Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Effective Pedagogies for Managing Collaborative Learning in On-line Learning Environments

Moderator: J. Roger Hartley
Professor, Computer Based Learning Unit, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

Eli Collins-Brown

Technical Writer, Harris Methodist Health Plan, Arlington Texas, USA.
Education research graduate student, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

Discussion Schedule
Discussion: 1 - 10 Mar. 99
Summing up: 11 - 12 Mar. 99

Pre-discussion paper


Advances in technology are making an increasing impact on educational curricula, learning materials and instructional practices. Multimedia allows the exploitation of multimodal representations of knowledge; Interface designs assist usability and interactivity; Local and Wide Area Networking release the Internet as a learning resource with software tools that enable communication through e-mail, bulletin boards and conferencing systems, whiteboards and chat rooms, and videoconferencing. Other tools, via HTML templates and Java applets, for example, increase the powers of authorship among teachers and students, and encourage the educational process to be a more constructive and collaborative enterprise.

These developments are moving apace at a time when many societies are seeking to widen access to Further and Higher Education, and are working towards more flexible educational pathways under a vision of ‘lifelong learning’. At the same time there is increasing accountability and a relative restriction of resources to meet these educational ambitions. In some quarters there is a (naïve) expectation that technology can overcome or ameliorate these economic constraints, and widen access without detriment to the quality of learning——indeed there is an expectation that the quality of learning could be improved and could also include the development of ‘employability’ skills in information management, communication and collaborative working and problem-solving.

[Apologies for presenting this sketchy and over-simplified view, but many will be familiar, perhaps over-familiar, with these arguments. However, they do influence the context in which we have to work and generate expectation of cooperative benefits that can erode the relative isolation in which many teaching institutions seem to operate.]

Should the emphasis shift from individual to collaborative learning?

The major influences on Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), whether instructionist or constructivist, have emphasized individualized learning that has tended to marginalize the role of the teacher. For the neo-behavioursists ‘meaning’ was placed in the (external) environment and behaviours were constructed and shaped by reinforcing contingencies following student responses which provoked that environment. Hence the external world ‘operated’ on the student to (eventually) produce the required behavioural objectives, and the teacher had no business interfering in the stimulus-response-reinforcement interactions. The educational technologist analysed the criterion objectives into a prescription of interactive elements which, given a computer, could be adaptively administered to the individual student.

The contrasting constructivist view, perhaps best exemplified by Papert, turned the computer into a students machine. Learning was the active construction of knowledge schemas influenced by previous experience, with scaffolding that guided this process of development. Meaning was attributed to the mental activity of the individual student, and Papertthrough the language LOGO used a computational metaphor as the scaffolding device.

However teachers have responsibility for managing (relatively large) classes of students and in that sense learning becomes a collaborative enterprise. In trying to incorporate instructivist materials into the classroom, the teacher had little option but to abdicate some limited responsibility to CAL, typically drill-and-practice, remedial tutoring, or test-teach revision. Of course, research into the analysis of curriculum domains enabled presentation schemes and the type of interactive tasks to be adjusted to differing types of objectivesas the presentation by David Merrill and our last discussion clearly showedand opportunities for greater learner control came about through hypermedia and various navigational aids. But essentially the aim is to present the curriculum effectively to the individual student.

Constructivist approaches have the difficulty of supporting students so that their knowledge development takes forms that meet the approval of the academic/educational community. It is hard to see how such scaffolding, tuned to the individual, can be provided effectively in a prescriptive mannerit arises out of the dynamics of the constructive interactions. Vygotsky, labelled by many as a social constructivist, argued that meaning and the development of higher cognitive skills arose out of such interactions between a student in a state of readiness (the zone of provisional development) and a learned other. So Vygotsky made a distinction between internal thought and its external representation where it became open for discussion. Hence development of cognitive skills followed learning, thought was a consequent of as well as a pre-cursor for (discussive) action, and language was the mediating tool for collaboration that delivered a negotiated and shared understanding.

So what is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning has become a loose term: type in collaborative learning to an Internet search engine and you are likely to be surprised at the number and diversity of the links which result. In practice, collaboration is also loosely employed but usually aims at achieving: (i) work sharing; (ii) using differing knowledge and expertise to improve quality and/or take account of varied viewpoints; and (iii) building or consolidating a (learning) community.

