08: Turner

Mind the Gap: Scaffolding Successful Collaboration in an Inner City High School Setting

Shirley Turner

Cite this article (APA): Turner, S. (2011). Mind the Gap: Scaffolding Successful Collaboration in an Inner City High School Setting. Media : Culture : Pedagogy, 15(2). Retrieved from http://mcp.educ.ubc.ca/v15n02DigitalGeneration_Article08_Turner



Today’s teens see internet tools as their communication devices of choice and in order to fully engage them in learning it is optimal to integrate their choices into our pedagogy. As a constructivist educator I believe that high school education needs to adjust to youth culture’s co-opting of technology. This article investigates how digital media can be implemented to engage students in collaboration using a case study situated in inner city high school classes including an extracurricular citizenship program. I will argue that not only does it strengthen students’ attachment to their teachers, but also that the use of online forums meets adolescent developmental needs as defined by Gordon Neufeld. My belief that communication is a key issue in the teaching / learning process informs this study of students’ enthusiasm for the use of digital resources, and pedagogy that will support the use of these tools for educational ends. Online forums provide new opportunities for learner autonomy and collaboration that complement the limitations of face-to-face interaction in the classroom. Integration of digital experiential learning modes into education is essential to engage and motivate youth in the current generation.


An anthropological definition of culture is based on symbolically constructed meanings, which can include artefacts and behaviours, with an underlying assumption that these are shared by members of that culture through communication[1]. In fact, language is a symbol that is easily overlooked in North American educational settings since we assume that English is the student’s language of choice. If we reference Greek definitions of education before subject specialization, there are three dimensions: logic, rhetoric and grammar[2]. Both rhetoric and grammar encompass communication in differing forms and thus I believe it to be essential to the educative process. The challenge is to integrate the burgeoning cultural norms of the digitally engendered traits possessed by the current generation with subject-specific knowledge in order to generate understanding. However, there is also a need to investigate how these varying forms of media can be used to generate not only subject-specific meaning, but also an appreciation of the importance of social interconnection grounded in our bodies and environment. Societal grounding forms the basis of subcultures that share common cultural traits such as youth, and this study explored a variety of communication strategies to enhance group cohesion with the further goal of producing representations of their experience to attract others into the extracurricular program.

As a teacher who has used emerging technology for over half of my professional life, I am interested in the way that today’s youth uses digital media to connect with each other and their world. Teens’ acceptance of the internet into their communication repertoire, and the importance they place on it as a tool, appears to be seamless in that they do not distinguish between it and other modes of communication, as the majority of my generation do, as a separate or different tool. In addition, the majority of their messages have only superficial value, revealing that there is potential to increase their capacity for sustained dialogue that in the best case scenario can lead to effective collaboration. My belief in the importance of teaching who I am[3] and showing my own passion for learning resulted in my willingness to be an immigrant in both this digital subculture and the Canadian education system. My interest in the social dimension of this process arose from my observation that adolescents appear to value the relational aspect of the internet above the content-based aspect. I find an abbreviated form of Neufeld’s attachment theory useful in analyzing these relationships. The initial modes are sameness and belonging that can manifest as loyalty. Once an emotional connection has been made, these can further develop into significance and “being known.” In my experience, the way that channels of communication are established is critical for both teaching and cultural adjustment. When the process facilitates collaboration, then it can act as the nucleus for community-building.

I immigrated to Canada in 1995 based on the recommendation of a professor of anthropology that I met on vacation in Madagascar. At the time I had just finished a contract in Tanzania that involved setting up in-service teacher training for physics and math teachers in rural areas. We talked extensively about education over a month-long period and in Neufeld’s terms we developed an attachment based on my feeling of being understood as an educator. She suggested that the Canadian system fostered many of my educational ideals and practices and, following several subsequent visits to Canada while I was working in Portugal, I chose to emigrate with the support of her sponsorship. I believe that many students follow a similar path when it comes to selecting electives. They form an attachment with a teacher, often based on being recognized for the role within a junior science class (belonging), or being valued for their contribution (significance), which results in them choosing to continue in that subject area. They trust that the others' opinion of their abilities is reliable and only prepare themselves superficially for the transition, often simply in terms of whether they know others who are making the same choice. On arrival in the class, they work on a set of expectations based on their previous experience of the subject area in a manner similar to an immigrant trying to work with their previous set of cultural assumptions. For both, the experience can be quite baffling if there is neither clear guidance nor the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. In my case, due to my lack of connection with the Canadian educational community, it took me a year to complete the paperwork and find a job as an educator.

