Collaboration has become a key concept in the workplace, in research laboratories, and in educational settings. Companies want members of different departments located far apart to work together. Various government agencies try to establish collaborative relationships with private organizations. Academics and corporate researchers collaborate with far-flung colleagues to produce new knowledge. Students at all levels of our educational system are increasingly being asked to learn collaboratively. In addition, more work is being done online. Businesses communicate over the Internet, and increasing numbers of educational experiences are being delivered at a distance. Virtual high schools, traditional and for-profit distance education institutions, and colleges and universities are all among the current users of the Internet in education. In all of these situations—educational and non-educational, face-to-face, and online—several questions need to be addressed. First, what is collaboration? The word is sometimes used as if everyone already understands what it means, but we can find a variety of different definitions in the literature. Second, when we form groups to collaborate, how do we know when they have done so? Is it possible to measure the extent to which collaboration has occurred in a given group and setting? Third, what actions and conditions enhance the collaboration that does take place? And finally, does collaboration work? That is, do groups that are more collaborative produce better results or learning than groups that are less collaborative? This brief article will not attempt to answer all these questions, but it will concentrate on a specific issue: What methods can be used to determine whether, and how much, collaboration has occurred in online groups in various settings? We will explain our preferred definition of collaboration, based on previous research, and then discuss some of the implications of these ideas for online collaboration and for research into that issue.
Collaboration can be generally described in a variety of ways, but perhaps a typical definition is “working in a group of two or more to achieve a common goal” (McInnerney & Roberts, 2004, p. 205). Such a general definition, however, does not tell us how reliably to identify when collaboration has taken place or, assuming that there can be degrees of collaboration, how much of it is going on. To make such measurements, we need an operational definition of collaboration. Recently, Hathorn and Ingram (2002) proposed such a definition. They maintained that collaboration consists of at least three key ingredients: interdependence (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998), a product that is achieved through genuine synthesis of information and contributions from all members (Kaye, 1992), and independence from a single leader (Laffey, Tupper, Musser & Wedman, 1998). In education, this would likely be independence from the class instructor. In other settings, it would mean relative independence from supervisors or others who might otherwise control the process too tightly.
Under this definition, collaboration contrasts sharply with what can be called a cooperative way of working. In this characterization, cooperation occurs when a group agrees to divide the work among them, with each taking part of the project. The final product, then, is the sum of separate contributions from each member, rather than being a true synthesis as in a good collaborative effort (Hathorn & Ingram, 2002; Ingram & Hathorn, 2004; Dillenbourg, Baker, Blaye & O’Malley, 1996).
Hathorn and Ingram (2002) operationalized their definition by looking at ways of measuring each of the three components of collaboration. Positive interdependence occurs when group members share information and test their ideas on one another. When individuals in a collaborative group work toward their common goal, they often achieve things that would not have been possible individually (Henri, 1992; Kaye, 1992). Synthesis occurs as the group attains new insights as a result of working together (Henri, 1992; Kaye, 1992). Finally, independence requires that the group function on its own without too much centralized direction (Laffey et al., 1998). Otherwise, it is a directed project, not a collaboration among equals.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Asynchronous Discussion: Online discussions that occur independent of time and space. Participants do not have to be online simultaneously, and can read and contribute to the conversation on their own schedules.
Collaboration: Occurs when small groups of people work together toward a common goal in ways that produce new products and knowledge that are unlikely to be developed by individuals. Three essential elements of collaboration are interdependence, synthesis, and independence.
Cooperation: Cooperative groups work together on group projects in ways that do not necessarily result in high-quality interaction, and new products and knowledge. A typical cooperative strategy is to divide up the work among the members and stitch the various contributions together at the end of the project.
Synthesis: Occurs when the final product of a group effort includes information and other elements from all members in such a way that individual contributions are difficult or impossible to identify.
Interdependence: Interdependence among members of a small group is a necessary element of collaboration. It means that group members could not produce the results they did without one another.
Synchronous Discussion: Occur when all participants are online and actively involved in the discussion at the same time.
Interaction: Interaction among members of a group is necessary to produce collaboration. It can be measured by examining the give-and-take nature of the discussion threads.
Participation: The most basic requirement of collaboration; it may be measured by the number of postings made and read or by the number of statements contributed to a discussion.