Educational Technology & Society 5 (1) 2002
ISSN 1436-4522

Overcoming Social and Psychological Barriers to Effective On-line Collaboration

Sandra C. Hughes
Naval Air Warfare Center & Joint Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory
Florida, USA

Leah Wickersham
Sul Ross State University
Texas, USA

David L. Ryan-Jones
Naval Air Warfare Center & Joint Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory
Florida, USA

Sara A. Smith
University of West Florida
Florida, USA



Research suggests that collaboration in an on-line course can enhance learning, reduce feelings of isolation, increase satisfaction with the course, and increase motivation. Unfortunately, creating an environment within which collaboration can occur doesn’t happen automatically. A review of the literature suggests that for on-line collaboration to be most effective, participants must: (1) see the value of expending the (considerable) effort required, (2) be comfortable with and trust the medium, (3) be comfortable with and trust their instructor (or facilitator) and their fellow collaborators, and (4) feel as though they are immersed in a rich, engaging, and rewarding social experience. While many papers suggest that one or more initial face-to-face meetings will expedite trust, familiarity, and a willingness to collaborate, one of the primary reasons why students engage in distance learning is the convenience of anytime, anyplace learning.  Thus, face-to-face meetings are not always possible or desirable, leaving us with the need to address these issues in more creative ways.  This paper reports on how researchers and practitioners have begun to address the challenges associated with on-line collaboration.

Keywords: Computer-mediated communication, On-line collaboration, Social barriers


The importance of the World Wide Web lies in its ability to disseminate information around the world in near real time.  In the last few years, the Web has been increasingly used to not only share existing knowledge, but to create opportunities for knowledge generation through collaboration.  Collaboration can occur asynchronously (for example, through e-mail or postings on bulletin boards) or synchronously (for example, in videoconferences, teleconferences, or real-time chat). Software packages that support asynchronous and synchronous collaboration known as “groupware” (e.g., Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, Netscape Suite Spot, and Novell GroupWise) commonly include features such as conferencing, group decision support, meeting support, document sharing, bulletin boards, and chat that can foster direct interaction between individuals in a group.  Group members can debate, engage in role-playing exercises, post questions and responses, or even compose collaborative documents in real-time.

Group collaboration has been used to promote learning in academia by exposing participants to alternative points of view in the context of problem solving.   Conflicts between peers force them to defend their positions as well as seek additional clarifying information.  Furthermore, the act of explaining has been shown to benefit both more knowledgeable and less knowledgeable peers (Webb, 1982).  In addition to enhancing learning, collaboration may foster important social interactions, reduce the sense of alienation that distance learners sometimes feel, and increase satisfaction with the learning experience (Clark, 2000; Hiltz et al., 1997; Irani, 1998).  Hiltz et al. (2000) present evidence that while learning in isolation on-line may be less motivating than learning in a traditional classroom, working collaboratively on-line may lead to higher motivation than from within a traditional classroom setting.

In contrast to cost-cutting “digital diploma factories,” which require little interaction among students or between the student and the instructor, more educators are opting to create high quality on-line learning environments that embrace interaction, collaboration, and a supportive learning community (Hiltz, 1999). However, simply having the tools available for collaboration will not ensure that effective communication occurs. Many barriers to effective on-line collaboration are just as prevalent in face-to-face collaboration as they are over the Web.  For example, if an organization encourages knowledge hoarding with reward structures that focus on individual expertise but ignore collaborative contributions, then successful collaboration is unlikely (Hall, 1999).  Some barriers are common to both environments, but may be exaggerated when people are collaborating without face-to-face interaction.  Trust among group members, believed to be a significant factor in successful collaboration, can be a challenge even when a group works together in the same room.  However, trust may be more of a problem on-line.  Individuals in social groups pick up cues that help them learn to trust others by observing voice intonations, body gestures, and facial expressions (Hall, 1999).  These cues may not be available to individuals participating in Web-based collaboration, even when real-time video conferencing is used (Greenberg, in press).  Still, other problems are unique to on-line collaboration, including the technology itself, such as software that is perceived as being difficult to use, and problems with connectivity or access.

