5. Collaborative?

The trend goes from instructivist teaching to constructivist and asynchronous, collaborative learning. This is reflected in the online learning generations. The first e-learning approach was a version of the traditional correspondence course via e-mail. The next generation added TV-programs and CDs allowing interaction between student and computer. The latest versions of e-learning not only allow peer-to-peer interaction, but often makes it mandatory. Collaborative, constructivist education requires pedagogical competence and careful planning to succeed.

 by Sven Åke Bjørke, Revised Aug 2016


 “The only constant is change”

Life continues to change at a fast pace. The global knowledge base is growing exponentially and electronic means of mass communication grows even faster. The Internet was made available to the public in 1993. Access to almost all information is now “a click” away to anybody. Cramming and reproducing information is of less importance in the Information age.

Information literacy – the ability to search, critically assess and use relevant, valid and reliable information in problem solving is a key skill. Pedagogy must adapt to these new realities. An important challenge is to train students in information literacy – help them internalise and use the skill as a habit.

Many of today’s teachers were themselves exposed to a traditional kind of teaching, where the professor was a “sage on the stage” with access to the “objective truth out there”, existing as an entity by itself. The students were often regarded as passive, “empty vessels” that the professor; the Authority, was to fill through his teaching.

Education for the industrial age in simplified terms was often regarded as good enough if students were able to read, cram and reproduce for an exam, in other words the Copy, Cram, Reproduce: the CCR approach to learning. They were then perceived as able to receive instructions and carry them out in a more or less mechanised industrial society. Higher forms of reflection and creativity were not required and as a rule not desired. The student who could parrot the correct answers on the test, got the high score.  A small elite of the population was trained in taking charge, being responsible, creative and in giving the instructions. At that time, information was scarce, ‘the truth’ was more or less given, and the order of the world fairly simple.

With the information age, with a world overflowing of updated information on the Internet, the time of certainty is gone. The world is complex. “…There is no right answer in the 21st century. What you need to be able to do in the 21st century is to select among competing hypotheses, and make the best aces for that. In the 21st century you need to innovate, in the 21st century you need to invent, you need to be able to work with others and to build on the best possible strategies, to put forward the best case for your profession, for your company or whatever” (Harasim, 2002).  In other words, ‘Information literacy’ is at least as important as learning pieces of information that run the risk of becoming outdated next week.

However, make no mistake about it: students still need to establish a knowledge base. Without a good knowledge base, assessing information is impossible, and it becomes relative: any piece of information is just as good as another.

An increasing problem in education is that students writing essays simply go to the internet, pick a sentence here, a paragraph there, copying and pasting, and sewing these fragments together without further thoughts on validity, relevance and reliability. Crucial in the information age is the ability to distinguish between facts, science and best available knowledge on one side, unqualified opinions, speculations and propaganda on the other. Opinions, arguments and information must be substantial and supported by critically assessed sources. Those who fail to understand this inevitably get lost in the ocean of information fragments. They produce empty or confusing masses of words rather than co-constructing valid and interesting knowledge.

The aim is learning, not technology

With rapid change in our information base, there is obviously a need for continuous education. Higher education can no longer be for small elites only, and distributed online education has been viewed as a possible solution to the problem of too many prospective students, too few teachers and too high costs.  Many educational authorities have as a consequence perceived the main challenge in modern education as a question of technology. However, “…technology is not what learning is all about. Learning is essentially about change. Learning involves changes in attitudes, beliefs, capabilities, knowledge structures and skills” (Steeples & Jones, 2002,p.xv).

The failure to realize the difference between technology and learning is probably the most common explanation for the many student drop-outs from several on-line courses. Technology can only be a part of the solution. Experience has shown that it  cannot replace the teacher, and it is not particularly cheap either.  Online corporate training, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other initiatives can make short courses available to very many. However, education demands more than just a short course.

Towards social constructivism in distance education

There are basically three generations of distance education.

1st generation online education: the advanced correspondence course
1st generation online education: the advanced correspondence course

The first generation can be described as the traditional correspondence teaching, with letters and books sent by post, but the possibility of e-mail correspondence between learner and tutor. There would be no planned interaction between the students, who would be able to start, complete or leave whenever they pleased. The student could take the time s/he wanted. No student cohort to follow.

