on the part of the students or the moderators. For example, in the following excerpt, the students appeared to understand what the moderator meant by "heaven" and the task about "discussion questions":

    Moderator A: "let's go back to heaven and I have some discussion questions."

    Student A1: ":) amen"

    Student A2: "okay"

    Moderator A: "follow me"

  5. While students were able to perform the seminar group activity using the functions of The Palace, it was found that students could be greatly affected by technology problems that occurred during the online activities. They appeared upset, nervous, and lost when an unforeseen technology problem, such as being suddenly disconnected from the internet, occurred. It also confused students when their peers dropped offline. This type of technology problem and its subsequent effect on the entire group occurred at least once in each of the three groups that students were divided into. This is shown by the following excerpts of transcripts:

    Moderator A: "where did Student A4 go?"

    Student A1: "she is lost in space"

    Student A2: "maybe she is having problems with her connection"

    Moderator A: "hi Student A4"

    Moderator A: "are you having problems with your connection?"

    Student A4: "i [am] having problems"

    Student A4: "I'm typing & it's taking forever"

    Moderator A: "that's ok…we will wait"

    Moderator A: "let me know if you have any problems Student A4"

    Student A4: "o.k., I was kicked off earlier from my isp, to much noise on the lin[e]"

    Moderator A: "are you ok now?"

    Moderator A: "can you pick up maui?"

    Student A4: "think so"

    Student A4: "finally, man this hard"


In the reflective journal by Student A4, she mentioned that she "had a frustrating time" using the Palace due to a very incredibly slow lag time which made it almost impossible to fully appreciate the Palace tool.

Overall, the seminar went as planned and designed, and the learning goals were achieved with the delivery of a recreated version of a legend through the role play activity conducted during the seminar. The pre-seminar preparation--the designing, planning, developing, and pre-seminar instructions on the use of The Palace--all contributed to the success of the seminar.

In addition to the above, some interesting patterns emerged from the document analysis:

The students were more collaborative, engaged, creative, and goal-oriented in accomplishing their tasks once they were told to start. With the exception of one student, students did not exhibit any initial fear of the technology, but instead were creative in using the technology to complete the seminar group activity, a role play activity, thus demonstrating both their cognitive and affective development of the technology. Excerpts from each of the three groups' online transcripts illustrate this.

From Group A:

Moderator A: "ok, take your pick…who do you want to be for your role"

Student A1: "I'' be the sun"

Student A2: "I guess I'll try the people, is that ok?"

Moderator A: "sure"

Student A3: "i'll be the mom"

From Group B:

Moderator B: "Now, I'll give you 10 min. to decide who will play what."

Student B1: "I'll take the sun"

Student B1: "okay, so who wants to be what?"

Student B2: "whose going to be who"

Student B1: "Student B3 can be Maui"

Student B2: "there's the sun, maui, maui's mom and grd that it"

Student B3: "I temporarily got transported off the island and missed what Moderator B said, Sorre [Sorry]"

Student B3: "What should I be"

Student B3: "Student B2, what are you"

Student B1: "okay, I'm the sun :)"

Student B3: "OK, which one is he"

Student B1: "the guy about [above] you Student B3"

Student B3: "Right above me??"

Student B3: "Thanks"

The students were highly motivated for the online collaboration; they appeared to feel a sense of ownership and a feeling of the community through the online collaboration activities. The time to practice and play with the inherent tools in the application before the seminar took place allowed students to gain interest and get accustomed to the VR environment. To better illustrate this, here are excerpts from the online transcripts.

From Group B:

Moderator B: ":) applause"

Student B1: "cool :)"

Moderator B: "Bravo!"

Student B2: "We did it!"

Student B1: "good job team :)"

From Group C:

Student C4: "good jobs people…*clap*clap*"

Student C4: ": ) APPLAUSE"

Student C1: "HANA HOU [One more time]…."

Student C3: ": ) APPLAUSE"

Student C3: ":) KISS"

Student C3: ": ) KISS"

Student C4: "thanks granny…"

Student C1: "Hooray…wee did it."

Student C1: "it [The Palace] seems easy to use…with a little practice."

Student C2: "I felt like I was part of the group."

Student C2: "I felt a high sense of presence."

Student C3: "I think it create[s] a collaborative environment…"

Student C4: "Plus this show[s] you who is talkin[g]."

Student C2: "Yes--it creates more of a sense of people being here"

The students showed their understandings to those who encountered technology problems and tried to offer their help. Students began to scaffold and demonstrate their own expertise in The Palace with their peers. Below are examples from the online transcripts.

From Group B:

Student B: (addressing another student who needs help): "just click it off from your Prop picker"

From Group C:

Student C1: "Help."

Moderator C: "…you need to grab the mother and save the pieces into your prop picker."

Student C3: "The black satchel bottom right"

Student C3: "just drag them into it"

Moderator C: "Just drag them into your bag."

Student C3: "right!"

Student C1: "thanks."

Some leaders appeared naturally within each group. They played an important role not only in facilitating the instructor to moderate the online activities, but also in creating a friendly, appealing online environment that encouraged students’ participation. The following examples illustrate this.

From Group A:

Student A1: "yo A4 what's up"

Student A1: "hello"

Student A4: "I'm the only one having the major problems"

Student A1: "it takes a while to learn"

Student A1: "yes"

Student A4: "Sorry everyone for the problems"

Student A1: "no problem"

Student A2: "no problem Student A4"

From Group B:

Moderator B: "Okay, this is where you will role play the legend."

Moderator B: "The volcano is in the background."

Student B1: "okay, so how do we role play?"

Instructor B: "Now I will give you 10 min. to decide who will play what."

Student B1: "I'll take the sun"

Student B1: "So, who wants to be what?"

Student B1: "Student B2 can be Maui."

Student B2: "Which one is she (Maui's mother)?"

Moderator B: "Above me."

Student B1: "the one above Moderator B."

Student B1: "I can take [the] ppl [people]"

Student B2: "alright"

Moderator B: "OK."

Student B1: "hi video 16 :)"

Student B1: "okay, let's role play!!!"



Our study has the following implications:

  1. While Mason (1991) and other researchers emphasized the importance of online moderation, the authors believed that the moderating process should be preceded by pre-class preparation to make moderation successful. Pre-class preparation should be regarded as part of the facilitating strategies to scaffold online collaborative learning activities.
  2. Scaffolding requires facilitating strategies that are structured and specific.
  3. Technology can be a great psychological impediment to some students. Therefore, pre-class instructions on the use of new online collaboration tools are important if students are to feel comfortably participate and engage in online collaboration activities.



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  • Harasim, L. (1990). Online education: An environment for collaboration and intellectual amplification. In L. Harasim (Ed.) Online education: Perspectives on a new environment, New York: Praeger, 39-64.
  • Mason, R. (1991). Moderating computer conferencing. DEOSNEWS, 1 (19),  
  • Pea, R. D. (1996). Seeing what we build together: Distributed multimedia learning environments for transformative communications. In T. Koschmann (Ed.) CSCL: Theory and practice of an emerging paradigm, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 171-186.
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  • Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1996). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. In T. Koschmann (Ed.) CSCL: Theory and practice of an emerging paradigm, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 249-268.
  • Thomerson, J. D. & Smith, C. L. (1996). Student perceptions of the affective experiences encountered in distance learning courses. The American Journal of Distance Education, 10 (3), 37-48.


Appendix A


Pre-seminar activities and their corresponding cognitive scaffolding strategies


Pre-seminar activities and their corresponding affective scaffolding strategies