Some make a distinction between cooperation and collaboration where the former implies agreement between participants on the objectives of a shared enterprise, but the process may only be a collection or amalgamation of each individuals work. Collaboration in learning should make stronger, interactive demands on the process, and also on the goals which should not only relate to the product but include developing a sense of community. Emphasis is placed on the interactions as common understandings are negotiated and developed across differences of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Indeed, collaborative learning should thrive on these differences. Motivation and confidence to participate are clearly important if these benefits are to emerge, and interchanges that require question-answering and explanation, and are open to challenge and justification, will require participants to assume a variety of functional roles.

But students as well as receiving individual benefits (hopefully) should feel part of the learning community so that their contributions subscribe to the common knowledge pool and, through their (implied) social interactions, foster the community spirit. I believe the IFETS forums hold something of these ambitions. [A useful discussion on collaborative learning is given in the first chapter of Dillenbourg P (ed), 1999: Collaborative Learning: Cognition and Computational Approaches. Pergamon.]

Are there advantages in collaborative learning?

A much quoted advantage is that collaboration encourages active learning and a more thoughtful participation in the learning process from teachers and students. The well-known studies of Chi, et al (references can be given if needed.) suggest that students who self-question and self-explain perform more competently, show greater understanding and, more easily, acquire new knowledge. (However, an experimenter was present in these studies, so it remains somewhat unclear as to whether these were exclusively self-directed activities.) It is suggested that during these activities missing knowledge is identified by students and this stimulates further reasoning and enquiry as they try to develop their understanding. How much better therefore if such questions and explanations are addressed not only to oneself but to others, so that queries seeking clarification, challenges requiring justification, inconsistencies needing resolution, qualifying implications and differing views can become part of the argumentation and discourse processes of the group.

Several studies support these hypotheses, but it is not all good news. We know that individual study of well-prepared instructional materials can also result in substantial learning (as David Merrill has shown), and there is a lack of evidence which points to the extra benefits coming from explaining to others, rather than merely explaining to oneself. Why should this be so? Explaining to others should take into account their knowledge and level of understanding if it is to be effective, not easy, and might be more difficult in on-line discussions. Also participants, when explaining to others who are puzzled, if they have a weaker sense of community, may not take the same care, or feel the same responsibility as when they are self-explaining and repairing their own misunderstandings. Further, there is the role of the tutor. Even when the tutor is present but relatively passive, there is some evidence of an effect on the construction of explanations. When tutors become part of the dialogue process, the style of discourse can become more tutor centred and this may be a more critical factor than the quality of peer interactionsas might be the type of tasks and the types of talk these tasks stimulate. [References available if required.]

So extracting benefits from collaborative group learning will not be easy, and we need to understand the situations in which particular forms of interaction and their management are effective. [A bit of a platitude, I know.]

So what pedagogies might be used and might prove effective?
[An open question this, but I'll throw in a view.]

A pedagogy can be considered to be a set of strategies and associated tactics which are employed to achieve instructional/learning goals. With this is mind it might be useful to take a holistic view and aim (like Dewey) for a fusion, not a separation, of curriculum and (teaching/learning) method with the pedagogy engineering that fusion.

Motivation is a key factor in this approach, perhaps stimulated (in ways Dewey would approve) by the big idea or the large issue which generates interest and draws out the effort to satisfy that interest.

In larger terms, learning seems to operate in phases, each of which can be organised as a collaborative enterprise. In knowledge acquisition, students (eg. in School Science) may consider initially that curriculum materials relate to an external world that exists independently of them. But as this material assumes structure perhaps through questioning (eg. about properties, classification and comparisons, about property changes and processes), mental organisations or models develop so that learning is motivated by seeking the answers to these internal hypotheses, and these thought models can be manipulated independently of the external world. In brief, the student is not only acquiring knowledge but an awareness of how knowledge can be used and managed.

