Scaffolding Learner Agency in Technology-Enhanced Language Learning Environments

Joannis Kaliampos (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Institute of English Studies)


Despite the surge of digital technologies in professional and leisure fields, digital divides, that is, the differential appropriation of digital technologies, persist among learner populations in high-income countries and lead to unequal participation in different educational, social, political, and economic areas. Bridging these participation gaps in education is imperative, given the role of schools as institutions of both social reproduction and transformation as well as regarding the specific goal of developing foreign language discourse competence in English as a foreign language (EFL) pedagogy, which includes learner participation in local and increasingly global communities of practice using English as a lingua franca. This article draws on research and conceptual literature on digital divides and inclusive English language teaching, the notion of the common subject (“Gemeinsamer Gegenstand”), and scaffolding in technology-enhanced learning environments. It proposes and exemplifies a balance of openness and structuration in task design as well as between individualized, agency-driven learning paths and scaffolding in the context of the international blended learning project ‘Going Green – Education for Sustainability,’ which was completed by German secondary school EFL learners and their U.S. partners. The analysis of an exemplary project task demonstrates how learners can work on a common subject while engaging in learning activity at differential levels of complexity. The analysis of the scaffolding structure offers insights into its key affordances as they pertain to learner control, adaptivity, multimodality, creativity, and socio-affective dimensions in technology-enhanced learning environments. 

1. Introduction

Despite the surge of digital technologies in professional and leisure fields, digital divides (i.e., differential appropriation of digital technologies) persist among learner populations in high-income countries. While issues of basic physical access to the Internet appear to have been largely resolved in these contexts, unequal access to different types of devices, differential usage patterns, motivations for use, digital skills, and, consequently, outcomes in terms of opportunities for social, educational, political, and economic participation, continue to persist and reinforce categorical differences that, in turn, augment digital divides. Bridging these participation gaps in education is imperative, given the role of schools as institutions of both social reproduction and transformation as well as regarding the specific goal of developing foreign language discourse competence (Hallet, 2012) in English as a foreign language (EFL) pedagogy. The latter includes the goal of facilitating sociocultural participation and learner agency from local to increasingly international community levels using English as a lingua franca. This challenge calls for adequate pedagogic approaches that can enable discourse participation and mitigate digital divides.

This article proposes and exemplifies a balance of structuration and openness in educational task design and classroom implementation as a key factor to achieve these goals in a school-based setting. The underlying understanding of diversity-sensitive tasks will be discussed in the context of the project ‘Going Green – Education for Sustainability.’ Through an analysis of a sample task from the project curriculum, the article demonstrates how open-ended tasks can be implemented in a technology-enhanced language learning (TELL) environment, and how structuration can be provided through various means of scaffolding and learner support that is implemented in the environment by way of technological design of the learning management system (LMS) and the pedagogic design of the task. 

2. Facilitating participation across digital divides

This article adopts a broad understanding of inclusive education, which aims to “eliminate social exclusion that is a consequence of attitudes and responses to diversity in race, social class, ethnicity, religion, gender and ability” (Ainscow, 2005, p. 109) as a way to combat social marginalization. Inclusion is understood here as a process concerned with the identification and removal of learning barriers. It is about the presence, participation, and achievement of all students and it emphasizes the needs of those learners at risk of marginalization, exclusion, or underachievement. This notion is gaining momentum in EFL education, given the mounting criticism of a narrow orientation towards operationalized communicative skills and a conceptualization of learners as subjects of instruction, future employees, and consumers rather than sociocultural agents who participate in and actively shape their environments (Bonnet & Decke-Cornill, 2016; Schröder, 2018).

At the same time, the advent of the Web 2.0, advances in ICT, and the ubiquity of computer-mediated discourse (CMD) have led to the emergence of a participatory culture with low barriers to creative expression and civic engagement and strong support for individual agency to create and share personal meanings. While this culture is associated with substantial benefits for learning (Redecker, 2009), it also functions as a new hidden curriculum, shaping the learners’ capital and life trajectories (Jenkins et al., 2009, p. 3). As technology becomes inevitable in all sectors of life, related forms of access and skills determine who will reap the benefits of these participatory opportunities. Research on traditional literacies suggests that schools can counter these pitfalls if they provide digitally rich learning environments and increase learners’ engagement in literacy practices across the curriculum (Cummins, 2015, p. 104f.).