The second can be described as “multi-media”-teaching with broadcasted media, CDs and some face-to- face tutorials.

Both had production and distribution of teaching and learning material as objective, and communication was mainly one-way or restricted two-way.

Second generation computer supported learning. Interactive programs, animations, videos.
Second generation computer supported learning. Interactive programs, animations, videos.

Many universities invested heavily in the second generation computer supported kind of education during the 1990’s. The courses could be very advanced, with interactive electronic books, online quizzes, lectures, colourful animations, music and games. More recently, this stage has been enhanced with synchronous lectures via video-conferencing tools.

The 1st and 2nd generation of e-learning more or less copy the traditional classroom approach, with emphasis on dissemination of information.

This is in contrast to “third” generation online education, which emphasises collaboration between the learners in mainly asynchronous on-line conferencing, assisted by a tutor. The participants are usually offered various kinds of learning resources in a complex learning environment. By communicating in groups, teachers and learners are in a more equal relation. More important: learning, although a personal matter, is not always an individual matter: one learns best by and with others. To secure communication and socialising in learning networks, a system allowing asynchronous group communication in an online conferencing system, has come into increasingly wider use.

The 3rd generation computer supported education is more complex, with student and tutor interaction engaging in learning activities in learning communities of practice
The 3rd generation computer supported education is more complex, with student and tutor interaction engaging in learning activities in learning communities of practice

The third generation version emphasises pedagogical approaches, and a new vocabulary has appeared. Concepts like “Problem-Based Distant Learning” (PBDL), “Computer Supported Collaborative Learning” (CSCL), Virtual Community of Practice and others have made online pedagogy almost impenetrable to the non-initiated. Many of these concepts can be summarised under “E-learning”. According to the old “e-guru” Dr Tony Bates, e-learning is “all computer and Internet-based activities that support teaching and learning – both on-campus and at a distance“.

Many e-pedagogues prefer to distinguish between five generations in computer supported distance education. Again referring to Tony Bates (2008), these are the five stages:

  1. correspondence education;
  2. integrated use of multiple, one-way media such as print, broadcasting or recorded media such as video-cassettes;
  3. two-way, synchronous tele-learning using audio or video-conferencing;
  4. flexible learning based on asynchronous online learning combined with online interactive multimedia;
  5. intelligent flexible learning, which adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia.

Stage 3 in this system is based on instructivist pedagogy, with delivery of mainly synchronous lectures by video-conferencing. The students may communicate with the lecturer via e-mail. Stages 4-5 as a rule include asynchronous cooperative or collaborative learning, with peer and tutor interaction. In other words, education is not only regarded as transmission of information, but include pedagogical considerations like learner centred approaches, learning activities and relations to other students.


Constructivism, or learning by actively making sense of knowledge, search for meaning and construct new knowledge in interaction and cooperation with others, is probably an approach better adapted to the information age than behaviorist instruction.  In most of the recent extensive online education studies, social constructivism is the main pedagogical approach.

Social constructivism sees the individual as being engaged in learning activities with others, and tends to define learning as a social activity situated in a cultural and historical context. In this type of education, assessment is no longer based on the student’s ability to regurgitate what the professor has told him or her during lectures. On the contrary, successful students should be self-reliant, proactive and able to cope with and act in an inchoate, unpredictable and rapidly changing world.  What matters is to sort various pieces of information, assess and integrate them and reveal relationships. The information is then used to build or construct new knowledge in collaboration with others, or solve problems. Facts are not the foremost objects of learning. Handling them is more important.

Social constructivism is based on the pedagogical theories of Dewey, Vygotsky, Biggs, Lave, Wenger and many others. A wise approach could be to consider all pedagogical theories and choose the most appropriate form according to the aims and objectives of the learning activity at hand. This especially when venturing into online education. The difference between online teaching and online learning is a crucial discussion on this arena.

Since an increasing number of students do not have the time nor the economy to stay at a university campus for long periods of time, online education with collaborative learning as an important element, should be offered to students, at least to some extent, according to the slogan “studies any time, anywhere”.