Thus, if materials are presented on-line in a structured form, eg. as a narrative with questions to stimulate deeper processing (to use Martens term), then students can themselves contribute to that content through their questions and comments. Via bulletin boards these can be made open to the group so that discussion threads emerge and the curriculum content develops as a group resource which contains the student imprint.

Knowledge is augmented by reasoning, argumentation and problem-solving as students become more autonomous and constructive agents in the learning process. Whiteboards and chatrooms, as well as bulletin boards, can be used for synchronous and asynchronous interchanges that support seminar-size groups. The cognitive emphasis shifts then to evaluation and reflection, not only on the results of the discussion and problem-solving activities, but on the processes and tactics that seemed influential and effective. Hence inter-group discussions can be useful.

But there are well known difficulties in managing these types of activities: what about those who do not readily participatethe lurkers? What is the role of tutorshow much of a presence should they be? What about the resources and time needed to shape up and summarise this content so that it can be a class as well as an individual resource?

Fostering and developing a group/class presence seems to be an important aspect if collaborative learning is to be effective. Academics cherish the credentials that establish them as Chartered Members of their profession. But membership is more than this: it is a belief in the collective knowledge enterprise that is larger than ones own ambitions. In a small way the class might develop something of this collective attitude, but in ways which are not forbidding to the less confident. Participants need to feel their contributions have worth and acceptance, so they can also be encouraged to reflect on the processes by which the group is seeking to achieve a shared understanding. A tricky problem, but as the power of the collective group and the value of its materials and products becomes apparent, there should be a greater enthusiasm as the class learns to work more effectively.

Finally, these on-line collaborative learning supports are often used, as in our case, with residential students so there is a mix between face-to-face meetings and electronic interactions. How are these different types of activities to be fused? Dillenbourg considers this a greater problem than when all learning is at a distance, and of course if these extra facilities are to be used with residential students, some clear and extra benefits have to be establishedbut evaluation is perhaps leading us away from the main discussion.

What are useful software tools to aid on-line collaboration?

There are several summaries available that specify desirable features of multimedia environments that support collaborative distance learning (Collin and Smith, 1997), and that compare facilities of systems, such as Lotus Notes and Web-CT. Also, a summary of Web-based adaptive educational systems was provided by Peter Brusilovsky in the previous IFETS FORUM. There are attempts by the AI in Education community to build computer based learning companions, eg. the CLARE SYSTEM (Wan and Johnson, 1994), and BetterBlether (Robertson, et al, 1998). The former provides a semi-structured knowledge representation language aimed at providing guidance (and structure) on the process of shared knowledge-building. The later uses sentence openers as a method of supporting and guiding the functional moves of discourse. However these systems are more useful as research tools for examining the processes and anatomy of group discussions.

On a more workaday level, we are using WebCTa system that has an active user group and provides facilities for presentation of HTML pages and quizzes with supporting navigation, and incorporates e-mail and bulletin boards, whiteboard and chat rooms all under an administrative harness. Good points, in my view, are student tools which include a compile and notes facility so that selections from the materials and discussion records can be made and downloaded and customised for personal use. Hence a distinction can be made between the class resource pool and the individual view. But there are snags hopefully a sharing of practical experience will emerge in this discussion forum.

So where are we? What can we glean from the research literature?
[Only one or two sketchy comments and selections here.]

A consensus view seems to be that for effective interactions and discourse in collaborative learning, there should be an equality of opportunity for participants to assume a variety of functions or roles. Also that it is beneficial if, through management of tasks and group conventions, participants take on a varied set of roles, eg. questioning, challenging, explaining, constructing, tutoring. However, whether it is useful to guide these roles on-line by providing sentence openers and functional templates remains an open question.

It is also clear that the presence of the tutor has a marked effect on the discourse even when the tutor has a low-key presence. The tutor will set the assignments, but Pilkington (1988) when comparing interactions on a medical diagnostic problem between students and an experimenter, found that experimenter/single-student dialogue was more likely to prompt reflection and reasoning than paired students dialogue with the same access to the experimenter. The types of questions and roles assumed by the students also differed in their interactions.

