Reflecting on Networking and Collaborative Learning


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For topic 3 on the course ONL191 the focus was on networked and collaborative learning, a very relevant and challenging topic. This was a very appreciated topic as collaborative learning is something that is high on the agenda for me and my colleagues currently developing and delivering on-line distance courses in environmental engineering at Mälardalen University in Sweden.

The last two years we have tried several approaches to engage our distance students in real time on-line discussions and discussion forums. However, surprisingly few students attend the online sessions and the discussions have not been as vidiv and engaging as we would like them to be.

So, what new insights has Topic 3 given me to engage and motivate my on-line distance students to attend and contribute to on-line collaborative learning?

According to Palloff Pratt (2005) there are some specific pedagogic benefits of collaborative learning:

  • Development of critical thinking skills
  • Co-creation of knowledge and meaning, Reflection
  • Transformative learning

Siemens (2005) state that seeking and constructing knowledge in an on-line environment is achieved through interaction and dialogue. This may be true, but something we realised is  that it is important to consider the objectives of the students enrolling in an on-line distance course. Many students, based on our experience choose on-line distance courses to be able to study where and when they want to. Collaborating with other students is not a priority for these students.

Furthermore, Siemens (2005) identified four stages of interactions among learners in an on-line distance course: 1) Communication, 2) Collaboration, 3) Cooperation, and 4) Community, with a progression from low to high levels of collaborative learning. In our current on-line courses we are still working on strengthening communication and collaboration. The goal is to provide an environment that stimulates to more in-depth collaboration, aiming towards increased cooperation and community building.

Brindley et al. (2009) identified 10 points to enhance communication and motivation to participate in collaborative learning:

  1. Transparency of expectations
  2. Clear instructions
  3. Appropriateness of task for group work
  4. Meaning-making/relevance
  5. Motivation for participation embedded in course development
  6. Readiness of learners for group work
  7. Timing of group formation
  8. Resect for the autonomy of learners
  9. Monitoring and feedback
  10. Sufficient time for the task

For details about these points: check out (Brindley et al. 2009).

Based on the discussions we held in PBL group 4 there are several challenges to consider when implementing collaborative learning in a course: e.g:

Students may prioritise their independence when choosing to enroll in a on-line distance course instead of depending on fellow students to succeed.

Conflicts as a result of unclear responsibilities, uneven workload and different levels of motivation is another risk.

It is more time consuming to facilitate (teacher’s perspective) as well as committing to collaborative learning (students’ perspective).

One should remember that many participants that enroll in a on-line distance course are working, or taking the course on the side of other studies. This limits the ability to commit to group meetings and interactions with fellow participants.

According to the PBL group 4 there are some solutions to this, ranging from avoiding conflict by listening and giving everyone in the group time to reflect and share their views, to defining rules of engagement from the beginning of the collaborative learning task, clearly define group membership and defining participants different roles in the group.

So, if I now blend this learning with my own experiences from giving a number of different on-line distance courses I can conclude that for collaborative learning to be successful it seems to be important to:

  1. Clearly communicate that collaborative learning is a central part of the course at the time when students apply to the course.
  2. Provide adequate on-line platforms for collaboration in real-time as well as through different forms of passive collaboration, e.g. discussion forums and such.
  3. Implement a structured and clear pedagogic framework with relevant assignments and tasks, ensuring that relevant information and instructions are easily accessible.
  4. Ensure clear and timely facilitation and communication with groups and individual participants of the course.

I hope this post was worthwhile reading, and please, feel free to comment on this text, and share your own experiences from on-line collaborative learning.


Brindley, JE, Walti, C and Blaschke, LM, 2009. Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Volume 10, Number 3.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism:  Learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), January 2005. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from

Reflective post on PK’s blog Topic 3