I’m continuing the course “Flexible, distance and online learning” (FDOL) and the past weeks we have been discussion collaborative learning and how it can be extended using digital technologies. In this blog post I will discuss some of the aspects I have learned and how these are applicable in my own teaching practice.
Definition of collaborative learning
Dillenbourg gives a broad (and admittedly unsatisfactory) definition of ‘collaborative learning’ stating that “it is a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together” . He continues to identify different aspects of the definition that gives room for interpretation; (1) the number of students, which can range from a pair, to a small group (3-5 subjects), a class (20-30 subjects) all the way to a community (a few hundreds or thousands of people) or a society (several thousands or millions of people), (2) the learning situation could be to follow a course, study course material, perform learning activities such as problem solving, or learning from lifelong work practice, and finally (3) the means of interaction which can be face-to-face or online/computer-mediated, synchronous or not, frequent or not, etc. So, collaborative learning can vary greatly in scope and scale – the common denominator being that unlike in individual learning people capitalize on one another’s resources and skills (asking for information, evaluating one another’s ideas, monitoring each other’s work etc.). Siemens suggest another scale to discuss collaborative learning, describing how learner-learner interactions in an e-learning course can be viewed as a four stage continuum :
- Communication (people talking, discussing)
- Collaboration (sharing ideas and working together, occasionally sharing resources, in a loose environment)
- Cooperation (doing things together, but each with his or her own purpose)
- Community (striving for a common purpose)
Siemens argues that most collaborative learning in a course takes place between the 1st and 3rd levels, whereas the 4th level is difficult to achieve within one course . I am inclined to agree – even getting past the communication level can be difficult depending on the factors identified by Dillenbourg above. In the Health Informatics Masters program, one way we strive to use online tools to create a sense of community within the student group is to give them opportunity to build up an online platform, including blog, calender etc, which is entirely run by the master students and in which they create content together. In addition, of course the learners’ motivations and external factors affect the collaborative activities, e.g. in the online Problem Based Learning (PBL) group I’m currently involved in myself where all learners are taking the course while working more or less full time in parallel.
Benefits and challenges of collaborative learning
There are many benefits of collaborative learning. In a review by Laal & Ghodsi  the benefits are divided into four major areas;
- Social benefits – creates a social support system for learners, build diversity understanding among students and staff, establish a positive atmosphere for modeling and practicing cooperation, and develops learning communities
- Psychological benefits – student centered instruction increases students’ self-esteem, cooperation reduces anxiety, and develops positive attitudes towards teachers
- Academic benefits – promotes critical thinking skills, involves students actively in the learning process,
- Assessment benefits – collaborative teaching techniques utilize a variety of assessments where peer assessment can be a key ingredient.
In the courses I teach, I definitely use collaborative learning activities to increase both social and academic benefits. I have not yet utilized the assessment benefits, this has remained more traditionally teacher assessment, but I plan to include collaborative peer assessment both between groups (one collaborative group giving feedback on another groups work), and between individuals to increase collaborative learning in a course that is very much based on individual work. However, despite the many benefits, it is not uncommon that learners experience frustration with collaborative learning . The main problem described by learners in this study was commitment imbalance, i.e. some learners take on the role of “free rider”, contributing very little or not at all to the work, whereas others may take on too much responsibility doing the majority of work (which does not support the goals of collaborative learning). The study focuses on online learners’ frustration, but my experience of participating in both online and offline group work myself, and using face-2-face group work for my students, is that this problem is not exclusive to the online world.
Using digital technologies
So, how can we use digital technologies to extend collaborative learning? One of the strategies deemed important by Brindley et al is to “monitor group activities actively and closely” . I believe that this can be a benefit of online learning – especially when it comes to the problem of commitment imbalance described above. By using online tools such as discussion forums, collaborative writing tools (e.g. shared documents or wikis) it can actually be possible to monitor (and perhaps assess?) the collaborative processes, not just the output of them. For example, in traditional collaborative learning it may be difficult for an instructor to actually be available and monitor group discussions and see who is present and participate (unless such discussions are scheduled on campus with the facilitator present which is rarely possible or desirable). If assigned tools are used for such online discussions instead, the input and contribution of individual students becomes more visible – both to the group and to a more or less intervening facilitator. A tricky part in my teaching is that it is blended, so students meet face-to-face but have access to online tools. So, how can I insist they use the online tools for their group work? One incentive may be that a facilitator can then help them and give continuous feedback – but this of course requires a lot of time. Another may be that they themselves give each other feedback – for example between groups. Yet another would be that the end-results should be presented online, and that part of the outcome is to describe the process of reaching the end-results, e.g. in a blog where each student is responsible for writing a reflective post about the collaborative work done during the week. Regardless of the approach we finally take in the course, I have a lot of new ideas for how I can use digital technologies to extend collaborative learning.
 Dillenbourg P. (1999) What do you mean by collaborative learning?. In P. Dillenbourg (Ed) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. (pp.1-19). Oxford: Elsevier
 Siemens, G. (2002). Interaction. E-Learning Course. October 8, 2002. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/Interaction.htm
 M Laal, SM Ghodsi (2012) Benefits of collaborative learning, Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012 – Elsevier
 Neus Capdeferro and Margarida Romero, Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?
 Jane E. Brindley et al. Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online envrionment
“but I plan to include collaborative peer assessment both between groups (one collaborative group giving feedback on another groups work), and between individuals to increase collaborative learning in a course that is very much based on individual work.”
Question: It is an exciting idea to transfer assessment tasks to the learners. This might be a way to further stimulate discussion and reflection and increases student-centered learning.
It is very important for e-learners to “feel safe” in order to express freely their thoughts and ideas. Could assessment within a group endanger this atmosphere of free communication and promote tensions as a consequence of assessment and criticism by group members?
Good point – I guess to some extent that’s why I haven’t really used peer assessment before… I hope though, that if the guidelines given are clear, and the assessment they give each other is on a more informal level it could work. I think that we for example learn a lot by reading and commenting on each others blog posts – isn’t this a form of assessment too?
I have only used peer assessment in an informal way and found it very interesting, the students found it very helpful but I think that’s because the assessment feedback was very positive (they were nice to each other).
I agree that commenting on each other’s blog posts is a form of peer feedback.
Hi Maria, very nicely built up blog post with references to the literature. You made me reflect on own practice and gave me new ideas! My question concerns the “free riders” in online collaboration. You say that the tutor may be able to monitor the collaborative process, but what can he/she do about the fact that someone contributes less than others? Unless the learning outcomes of the course include to participate in collaborative learning, the tutor cannot know that the ones who do not contribute are not learning as much as those who do contribute to for example online discussions. Do you understand what I mean?
Absolutely! On the other hand, that goes for all our mandatory learning activities – doesn’t it? If it’s mandatory it’s because we believe it is necessary for the students to learn and then we also need to check that they actually participate… but in collaborative learning it also has to do with how we assess the students. Will they pass solely based on what they do in their group work – if so, how can we pass a student that has not contributed? If they are graded based on an individual exam solely – does it then matter if they participated in the group work or not? It all comes down to how we have designed the course, and as you say, to what the learning outcomes are. In one of my courses, it is actually a learning outcome to “value the use of multidisciplinary work in requirements and needs analysis” and this requires them to actually work together in multidisciplinary groups. But I agree with you, it’s a very tricky thing – and I personally think it’s the most challenging part of teaching, connecting the learning activities with outcomes and assessment.