In terms of CMD and related online genres, participation is hampered by successive levels of digital access and appropriation among student populations (van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014). Research on digital divides distinguishes the impacts of unequal Internet access, skills and uses, and resulting outcomes, or first-, second-, and third-level digital divides (Scheerder, van Deursen, & van Dijk, 2017; van Dijk, 2012). Access, attitudes, skills, and practices regarding digital technology collectively form digital capital, and different social groups have been demonstrated to engage differentially in “capital enhancing activities” online (Hargittai & Hinnant, 2008). This deprives some users of future educational opportunities and augments existing social and civic inequalities: 

More or less participation feeds back on existing personal and positional inequalities and builds more or less new resources. In this way, inequalities in the total process of appropriation of new technologies, including inequalities of skill, reinforce existing norms of social inequalities. (van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014, p. 45)

3. Balancing openness and structuration in task design

How is the goal of digital participation facilitated in the Going Green project? A critical factor that this article addresses is the balance between structuration and scaffolding, including the design of open learning formats on the one hand, and the implementation of individualized, agency-driven learning paths, on the other hand. The subsequent sections introduce this principle, starting from a discussion of diversity-sensitive tasks in ELT to open-ended task design in TELL.

3.1 Task design for diversity-sensitive ELT

Balancing openness and structuration is critical to recent pedagogic and theoretic conceptions diversity-sensitive language learning tasks (Bartosch & Köpfer, 2015; Blume, Kielwein, & Schmidt, 2018; Chilla & Vogt, 2017; Eßer, Gerlach, & Roters, 2018; Müller-Hartmann, Schocker, & Pant, 2013; Reckermann, 2017). Inclusive ELT requires teachers to organize and scaffold differentiated task cycles that adequately respond to the students’ heterogeneity (Reckermann, 2017). Rather than offering multiple tasks in a single lesson, the needed differentiation can alternatively be achieved by varying the scaffolding options and facilitating learner control and choice within a common task cycle. Such openness can be realized in multiple task parameters, from contents and topic, to processes and strategies, social configurations, extensiveness and depth of engagement, type of communicative and non-communicative outcomes, and task difficulty (Müller-Hartmann et al., 2013; Reckermann, 2017).

Eßer et al. (2018) propose a pedagogic task model that integrates a common target task with complementary pre-communicative activities (“situated tasks”) and form-focused exercises addressing different communicative competencies and thematic foci. This allows for, the authors argue, needs- and interest-driven differentiation and opportunities for diagnostic assessment throughout the task cycle. Likewise, Chilla and Vogt (2017) discuss a task model that seeks to integrate differentiation according to the learners’ current developmental level, language learning biographies, learning interests and preferences, learning strategies, and cooperation between learners. 

Both models invoke Feuser’s (1998) notion of the common subject (“Lernen am Gemeinsamen Gegenstand”), according to which all students engage in a shared learning process, cooperatively, at their current developmental level, using their cognitive and self-regulatory competencies around a shared, common subject (p. 177). Represented by the target task in the aforementioned models, it simultaneously serves as a thematic focus and a procedural structure that aligns different students’ or groups’ learning activities with the shared goal. It further determines, or at least mediates, the social configurations and modes of cooperation during the task process (Bartosch & Köpfer, 2015, p. 200). The common subject sensu Feuser must be sufficiently complex to allow for multiple modes of learner engagement, including both concrete experiences and abstract, logical operations (Bartosch, 2018, p. 236; Chilla & Vogt, 2017, p. 67ff.). Finally, the common subject implies a convergent cooperative structure – a common outcome or, at least, a negotiation and integration of outcomes – to ensure a joint positioning of all learners that prohibits individual activity threads from drifting apart.

3.2 Open task design and scaffolding in TELL

In TELL, open-ended tasks presuppose carefully crafted elements of structuration, not least because technology-mediated learning environments tend to be more complex than analog settings. Task instructions are crucial here: They represent the primary, and often sole realization of teaching presence; that is, they help maintain social affiliation and manage task organization and execution by pointing to available support (Kurek, 2015, p. 19f.). Furthermore, unlike in the physical world where opportunities abound for casual and inadvertent interaction and by extension, socially mediated and dynamic scaffolds, social and educational affordances do not exist by default in TELL, but must be purposefully designed and built into the environment (Kirschner, Strijbos, Kreijns, & Beers, 2004, p. 51).

