Reaching through the screen: KARE as a new scaffolding for online education

Painted dome and inscription of McEwan Hall, Edinburgh

I had a paper accepted for ALT-C this year to talk about scaffolding fully online education, how it has been implemented in the past, and how we need to think about it differently going forwards. I am posting here a written summary of my talk, but if you would rather watch than read, it is is available on the recording below (start at 25:53).

Start at 25:50 minutes (talk is 20 minutes long)

The slides can be downloaded.

Before my summary it is definitely worth noting that the day was pretty exciting for me for two reasons. Firstly Jesse Stommel gave the keynote, which was an absolute pleasure to be at as Jesse and Critical Digital Pedagogy has been a huge critical frame of reference for me in my own teaching philosophy. Secondly, I gave my talk in McEwan Hall, perhaps the most stunning venue I have ever presented in. I thought it would be intimidating but actually it turned out to be quite a calming influence. Being surrounded by architectural beauty, and considering the institution I am a part of, it gave me a quiet sense of assurity that what I had planned to say meant something in the world.

Painted dome and inscription of McEwan Hall, Edinburgh
The dome of McEwan Hall. Painted from the hand of William Mainwaring Palin, the central piece of art depicts a great number of philosophers and students. It is inscribed ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour’. (Proverbs 4:7).

Talk Summary

I am here today to talk about scaffolding education, specifically scaffolding in fully online education. I am going to talk quite a bit about the institution that work in, our values, and our students, as these are central to the support we are embedding in the curriculum to help our learners to be successful in their studies. I’ll then talk about what that support looks like, and give an example of how it’s being applied. This is very much a work in progress and we welcome any feedback.

The University College of Estate Management, was established in 1919 .This year we are celebrating our centenary year. Originally sited in Lincolns Fields in London the institution initially provided free technical education in real estate and related areas for the sons of those who had been killed, injured or impoverished in World War One. This was amid calls for improved building standards and living conditions, including for city slums to be replaced with better quality housing. By the 1940s UCEM was providing largely correspondence courses including to the military,  prisoners of war and the Women’s Land Army. In late 1960s we became associated with the University of Reading, building premises on campus and Reading validating degrees, with students studying on site and via correspondence. In 2013 we received our own degree-awarding powers and in 2016 left Reading campus and moved into a renovated building in the centre of town. With the exception of our apprenticeship programmes we are now a fully online University, offering 13 programmes of study from level 3 to level 7. Our provision is flexible, with multiple entry points, and flexibility in the number of modules studied at any one time. UCEM works closely with the leading professional bodies in the built environment to ensure that our programmes provide the knowledge and understanding required to achieve chartered status and approach the challenges we are facing in the industry.

Those challenges are not insignificant, to outline just three:

  1. The housing crisis – too few homes are available, the population is rising, and those homes that are on the market are far too costly.
  2. Sustainability – urban growth and rising population is putting a lot of pressure on our built environment and it’s resources. We need to explore ways to protect biodiversity, increase green space, reduce waste production and CO2 emissions.  Construction materials that are packed full of  chemicals are not sustainable, and we need to explore new types of housing, for instance if 200 000 homes were built a year out of timber we could take 3.8 billions tonnes of CO2 out of the air.
  3. Health and wellbeing – places need to be designed for wellbeing, air quality, active travel, food provision, cohesive community. Operationally, in the built environment sector mental health has be named ‘the silent epidemic’ – mental health has been named the silent epidemic of the BE.

Who are our students?