Stein et al (1996) noted, in their experiments, that goals other than the desire to evaluate evidence were influential, eg. social links, style and tone of contributions, and the ability to listen. They conclude it is not initial knowledge but the negotiation process itself that is the dominant influence on the outcome. Perhaps on-line communications have an edge here in that chatrooms can open up issues with (synchronous) and spontaneous discussions, leaving bulletinboards for more considered contributions aimed at knowledge/argument construction and more reflective negotiation.

McCabe (1997) explores the tensions between the potential of computer conferencing as represented by theoretical models and its actual applications in Higher Education. Four criteria are used in the review, namely: (i) democratic access; (ii) active learning and collaboration; (iii) changing roles of teachers towards being facilitators of learning; and (iv) asynchronous interchanges to stimulate thought.

Some studies reviewed in the paper noted that active cliques of students can monopolise the discourse and inhibit the participation of others. Other studies tended to link collaboration to constructivist teaching and learning that required changing mind sets from teachers. However, Eastmond (1993) noted that interactivity, collaboration and reflection are not inherent in the mediumwhich can be didactic and competitive. Hence, computer mediated communication is not necessarily tied to a particular educational pedagogy, but is dependent on the tasks and their structuring and on the individuals who meet in the electronic classrooms. Indeed, teachers who took part in three case-studies reported in this paper, maintained their approaches to teaching did not substantially change between the on-line and face-to-face teaching situations; many pedagogies carried over from more traditional learning situations. So what does collaborative learning require from teachers?

A structured set of curriculum tasks seemed to encourage participation in the reported case studies as did the teachers own participation. Also discussion about the communication process itself was helpful for students to understand what was expected from them.

In summary, task structuring and organisation, teacher participative roles, group size and cohesion, formal or informal nature of discourse, student roles and style of contributions, and relating task functions to type of on-line facilities seem important factors to consider when developing a pedagogy. Have we some stories of collaborative models that proved effective and/or generated difficulties? For example, increased workloads on the teacher and some solutions?

In summary, what are the issues to address?

This is open to the Forum, but several come to mind, eg:

  1. What are the essential characteristics of collaborative learning?
  2. What are the advantages of collaborative learning, and the conditions for its effective exploitation; have the difficulties been underplayed?
  3. Is a shift in teacher attitudes and skills required?
  4. Any instances, experiences or difficulties to report?
  5. What computer tools seem to give good support for collaborative learning, and what additional facilities do we need?
  6. How can face-to-face meetings be harmonised with on-line collaboration?
  7. What research needs to be undertaken?

Post-discussion summary

The discussion focused mainly on CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) or computer conferencing. By way of description, computer conferencing is a text-based communication media where messages from participants are stored on a computer to be viewed and/or commented on by other participants. Using a form of chat room, this can be used synchronously, where all the participants meet at a given time and post messages to a chat room so that everyone can see them as they are posted. Asynchronous communication can be used at anytime regardless of time zone or location by posting messages to a discussion board or bulletin board to be read and commented on by other participants at their convenience.


Educators who are using CMC are facing many challenges. A shift in teacher and learner attitudes and skills is required for collaborative online learning to be effective. In online communication, the focus shifts from being centered on the teacher, to being centered on the students as a group. Both teachers and students who are not prepared for or previously exposed to this shift do not know how to ‘behave’ in an online environment. They also may not have the technical and communications skills to use CMC because they have no experience with it (John Neufeld).

Other challenges include access issues. Many may only have email access at work thus limiting the time available to participate, time differences hinder the collaborative effort, technical difficulties cause frustration and discouragement, some interfaces are not easy to use. Also, because the online student experience is very different from a real life classroom experience, many students get frustrated and feel alienated (Mark Nichols, Wendy Lowe, Heather Williams).

Many instructors have experienced reluctance from the students to participate in online discussions for the following reasons:

  • Intimidated because they feel the other students know more and they don’t want to appear foolish
  • Lack of spontaneity on the discussion boards
  • Challenges getting access to computers
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of self-motivation in students
  • Non-verbal communication can be misinterpreted
  • Group cohesion is hard to attain online if students do not know each other in a real-life context
  • Students don’t want to participate online if they see each other every day in real life
  • Resistance to participation may come from the competitive spirit promoted at the university, hindering a collaborative effort
  • Social and societal arrangements do not encourage us to share freely and collaborate.
(Heather Williams, Mark Nichols, Roger Hartley, Ellen Rosen, David Bird)


What are the issues facing online communication or CMC? Pedagogical issues are different if DE is the sole mode of communicating, or an added part (Mark Nichols). This means that the instructor must account for these differences when making decisions on transferring the curriculum from the classroom to the online environment.

