Collaborative learning, whether in a face to face classroom or in an online environment, can present many challenges. Education, for years, has focused on individual accountability and competition among learners in which the teacher presents the information and knowledge and students complete the work independently. The last decade has seen a shift in education to a more student-centered approach where learners construct their own knowledge based on the myriad of information now available due to our networked world.
A major stumbling block in implementing collaboration in an online environment is the lack of understanding of the impact that collaboration can have on learning. Palloff and Pratt (2005) discussed the idea that collaboration can enhance learning objectives and reduce student loneliness in an online classroom due to the lack of face to face interactions (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). The benefits of collaborative learning should be outlined at the beginning of the course. Some advantage are: (i) sharing resources, (ii) challenging thinking, (iii) sharing knowledge with others, and (iv) receiving assistance and feedback from others. To increase the success of collaborative learning, a few steps should be put into place such as: (a) Networking: learners need to get to know one another in order to build trust and a safe environment in which to learn. Palloff and Pratt (2005) examined the need for a sense of community to be built online in order for collaboration to be effective (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). In my online classes, I have students complete icebreaker activities for each module as well as including a Class Cafe where members can discuss topics and issues not related to the course content., (b) Team Charter: having students participate in creating a team charter for the class can help to establish ground rules regarding topics such as: (i) goals & objectives, (ii) guidelines for group work, and (iii) use of acceptable language., (c) Model & Guide: the instructor must model and guide the process of collaboration by informing students at the start of the course on his/her role in the collaborative process (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). It is important that the instructor participates by providing his/her own insights and knowledge. In addition, the instructor must provide feedback on student interactions so that they know they are on the right track in terms of completing their assignments.
Having said this, problems may still arise in terms of resistant participants. Many individuals register for online courses because they believe these courses are self-directed and they will not have to interact with others. This is common for busy people who might not have the time to travel long distances and would rather learn in the comfort of their own home on their own time. For this reason, some may resist collaboration. Some strategies can be put into place to overcome this resistance: (a) ensure that students receive credit for their individual involvement, (b) share example of positive outcomes of collaboration from previous courses, and (c) have participants complete a short collaborative activity in which there is a high likelihood of success.
The issue then becomes, how should collaborative projects be assessed? In an online environment, it is important to assess both the process and the product. For example, the process can involve such factors as: (a) the number and length of contributions, (b) self- and peer-assessments, and (c) the use of rubrics and portfolios. Palloff and Pratt (2005) support this idea as they considered the role of assessment in online classrooms. If students were to have a portfolio, which includes their individual contributions as well as the final group product, the instructor will be better able to assess that student’s work (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). In order for members to improve upon their work, it is imperative that they are provided with timely and descriptive feedback in order to improve on subsequent assignments. In my online courses, I provide descriptive feedback to students on a bi-weekly basis. This descriptive feedback includes their participation on the discussion board, their individual contributions to group tasks, and next steps to guide their learning.
Members in an online learning environment will benefit from collaboration as they examine concepts from a variety of perspectives and acquire knowledge from every member of their class. This leads to students reflecting on their pre-conceived ideas and opinions and constructing new knowledge and meaning. Hopefully, this can lead to more and more people embracing the benefits of collaboration in an online learning environment.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.