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The future of Collaborative Learning

By July 29, 2020March 25th, 2021No Comments

Collaborative Learning is a teaching approach that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts and find solutions to problems, which is why it has been successful in facilitating service-learning activities. This approach has gained popularity over the years as it enhances critical thinking, communication skills, fosters responsibility, and a deep understanding of course work. But this type of learning is evolving and has had to be adapted to new ways of teaching in the digital age. We discuss this adaption to Online Collaborative Learning as well as ways to implement this teaching approach into your lesson plans below.

What is collaborative learning, and why is it effective?

The Collaborative Learning technique, at its core, allows learners to interact, collaborate and play a part in their own learning. This learning process can be facilitated with both small and larger groups using different methods.

Shorter, in-class, collaborative learning activities often involve a three-step process. This process can be as quick or as long as the task or activity needs. These steps are outlined as[1]:

  1. Introduce the task – this can be as simple as instructing students to turn to their neighbor to discuss or debate a topic.
  2. Provide students with enough time to engage with the task – address any questions as needed.
  3. Debrief – call on a few students to share a summary of their conclusions. Address any misconceptions or clarify any confusing points. Open the floor for questions.

There are several strategies to ensure productive group dynamics in larger groups, these include[2]:

  • Providing opportunities for students to develop rapport and group cohesion through icebreakers, team-building, and reflection exercises.
  • Give students time to create a group work plan, with deadlines and responsibilities.
  • Discuss roles with members of each group and discuss expectations for students to change roles periodically. For example,  students can be the leader, mentee,  note-taker,  summarizer, and another the planner of next steps.
  • Allow students to provide feedback and peer coaching for quality and quantity of collaboration, contributions, skills development and application of learning. Students use this feedback to improve and be able to self assess. 
  • Check-in with groups intermittently but encourage students to lead and handle their own problem solving of issues before coming to you for assistance.

There are many benefits of Collaborative Learning. By engaging with students and creating educational experiences through these types of group activities, you are allowing them to develop deeper levels of thinking, self-management, and leadership skills. You are also providing students with responsibility for how and what they are learning.

collaborative learning

How has Collaborative Learning evolved in recent years?

Collaborative Learning has proven to be effective in physical classrooms. But digital transformation has created many more and new ways of learning and teaching. New technology and the internet have allowed for the adaptation of Collaborative Learning across distance and/or time barriers[3]. Students and teachers can now engage in active learning from practically anywhere around the world.

This trend has seen an adaptation of Collaborative Learning techniques being used to teach students online in the form of Online Collaborative Learning. Harasim defined Online Collaborative Learning as a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer[4]

This teaching method uses different techniques in which students’ can work together and discuss the course material online using various ways of communicating such as video, instant messaging, email or streaming platforms. This method is based on three key phases of knowledge construction through discourse[5]:

  • Idea generating – this is literally brainstorming, to collect the divergent thinking within a group.
  • Idea organizing – this is where learners compare, analyze and categorize the different ideas previously generated, again through discussion and argument.
  • Intellectual convergence – the aim here is to reach a level of intellectual synthesis, understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), usually through the joint construction of some artefact or piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

How to implement Collaborative Learning in your online classroom

There are several different types of Collaborative Learning techniques, these include[6]:

  • Online Learning Activities – collaborative activities and group interactions have a positive outcome of student performance. These types of interactions facilitate active learning, shared knowledge, and promote social interaction while creating a supportive online learning community. This form of collaboration also teaches learners how to share ideas, express opinions, and manage their time.
  • Collaborative Group Activities – collaborative group activities can range from informal discussions to highly structured and collaborative group activities. These activities provide a way for learners to establish communication channels, provides them with a sense of community and allows them to play an active role in their learning. Online learners in well-designed learning environments experience meaningful learning and develop higher order thinking.
  • Group Discussions – When learners engage in discussions with other learners, instead of just the teacher/instructor, the opportunities for knowledge retention are far greater. In collaborative group discussions, learners learn to listen attentively to each other and value the efforts of shared knowledge and input. Online discussion technology also helps learners respond to questions, participate, and offer peer feedback to support the sharing of new information.
  • Feedback and Assessment Activities – Research overwhelmingly supports that online peer assessments can support a student-centered approach when assessments are implemented through collaborative peer-to-peer communication, active participation, and interactivities.


One of the primary goals of Online Collaborative Learning is that your students are interacting with each other. This means that you sometimes need to get creative with your activities and incorporate elements of fun and excitement to generate the interactions. This works incredibly well in facilitating service-learning activities online. These activities could include[7]:

  • Solve a real-world mystery – everyone loves riddles, brain teasers and a little mystery. Create an eLearning video, case study or interactive online presentation but leave out the ending. Give your students clues to solve the problem collaboratively. To incorporate service-learning, this mystery could focus on a community problem or issue that the students need to address.
  • Create a subject matter eLearning blog – create a list of service-learning related topics for online learners to choose from and then ask them to design an eLearning blog based on the key takeaways. Students will need to explore the concept at length with their peers and present their findings in the form of a blog. This will also allow students to build new soft skills and improve their comprehension.
  • Host a lively forum debate – divide your students into groups and then break each group into two separate teams, each team will be assigned a service-learning related topic. Both online groups will then have the opportunity to discuss the topic amongst themselves, before debating their stance with the opposing team. This can all be conducted using video conferencing tools.

Create a microlearning library – give students topics related to service-learning and challenge them to develop a presentation, blog post, or article on the subject. Students will need to research, explore, and discuss the topics. The presentations, blog posts or articles can then be compiled into a microlearning online library and be used as a resource by students.


Online Collaborative Teaching techniques create innovative learning environments for students within a digital space. Even though a class may not be physically together, lessons and discussions can be adapted and structured in a way that facilitates deep academic learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.  This teaching approach creates a sense of community and social engagement within a virtual classroom which promotes personal growth and development in students.

For more on classroom management strategies that could help you read our blog, classroom management strategies that facilitate Service-Learning in a digital age.



[1] Center for Teaching Innovation. Cornell University. Collaborative Learning. Viewed on: 17 July 2020. Available at:

[2] Center for Teaching Innovation. Cornell University. Collaborative Learning. Viewed on: 17 July 2020. Available at: 

[3] Concept to Classroom. What are cooperative and collaborative learning?. Viewed on: 17 July 2020. Available at:

[4] A.W. Bates. 2019. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Viewed on 20 of May 2020. 

[5] A.W. Bates. 2019. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Viewed on 20 of May 2020. 

[6] M,Higley.2018. Reasons Why Collaborative Online Learning Activities Are Effective. eLearning Industry. Viewed on 20 May 2020. 

[7] Pappas, C. 2016. 5 Online Group Collaboration Ideas For Your Next eLearning Course. Viewed on: 17 July 2020.

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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