The three main functions of universities are often described to be education, research and serving society. These functions are intertwined, but here I’m focusing especially on the third one – serving the society – in relation to collaborative learning in education.

Teaching students to be academics and professionals in their fields can of course be seen as serving society. Curricula are designed to produce learning outcomes that are valuable for the academia and the working life. Methods of collaboration have probably a growing part in this, because social and emotional skills are predicted to be even more valued in the future (e.g. Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 by Pearson).

In the same time teaching in universities is not just about answering the demand of the working life and the society. It’s also about effecting them, transforming the society. Following Etienne Wenger (2010) this can be seen as something inevitable, because people in a university community affect its practices and practices of this community affect its members. Eventually the university-educated professionals work and develop the working life partly with those skills and perspectives they have adopted when studying. This doesn’t mean just the content of lectures and courses, but also ways of working with the content. In teaching, means become the ends: people learn what they do, so in addition to the content, the learning methods also become part of the learning outcomes. Methods of collaborative learning teach about collaboration.

In a course, collaborative learning doesn’t come without challenges. How to share the goals and responsibilities in a group? How to utilize different strengths of the group members, how to plan the work and how to balance different levels of commitment? How to assess the results fairly, when each member has participated the process in one’s own way? However, if the challenges of collaboration are first confronted during the studies, maybe worthy ways of collaboration are easier to form also after graduation – in the working life. With teaching and learning, the effect often extends beyond the immediate educational situation.

Extending beyond the boundaries of a course or a school is also apparent, if learning is approached from the viewpoint of Personal Learning Networks (Wikipedia). George Siemens (2004) describes how learning is not just about know-how and know-what, but also about know-where; where to find the right knowledge when it’s needed? Learning is about connecting information sources and being able to recognize trustworthy information. In a course, the learning process can be planned to support students in development of their networks, reaching beyond the boundaries of the school. This hopefully serves also the society, when students and their information from the course also become parts of others’ networks.

Even if we observe learning of individuals, I think well implemented collaborative and networked learning can bring good outcomes. For example, they are steps towards an experience of participation and involvement, they enhance learning and retention, they support higher order thinking and build professional identity. In addition, maybe collaborative learning can also be seen as something useful for the third function of universities, serving society?


Constitution of Finland, Universities Act, 2 §.

Pearson. Future of Skills: Employment in 2030. (viewed 30.4.2020)

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London.

Wikipedia: Personal learning network. (viewed 30.4.2020)

Collaborative learning for the society?