This raises the question of how learners can be supported to cope with these demands online. Learners’ levels of autonomy, self-regulation, and agency may limit the affordances of open tasks, which can be problematic, especially for younger, less proficient, and less autonomous learners (cf. Blume et al., 2018). However, open task design does not preclude explicit structuration, for instance when structures are internalized as general learning conditions like recurring task phases, established rules and rituals, knowledge of available task support, and explicit task instructions (Reckermann, 2017, p. 222).

Besides the well-documented effects of learner training  for facilitating participation in TELL (Hubbard, 2013), scaffolding can support learners in avoiding cognitive overload, addressing usability issues, and managing distractions. Technology can assume routine support activities through the provision of static scaffolds, thus allowing teachers to focus on the provision of dynamic and responsive support. However, TELL also pushes course designers and teachers to anticipate learner needs a priori and implement support systems accordingly. TELL contexts thus typically necessitate a combination of hard (i.e., static and fixed, primarily technology-mediated) and soft (i.e., dynamic and customizable, typically provided by experts) as well as distributed scaffolds (i.e., a combination of multiple, even redundant scaffolds for a single task) to address the needs of diverse student populations within their respective zones of proximal development (Sharma & Hannafin, 2007). Scaffolds can be deployed to support procedural, conceptual, metacognitive, and strategic performances separately or combined (Lee & Hannafin, 2016). Responding to the risks of reduced teaching presence and contingent social affordances in TELL, Hauck and Hampel (2008) add the scaffolding of affective and social learning strategies.

Digital technologies have also been shown to offer unique educational affordances, especially in terms of the aforementioned types of scaffolding, as well as increased access to linguistic input and cultural exchange for language learners. Web 2.0 tools, according to Eisenmann (2017), specifically promote learning through practical affordances of ubiquitous access, flexibility and ease of information storage and retrieval, increased relevance through authenticity of materials, situatedness of learning and social interactions, and individualization of tasks through affordances of multimodality, non-linearity, and hypertextuality (Eisenmann, 2017, p. 162f.; cf. Reinhardt, 2019). Furthermore, Blume and Würffel (2018) show how assistive technologies can be deployed to enhance diversity-sensitive ELT by affording increased learner control over task management, adaptivity of learning environments, direct and repeated linguistic feedback, individualization through multimodality, and the elimination of social cues that could free learners from communicative pressure.

4. Case study: Eco-challenge task

These principles of open task design and scaffolding in TELL are contextualized in ‘Going Green – Education for Sustainability, an annual school project for advanced, secondary EFL learners and their U.S.-based partners (cf. Kaliampos, 2016, for the background to the project). First implemented in 2014, the project has since attracted over 2,500 participants. Drawing on research in TELL, task-based pedagogies, and intercultural and global education, the project curriculum engages participants in a three-part project cycle via a Moodle-based LMS. During the introductory phase, learners activate prior knowledge and deepen their theoretic concept knowledge of the project content by proposing, revising and extending working definitions of key sustainability concepts using a questionnaire task, a collaborative glossary, and a discussion forum. In the second phase, the learners form expert groups and explore one of four parallel modules introducing exemplary sustainability discourses on the recycling of plastic, urban development and mobility, local food, and slow fashion. Starting from the guided exploration of a research task (e.g., on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and a local case study (e.g., on plastic bag legislation in California), the learners are then prompted to investigate issues pertaining to their selected topic (e.g., plastic pollution) relevant to their own school, neighborhood, or community in the so-called “eco-challenge,” which is addressed in greater detail below. Finally, the third phase calls on learners to identify a sustainability-related issue in their own community and develop an action plan to solve or mitigate the issue through community engagement. The annual project ends with a student competition recognizing creative and innovative approaches to sustainable development through local action plans.

4.1 Eco-challenge: Task-as-workplan

How does this project translate the principles of open-ended tasks for accommodating heterogeneous learner groups into classroom practice? To illustrate this in a situated application context, I will analyze the eco-challenge task regarding its theoretical structure (task-as-workplan), its enactment in the classroom (task-in-process), and the task-as-outcomes (Breen, 1989). Activity theory-informed TELL research has not only demonstrated how teachers may depart from the planned activity upon implementation (Samuda, 2015), but also how learners frequently reinterpret tasks different from the intended workplan, giving rise to divergent task performances (Dooly, 2011; Kaliampos & Schmidt, 2014), a factor that is exacerbated by the complexity of online environments.