Who are our students? Here are some stats:

At UCEM we:

  • Teach 4000 students at any one time
  • from 100 countries
  • 3% are enrolled full-time, most students study part-time and are in work
  • 20% of our students are on apprenticeship programmes
  • 90% of students are over 21 years (average age 31)
  • and 30%  female
  • We have 25% from BAME (10% Chinese)
  • 10% have a declared disability

Not only do our students face tricky problems in their work in the sector, they more than often have complex lives due to their other commitments and have difficulty dedicating the time or motivation they would like to their studies. In her essay ‘Professions for women‘ Virginia Woolf uses the figure of an angel to represent the ‘many phantoms and obstacles’ looming in the way of those who wish to pursue their own interests in opposition to roles they already hold – parent, employee, carer. Woolf talks of killing the angel to become true to themselves. Our students have angels to kill, or at least have to give them a good dose of concussion to study. But this is hard, and attrition rates continue to be much higher for online learners than those in face-to-face or blended contexts (Bawa, 2016). And whilst online provision gives more access to education, once enrolled those learners can find that they are in-fact more disadvantaged and that achievement gaps are widened (Moore & Greenland, 2016; Kizalic & Halwala, 2015).

Scaffolding online education

Scaffolding has been proposed as a way to support students in their learning, providing additional instruction and support in the early stages of new types of learning activity until they are able to undertake that task independently. The definition of scaffolding in construction is not dissimilar:

In online education four main types of scaffolding have been identified.

  1. Conceptual scaffolding: helps students decide what to consider in learning and guide them to key concepts
  2. Procedural scaffolding: helps students use appropriate tools and resources effectively
  3. Strategic scaffolding: helps students find alternative strategies and methods to solve complex problems
  4. Metacognitive scaffolding: assists students reflecting on what they have learnt

These mechanisms if designed well do just that, scaffold the learning. But we teach students not content. The reasons why students struggle online can also be down to personal, social and motivational issues amongst other things. These are not necessarily things that can be supported through the types of scaffolding identified and not things that can be supported easily at the scale of fully online education where staff to student ratios can be low.

UCEM Educational Framework

For the past year I have been engaged in a process of transforming how we design and provide education to our students, taking into consideration who they are, the challenges they face engaging in their studies and challenges they face within industry.

We have adopted a learning design model that works backwards from the learning outcomes to ensure all learning is aligned. Assessments are more scenario-based and reflect real-world applications of knowledge. We provide plenty of opportunities to practice online activities to increase confidence, and design content that learners can connect to their everyday lives. We have increased opportunities to connect synchrously and asynchrously with tutors and peers, as well as opportunities to receive, give and act on feedback. The pedagogies we are employing are active and participatory to reflect the connected world of the built environment industry, they are situated and problem-based to ensure relevance.

But there is another layer required, a scaffold to support students to be a successful online learner and become part of a wider support network that operates beyond the capacity of a tutor. To borrow another analogy from the built environment, we need support them to ‘place-make’ in the digital space.



The KARE scaffold implements Kindness, Awareness, Reflection and Engagement. Its aim is to support the online learner to find their place, sense of belonging and confidence in their online programme. It starts by modelling kindness to students and starts from a place of trust – we trust that they will engage and be open, we put ourselves in a position where they will trust us. To create cohesion and community we develop awareness – self-awareness of basic needs,  awareness of people in our immediate contexts, awareness of the world around us and the bigger issues. Then to support students to take this into learning scenarios we design engagement opportunities and activities with peers, tutors and the wider professional community.

A simple example of the implementation of KARE on a ‘Digital technologies’ module.

When we teach online, we have to build both the programme of study and the classroom within which it takes place. The classroom sapce is problematic if it’s fixed permanently in advance as it does not account for who students are, what their own personal learning journeys may be, or emerging group dynamics and power structures. KARE is a scaffolding that enables the learning space to be constructed with, and navigated by, students.

Whilst scaffolding is a temporary structure, it needs to remain in place until our work is done.


Bawa, P. (2016) ‘Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review’, SAGE Open. doi: 10.1177/2158244015621777.

Kizilcec, F., & Halawa,S. (2015). Attrition and Achievement Gaps in Online Learning. In Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale (L@S ’15). ACM, New York: ACM, [57-66].

Moore, C., & Greenland, S. (2017). Employment-driven online student attrition and the assessment policy divide: An Australian open-access higher education perspective. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), [52–62.].

Woolf, V. (1942). The death of the moth : and other essays. New York :Harcourt, Brace and company.

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