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Lessons from the Classroom: The Case for More Scaffolds in Online Learning

benBen Alisuag is a Programs Associate at NovoEd. Most recently, he led the implementation of Gooru’s personalized learning platform in 10 school districts across the country. Ben taught high school English both through the Teach for America and Fulbright programs. He holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a MS in Teaching from Fordham University. Learn more at:


Like many first year teachers, I struggled to get my students to produce high quality work. In particular, I recall grading my students’ first essays–a literary analysis of The Lord of the Flies. When I graded the first paper, red pen in hand, I marked so many suggestions and corrections that the original essay was unidentifiable–ironically, the chaos that enveloped William Golding’s fictional island had now manifested itself in my students’ writing.

After that experience, I focused on creating processes to set my students up for success on future assignments. I realized three key forms of support that could enable my students to produce A+ work: scaffolding, modeling, and coaching. With the next essay, I scaffolded the assignment by first giving students informal opportunities to practice their writing through freewrites and journaling. Then, I modeled exceptional writing by sharing student exemplars. And finally, I coached students through the process of assessing good and bad samples of writing using a rubric. The result? Far less red ink.


So can scaffolding, modeling, and coaching be used outside of the K-12 environment? Of course! When I design courses for NovoEd, I use these same fundamentals as guiding principles for eliciting substantive student deliverables–a feat often difficult to achieve in the digital realm. It’s important, however, to adapt these modes of support to fit the needs of your specific course, target population or mode of instruction (i.e. online vs. in-person). Here are some examples of how these student support tools have been utilized in NovoEd offerings:


For many courses, we find that it is helpful to start off with a first assignment that activates prior knowledge. For example, in Deloitte’s course on 3D Printing, we have many participants who join without any background in additive manufacturing. To scaffold the learning, we start with a first assignment that has no wrong answer: What would you like to see created with 3D printing? The assignment is accessible and elicits tons of student participation, and it eventually builds to more rigorous applications of the content.


Allowing students the opportunity to see an example of the product or outcome expected of them is also extremely powerful. In Darden’s course on problem solving, participants are asked to come up with a problem appropriate for a design thinking challenge. Since design thinking may be a new process for many participants, the instructor uses a specific set of criteria to test different challenges with the students. She showcases this my modeling the use of the rubric in a recorded video. The students benefit because they get to see a real life example of how the thought process behind design thinking works.


In an online course, it’s obviously difficult to provide the same 1-on-1 feedback that is easily offered in traditional classrooms. However, by utilizing NovoEd’s mentor feature, we have been able to scale our efforts and provide individual support to more than 10K students in a single course at a time. In particular, our Technology Entrepreneurship course through Stanford University uses our mentoring feature effectively. Professor Chuck Eesley pairs each of his student teams with an expert entrepreneur, who provides regular feedback on business ideas and strategy. According to his research, students with mentors complete courses at 16x the rate of students who take the course as individuals. In fact, one of the teams from Chuck’s course just recently celebrated their first capital offer for the product they developed with their mentor’s guidance.