The eco-challenge concludes the parallel modules on plastics, cities, food, and fashion in the Going Green curriculum by asking learners to identify their topic’s impact on their local environment (fig. 1, task section 1). The task instructions propose a structured research approach, including the formulation of a research plan based on the intended procedure and research methods (task section 2). The outcomes of the eco-challenges are documented using one of several suggested presentation modes (task section 3). The students then share their results, compare them with those of other groups, and report their findings back to the class (task section 4). The learners’ engagement in the inquiry-based exploration of current sustainability discourses in the four modules and the subsequent development of a community-based action plan represent the common subject as proposed by Feuser (see above). This common subject establishes sustainable development as the thematic framework, the learners’ sociocultural environment (i.e., the community, school, or neighborhood) as the field of engagement, and the identification and solution of a problem through citizen action as the shared goal and procedure.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the “eco-challenge” task for the study module on plastics and recycling.

In terms of the dimensions of open-ended and differentiated tasks, the eco-challenge provides learners with opportunities to determine:

  • the thematic focus and content (i.e., overall choice of study module, choice of research interest and formulation of research question and hypotheses, definition of scope of research activity), thus accounting for learners’ interests and embedding the task in a meaningful and authentic context;
  • the procedural structure of the tasks, that is, the types of learning processes, methods and strategies learners engage in (e.g., inquiry methods, social configuration and labor division, use of tools and task support), resulting in a challenging task that can be completed at different difficulty levels and levels of complexity;
  • the product or outcome (i.e., decision over when the research task is sufficiently solved, choice of presentation and documentation media, presentation format), thereby promoting a focus on meaning and raising learners’ awareness of what they can do and achieve in the foreign language.

4.2 Eco-challenge: Scaffolding learner engagement

For different learners to meet the goals of the task-as-workplan, multiple means of scaffolding and learner support are necessary, many of which can be anticipated and addressed preemptively by the pedagogic task design and the educational design of the LMS. While their concrete implementation during task performance lies beyond the scope of this article, a cursory overview of scaffolds can illuminate the general approach of the support structure in Going Green.

Metacognitive scaffolds (regulating the learning process by supporting processes of goal setting, planning, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation):

  • Task procedures and necessary steps to solving the inquiry-based activity outlined in task instructions, thus reducing cognitive load and directing learner attention to key task features 
  • Hyperlinks to method guides and self-assessment checklists (e.g., on “conducting research” or “giving presentations”)
  • Further options for task documentation in the LMS course (e.g., logging one’s online sources, taking screenshots, writing and publishing notes in one’s personal blog, or contributing to the course journal)

Conceptual scaffolds (highlighting what knowledge to consider, how to organize topic-related knowledge and integrate it with existing knowledge, thus providing cognitive structure to the task): 

  • Learner-driven glossary in the LMS course for defining key concepts, including an auto-linking function of glossary entries throughout the course
  • A template to upload the eco-challenge covering the students’ main idea(s) and focus, research questions, methods, and obtained results

Procedural scaffolds (guiding learners in using available features and providing operational ‘how to’ features to reduce cognitive load and enhance usability):

  • Outline of separate steps of the activity in the task instruction (see above)
  • Expandable section of the task instruction with a template on “How to plan your research” to highlight the individual steps of a research project (topic, question, hypothesis, method, report and conclusion)
  • Dedicated support and resources course section (“More links, tools, and resources”) with Moodle tutorials and Web 2.0 tools for creative presentation formats (word clouds, timelines, comics, multimedia presentations) 

Strategic scaffolds (guiding learners in approaching problems by considering multiple or alternative strategies):

  • Sample project ideas and published activities that model potential self-experiments are provided along with the task instructions (e.g., the Northwest Earth Institute’s ‘EcoChallenge hub’ or the Travel Well Magazine’s ‘30-day challenges’)

Affective scaffolds (helping to maintain or increase learner interest and motivation, lowering anxiety, and offering encouragement):

  • Upload of eco-challenges into a database accessible to all project participants to encourage social feedback via a commenting function (e.g., in the Virtual Town Hall, an open meeting space available to all project participants in both countries)
  • Further options for text-based, asynchronous (forums) and synchronous CMD (chat) within and beyond the course, promoting the use of multimodality (e.g., emojis, voice chat, or images)