Computer Conferencing as medium for collaborative learning

Students collaborating online are active students

Computer mediated communication (CMC) and collaborative learning promote active student involvement in the learning process. Traditionally there has been an over-reliance on lecturing in higher education. We assume that we learn effectively by listening to knowledgeable people. However, it is also widely assumed that student concentration tend to drop after 15-20 minutes. It is likely that more use of cooperative or collaborative learning techniques discourage passivity among students by empowering them to act on their own learning.

In face-to-face ( F2F) or on-campus discussions, a small minority tends to dominate. In on-line, asynchronous, collaborative learning it is easier for the more timid to participate without being interrupted. One message cannot be interrupted by another in asynchronous communication, whereas interruption is often the norm in synchronous communication.  If learning can be seen as guided construction of knowledge, we have to pay close attention to the learner’s activity – cognitive and otherwise. Without appropriate kinds of cognitive activities, there will be no useful learning. Such cognitive activities are obviously influenced by interaction with peers and teachers. “Networked learning is inherently social – part of the point of encouraging online communications within a learning group (or learning community) is to capitalize on some of the social aspects of learning” (Goodyear, 2002 p.51).

When students engage in collaborative learning, they also engage in thinking processes. Students increase their “epistemic fluency” when they are asked to communicate their still incomplete understanding with others. When a student reveals his or her own processes of constructing meaning, there is a social effect of participating in a collaborative endeavor to achieve a joint understanding   Active learning takes emphasis away from transmission of information over to design of good learning activities and supportive learning environments. The trend is clear: there is a shift from content towards activity. Content is still crucial, but becomes more a resource for learning activities. The main focus is no longer on cramming content, but rather what the learner is expected to do with the content.

Learning is increasingly seen as action-oriented. Learning should enable learners to draw on previous experience to understand the present, in order to develop future action and to formulate new knowledge.

Active, collaborative learning is crucial in modern e-learning

Active, collaborative learning is crucial in modern e-learning

Central in the background for effective learning is the difference between “performers” and “learners”.

While the learner believes that effort leads to success, the performer thinks that ability will do it. The learner thinks he has ability to learn and improve, while the performer is concerned about how others judge his performance. The learner will have a preference for challenging tasks, while the performer gets satisfaction in doing better than others. The learner will go for personal satisfaction from success, while the performer will emphasise competition. When engaged in a task, the learner will have a problem solving approach, while the performer will tend to evaluate himself negatively when the task is difficult. The learner will have concern for improving his competence, while the performer will have concern for proving his competence. Focus on performance will tend to result in greater helplessness, reduced help-seeking, less strategy use and greater focus on grade feedback (Watkins et al, 2002)

Computer conferencing is more democratic and encourages individual confidence

Teacher-centred instruction in a classroom centralizes power in the hands of the instructor. In contrast, asynchronous learning networks shift power, authority and control from the teacher to the students.

Hodgson (2002, p.231) summarizes CMC characteristics this way:

  • Possible to contribute whenever an individual want to without having to wait for their turn, or without having to interrupt anybody else
  • Possible to contribute at any time from anywhere
  • Discussions are ongoing and continuous as long as desired
  • Responses to others do not have to be made instantaneously or immediately but when respondent is ready
  • Communication is slower and more sporadic, and thus potentially more reflective, as compared to face-to-face communication
  • There is a permanent record of a group’s work and of every individual contribution which can be referred to at any time
  • No visual clues to reveal status, and all contribute on equal basis

Given that the students master the technology, on-line conferencing will tend to flatten hierarchies, give more space to the otherwise timid, and give opportunities to people who otherwise would be deprived from effective education because of geographical distance to a campus. Active participants will tend to feel ownership of a common product. An essay is no longer something that is just written for the teacher. Many students even tend to display their products on student blogs, making it accessible to anyone interested.

Working with communication technologies involves delegation of responsibility to learners. Learning outcomes will depend on the ability to work independently from the teacher and enabling groups of learners to control learning processes themselves.

Students collaborating in a community of practice are not competitors
Students collaborating in a community of practice are not competitors. DM students, field visit, Sri Lanka

“When learners together create a joint product and understanding, they develop higher order skills. … Co-operative cultures and group investigation methods give better academic results. Learners develop interpersonal and management skills, improved communication skills and positive multiethnic relations” (Watkins et al. 2002). 