My personal journey has been a lengthy process that really started to progress once I worked in a single location for more than two years, which enabled me to form professional contacts based on making a contribution, moving me to Neufeld’s upper levels of significance. In my experience as an immigrant, both digitally and in the Canadian school system, my most valuable information came from my contemporaries who worked with the same student population. In order to initiate this communication, I had to overcome my feelings of vulnerability and be prepared to ask questions that would improve my ability to operate effectively in my new environment. In a similar vein, I feel that it is important first to give my students the opportunity first to belong to their classes, and to then provide openings so that they can contribute to each others' understanding of the subject material. In this case study, performed from 2005 to 2007, I focused on improving question-asking capacity based on the belief that it would also improve their articulation of scientific ideas. The first step in this direction was to stimulate interaction in the classroom setting so that the students knew each others' names and had some experience engaging in dialogue, preferably in a subject-specific context. I used the framework of peer instruction developed by Eric Mazur (1997) for teaching Physics on a conceptual basis to stimulate face-to-face peer interaction and increase social interactivity as a cooperative learning strategy in my classes. Secondly, in order to provide a rich source of topics that engaged my students in processing the course content in a way that would have an impact on their marks, I used an online homework service with strict deadlines that individualized assignments numerically, thus giving my students a reason to work together. This practice increased class chat room postings by 300% in my study group compared to my control group. I believe that my success in this endeavour largely stemmed from using web-based tools to move both myself and the students into Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development[4]. Effectively, this involves both parties moving into different roles within the learning setting. As a teacher, I have learnt to become more facilitative in my teaching style while my students have been given the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise with digital tools and observe me in a learning role. In its most successful moments, the interplay between my content-based expertise and their enthusiastic exploration of communication strategies has led to a mutual collaboration in determining the best use of the various facets of my class chat room.

I believe that the development of interpersonal communication skills has been overlooked in the use of digital tools for science education, where numerical outcomes are more often used as a baseline for evaluation. Many teachers make the assumption that students are able to express themselves adequately in digital settings—an assumption that I caught myself making in a previous study. In recent years, there has been a move towards extending literacy skills throughout the curriculum, and my use of a conceptual approach to teach Physics 11 is an example of this development. The use of asynchronous tools further promotes students’ opportunities to reflect and articulate their learning to each other. Although youth are confident in their use of digital tools for social interaction, it is my observation from my control group that many of the messages are superficial, especially when addressing scientific concepts. In addition, their postings often tend to be self-serving, referencing the teacher as the expert rather than exploring the class or cohort as a community of learners. My methodology attempted to tackle these issues by analyzing social presence in online exchanges.

According to Neufeld (2004), one must be cautious in generalizing about teens’ ability to participate in community, as attachment theory indicates that they are still in the process of differentiation and separation, and thus not always able to fully participate in an integrated, individual fashion. For this reason, I was particularly interested in analyzing the social presence component of the forums. As a text-based learner, I consider computer-mediated communication (CMC) to lack social-context cues, such as body language, which I find essential to classroom management and feedback. In my own process of seeking information, I often use non-verbal cues to decide whether it is timely to inquire further. However, I am aware that my students’ familiarity with digital media places them in a different cultural context, and the use of asynchronous threads allows the user to respond at an appropriate time based on their mental / emotional processes. As a consequence, I subjected the forum responses to analysis using Rourke et al’s content approach (1999), which has three broad categories: affective, interactive and cohesive factors. In order to evaluate the extent to which my inquiry was stimulating the creation of a community, I took 126 postings from the Physics 11 forum, and the same number of postings from a control Chemistry 11 course that had a similar composition of students but with whom I did not stimulate peer-to-peer interaction, use online homework services, or employ cooperative learning activities.

