Making collaborative learning work!

Why team work?
Collaborative learning = deep learning?
Designing team tasks to work online
Re-thinking online group tasks — examples

Why team work?

‘They don’t like team work’

We have heard many online tutors say that their students are not interested in teamwork because ‘they are very busy people who don’t want to lose time’ or because ‘culturally the learners are not used to learning collaboratively’. An additional justification for not offering teamwork opportunities to their learners is that their subject does not lend itself to this learning method. ‘There is no time for group projects, we have too many topics to cover’ is another very common objection. 

Stop and ThinkStop'n'think
What are your initial thoughts when you hear ‘teamwork’? If you have concerns about teamwork, write them down. Can they be solved through better design?

It is true that some students prefer to work independently. These often are the ‘good’ students who want individual acknowledgement for their work. But their frustration with group work is also a design issue. We should design a grading system that assesses individual work to ensure these students are not ignored. We will discuss this more in depth in the section about assessment.

Our experiences with the group work we designed are very positive, with different cultures from around the world, with very busy corporate participants, and in courses where traditionally there has been a strong focus on instructivist methods.

The literature about e-learning often points to the benefits of social constructivism, a learning theory that focuses on the collaborative and social dimensions of learning. Simply adding a discussion forum however does not just make this happen. A considerable design effort goes into making group learning experiences work well. Not every course needs to include collaborative work. However, team-oriented practical tasks and ‘conceptual’ courses lend themselves very well to team work.


What is social constructivism?

There are many different definitions of social constructivism. They all point to the importance of interaction between learners, instructors and tasks as learners actively build (construct) their own knowledge.

Online collaborative work has the added bonus of developing the communication skills needed in many of today’s workplaces. This is the environment most of us work in today!

Collaborative learning = deep learning?

‘Including collaborative activity in an online course is probably the best way to tap into all learning styles present in the group’ (Palloff & Pratt, 2003, p. 36).

As a group, learners can complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses and be challenged about their assumptions and pre-conceived ideas. This is important for the development of critical thinking skills. In groups they can also create knowledge and meaning together, which is key to a constructivist process. There is typically more reflection about a problem or task and the supporting resources when learners work in groups, which leads to deeper learning.

But there is a lot of so-called teamwork that is not effective. This is because there is often no reason to interact or compulsion to contribute. Small group tasks need to be designed in a structured way and be of sufficient scope and complexity that they cannot be achieved by a single participant working alone.

Learner Instruction

Stop and ThinkStop'n'think
Think about an activity in one of your past courses, where you’d wished there was more interaction. Was there sufficient reason for the learners to interact?

Interesting online discussions don’t just happen and collaboration does not automatically lead to learning. Meaningful learning through collaboration online needs to be carefully designed to reflect the active learning that is promoted by the e-learning literature.

Designing team tasks to work online

Designing team tasks that work requires careful design. For example, if the task is to ‘post at least once in the forum with your answer to a question’ then this does not encourage interaction or discussion, and hence no deep learning.

Managing collaboration between online learners requires a clear design and facilitation strategy that includes learners’ roles, and clear descriptions of goals and expectations. It means that the task is designed in such a way that teams of learners can drive the discussion, while the facilitator can focus on meaningful feedback.

Good face-to-face facilitators who use small group work in their classrooms will not put their learners in groups to simply ‘discuss’ an issue. The discussion will always lead to something tangible to create together. The team task must have a clear output and ideally an ‘authentic or realistic’ one.

Make sure it works

Let’s look at some practical tips to create engaging online group work:

  1. Design well-structured meaningful tasks that require collaboration among learners.
  2. Clearly describe the expected deliverable.
  3. Give a deadline.
  4. Give students clear directions.
  5. Develop clear strategies for group composition and team roles.
  6. Explain why group work is important for your course.
  7. Explain how the group task supports the learning objectives of the course.
  8. Grade the activity.
  9. Design a feedback strategy that is motivational for all learners involved.
  10. Drama and controversy make learning more exciting and it should always be fun. (Janssens-Bevernage, 2006)

We will now look at each of these practical tips individually.

 1. Design well-structured meaningful tasks that require collaboration among learners.
There must be a reason to interact other than interaction being a course requirement. The task needs to be structured, but the outcome should be ill-structured (with no right and wrong answers). Broad and vague assignments along the lines of ‘discuss…’, ‘share your experiences…’, or ‘comment on your peers’ contributions…’ tend to promote shallow learning.

‘It is vital that a team activity requires an interweaving of thoughts and not simply be a result of individual thoughts and actions’ (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004).

Learners usually don’t interact online unless we give them a good reason to engage. The focus should be on doing.

