Promoting Effective Online Collaborative Learning Experiences

Collaborative learning places students in positions of interdependence, encouraging them to generate new knowledge and understanding through dialogue and communication. When implemented effectively, collaborative learning supports the development of communication skills and problem-solving abilities in addition to the mastery of content. In many academic disciplines, collaborative learning experiences help prepare students for “real world” experiences in the workplace or elsewhere.

The benefits of collaborative work can be realized in digital spaces, but it can be useful to consider the differences of the digital context when planning assignments. The following considerations may be useful as you plan to adapt existing projects for remote learning or online instruction.

Online collaboration and student contexts

For some students, collaborative work will be familiar in principle, but the use of remote collaboration platforms and processes will be challenging. For example, the traditional classroom environment provides opportunities for the development of familiarity and trust that can make collaboration and communication easier. Students see each other, talk to each other, and can orient themselves to different personalities. In an online context, students may not have the same sorts of casual opportunities to get to know one another and build social and trusting relationships. Therefore, it’s wise for instructors to intentionally scaffold such opportunities into the class as preparation for online collaborative assignments.

Students who are working remotely will view collaboration through the lens of their physical and technical context, which is often much more varied and unequal than the on-campus context. The perspective of a student with a new computer, large monitor, quiet workspace, and reliable internet connection will be different from the student working without some, or all, of those affordances. Similarly, synchronous communication such as video conferencing, in particular, emerges as a valuable communication opportunity to which students in an online class may have inequitable access.

One approach to mitigate these challenges is for the instructor to provide a low-bandwidth, asynchronous platform such as a Moodle forum or shared Google Doc for initial discussions and organizations. Students may then decide to move their discussion to other, preferred synchronous platforms that work for them. Alternately, some research suggests that maintaining an instructor’s presence as an observer in a team communication space can promote better shared accountability.

At Elon, students might be expected to have basic familiarity with institutionally-provided collaborative tools and technologies including email, Moodle, and Zoom. However, they may have experienced different implementations and expectations of these tools from different faculty. For example, some faculty employ Moodle as a “rich syllabus” providing access to a schedule and downloadable readings, while others use it as a platform for discussion and peer interaction, and still others as a repository for readings or videos. Explaining what tools and platforms are available, as well as providing an explicit explanation of expectations, will promote equitable and engaged use.

Considerations of contexts for collaborative learning might include:

  • What are the physical contexts (location, access to resources) of the students in the class?
  • How will students get to know each other as individuals, ideally prior to beginning meaningful work?
  • Are students familiar with the selected platforms, and importantly, with the specific ways they are expected to be used?

Team assignment

There is no single optimal approach to group assignment, and it may be useful to take student perspectives on the process into account. However, as you are choosing among various approaches to assigning groups or teams, keep in mind that teams that contain diverse perspectives and skills provide the richest contexts for collaboration. Many different approaches to assigning groups can be successful, but primary considerations for remote-working teams might be work schedules and communication styles. Lieberman (2018) describes several approaches to team development, such as intentionally assigning diverse groups and facilitating the organic development of groups.

Considerations for team assignment and grouping might include:

  • How familiar are the students with one another prior to beginning the project?
  • What information can students provide about their schedules and work styles before groups are assigned?
  • What types of intellectual or skills-based diversity can be distributed among groups?
    Are organic or self-selected groups a feasible option?

Student project management

The remote context presents novel challenges in project management. Students who are already meeting multiple times per week for an on-campus class have regular opportunities to compare notes, delegate tasks, and evaluate each other’s work. In contrast, students who do not see each other regularly must be more proactive and intentional regarding their project management process.

Accountability is a key consideration in designing a collaborative assignment. Nufer (2016) suggests that twin accountability challenges of “social loafing” and the “sucker effect” may be particularly pronounced in online group projects. If a member of a student team does not pull his weight but still benefits from the work of others, he is a “social loafer.” His higher-performing teammates, who probably recognize that their work benefits him, will resent feeling like suckers. Some students may over-compensate for these challenges, leading to what Miller (2016) terms the “hyper-controlling leader” who distrusts and annoys the rest of the team.

One way to clarify shared expectations and accountability is to have groups complete a team charter. Hillier and Dunn-Jensen (2013) suggest that developing a charter be one of the first tasks completed by the group, and that it address issues including “expectations about responding to messages, attendance, participation, quality, and conflict” (p. 708). Hillier and Dunn-Jensen provide useful examples of worksheets and prompts for team process management as appendices in their article.

At the completion of the project, assessment should occur at both the individual and group levels.

Considerations for supporting effective project management might include:

  • How will students clarify their shared expectations of their team and process?
  • How will your assessment process measure and account for different levels of performance among team measures?

Works Cited & Resources

Hathorn, L. G., & Ingram, A. L. (2002). Cooperation and Collaboration Using Computer-Mediated Communication. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 26(3), 325–347.

Hillier, J., & Dunn-Jensen, L. M. (2013). Groups Meet . . . Teams Improve: Building Teams That Learn. Journal of Management Education, 37(5), 704–733.

Ku, H.-Y., Tseng, H. W., & Akarasriworn, C. (2013). Collaboration factors, teamwork satisfaction, and student attitudes toward online collaborative learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 922–929.

Miller, M. D. (2016). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.

Nufer, S. (2016, June 9). How to build group projects your online students will love. Pearson Education. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from