Many papers have suggested that an initial face-to-face meeting will expedite trust, familiarity, and a willingness to collaborate.  However, since one of the primary reasons why individuals engage in distance learning is the convenience of anytime, anyplace learning, this may not always be desirable or even possible. In this paper our assumption is that we are dealing with on-line groups members who have never met face-to-face.  While we have chosen to focus our discussion on collaborators who are involved in on-line learning, most of the material is relevant to on-line collaborating workgroups. Their collaborative work may involve synchronous, asynchronous, or mixed discussions.  Further, we are addressing human issues, not evaluating groupware features.  Thus, we will refer to groupware capabilities only when relevant to the discussion.


Analysis of literature

We organize an analysis of the literature around four aspects of effective collaboration: (1) perceived value of expending the considerable effort required; (2) established comfort and trust with the medium; (3) established comfort and trust among instructors (or facilitators) and fellow collaborators; and, (4) perceived richness of the social experience.


Getting students to see the value of collaboration

Jones and Martinez (2001) found that compared to the general student population, students who choose to take Web-based distance learning courses tend to have learning orientations characterized by more self-directedness and a penchant for discovery learning.  Some individuals may be attracted to distance learning because it offers them an opportunity to learn autonomously and efficiently without having to interact much with others.  This may be especially true in the case of busy professionals who are drawn to distance learning because they don’t have time to take traditional courses.  Ragoonaden and Bordeleau (2000) found that some students resented having to communicate with others whose work habits were different from theirs.

This suggests that some individuals may resist collaboration.  One approach is to assess student preferences and adapt instruction accordingly (i.e., maybe only those who prefer to collaborate should be expected to do so).  This may be a viable option, but it risks the prospect of students missing out on opportunities and being treated unequally.  Another option is to try to get resistant learners to embrace collaboration. One way to accomplish this is:

  • Share positive collaboration experiences from other learners;
  • Set up an initial short-term collaborative project with a high probability of a positive outcome; and,
  • Make sure group members receive recognition for individual contributions.

It is also wise to keep in mind that collaboration is not desirable in every learning environment. Fisher et al. (2000) has noted that the more interdependence and collaboration required in an on-line class, the more difficult it will be for students to be independent in their learning.   Their capacity to carry out activities and build towards their assignments becomes limited by their group members’ schedules and quality of work.  Furthermore, this paradigm places a significant demand on instructors’ time. Palloff and Pratt (1999) suggest up to two hours per day is needed to keep in touch with and monitor the progress of a single on-line group.


Establishing comfort and trust with the technology

Technical difficulties can obstruct communication, interaction and collaboration among group members, creating frustration among learners (Ragoonaden & Bordeleau, 2000).  Differing technological skill levels among group members may also hinder collaboration efforts and result in feelings of anxiety, confusion, disorganization and purposelessness (Ge, Yamashiro & Lee, 2000).  Learners need to be comfortable with the technology and know how to deal with technological problems when they arise. 

To the extent possible, it is necessary to try to boost the self-efficacy of students (regarding the use of on-line collaboration).  Students displaying a high degree of self-efficacy expect to master the environment and produce successful outcomes as a result of their efforts, thus increasing their chances of success.  To maximize this possibility, an assessment of the students’ technical ability is a good first step. Some instructors administer questionnaires designed to evaluate student's general level of technical/web savvy (e.g., “What programs do you use?” or “Do you have your own web page?”). Based onthis information, the instructor has a better understanding of which students may need more guidance.Familiarization training for students is important, especially if students are new to collaborative distance learning. Students need help getting acquainted with the system, as well as the social conventions associated with the learning space (Dieberger et al., 2001). Throughout the duration of a collaborative distance learning course it is essential to provide a technical point of contact. As Galusha (1998) states,  “If distance learning is to be successful, technical barriers must be made a non-issue” (p. 11).


Establishing comfort and trust among students and between instructor and students

Wegerif (1998) found that individual success or failure in one on-line course depended on the extent to which students were able to “cross the threshold from feeling like outsiders to feeling like insiders” (p. 34).  Wegerif (1998) argued that participants are likely to be anxious, defensive, and unwilling to collaborate unless a sense of community exists. This sense of community requires a degree of trust and comfort.

