Online Learning: A Collaborative Perspective

Online Learning: A Collaborative Perspective

Barbara K. Searight (Wayne State University, USA) and Timothy Spannaus (Wayne State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3471-6.ch005


The purpose of this chapter is to provide an integrative essay of collaborative learning variables that enhance as well as detract from an e-learning and information technology (IT)-mediated environment. It is common knowledge that a group is only as strong as the individuals who make up the group. Yet in online education there is the assumption that individuals have the skills they need to work within the group successfully. Although there are multiple opportunities for individuals to learn how to interact in a one-on-one setting, there is little formal training on how to work within a group. How to identify, address, and accommodate cultural differences, motivation levels, conflict resolution, expectations, critical thinking, self-organization, and group construction of knowledge are some of the areas that are not typically addressed formally in an academic setting. Successful group projects require that everyone be skilled in these and additional areas to have the potential for an equal and meaningful learning experience as a member of the group. Learning online is a social process involving collaborative efforts which can be mediated by the applications being used.
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The purpose of this chapter is to provide an integrative essay to determine the variables that not only enhance but also detract from team members’ experience with collaborative learning in an online learning environment. Originally the paper was going to focus only on group collaboration but further research required the expansion of the definition of collaborative learning to include multiple aspects of the learning environment including discussion boards and emails. In addition, cooperative learning will be discussed since the literature supports that individuals may transition between these two types of peer interactions within the same project.

Collaborative learning is defined simply as working together towards a common goal (Haythornthwaite, 2007). Garrison (2005) states the goal of collaboration is to create a community of inquiry where students work together to construct meaningful and useful knowledge. This paper will review the process of group development, group pedagogy, learning factors, individual group member considerations, assessments, options for enhanced group performance and a summary of the findings.

Group Development

Group development models have been studied through traditional group activities. The question to consider is if the same models that have been identified for face-to-face interaction among group members is applicable for group members who are part of an online learning environment. To understand the distinctions made between face-to-face group interactions and online group interactions four commonly accepted models will be reviewed.

Tuckman (1965) developed a four stage, linear process that identified group development as the following four stages known as forming, storming, norming and performing. Each stage is built upon the prior stage. In later years the stage of adjourning was added (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977)

Palloff and Pratt (2001) state that although they agree with the definition of each stage of the Tuckman model they do not agree with the linear, sequential application of the model. Through their experience with online learning they have found, as an example that students may go to storming (conflict) quickly if there is disagreement about the directions of the group assignment.

McClure (1998) proposes that chaos and self-organization is how groups develop. He continues by stating that groups go back and forth between chaos and agreement or harmony and disharmony but groups do not usually reach a true performing stage. To operate, per McClure (1998), groups move through issues of concerns to develop a good learning environment. These concerns do not have to be addressed sequentially. He goes on to state that it is up to the instructor to create the classroom environment that promotes these concerns being addressed. The areas identified include group affiliation; working towards a common goal; having a safe working environment where the rules and structure have been identified; creating dependency on others for completion of the project; maintaining independence as an individual; developing a level of group intimacy and finally a willingness as a group member to take risk and express ideas that may be controversial (McClure, 1998). As with Tuckman, the concern with McClure's model is that it was developed from a face-to-face classroom structure.

McGrath and Hollingshead (1994) developed an online group development model that did not look at group stages but rather concentrated on factors that leads to successful outcomes when the group performs. McGrath and Hollingshead (1994) identifies three functions that groups attempt to achieve. These functions are production, well-being, and member support. They continue by stating these functions are achieved through four operations. These operations are inception, problem solving, conflict resolution, and execution.

The elements of relationship building are affected by the level of trust that individuals develop towards one another. When a group forms online for course work there is typically just nine to fourteen weeks to establish a productive, safe work environment and create a product. It appears from the literature that there is not one model that fully describes the group dynamic of collaboration. The model presented by McGrath and Hollingshead (1994) identifies production, well-being and member support as the functions groups attempt to achieve. However, the model is made more complicated when the authors add a level of four operations that occur within the group which are similar, if not just a use of alternative words, with Tuckman (1965) model for face-to-face groups.

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