Instructional design: from “packaging” to “scaffolding”

In my recent posts, The changing role of L&D: from “packaging” to “scaffolding” plus “social capability building” and  Towards the Connected L&D Department I wrote about the need to move from a focus on “packaging” training to “scaffolding” learning,  and I said I would talk more about what “scaffolding” looks like. For me, this is the key way for workplace learning professionals to move the learning industry into the future. In this post I’m going to look at “instructional scaffolding” but in subsequent posts, I will consider “scaffolding performance support & team collaboration” in the workplace  as well as “scaffolding professional learning“.

The concept of instuctional design is well known. It usually refers to the process of extracting knowledge from Subject Matter Experts, and presenting this content in a logical order for individuals to study. It also involves putting together formative quizzes and summative assessments to test understanding, and presenting this all in the form of courses, workshops, programmes etc. In many cases it is about “packaging” everything up  and delivering this “instructional parcel” to individuals.

But it usually also involves “spoonfeeding” learners, as they often have a fairly passive role in the learning process with limited – and frequently tightly controlled – interaction. And although there is no teacher present, it is essentially a “sage on the stage”, information-dumping activity.

Learning in this way might suit some – i.e. those who expect to be trained how to do their jobs, but I’ve read how others get very angry at this approach, about  the lack of autonomy it offers, and how it treats them like idiots. I’ve also overheard  conversations in shops in the UK, as employees reluctantly set off to “do their e-learning” and how colleagues advise the frustrated trainees how to deal with the situation – “Take a book in, and just keep pressing the return key”. I’ve also heard how some people are paying their children to take their compliance training for them, since it forces them to sit  in front of the screen for a lengthy period of time to ensure they are deemed “compliant”. Something is clearly not working!

Framework of New Home --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisThe concept of instructional scaffolding is however less well known, but essentially it is about providing the framework or infrastructure for learning to take place. So for me it is more about setting up an environment where a “guide on the side” can help individuals become more self-directed and find out things for themselves . When I set up the Social Learning Centre last year, I wanted to offer workshops that encouraged discussions and conversations around topics:

“Our workshops are designed to give just enough structure, without constraining personal and social learning.”

Wikipedia has a page about instructional scaffolding, too – yes, the term already exists –  which includes this paragraph.

“Effective learning environments use instructional scaffolding to aid the student in his/her construction of new knowledge. Avoid telling the learner exactly how to accomplish the task; do not solve the problem for the learner. This may help the learner immediately, but it hinders the learning process. It is important to promote better learning by helping the learner achieve his/her learning goal through the use of instructional scaffolding. The use of scaffolding helps the learner to actively build and construct new knowledge.”

A good example of the difference between instructional packaging and instructional scaffolding was provided recently by Debbie Morrison in her post A tale of two of MOOCs: divided by pedagogy.  In a very useful table (reproduced below) she compares the approaches taken by the (very popular, connectivist) e-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC with the (aborted, instructivist) Fundamentals of Online Education MOOC. (The first is a great example of instructional scaffolding.)

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 18.04.46

Many people are enthused by the concept of MOOCs, and my colleague Jay Cross recently held a Google Hangout where he looked at how they might work in business. Whereas many people focus on the “massive” – large scale – aspect of MOOCs, the key thing for me, is the “scaffolding” approach used in connectivist-MOOCs (or c-MOOCs) .

So why aren’t we seeing more examples of instructional scaffolding in the workplace? Well it’s probably due to the same old reasons!  The limited time available for training – which means it’s easier to provide an “package of instruction”, or a perceived need to ensure the quality and veracity of the content (so that no user-generated content is encouraged). But at its heart it’s probably about the need for control.

As we have seen above, there are significant disadvantages with the one-size-fits-all “packaged” approach to instruction, so for organisations that want to encourage flexible, adaptive, 21st century workers, using an instructional scaffolding approach provides an excellent way to start helping individuals take responsibility for their own learning and development.

Next post: Supporting self-managed team learning in the organisation

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Jane Hart

Founder at C4LPT
Jane Hart is an independent workplace learning advisor, writer and international speaker, and is the Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. She focuses on helping organisations with Modern Workplace Learning and individuals with Modern Professional Learning workshops. Find out more about Jane at

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