‘Learners should be provided with an opportunity to do something relevant to them instead of simply learning about something, making the knowledge gained through experience both explicit and tacit’ (Stewart, as cited in Anderson & Elloumi, 2004)

2. Clearly describe the expected deliverable

To be effective, collaborative tasks need learners to interact and contribute to a tangible group outcome. This can be a report, a list of recommendations, a PowerPoint presentation or any other structured output. You may need to offer a template for learners to visualise what you expect from them. Working in groups towards a tangible output is called product-oriented collaboration.

Alternatively, process-oriented collaboration focuses on the learning that can be gained from structured group exchange (Clark & Mayer, 2003). The key word here is ‘structured’, as effective structuring of the collaboration to maximise interactions is a critical factor for success. For example, process-oriented collaboration could follow the format of problem-based learning, where a structured process is followed to discuss the problem, define learning issues, conduct independent study, and reconvene to discuss problem solutions.

If the activity is graded, let learners know how marks will be applied and weighted.

 3. Give a deadline
The closer learners get to a deadline, the more their thoughts, ideas and creativity will be put to work to meet the deadline. Without a clear deadline, work gets put off and there is little focus for collaboration to take place.

When setting a deadline, think about the profile of your learners. If they include working adults, for example, Mondays tend to work well as these learners typically find some time during weekends to catch up with course work.

 4. Give students clear directions
You need to give sufficient guidance and resources to ensure productive collaboration but leave enough ambiguity to stimulate creativity and challenge.

‘Groups do not find it easy to work virtually so without careful structuring, it is unlikely that discussion will move beyond, at best, sharing of information, support and encouragement’ (Salmon, 2002).

On the other hand, the guidelines should not be too rigid and should contain room for discussion and negotiation. Guidelines should not put students in the position of wondering, ‘Am I doing this right?’ (Paloff & Pratt, 2001).
Consider what you would do in a face-to-face setting. How would your learners know what to do? Don’t leave your online learners guessing these instructions.

 5. Develop clear strategies for group composition and team roles
Heterogeneous groups work best. Try to find a mix of abilities, age and gender.

Assigning roles to learners promotes focus. Some examples of roles include chair, presenter, timekeeper, and so on. Not all learners should have a specific role, unless the group work is done over a longer period of time. These roles should be rotated when a new team task is undertaken. It is essential to clearly describe what these roles entail.

Small groups of a maximum of 6 participants work well for highly structured team tasks. In the literature you will find a range of different guidelines for group sizes. For example, Clark and Mayer (2003) found that small groups can only be efficient when there are a maximum of 5 to 6 members, whereas Salmon (2002) indicates small groups of between 6 and 10 members as being ideal.

When making decisions about group size, think about what you would do in a face to face setting. Consider the complexity of the task and typical dropout rates in your course (especially with adult learners who may suddenly have other personal or work related commitments). If the average dropout rate is high, then you may want to set up larger teams in order to keep a critical mass of learners per team when some have left the course.

6. Explain why group work is important for your course
It is important for your learners to understand why teamwork is important for your course or for a specific activity. This will increase their motivation to participate. If teamwork is typically done in the real world then it can be made clear to the learners that teamwork has a key role to play in building their skills as professionals.

Learners sometimes perceive teamwork as a teacher’s whim. Explain your rationale for teamwork to avoid this perception, create relevancy and increase motivation.

7. Explain how the team task supports the learning objectives of the course Have another look at the learning outcomes for your course. Are some of the learning outcomes specifically aimed at building communication skills in the area of expertise? Does teamwork support the achievement of some of the other outcomes as well? Point this out to your learners.

8. Grade the activity
Grading teamwork is difficult and may create major frustrations for the learners and the tutors.

You may want to find ways to make sure learners get credit for their input into teamwork while grading their individual work. One way to do this is by using portfolio-style assessment. This means asking the individual learners to demonstrate their role in the collaborative activity and reflect on their contribution for the assessment. This results in recognition of the group work while grading the individual learner and not the group as a whole. It will also avoid the additional work to be done by the tutor of gathering everything the individual learners have contributed to get an overall picture of their input to the group work.

This is how it could work. When you ask your learners to write an individual assessment after a team task you could add the following requirements:

  • Ask learners to include at least five quotes from their own postings in the team task.
  • Ask learners to include five quotes from their peers’ postings in the team task.
  • Ask learners to evaluate their contribution to the overall output of the team

When learners know about these requirements upfront, it can motivate participation and they can reflect this in the individual assignment. This will also ensure they read at least part of their peers’ contributions and critically analyse some of these contributions to be able to include them in individual reflections.