Several approaches to establishing trust and comfort among on-line students have been reported in the literature.  Harisim (1999) created a Web conference called the “coffee house.” The sole purpose of this conference was to allow the participants to socialize with others in their class.  In a similar fashion, Clark (2000) suggests having students post a public introduction and biography as an initial requirement of participation in a Web-based course.  Thus, students gain an immediate insight into their classmates’ backgrounds, interests, and skills, making it easier and more comfortable for them to collaborate.  Lowell and Persichitte (2000) proposed having students play Multi-user Domain (MUD) games at the beginning of a course in order to encourage the rapid formation of a sense of community. Although a deep level of trust takes time to develop, it appears that even obtaining limited personal information about others in a group may facilitate on-line collaboration (Management Assistance Program, 1999).

One aspect of trust in collaboration (on-line or face-to-face) involves group members trusting each other to do their parts. Learning activities should be structured to ensure that each group member has an active role in the collaboration process.  One way of preventing distrust is to include measures of individual contributions as part of grades for collaborative efforts. Group learning contracts have been successful in establishing trust and a sense of community among group members (Murphy et al., 2000).  Group members work together to reach consensus on how they will communicate, to make contingency plans for emergencies, and decide how to establish member roles and responsibilities such as a leader or editor (Murphy et al., 2000).  The contract can also establish timelines, chat schedules, and other group processes rules, conventions, or guidelines.

Instructors can help students gain trust by showing that they are competent, involved, and available. To do this, care should be taken to develop a well-designed course, and to provide frequent feedback.  Instructors should develop strategies that have meaningful outcomes for the learners. This type of instruction often involves a shift from teacher-centered learning to learner-centered environments. Instructors then act as facilitators, mediators, and problem solvers, offering guidance and suggestions for group projects and addressing any difficulties that arise (Murphy et al., 2000; Rogers, 2000).


Creating a rich social environment

Abell (2000) notes that in a traditional instructor-centered classroom, where the instructor disseminates information and students merely absorb it, the quality of social interaction among students and between the instructor and student may not be as critical as it is in a collaborative on-line classroom.  In the latter, knowledge is generated through relationships and interactions (student-to-student and student-to-instructor). When groups collaborate on projects, a great deal of coordination is required.  Team development processes are more complex on-line than they are in person.  A rich on-line social environment minimizes feelings of isolation and supports effective collaboration.  Trust and comfort are prerequisites for creating a rich social environment.  In addition, it is essential that group members: (1) find ways to convey enough social communication information for comfortable and relaxed exchanges, and (2) have a sense that other group members are “real” and present.  Achieving these goals requires high-level interpersonal skills on the part of the collaborators as well as the instructor.  Although there is substantial overlap, each will be addressed below.


Providing social communication information

Early work on computer-mediated communication focused on the lack of social context cues in this medium (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). These cues define the social nature of the situation and the status of those present and include aspects of the physical environment, body language, and paralinguistic characteristics. The absence of these cues can result in a number of positive outcomes.  For example, shy students may feel more comfortable to “speak up.” Furthermore, the lack of cues encourages egalitarian participation across gender and status (Dubrovsky et al., 1991).   

However, the lack of social context cues may explain why individuals working in distributed groups report feeling disconnected from the group, less engaged with the group (Lowell & Persichitte, 2000), less cohesive as a group (Inzana et al., 1994), and less satisfied with group deliberations (Connolly et al., 1990).  They also report feeling more anonymous and more uninhibited, and often make riskier decisions (Dubrovsky et al., 1991; Siegel et al., 1986).  Furthermore, compared to face-to-face groups, participants tend to make more task-oriented statements, but make fewer social support statements such as expressing support or agreement (Hiltz et al., 1989).  Distributed collaboration groups also take longer to get oriented in the initial stages of a project (Hughes et al., 1994).

