When the learners and the teacher cannot meet in a common space and at the same time, so some online methodologies are put in place, it appears a psychological distance between them (Moore, 1997) and feelings of isolation can appear. However, this can be prevented by providing a thoughtful learning design that intentionally encourages and promotes collaboration between teacher and learners and by building inclusive online learning environments which integrate students’ diverse perspectives and experiences and make them true co-creators of knowledge Online collaborative learning (OCL) encompass wide spectrum of interaction strategies and learning models that are aimed to stimulate collaboration in learning. In this module, we look at important principles that apply to a variety of forms of inclusive OCL.
As Harasim (2017) has put it, in collaborative learning (OCL): “students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer (…) the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline.”
Harasim emphasizes the importance of three distinct activities within the learning process:
- idea generating: an initial phase that consist of brainstorming and through which the group members’ divergent thinking arises;
- idea organising: a second stage in which learners compare, analyse and categorise their different ideas through discussions and argumentations;
- intellectual convergence: the learning process concludes by reaching some level of intellectual synthesis by means of understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree).
The role of the teacher in this learning process is seen as critical, not only because they facilitate the process and provide appropriate resources and activities that encourage collaborative learning, but also because they act as representatives of a knowledge community or subject domain, so they ensure that the core concepts, practices, standards and principles of the subject domain are fully integrated into the learning process.
In OCL, textbooks, lectures and didactic resources are chosen to support and contribute to collaborative learning goals, not the other way around. Therefore, they are not used to promote individual, isolated learning.
Inclusive online collaborative learning doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires careful planning and the right strategies and tools, including (Bates, 2019):
- appropriate technology (e.g. software that allows threaded discussions);
- clear guidelines on student online behaviour, such as conduct for participating in discussions;
- student orientation and preparation, including technology, orientation and the used methodology;
- learning goals that are understood by the students;
- choice of appropriate topics, that complement and expand the study materials and are necessary in answering the questions;
- appropriate tones or requirements for discussion (e.g. respectful disagreements, evidence-based arguments);
- clear learner roles and responsibilities;
- monitoring the participation of individuals and responding accordingly, by providing the appropriate (peer)feedback or support;
- regular, ongoing instructor presence; and
- strong articulation between topics and assessments.
To previous points of attention, we add some others that explicitly facilitate inclusive OCL (Salazar et al., 2010):
- create opportunities for dialogue where multiple perspectives are honored;
- assist students in identifying differences and similarities in opinions;
- recognize students personal experiences as worthy knowledge;
- elicit and build on students’ funds of knowledge;
- make use of noncompetitive, collaborative assignments in group work, and
- avoid addressing minority students as a ‘token’ which can lead to greater stereotyping by majority group members.
As mentioned in the introduction, there is a whole range of possible working forms up to and including teaching concepts that use interactive and collaborative learning. There are versatile online learning collaboration tools that provide teachers with opportunities for team brainstorming, multiple co-authoring, student interactions and their impact on the course, and much more. See for example the ones listed in the blog: 30+ best online learning collaboration tools. When choosing a tool, you might consider the education goals you need to meet and to what extent such a tool is consistent with your learning design and can really contribute to the learning process.