If I had to describe my approach to ‘collaborative’ learning prior to embarking on this ONL course, I would say that I had a ‘divide and conquer’ approach. I would prioritise efficiency and the need to get the task done over the broader benefits to be gained through collaboration.  Most of my group-based learning experiences have been in FTF (face-to-face) environments.  ONL was my first MTM (machine-to-machine) learning experience.  And the PBL approach used during ONL has really made me pause and think more deeply about ‘collaboration’ and all that might be gained by it and how the task still gets done but in a different way to how I might have envisaged.  It is a much more organic process than the ‘divide and conquer’ approach that I normally default to.  And I have gained far more out of the course proceeding on the basis of actual collaboration.  So what is true collaboration where the benefits of learning in community can be realised in an online environment?  How can we achieve this and what are the pitfalls to be aware of that might frustrate the process?

What is “true” collaboration?

When going through the materials, I was really struck by the idea of ‘connectivism’ as being at the bedrock of a proper collaborative online experience.  This has been defined by Siemens (2005): connectivism in an online learning environment involves the construction of knowledge through interaction and dialogue.  It is, therefore, important to create learning environments that facilitate connection in the group – and this, in turn, maximises interaction and dialogue.  Siemens (2002) further observed that interaction and collaboration in an online learning environment consists of a four stage continuum:

Continuum—–> Collaboration —–> Cooperation —–> Community 

It starts with people talking and discussing; to then sharing ideas and working together; to then doing things together and finally doing things together but with and for a common purpose.  This continuum is a useful framework for instructors – showing them how they might want to structure and progressively develop more complex and involved interaction skills as their learners move along their collaboration journey.  As a learner, it also helps me frame and understand my own PBL experience during the ONL.

Downes (2007) also leans on the idea of connectivism to emphasise the way information can / should be exchanged in an online learning environment:  

In connectivism, a phrase like “constructing meaning” makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not “constructed” through some sort of intentional action. …Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.’

These framing devices demonstrate to me the various ways in which we need to think about collaboration – beyond the ‘divide and conquer’ approach: where everyone is working in balkinised ways for their own individual purpose.  

What are the pitfalls?

Brindley et al (2009) point to a broad range of factors that influence the level of learner participation in online collaborative learning experiences.  It is interesting that they found – through their study – that whether the collaborative experience was assessed did not have a significant impact on the level of learner participation (although, it is important to note that where such collaborative work is assessed, this is sophisticated not just by assessing the output but the process of group work as well (Swan, Shen and Hiltz (2006)).  Course design and the strategies of instructors in creating and managing interactions can play a significant role.  This highlights to me that the broader advantages of collaboration go a long way towards student engagement – course design and instructor strategies are critical in bringing out the advantages of collaboration.

These factors can also mitigate the downsides of collaborative experiences – notably, the problem of the ‘free rider’ or social loafing.  However, the picture of the downsides is more complex.  As the study by Capdeferro (2012) demonstrates, there are a multitude of reasons why a learner might experience frustration during the collaborative experience:

The study concludes that awareness of student frustration and the causes for it should prompt a response at the institutional and instructor level.  At the institutional level, there is a need to have clear learning objectives, a sophisticated and transparent assessment strategy and a clear communication of both of these things to learners.  At the instructor level, the individual instructor needs to have a method of ‘temperature checking’ the collaboration experiences of their learners (monitoring for conflict, work imbalance etc) and should have a strategy for when to intervene and redirect the collaboration.

Concluding Thoughts

As with much of the ONL course, this week’s topic, the reading materials and the discussions during my PBL sessions during the course have really opened up the horizons for what real collaboration in an online learning environment might look like and what to be aware of.  It is really prompting me to think about how to move past the ‘divide and conquer’ approach I default to as a learner; but also how – as an instructor – I can structure group collaboration in courses to hit the right notes.  Much food for thought.

Reflections on Topic 3: Learning in Communities – what is true "collaboration"?