Figure 1 summarizes the data analysis of 126 postings taken from the inquiry group of Physics 11 students’ forum and the control group of Chemistry 11 students’ forum. Both the postings and the length of individual threaded discussion topics from the Physics 11 forum tended to be longer and more detailed than those from the control group, such that a greater number of topics needed to be extracted from the control groups forum in order to have an equal number of student postings to analyze.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Interactive responses demonstrate that the other participant(s) is paying attention to the response, which provides a feedback mechanism acknowledging the initial posting and providing vital social glue for the online community. This category showed the least impact with only an 18% increase for the Physics 11 students compared to the control group. I believe this reflects the overall engagement of all students with a process in which they are using a media of choice, although it should be noted that there were three times as many postings on the test group forum than the control over the same time period of three months.

Affective responses are characterized by the expression of emotion or vulnerability, sometimes depicted with emoticons. There were 36% more affective responses in the Physics 11 test group than the Chemistry 11 control group, which implies that the face-to-face interaction allowed the students more confidence in expressing their feelings. Given that Neufeld’s highest attachment mode of being known involves including feelings in making a contribution, I believe this is a significant factor from a community-building perspective. It correlates with a similar increase in cohesive responses which showed a 40% increase. Cohesive responses exemplify language use, which indicates a sense of group commitment (the belonging mode) by use of names, salutations and addressing the group as “we,” “our,” or “us.”

Returning to the question of my inquiry—how can digital media be implemented to engage students in collaboration—this analysis verifies that the forums displayed the indicators of a “community of inquiry” as defined by Rourke et al (1999). The interplay between affective responses that demonstrate vulnerability and cohesive ones that express group consciousness, underpinned by the sheer volume of postings (625 over a three-month period—with 4 020 log ins), indicates that the Physics 11 classes were a prototype learning community with teens extending themselves beyond their comfort zone to help one another. Using Neufeld’s modes of attachment, my students were showing a clear sense of belonging to the group and were moving into the mode of significance—a conclusion that was borne out by exit interviews during which some of the participants discussed collaboratively working on scholarship applications in grade 12. An asynchronous digital forum provided an effective virtual medium for collaboration when coupled with the appropriate scaffolding of social interaction in face-to-face settings. The other crucial element appeared to be the provision of a rich source of topics that engaged the students in articulation of the subject content. In this case, this was provided by an online homework service with its concomitant deadlines acting as a strong motivating factor. The most effective implementation emerged from the intersection of three factors: the ICA forum, a structured source of content-rich topics, and the use of scaffolded social interaction within a pedagogy based on cooperative learning strategies.


Cultivating connection

When evaluating best practice one must bear in mind the profile of the target group. In the case of high school we are dealing with pubescent adolescents whose maturity varies widely. Neufeld’s attachment model (2007) is useful because it gives us some guidance in the stages of maturation. Primarily, in order to thwart the flight from vulnerability that he identifies as permeating our current youth culture, the students need to be given opportunities to express themselves affectively as well as cognitively. The challenge is that few of them appear to be willing to risk making mistakes cognitively when engaging in learning opportunities. This is a consequence of their newly awakened sense of separateness, which is often perceived as self-consciousness, and a sense of loss that leaves them struggling to cope with complex emotions as their attachment system undergoes developmental changes. Youth culture pursues invulnerability through distraction and entertainment, which are largely provided in an inner-city setting by digital media. This media also provides a tool for communication, which fulfills their need for attachment if they are delaying the maturation process. Neufeld and Mate (2004) suggest that this is likely for the majority of inner-city youth, since the indicators of the emergent self track[5] are relatively scarce in youth culture, based on his studies in North America—and the socialization track, through the substitution of other adults or roles, appears to be deteriorating into peer orientation. When we consider using digital media in education, it is necessary to frame our efforts within this context. He recommends the cultivation of a culture of connection within which to work with our students. We need to find a way to foster attachment between educators and our students; my experience in this inquiry is that using internet forums can provide a safe space for this activity. The social presence indicators show a positive correlation, which suggests that the forums provide a context for connection both between peers and with the teacher. The very use of digital tools opens a mechanism of instruction via attachment between the teacher and student because of the youth culture’s identification with the media.

