“Learning in communities – networked collaborative learning”, topic 3 in the ONL course this autumn has been intriguing. Intriguing because of possibilities, the massive amount of literature and studies that have been produced and because this knowledge has been there for DEACADES: I wonder why there have not been more collaborative learning events in the courses I have taken?! Maybe I suppress the memories because the few times I had group work to do it was mostly awful…. On the other hand, I have also realized that there has always been a personal learning network (PLN), although maybe not in the meaning PLN has today in times of online teaching and Twitter communities. It would be great to more consciously take care of this network and to expand it. I hope that my PBL group members will be part of this!

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

I was looking forward to this topic because I want to better activate the students I teach. Especially in times of Covid-19 and the associated social isolation, I am convinced that incorporating collaborative learning would be a good way to achieve this. With recorded lectures, it is easily possible to stay passive and to not engage with the learning material. Of course also easy in “traditional” face-to-face lectures. So for the remaining part of this blog, I would like to reflect on some insights and “take home messages” I believe could help me to engage students more.

One of the first important insights is “cooperative does not equal collaborative learning”, which was explained already in the webinars by Kay Oddone1). I also learnt from a compilation of collaborative learning strategies” by eduflow2 although some of them actually are rather cooperative than collaborative. They may still be helpful though in order to activate students.

Another insight was: there is no shortage of principles that have been suggested in the context of collaborative learning… I found that the PhD thesis by Weerasinghe3, gives a good overview and in addition design suggestions, both for individual and collaborative learning (e.g. Table 4-9, page 63). I will definitely have a look at that table when it is time to re-design my course.

Many insights have also been gained in our PBL group discussions, for example when we realized the importance of the time spent together in the beginning that allowed us to build trust: presenting ourselves at least 5 times and to work on a common task such as establishing the groups’ own collaborative rules paid off! If one can incorporate such kinds of activities, it may help to prevent or minimize one of the main frustration sources in group work: uneven work distribution4. To get around another major frustration source, grades for group work that do not reflect each individual’s contribution4, I would for right now go for collaborative work without grading. It seems to be more important for motivation anyway to let the group work on a “product” that really counts (for e.g. the public, fellow students)5 or possibly, on two products. Similarly, the ONL course requires two products: a common group and an individual product – maybe one possibility could be, if grades are needed, to grade the individual product?! This approach has also been described for the life science courses discussed in 5. I further believe it is good to be clear on expectations from the instructor side, and to be more concrete and clear about tasks the earlier in an education the respective collaborative work takes place.

There is plenty of interesting reading left to explore and I am looking forward to explore this further in practice!

References, accessed last 20 Nov 2020

3 Weerasinghe T. Designing Online Courses for Individual and Collaborative Learning : A study of a virtual learning environment based in Sri Lanka [Internet] [PhD dissertation]. [Stockholm]: Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University; 2015. (Report Series / Department of Computer & Systems Sciences).
Available from:

4 Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

5 Scager, K., Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J., & Wiegant, F. (2016). Collaborative Learning in Higher Education: Evoking Positive Interdependence. CBE life sciences education15(4), ar69.

Networked Collaborative Learning – an intriguing journey