Special for computer conferencing is “written conversation” or “say-writing”. This is a new democratisation tool. In F2F situations, extroverts  tend to dominate by “taking the word” and keeping it, interrupting others and use various domination techniques and tricks. Asynchronous computer conferencing gives everyone an equal chance to contribute and interact.

On-line asynchronous conferencing encourages reflection and deeper thinking

Clear goals for online learning activities are a must. The student should be able to answer questions like “What’s in it for me – what will I be able to do on completion that I cannot do now?”, “What should I be doing?”, Why am I doing this” and “When is it due?” Without clear answers to such questions, the student will tend to “flounder” around, spending much time on getting organised. Floundering can be positive if it involves reflection. If the student can take an overview of his or her own learning processes, check status and maybe revise learning strategies, it would enhance learning abilities.  Meta-cognitive processes of reflecting on one’s own learning process is apparently crucial. According to Watkins (2002) “Effective learning relates to four themes: Active learning, collaborative learning, learner responsibility and meta-learning or learning about learning”.

The asynchronous on-line conferencing and collaboration seems perfect for metacognitive activities. Time to reflect combined with relative anonymity, may encourage openness, honesty and deeper thoughts that otherwise would not have come up in a “real-time” discussion.  People tend to be more intimate, more personal, or more reflective, saying things online they would probably not reveal F2F. Asynchronous conferencing enables people to take the time they need, they can return and make another and better entry.  Text-based discourse – say-writing – seems to enhance critical, thoughtful analysis.

Learning cycle
Goodyear (2002, p.64), argues that there is a learning cycle in which verbalisation and discussions are essential, as these processes lead to learner reflections giving changes in working practices.

The learning cycle
The learning cycle

Externalization: tacit knowledge embedded in working practices made articulate

Sharing: Dissemination within a community

Discussing: debate on shared descriptions

Refinement: Suggesting improvements.

Internalization: improved descriptions/practices reappropriated by the learner, resulting in changes to working practices.

CMC and collaborative learning give students transferable generic skills

On-line courses require careful planning and clear descriptions of goals. The goals can be divided in three sections: academic with knowledge content; generic skills that must be practiced and learned, and a metacognitive section where the student is asked to reflect on his/her own learning process.

The job-market asks for people who do not only know theory, but also are able to work independently, take initiative and implement. Passive reception of information disseminated by a teacher may lead to over-dependency and limited development of self-regulating strategies.  An appropriate pedagogy establishes educational aims and emphasises generic skills such as metacognition, ability to work in teams, cross-cultural communication, independent learning, creativity, proactive strategies, concrete problem solving and critical thinking.  Such skills cannot be expected to develop unless meticulously planned for.  It may seem that asynchronous learning activities are conducive to the learning environment needed.

Arguments against Computer Conferencing being the ideal medium for collaborative learning

The dehumanisation of communication in CMC

Computer mediated conferencing can be contrasted with F2F learning. It is difficult to compensate for direct contact, which we humans have specialised in for a million years. F2F encounters are rich in terms of verbal signals and paralinguistic accompaniments.  Subtle distinctions in meaning and attitude can be much easier conveyed F2F than online. Tones, gestures and expressions are tools that humans have always used to avoid misunderstandings and clarify messages. Online education risks becoming dehumanised and learners might remain isolated. Some participants may exploit the relative anonymity from not knowing their peers personally to use rude or inappropriate language.

Subtle, informal F2F communication might not be sufficiently present in online conferencing to ensure good personal relationships.  In order to lead candid and efficient discussions, personal relations are necessary. To work well together, people must trust each other. If people feel degraded or insulted, they will respond with diminishing enthusiasm and energy. To work well online, it seems group members must meet F2F now and then to obtain and maintain a solid social and working relationship. Online communication only is not always enough.

CMC increases the digital gap between those who knows how and those who don’t

Making good courses on-line is a challenge, since few teachers have long experience in making such courses. The technology is often alienating for teachers as well as for students.  No doubt, inexperienced tutors working in virtual rooms may often give too little and untimely feedback. Ambiguous instructions from tutor and peers might be the final drop for some students.