In order to provide opportunities for affective expressions of learning I became involved with an extra-curricular citizenship program during this case study. Most of the students who were the key facilitators of peer interaction, acting as nodes in the networking online, belonged to a mini school program from grades eight to 10; I was approached by a number of them who wanted to try backpacking as the outdoor component for the award program in which they were participating. The end result was that I took leadership of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Program[6] in the school and worked with the mini school cohort towards some different learning outcomes. As a group, we continued to use online forums for our planning and communication, which included trip logistics. However, I saw these trips as an opportunity to move away from the digital enhancement of their sensory systems—McLuhan likened electronic devices to an externalized nervous system—and return to not only physical embodiment but also to a primary experience of the natural world. No digital devices, other than cameras, were allowed on these excursions, for the sake of focusing the participants on each other and the wilderness settings into which they ventured. The advantage of our online interaction was a group cohesion, which created a safe space for the students to explore these new environments—and the fact that they approached me was an indicator of my pre-existing attachment with the group. The overnight outdoor trips provided a rare chance for my students to pursue an activity associated with “invulnerability,”[7] while, at the same time, practicing mutual support. In this approach, I attempted to foster a deeper level of connectedness between my students and their environment by expanding their personal experience (both internally and externally). The results have been spectacular; from the initial group that I encouraged through all three levels of the program, half of them have returned as youth leaders to be role models for the younger generation of participants. One student, particularly gifted in digital media, spontaneously constructed a short video of his experience and used it to act as an ambassador to promote the program As a result, the program has quadrupled in overall size and the number of prestigious gold level awards has steadily increased from none in 2005, prior to my involvement, to 22 in 2010. In addition, the lower levels of the award have doubled from their previous best in 2004.

Comparative Table

Duke of Edinburgh's Award

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Bronze 356 304 301 341 377 438 433 527
Silver 208 207 256 266 240 262 268 323
Gold 64 86 102 103 111 100 148 134

Vancouver Technical School

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Bronze 23 1 0 42 32 27 27 42
Silver 0 13 1 8 20 25 21 23
Gold 0 0 0 7 11 13 21 30

The production of digital media related to their trips by several generations of participants has enculturated the award program within the school environment. The students’ use of their media of choice has extended access to affective learning outcomes, including personal goal setting, character building, supportiveness, and perseverance, as noted by the Lieutenant Governor of BC in the silver award ceremony (November 2009). In this case, a video provides a representation of the collaboration experienced by the moviemaker as a participant.[8] It is a powerful symbol of the circularity of the individual learning process within a collaborative group setting. Using McLuhan’s Laws of Media (1992),[9] it could be likened to the law of retrieval, in that an individual story is being told in a way that has inspired others to pursue a similar experience. In this way, I believe that it overcomes the law of obsolescence concerning digital media, which appears, according to general opinion, as a loss of depth in connection (in the sense that it promotes the concept of connection beyond the digital environment). The symbolic representation of these wilderness expeditions reinforces youths' assumption that digital resources improve access and connection, but it challenges them to move beyond the limitations of the mediated experience.



This inquiry has shown that the use of digital media is most effective when it is combined with the modalities of face-to-face scaffolding of collaborative strategies and individualized content-related assignments in an inner-city high school setting.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The three modalities need to be combined for successful collaboration to occur. Face-to-face skill development can include both foundational content mastery for the assigned tasks and social skills using small group cooperative strategies or extra-curricular group settings. My experience suggests that the students must learn to work with other members of the class in groups that are not always self-selected. The content is verified by use in assigned tasks; in the case of the inquiry, this was the software generated individualized homework and the synthesis of this data processing, which was consolidated through the discursive use of a digital forum (see Figure 1). For the citizenship award program, the content was the planning process, and was verified by real-life feedback of preparedness in the outdoor trips. This process only becomes truly collaborative when the individual students are able to be socially present in the digital medium, such that there is a group dynamic that reinforces the shared purpose of the individual interactions. This completes the circle of modality intersections, as social presence online has been shown to correlate to the scaffolded practice of task-oriented interaction within the classroom. The outdoor component emphasized this in concrete, physical terms, although the progression through the three levels of the award allowed for progressive learning as the trips increased in length. The evidence for collaboration is anecdotal but includes digital representations.

