I first learned about the concept of “Communities of Practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991) while I was reading John Hellermann’s (2008) influential book on classroom language learning. Considering a group of learners as a community of practice and applying this idea to understand how the students learn as a community in a classroom have been eye-opening. Group work and collaboration are two key aspects of collaborative learning in a community. In a digital environment, collaborative learning be an excellent means of development for some learners, while it may create frustrations and turn out to be ineffective for others. I am personally enjoying learning collaboratively in online environments: I do believe that the digital tools we have access to and we use for collaborative work now are golden. This is why I am increasingly using tools that facilitate collaborative work between groups of students in my online lessons. Do all my students share this passion of mine though? Probably not.
I have assigned students many group work tasks in different courses in the past, and these students were assessed after their group work. I have to confess that compared to now, 9-10 years ago, I probably was taking the positive effect of group work for granted. Recently, I believe that I am more careful and responsive when it comes to online collaborative learning activities carried out by my students. As Capdeferro and Romero (2012) have revealed, online collaborative learning activities can be frustrating for learners, due to a number of reasons including asymmetric collaboration, the excess time spent on online tasks, difficulties in communication, etc. I believe that most of these can be prevented by careful planning, transparency, effective communication with students, amongst other things. Brindley et al. (2009) list many recommendations to increase the effectiveness of online collaborative learning, including monitoring group activities closely, making sure that the tasks are highly relevant to the learners, choosing tasks that are best performed by groups, and providing sufficient time. The issue of time, amongst others, is key in my opinion, when it comes to online collaborative learning tasks.
Time and relevance are two extremely important issues in online collaborative learning environments. I use Zoom in teaching, and I assign group work that is assessed (lightly), which is to be completed during the lesson in break-out-rooms. Students work using third party applications like Padlet. So far, I have observed that online collaboration takes more time than face-to-face collaborative tasks. After seeing this problem, I decided to add pre-written sample tasks on Padlet, together with step-by-step instructions, which have been quite useful. I visit the break-out-rooms so that I can check if there are any problems. This is also useful to monitor the group work in online collaborative tasks. The next step is to receive feedback from my students on these practices, and I will try to do that before the semester is over, so that I can make changes in forthcoming weeks and in future online courses. Student evaluation needs to feed into our online collaborative teaching activities. Each course and each group of students are unique: making reflections on our design principles and receiving feedback from students are very important for those of us who want to facilitate online collaborative learning.
Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Click here to download.
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.
Hellermann, J. (2008). Social actions for classroom language learning. Multilingual Matters.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.