Some teachers and students might resist online education because teachers may feel they lose control. Technology is an obvious barrier to the older generation.  Many students tend to prefer limited curricula with clearly defined answers. When the learning culture is driven by assessed assignments and exams, there will be resistance against technologies that provide yet more resources.  When one end of grade exam decides the result on the diploma, most students tend to prefer clear, authoritative and limited curricula of what is being tested.

The e-courses may not be good enough

Many professors are not used to the meticulous planning and careful pedagogical design that is needed to make a good on-line course. There is a risk that when inexperienced professors venture into networked, online learning, their pedagogical approach is not good enough.  Unless the teacher manages to compensate for the learning context present on-campus, “the virtual room might become a confounding reduction in human-human dialog, and a consequent impoverishment in the quality of understanding” (Mayes et al., 2002 p.216). On-campus courses are supported by the surroundings, such as: fellow students, libraries, colloquial groups, student fora, informal meetings with teachers and students.

Synchronous delivery of education can be motivating and rational. 

The use of synchronous video applications in fully online, blended and technology-enhanced courses at colleges and universities is starting to quickly become a must-have technology. At times well planned delivery of synchronous lectures can be the most effective and time-saving way of learning. Real time delivery can effectively vary the online education. It is also easier for employees to ask for study time when lectures are given at fixed hours.

CMC and distance learning entails commercialisation of education, threatening the academic quality

Commodification of education has had a deep impact on how knowledge itself is perceived and ‘sold’ and how the acquisition of knowledge is acknowledged through assessment. Online learning in asynchronous delivery inevitably leads to modularisation and to dissemination of curricula in chunks rather than holistic and cohesive narratives over a semester. The distinction between corporate, instructional short-courses and more demanding academic studies will become blurred. We jeopardize deep understanding and insight in subject matter with shallow online modules.


The time to reflect, consult resources and verbalising ideas in “say-writing” discourses in asynchronous conferencing is effective learning. It is democratic, and encourages participation by all, not just a few extroverts. Students can participate in a conference at any time and from any location. The issues of gender, ethnicity, age and previous experience are less important in well planned virtual communities of practice. The asynchronous mode increases flexibility and accessibility. People tending small children and those combining work with studies have the possibility to participate in asynchronous discussions. Those who need some time to reflect prior to contributing also have a better chance in the asynchronous environment.  “…Analysis showed that asynchronous discussion is the preferred communication mode, whereas the synchronous chat facility was hardly used” (Salmon, 2002 p.208).

However, there is a dehumanizing aspect in CMC, giving the feeling that something is missing. The ideal medium is therefore probably the “mixed mode”, where students at times meet face-to-face in real-time. “The vibrancy of face-to-face workshop discussion and exploration is not likely to be achieved as regularly in online discussion forums” (McNaught, 2002, p.120).

Asynchronous online learning is complex. It is not intuitive, and students as well as teachers need instruction, training and experience to succeed.

Pictures: Å. Bjørke

Additional reading:


Bates, T. (2008) What is distance education, Online learning and distance education resources, http://www.tonybates.ca/2008/07/07/what-is-distance-education/

Harasim, L.(2003) Computer conferencing: Interviews with Linda Harasim, Gerry Prendergast and Betty Collis H802 audio CD 1 Copyright 2003 The Open University.

Goodyear, P. (2002) Psychological foundations for networked learning, in Steeples, C. and Jones, C. (Eds) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues, London, Springer.

Hodgson, V. (2002) Issues for democracy and social identity in computer mediated communication and networked learning, in Steeples, C. and Jones, C. (Eds) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues, London, Springer.

Mayes, T, Dineen, F., McKendree, J., and Lee, J. (2002) Learning from watching others learn, in Steeples, C. and Jones, C. (Eds) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues, London, Springer.

McNaught, C. (2002) Views on staff development for networked learning, in Steeples, C. and Jones, C. (Eds) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues, London, Springer.

Salmon, G. (2002) Approaches to researching teaching and learning online, in Steeples, C. and Jones, C. (Eds) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues, London, Springer.

Steeples C. & Jones C. (2002) Networked learning: Perspectives and issues. Computer Supported Cooperative Work- series. Springer

Watkins C., Carnell E., Lodge C., Wagner P., Whalley C. (2002): Effective learning. NSIN research matters, Institute of education, Univ. of London

Burns, M. (2015) Helping Learners Get The Most Out Of Online Discussions 

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