One of the major challenges of working with teens is accommodating the development of their autonomy. The multiple modalities of digital media allow a facilitative approach to addressing learning activities. Since I began my work with asynchronous forums six years ago, the number of web tools that allow collaborative work, and that enhance it beyond simple text, have multiplied. However, the prerequisite for successful engagement and use of these tools remains the same; the scaffolding of communication skills, including the management of the vast amount of data available online. My success in providing this scaffolding was based on stimulating peer interaction, using both concrete and online cooperative learning activities. This pedagogy meets some of the other needs of the developmental process, especially when the inquiry questions have open ended answers, or the students are working with different variables within the same problem. Thus, the use of the students' own resources, which were sufficient even in this inner-city setting, to supplement concrete classroom experiences, provides a route to engaging them in the educational process.

The key to working with students in this way is to incorporate their developmental goals of separation and self-direction into the assigned tasks (be they cognitive or affective). Working in small groups with an individual component creates a space for them to focus on their personal preferences, while making room for initiative and originality. It also allows them ownership in the learning process within the larger timeframe and evaluation criteria. Current web tools allow scrutiny of the process of collaboration in addition to the end product, which enables formative evaluation during the process, furthering the possibilities of consultative styles of instruction. When activities are focused in collaborative work on a regular basis, using scaffolded communication skills to create the foundation, enhance the process and, ultimately, represent the final product, then we are moving away from “bolting powerful digital tools onto the existing system” (November, 2008), and towards changing learning dynamics with teen developmental needs in mind.



Daniels, H. (Ed). (2005). An introduction to vygotsky (2nd Edition). London, New York: Taylor & Francis Routledge.

Garrison, D., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing higher education." Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 87-105.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

McMahon, K. (2006). McLuhan’s wake [DVD]. New York, NY: Disinformation Co.

McLuhan, E., & McLuhan, M. (1992). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Neufeld, G., & Mate, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids. Toronto, ON: A. A. Knopf.

Neufeld, G. (2007). Making sense of adolesence [DVD]. Vancouver, BC: Mediamax Interactive.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA.: Josey-Bass.

Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, R., & Archer,W. (1999). Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. The Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 50-71.



[1] As discussed by Brian Schwimmer, in his Cultural Anthropology Introductory Module Overview, University of Manitoba (1996). http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/courses/122/module1/social.html

[2] As described by McLuhan’s early work from McLuhan’s Wake [DVD].

[3] Parker J. Palmer (1998).

[4] See Hedegaard’s "The Zone of Proximal Development as Basis for Instruction," from An Introduction to Vygotsky (2005).

[5] The emergent self indicates that an adolescent is synthesizing their experiences and using them to identify their individual needs/ desires, so as to create their own persona as opposed to modelling themselves on others.

[6] Information about the Duke of Edinburgh Program may be accessed here: http://www.dukeofed.org/requirements

[7] Invulnerability, according to Neufeld, is a mechanism that prevents being overwhelmed by feelings when a teenager is dealing with their emerging sense of separateness. When the feelings become too uncomfortable, such that one feels vulnerable, the defense is too block the process by the use of counter-will, tuning out, or numbing out/denial. As such, teens may pursue extreme activities that are out of their personal comfort zone, which has given rise to the “no fear” peer culture.

[8] This video (http://www.vimeo.com/28326877) is the work of a participant in the gold level of the Duke of Edinburgh Program kayaking expedition & provides a lens for her experience of the trip in the context of the program.

[9] http://www.provenmodels.com/18/four-laws-of-media/marshall-mcluhan/