The model we illustrate above avoids the so often used strategy of requiring students to ‘post so many times and having to reply to so many other postings’, which can seem to lack purpose and does not promote collaborative work.

9. Design a feedback strategy that is motivational for all learners involved
Feedback is an essential part of the learning process. The tutor plays a crucial role here. As a designer you should write guidelines for the tutor to ensure you have communicated your intentions for how to make a team activity work.

Feedback on group activity should not just be a 'well done, now move on' message. Feedback should weave in important course-related information for each team. Weaving involves pulling together the participants’ contributions by collecting statements and relating them to concepts and theories from the course (Salmon, 2002).

Team tasks should be designed in a way that the tutor does not have to reply to each posting; only to the final output. Weaving makes sure that learners’ individual contributions are acknowledged.

10. Drama and controversy make learning more exciting and it should always be fun
Get your learners hooked. For example, starting off with a controversial story will get your learner’s attention. Make them choose sides. Add drama to your stories. Learners will more eagerly identify themselves with a character that desperately needs help.

‘Fun’ for the learner does not come from visual enhancements or multimedia add-on’s. We have ‘fun’ when we are engaged in a course, even at a highly intellectual level. We have ‘fun’ when we are involved in and enjoying our learning process.

Johnson (2005) proposes storytelling, zest and wit in the narration of the course, and a lot more. His article ‘The Nine Too-Often-Neglected Principles of E-Learning Design’ applies these principles with great talent and is a must-read!

Re-thinking online group tasks — examples

It helps to brainstorm with a few colleagues when developing group tasks. Looking at examples should help you get a feel for developing meaningful tasks. Here are some to get you started:

Learning outcome: Discuss how learning theories can be used to describe children’s development.

task: Think about what each theoretical perspective might mean when it is applied to a child’s learning process. Post your findings in the forum and comment on one other posting.

task: How would Piaget have potty trained his son? Join your group of four and describe in 5 bullet points this potty training venture by Piaget and son.

Comment: You may consider the second option too focused on one particular aspect of Piaget’s theories and may want your learners to think and write at a more abstract level, such as proposed in the first option. Bear in mind, though, that group work — to be enjoyable and useful — should have an embedded fun/action/drama factor. If more abstract thinking/writing is a learning outcome in your course, it is advisable to request for more abstract thinking/writing in an individual assignment following the group work.

Learning outcome: Describe the facilitation skills required in an online learning environment.

task: Read your set text and search for more information on facilitation skills required in e-learning. Post your findings and reply to a posting from one of the other students.

task: Here is the story of a group of 20 participants on an online course. One paragraph about every student explains the approach and attitude each student has had in the course up to now and the style of their postings. Some seem to be problematic. You are a team of six e-tutors and you should decide what you will undertake in the next week to support this online course. Write a 10-point action plan, and a full write up of the postings you require in the discussion and/or news forums.

Learning outcome: Describe how different stakeholders are affected when off-shore oil platforms are disposed of.

task: Research how off-shore oil platforms are disposed of and how stakeholders were involved/informed in the process. Post your findings in the forum and comment on one posting by one of the other students.
task: You are a team of 6 experts appointed by the mayor of Birdville Harbour, the city closest to an old non-functional off-shore oil platform that needs to be disposed of. The oil company has submitted to the mayor its strategy for the disposal of the off-shore oil platform. However, an international environmental protection group has indicated that it is horrified by the proposal and that it would take action. The mayor has requested your team to undertake an independent investigation and submit your group’s recommendation report within 2 weeks.

Learning outcome: Describe life during Victorian times.

task: find out about Victorian times and post your findings in the forum
task: buddy up with one of your peers [tutor to make pairs] and imagine you are brothers/sisters during Victorian times. Describe one day in the life of two Victorian children on a one-page document and post.

Note that the described example tasks above may be a much shorter version of the tasks that would be developed in a real learning context. The purpose of the descriptions above is to give you a feel of what we mean by ‘doing’ instead of ‘learning about’.


Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (2004). Theory and practice of online learning. Available from

Clark, R., & Mayer, R. (2003). E-learning and the science of instruction. Pfeiffer, US

Janssens-Bevernage, A. (2006). Designing engaging online group work. Retrieved April 25, 2007, from

Johnson, T. (2005, May). The nine too-often-neglected principles of e-learning design. The E-learning Developers’ Journal. Retrieved July 3, 2005, from (insert URL).

Paloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Salmon, G. (2003). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Salmon, G. (2002). E-tivities: The key to active online learning. London, England: RoutledgeFalmer.

Last modified: Thursday, 15 December 2011, 10:12 AM