Social scaffolds (activating social networks and participatory opportunities, increasing social presence and opportunities for identity work):

  • Customization of personal user profiles to create online personas
  • Course features to increase the saliency of interpersonal interaction affordances (e.g., side blocks displaying online users, recent course updates and user contributions)
  • Tools for CMD (forums, chat, personal messages within the private LMS course and the Virtual Town Hall) afford dynamic and soft scaffolding by peers or the teacher

4.3 Eco-challenge: Task-as-outcomes

As expected, the eco-challenge’s open-ended workplan inspires a wide variety of task processes that can hardly be summarized here. Figure 2 shows extracts from a sample of four exemplary eco-challenges. Investigating plastic pollution, Anita and her group uploaded a PreziTM presentation of their activities, including research on the causes and effects of plastic pollution, an inquiry with the local recycling company about the amount of plastic waste being recycled in the community, and a documentation of a “plastic-free” shopping trip to a grocery store. Kay, Julian, and Tom used Google FormsTM to conduct a survey on their peers’ knowledge about plastic pollution and, accordingly, reported their findings with diagrams. Students from North Rhine-Westphalia reached out to their partner school in Michigan and exchanged information about practices regarding plastic recycling in their respective communities using an online bulletin board (PadletTM). Janina, whose contribution is the fourth example, composed a scientific essay, “The dangerous seduction at the cash desk – the plastic bag,” in which she analyzed the environmental threat resulting from consumer behavior.

Figure 2: Four exemplary student texts that emerged from the eco-challenge task.

This brief overview emphasizes that open-ended tasks encompass a wide spectrum of what can be considered an acceptable and adequate solution or outcome regarding linguistic form and complexity, and the use and combination of language skills, media, and modalities. The eco-challenge does not highlight the attainment of a single, correct solution, but rather individual approaches to task performance within a comprehensive task cycle (cf. Schäfer, 2014, p. 51). This is augmented and shaped by the pivotal role of the learners’ communities as the sociocultural context in which the task is performed. Thus, important task parameters are unique for every learner group, leading to differential performance and outcomes. In practice, this means that teachers ought to accept outcomes as sufficient, even when they only satisfy the minimal demands expressed in the task instructions. Consequently, evaluation must include an individual dimension comparing a student’s achievement against his or her skill level and learning biography (Reckermann, 2017, p. 214). Despite the diversity of task performances and outcomes, the notion of the common subject nevertheless demands a convergent task structure that can eventually reunite individual activity threads of the task, which is reflected in Going Green by the joint action plan that emerges from the parallel eco-challenges and concludes the project cycle. That is, in this final phase of the project, students are called to develop and carry out a joint project within their community, incorporating insights from the various eco-challenges that precede the action plan. 

5. Conclusion

The analysis of the eco-challenge task demonstrates how open task design can help foreground learners’ diverse approaches to the common subject and their negotiations of the task’s processes, thematic focus, interpretations, and outcomes. This stands in stark contrast to a linear and homogenizing form of joint exploration typically encountered in published textbooks (Bartosch, 2018, p. 231). The eco-challenge exemplarily contextualizes key affordances as they pertain to learner control, adaptivity, multimodality, creativity, and socio-affective dimensions in TELL environments. As fascinating as these affordances may be, though, for them to be enacted and realized by diverse learner populations, carefully crafted support structures are needed. As can be derived from the cursory overview of the scaffolds in section 4.2, not only does the context of TELL require programmers, course designers, and teachers to consider various scaffolding dimensions a priori. It also shows that a clear distinction can hardly be drawn between educational and technological course design on the one hand, and dynamic scaffolding during implementation on the other hand. This discussion also points towards opportunities for design-based and action research for educators in TELL environments to develop, implement, and evaluate specific modes of learner support that are sensitive to the needs of a given learner group. Finally, returning to the initial discussion of sociocultural participation through technology, this analysis offers a situated example of how TELL environments can be deployed to bridge digital divides by modeling culturally and communicatively authentic and personally relevant CMD on sustainability, providing space for developing and rehearsing concomitant skills, raising awareness of related genres, and facilitating discourse participation beyond the classroom walls.


“Going Green – Education for Sustainability” is part of the educational outreach initiative “Teach About U.S.,” funded by the U.S. Embassy Berlin (Federal Assistance Grant ID S-GE210-18-CA-0002) and co-developed by Leuphana University Lüneburg and LIFE e.V. Berlin.


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