Collaboration between learners, and between learners and educators, is an important factor in both synchronous and asynchronous online education. It helps to create a sense of connection between all participants and to build a sense of community and shared purpose.
Collaboration in a synchronous environment can be achieved in much the same way as in a classroom, with discussions and group tasks. In an asynchronous environment collaboration can be trickier, but is still very important in reducing the sense of isolation some learners feel when working online. Discussions and group tasks can work just as well asynchronously as synchronously. In fact, asynchronous discussion and collaboration can sometimes work better: because of the lack of time constraints, learners can spend time composing a higher-quality response or contribution.
Both online and offline, learners need help to develop the skills necessary for collaborative learning. They may need support to agree goals, divide tasks, schedule and monitor deadlines, reflect on progress, and redraft plans when necessary. Asynchronous collaboration is easier when individuals have identified in advance times when they will not be available to work on the project, and when deadlines for decisions are clear and adhered to so that the group does not move ahead before some members have begun their studies for the day.
In order to support online collaboration, educators can suggest or require some of the following activities.
- Early discussion within the group of how individuals manage their workload, their preferred ways of communicating and activities they find difficult/easy.
- Whole-class session on flexibility and compromise, allowing space to discuss any existing or anticipated problems.
- Initial timetable and task distribution, agreed by all group members.
- Agreement on how group members will negotiate adjustments to their timetable and task distribution as the project progresses and conditions change.
- Agreed procedures if individuals do not or cannot complete work on schedule.
- Whole-class session on managing conflicting views. Negotiating and exploring different viewpoints is part of the learning process and it is helpful for students to understand this.
- Scheduled checkpoints where the group reviews progress and discusses this with an educator.
- Opportunities for groups to share good practice with others.
- Reflection points for individuals and groups. What has gone well? What is not working? What changes could be made?
- Opportunities for individual or group discussions with the educator about how things are going.
- Whole-class discussion of how the task will be assessed fairly.
- Whole-class review of the process.