Traditional learning environments serve as natural hubs of social or collaborative learning. Even if there are no explicit group activities planned as part of the academic curriculum, being physically present at a given place and time to attend regular classes offers ample scope for students to learn and grow together.
Collaborative learning in virtual or online learning environments, on the other hand, happens only if learning programs support and promote interactivity and learner engagement. The nature and extent of collaborative learning in a virtual setting depend on several factors (which we explore in the article later), notable among them being:
- Course Design
- Course Delivery
- Technology and Tools
Learning professionals must suitably address these factors if they are looking to foster better collaboration between course participants.
The Benefits of Collaborative or Social Learning in Conventional Classrooms
There are several benefits of social learning in a traditional educational setting:
- Collaborative learning in brick-and-mortar schools, colleges, and even corporate offices encourages holistic development by enhancing the cognitive, thinking, language, communication, application, and interpersonal skills of learners.
- Participants in educational and training courses learn to appreciate and value the contribution of each team member.
- They also learn to share their knowledge and apply it suitably when working as a group.
- Apart from academic progress, learners eventually get a grip on resolving conflicts amicably.
Learners tend to grow together, imbibing and building on each others’ knowledge, once they are comfortable with the idea of collaborative learning. This approach to learning is particularly valuable when applied to research or deep learning, where collective efforts can make a difference.
The high level of collaboration in a real-time setting is attributable to the time spent in-person with classmates, friends, mentors, and instructors, or teachers. With support and guidance being readily available during class hours, the learning process gets easier and enjoyable, hence more effective.
How to Mimic Similar Levels of Collaboration in Remote Learning
Being active online is not the same as being physically present in a real-time setting. It doesn’t matter if it is a live online class or seminar or otherwise. That said, it is also worth noting that remote or virtual learning does break geographical barriers and allows self-paced learning. With technology and tools continuously evolving to facilitate live interactions on-demand, it is possible to support collaborative learning.
Effective collaborations are possible when backed by efficient course design, delivery, and the use of suitable tools and technology.
To facilitate collaborative learning, online learning or training programs must allow enough options for learners to:
- Interact with instructors and peers
- Share experiences and knowledge
- Work in groups
The frequency, duration, and type of interactions will, however, vary based on the learners’ needs and the course itself.
Grouping learners into study teams or workgroups is a great responsibility that often falls on course instructors who are in charge of conducting online classes. These instructors need to also be equally adept at facilitating learner collaboration throughout the course.
Online training programs must have the necessary capabilities to integrate with third-party tools that facilitate learner interactions. eLearning programs built and delivered using reliable learning management platforms do have the capabilities to support seamless collaboration and interaction between students and instructors as well.
More importantly, learners must be open to the idea of working in groups. For collaborative learning to make sense, it is essential that the entire class benefits from the exercise. Seasoned instructors and teachers play a pivotal role in sorting out any resistance, conflicts, or dissociative tendencies that may surface during team activities.
Collaborative learning and research are very much possible by staying connected even when geographically apart. While live interactions may be limited in an academic setting, learners may still be able to work as a team by using alternative communication channels such as chats and forums.
Common Challenges Faced During the Process
Creating opportunities for collaborative learning in online educational programs is no simple task. Depending on the type of training, duration, subject, or skill, learners often get to work in groups during select stages or points of a course or tackle the entire course as a team.
Instructors will need to draw upon their experience to:
Collaborative Learning at Different Levels of Education
Collaborative learning is a natural process and is not limited to a specific age-group or level of education. Children in playschools and primary schools best exemplify it. A lot of the early learning happens when kids observe and interact with each other, their teachers, and parents as well. Most of the higher education programs also require students to work in groups, be it projects, discussions, or cultural activities.
Collaborative learning in a corporate environment is quite common. Employees tend to work in teams. Each team, group, or department has specific objectives and staff work together to achieve these objectives. There is ample scope for collaborative learning at the workplace. Employers can facilitate the process via specific corporate training programs or internal training routines.
Collaborative learning in online classrooms, as seen earlier, is fostered at both the design and delivery stages of the educational programs. The use of suitable tools for online collaboration is yet another critical factor that determines the effectiveness of the process. The choice of tools is likely to differ based on the course and learning objectives; however, these tools must be able to:
- Improve engagement and participation
- Enhance interaction and communication
- And facilitate self-learning and improvement as well
Picking the right set of tools takes time and effort.
Virtual courses created and delivered using a feature-rich learning management system (LMS) also support the necessary tools needed to enhance learner collaboration. Course authors and instructors can suitably use one or more of these LMS features to enhance learner collaboration:
- Group Activities
- Synchronous live Chats
- Asynchronous Forums
- Remote live classrooms
While fostering social learning, instructors also have a pulse on the individual performance of every learner, making sure that the process is indeed collaborative. Learners can make the best of use of the built-in chat, messaging, and forum features to compare notes and share their comments to work as a cohesive team. Live group discussions and presentations, online classes, and in-person feedback add a human touch to an otherwise digital setting. Virtual workshops get learners to work together and double up as reviewers as well. Building group wikis, glossaries and question banks using databases also enable learners to bond as a team.
Several educational institutions already have virtual collaborative learning programs in place. The case-based collaborative learning at Harvard Medical makes for an inspiring example of meaningful collaboration that helps with diagnosing medical problems and addressing them suitably.
However, collaborative learning initiatives tend to yield results over time as learners get comfortable about working as a team. Online classes must allow enough time for learners to build a good working rapport, gain each others’ trust, share their knowledge, and support one another through d group activities to emerge successfully.