Student needs must be considered. It might be that a student is unable to contribute to the discussion because they can’t use the software or the computer. Scheduling is a bigger issue as individual members have prior commitments and can’t meet online at the given time (Mark Nichols). Some students view online participation as less important than classroom participation.

Another issue that is becoming more apparent in the educational arena is assessment of online participation as part of the total class grade. David Geelan suggests that if we make online discussions a bigger part of assessment, students will put more importance on participation, thus motivating them to do so. Cathy Burke pointed out that students are motivated by what they are assessed on. This raises a question, how can a collaborative spirit be infused into the classroom if the students feel pressured or forced to participate?

Lastly, the issue of why libraries are not included in the planning and development stages of Distance Education programs. Kathryn Constant raisedsthe question of why these traditional repositories of information are not seen as key resources in online educational programs.

Some cautions were expressed in the discussion. Dr. Charles A Morrisey points out that little empirical research has been done on DE’s (Distance Education) impact on learning. Also, as we have seen in recent international news stories, any email message or online posting can become a legal document, so Marc Pembroke urges his students to use care in wording any email message. Be prepared to defend anything you write in a message or posting.

Suggested solutions

A solution John Neufeld (who teaches in Singapore, which has a strong teacher-centered environment) found to be effective was to have the students participate in an online, collaborative story. The benefits were two-fold: the students learned that not everyone has the same viewpoint, and that it’s acceptable to disagree gracefully. They were also introduced to the concept of collaborative learning in a non-threatening activity.

Time differences shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t try to use discussion boards as a form of chat.

Student-centered’ does not mean teacher-absent. The teacher needs to be a facilitator, which may be a less prominent role, but no less active in the collaborative activities. Be prepared to moderate the discussion, choosing your role carefully.

Make the interface intuitive, easy to use; thus overcoming some of the training issues with students who are not as technically proficient as others. . Students will still require support and guidance in using the online capabilities until they are comfortable with the medium. Start out with a clear purpose for the online discussions so students know what to expect during the discussion (David Geelan, Roger Hartley).


Some students and teachers need to learn how to collaborate, which is a big shift in thinking from teacher-based to student-centered. A high school teacher discovered that high school students need immediate response, so synchronous discussion worked better for them. Girls seem to be more suitable at this age for using this technology for communcating.

Some professors found that online discussions deepen the learning process. Students had to search associated web pages to understand the other student’s point of view in order to comment and support their fellow learners. The online discussions helped produced better quality of papers in a graduate class (Wendy Lowe, John Neufeld, Pam Miller, Cathy Burke).

Students on a reservation in Arizona use online discussions very effectively. In fact they appreciate the experience of using the technology. Some of the more shy students found that they could express themselves easier online and the teacher feels she communicates one-on-one better online (Phyllis Salsedo).

In a study of Australian Universities, Alan Holzl finds that online communication supports constructivist learning and is the most effective use of current technology. He gives this URL as an example:

Carol Awalt with the University of Texas at Austin cites two URL’s that highlight a collaborative project with this university and four Canadian institutions:

One aspect of Roger Hartley’s paper that was not discussed very much was the use of electronic whiteboards as a collaborative teaching tool. Roger shares his experience with using whiteboards, stating that it has fostered a learning group presence. They broke the projects down into three stages:

  1. Introduce the discussion topic or issue
  2. Construct arguments by dividing the class into groups (sometimes taking the opposite viewpoint purposely
  3. Compare and evaluate comments

Related Articles or Internet sites

From Arun-Kumar Tripathi – surfing with a purpose – Internet: Library or Encyclopedia – Internet-based Collaboratories help scientists work together – How a Collaboratory was set up

From Arthur Jacobs – a learning game that can be played with browsers that have Java capabilities – another link

From Peter Taylor in response to Kathryn Constant’s request for supporting information