It is important to note that many of the early CMC studies cited above were based on workgroups that were brought together to accomplish short term projects using networked computers in the days before the current Web culture emerged.  It is probably safe to say that people have become far more accustomed to communicating with strangers (and communicating social cues) using their computers since the 1980s and 1990s.  However, apparently there are still substantial issues regarding communication cues over computer networks.  Recently, Fisher, Phelps, and Ellis (2000) reported that the greatest number of negative comments from their students regarding their on-line experiences centered on communication issues. Their students commented on the effects of the lack of face-to-face cues that they would normally rely on to judge appearances, pick up nuances in speech and tone, understand whether a joke is being made, or notice why someone is silent.

One way to compensate for the lack of social communication cues is to use extreme caution in on-line communications. In recent years, guidelines of Internet etiquette have been slowly evolving.  Essentially, they suggest that online communicators pay careful attention to both written and tacit messages (e.g., monitoring e-mail and responding quickly, avoiding messages that could be interpreted as harsh, being careful with sarcasm and humor).  When all members of a collaborating group abide by these rules, group interaction can be greatly facilitated.  Many on-line instructors post these guidelines for their on-line classes to follow.  When they notice that students are not adhering to the guidelines, they may send gentle reminders via e-mail.

In addition to adhering to Internet etiquette, another approach for compensating for the lack of social communication cues is to try to replicate them. Erickson and Kellog (2000) discuss the use of video to transmit these cues. However, as they note, meaningful yet subtle cues such as facial expressions, will likely go unnoticed due to technological limitations such as resolution limits and the camera’s field of view.  Further, these systems are still expensive and not used widely enough to support the typical on-line learner. Abstract approaches involve portraying social information that is less closely tied to the physical analog. The use of emoticons (e.g.,  J or  L) and other uses of text to portray social information is one example of this type of approach.


Establishing and maintaining social presence

Social presence (the sense that other individuals are present) also seems essential for comfortable collaboration between people who have never met in person. Care should be taken to establish and maintain social presence of the instructor and all group members.  As Dieberger, et al. (2001) suggest, awareness of others and their actions makes a virtual space feel more “alive” and something that users might perceive as a “place.”

Hiltz and Benbunan-Fich (1997) suggest several ways that instructors can create and maintain a strong on-line presence.  For example, they argue that instructors should make sure that they respond to every inquiry promptly, especially at the beginning of the semester or activity. They might also participate in the group discussion by posting comments every week. Finally, they should monitor the participation of the learners and encourage those who are not participating in discussions by sending private e-mails.

Paloff and Pratt (1999) suggest that allowing instructors and students to represent themselves visually on the course Web site can greatly enhance each individual's social presence.  This can be done by creating individual homepages or biographies, including photographs or other graphic images which participants choose to represent themselves.  Taking these steps may allow collaborators to visually embody each other.  Thus, instead of merely relating to words on a screen, collaborators are able to connect the words with real human beings.

Both instructors and peers can maintain social presence using instant messaging systems, which allow users to maintain an awareness of the availability and status of individuals they have placed in their buddy lists.  They can see who is on-line, away from their desk, out to lunch, or busy. These text-based instant messaging systems provide fairly subtle social presence cues in that they may not make members of a group seem physically present. However, they do give users a sense for who is on-line and available for synchronous collaboration.

Some groupware products use a room metaphor.  Certain rooms may be designated for group activity, where two or more people may work synchronously, while some may be designated for individual activity with the ability to leave messages or annotations for others to view asynchronously. In that such place-based collaboration tools allow users a sense of shared space, it seems reasonable to think that they might also encourage a sense of shared presence.



On-line collaboration provides many opportunities for the on-line learner.  There is great potential for enriched learning as well as rewarding social experiences.  This paper has delineated a wide range of social and psychological issues that should be addressed to facilitate collaboration, including: (1) encouraging students to accept collaboration; (2) establishing comfort with the technology; (3) establishing comfort and trust between the instructor and students and between collaborators; and, (4) creating a rich on-line social environment conducive to collaboration. 

Future research should focus on determining the circumstances under which on-line collaboration is most effective.  Undoubtedly, the extent to which collaboration is appropriate may depend on a host of variables, including the topic, the desired learning outcome, the communication skills and knowledge levels of the participants.



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