Reasons Why Collaborative Online Learning Activities Are Effective
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Collaborative Online Learning Activities: What Does The Research Say About Them?

Learning within the online environment, often termed as "eLearning", differs from the traditional classroom learning community. Unlike traditional classroom learning opportunities, online learning environments foster additional learning experiences where learners can interact, collaborate, and take ownership of their own learning. Developing effective collaborative online activities begins with understanding the research and how learners process information when online. Educators of online learning environments must focus on instructional and pedagogical best practices in order to deliver effective online instruction.

Theoretical Frameworks

Behaviorism, cognitivism, connectivism, and constructivism are the most common learning theories utilized when developing online learning environments.

Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively engages in new ideas through collaborative grouping situations. Given the context of eLearning, constructivism and connectivism seem to be the theories that acknowledge the impact technology has on learning the most. Constructivism is a good theoretical framework for eLearning because it ensures learning happens among all learners.

However, connectivism is a fairly new learning theory that should also be considered because it blends together cognitivism and constructivism theories of learning and is the process that occurs within a constantly changing learning environment. This type of learning environment cannot be controlled by the learner.

Connectivist learning environments are constantly changing in large part because technology and web-based applications are always improving and evolving. The understanding that learning is based on rapidly altering technology and new information encourages learners to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information.

Connectivism focuses on helping the learner make connections with content and through interactions with others.  These connections enable learners to learn more and prove to be the most important process of learning.

Online Learning Activities

The inclusion of collaborative activities in an online course leads to positive student performance outcomes. Collaborative group interactions facilitate active learning, shared knowledge, and promote social interaction and a supportive eLearning community. Collaboration also models how to work with others in real-world situations. These collaborative activities help train learners for the 21st-century workplace, including learning how to share ideas, express opinions, and manage time. While the outcomes associated with collaborative activities are mostly positive, there are benefits and challenges to implementing these activities into an eLearning course.

Collaborative Group Activities

Group activities range from informal discussions to highly structured collaborative grouping activities. Collaborative group learning is one way for learners to establish communication with others in the course. Research and practitioners of online learning environments largely support the benefits of true collaboration through discussions and sharing of new information.

A successful collaborative group activity allows learners to feel a sense of community and provides learners with an active role and responsibility, which is shared among his or her established groups. Online learners in well-designed learning environments experience meaningful learning, develop higher order thinking, and begin to develop an eLearning community where collaborative group activities are encouraged.

Research supports a number of benefits to collaborative online group activities such as modeling group norms and posting expectations. Collaborative group activities should be group -entered to begin forming a collaborative online sense of community support. This can be easily achieved through introductory activities that require learners to get to know one another. Therefore, later, more complex collaborative activities can be presented to learners without them feeling overwhelmed or anxious because the collaborative community support has already been established.

However, developing guidelines that govern these activities can be difficult without taking an instructor-centered approach to learning. Establishing collaborative groups within the online learning environment can be a difficult task for instructors of online learners.

One strategy to address this challenge might be to divide students into small groups of 2 or 3. Dividing students into smaller, more intimate groupings can create opportunities for collaboration and address the more reserved student learner. Additionally, creating collaborative groupings in this way encourages learners to become active participants in the collaborative learning process.

Group Discussions

When learners engage in discussions with other learners instead of just the instructor, the opportunities for knowledge retention is great. The use of online discussion activities within online learning continues to grow. A number of researchers have conducted investigations into online collaborative discussion groups, focusing on the ways in which discussion activities move learners from learner to expert. It is important to provide learners with opportunities to reflect and share viewpoints; this can be done through collaborative online discussion activities.

In collaborative group discussions, learners learn to listen attentively to each other and value the efforts of shared knowledge and input. Online discussion technology also helps learners respond to questions, participate, and offer peer feedback to support the sharing of new information. Successful discussion groups include learners who are actively engaged in accountable and responsible talk. Accountable talk between learners emphasizes logical connections and allows learners to draw reasonable conclusions to new information. Learning through collaborative online discussion groups is reciprocal and the most direct way for instructors to assess learning online.

Online discussions require instructors to moderate the discussion activities and this requires time. In a primarily asynchronous learning environment, this can be tedious and time-consuming for instructors. The development of collaborative online discussions requires instructors to include sufficient time for learner discourse and moderation.  To ensure learner success, instructors must actively work to ensure discussions are engaging and lead learners to high-quality learning outcomes.

The challenge for online instructors becomes how to construct a collaborative discussion activity, which is engaging and meets the needs of all learners. A way this can be addressed is for instructors to develop discussions that are specifically focused on 1 or 2 specific learning goals.

Feedback And Assessment Activities

Research overwhelmingly supports that online peer assessments can support a student-centered approach when assessments are implemented through collaborative peer-to-peer communication, active participation, and interactivities. The ability to provide constructive feedback helps learners to process new information, which is not a naturally acquired skill in eLearning. Learners who participate in collaborative assessments and peer-to-peer feedback activities are better prepared for real-world situations. Lastly, it is important for online instructors to view assessments as a process for learning as well as an assessment of learning.

As mentioned previously, the planning and design of collaborative activities are critical in supporting effective interactions. One benefit of assessment and feedback activities is learner motivation, which is fostered within learners by engaging them in real-world assessment situations. Another benefit of collaborative activities is that they encourage learners to use external evaluations to provide internal self-assessments of their own learning.

Additionally, by sharing assessments and allowing learners to provide peer-to-peer feedback creates transparent learning environments and supports developing skills within a growing learning community. Another benefit to allowing learners to provide each other with constructive feedback facilitates two-way learning; once when the learner participates in the assessment and, again, when the learner provides peer feedback.

Planning for collaborative learning requires a different approach to pedagogy and learning. Instructors should take advantage of the technology and tools available, continuously monitor student interactions, and manage time wisely to overcome these challenges. Feedback and assessment activities require instructors to understand assessment processes and the factors that influence these collaborative online activities. This can pose a challenge to instructors who do not have the training needed to design and facilitate these activities within an eLearning environment. One way to overcome this challenge is for online instructors to develop and share best practices that facilitate feedback and assessment activities.

Final Words

Finally, collaborative eLearning activities present learners and instructors with both challenges and benefits, which must be considered to successfully participate in collaborative online learning.

Constructivism and connectivism best support eLearning because they focus on making connections with new information through learner and technology interactions. Collaborative learning is complex and should allow time and support to encourage the development of online learning communities. Additionally, creating collaborative activities requires sound pedagogy, motivation, and proficiency to be successful. As students, instructors, and technology advance, so do collaborative learning activities.

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