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Online collaborative learning in a tertiary environment

Lissa McNamee and Tim S Roberts
Faculty of Informatics and Communication
Central Queensland University
Collaborative learning may be seen as an emerging paradigm within the tertiary level of education, as institutions struggle to adapt to the new environment forced on them. While collaborative learning has been widely discussed in the K-12 context, comparatively little research has been conducted into the use of collaborative learning techniques at tertiary level. This paper looks at case studies of courses involving online collaborative learning as an integral component of the learning process, notes some common weaknesses and strengths, and draws some conclusions regarding successful implementation.


There are many examples of online collaborative learning organisations, which provide resources for school-based learning (Davies, 1999) and these organisations target the Kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12) learning groups, where collaborative learning is readily utilised (Foster, Bowskill, Lalley & McConnell, 1999).

Collaborative learning organisations devoted to tertiary level study are much harder to find. However, the changing student demographic (Curtis & Lawson, 1999) has led to an increased demand for course delivery to be more flexible, giving the student the ability to meet all commitments, and yet still obtain an appropriate tertiary education. This new environment would seem to be one where collaborative learning techniques may be successfully introduced.

Learner centred learning

The use of collaborative learning implies a change from the teacher-centred approach to a focus on learner-centred study, with knowledge acquisition being assisted by student interaction, evaluation and cooperation (Hiltz, 1998). Examples of collaborative learning activities, which facilitate this integration may include: For successful collaborative learning to occur, the following 'critical attributes of group learning' may be identified and designed to promote student exchanges that will develop the students' abilities to improve and reflect on their own learning:

Strengths and weaknesses of collaborative learning

Technological difficulties

A concern that was apparent in the majority of the case studies reviewed highlighted the issue that the student and the course facilitator may not be familiar with the software and technology available for the course. This becomes a more potent failing when collaborative learning is also introduced as the students must be able to conduct meaningful discussions with their fellow students.

When the distance delivery of Human Biology 133 at Curtin University's School of Biomedical Sciences was adjusted to incorporate online collaboration, Fyfe (2000) discovered that students who cannot effectively use the software and/or technology might have problems. The students in 'virtual' groups of three were required to interact synchronically via email, access a chatroom on WebCT and transfer documents electronically. An unskilled student may become frustrated and the collaboration process be obstructed.

When Agostinho, Lefoe and Hedberg (1997) assessed the combination of delivery media in the post-graduate offered by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Wollongong a similar problem was highlighted. Agostinho et al (1997) have outlined some guidelines that would benefit students with regard to the technology used:

Another suggestion made was for the educator to be fluent in the use of the software and technology allowing them to concentrate on teaching and guiding the students rather then learning the technology and software use along with the students (Agostinho et al, 1997). Therefore, it would be advantageous for both the facilitators and the students to undergo training in the use of the software tools and technology to be utilised at the earliest possible opportunity.

Structure of assessment

The structure of the course content when utilising online collaboration has proven to be an issue as suggested in Paz Dennen's (2000) case study conducted at a large American state university. The focus of the study was the incorporation of online collaborative learning in a current undergraduate educational computing course which already contained face-to-face collaborative problem-based learning. She states in her case study that "some level of task structuring and expectations is important for teaching students about problem-solving processes". It appears that the unconventional approach of moving from a less structured project to a more structured project improved the level of collaboration between the group members.

Wegerif (1998) also discussed assessment structure levels in his article relating to the importance of communities in online collaborative learning within a post-graduate course. Most who undertook the course were professional teachers and all were distance students, from a diverse range of backgrounds. Wegerif pointed out that students felt there was a lack of structure and this led to a lack of focus and discussions that tended to diverge in unnecessary directions.

Another support for highly structured tasks comes from the Agostinho et al (1997) case study. The experience of an unstructured threaded discussion was not successful. However, a more structured discussion proved to be the most popular learning experience, supporting the theory of highly structured assessment tasks.

These case studies all argue for the assessment tasks to be structured, but in a way that the structure provides general process tasks and time frames, not guidance in completing the required tasks (Paz Dennen, 2000).

Synchronous interaction Vs Asynchronous interaction

At the University of Leeds, a post-graduate Master of Education course was developed and assessed for a 'virtual' classroom environment. The internal and external students formed groups of five or six and each group undertook a small collaborative project that was designed to help the students complete individual assignments for assessment. Groups could communicate via private forums that were set up within the WebCT 'virtual' classroom as well as chat rooms and private email. The regular timing of tutor-led chat sessions proved to be a problem for external students, sometimes due to the time difference, and sometimes due to work commitments (Pilkington, Bennett & Vaughan, 2000).

Different forms of communication were used in the case studies ranging from live chats to asynchronous interaction, with varying results. To improve the dynamics of the groups it has been suggested that asynchronous interaction occur allowing students to work at their own pace (Fyfe, 2000).

Agostinho et al (1997) outlined the following suggestions for successful live chat discussions:

Lack of robust collaboration

In the Curtis and Lawson case study, (1999) all students were mature age, with most being employed. The break up of the groups was left to the students to decide and resulted in students working on their own or in groups of between two and four. The web-based application Blackboard Classroom was the primary source of collaboration between the members of groups allowing for whole class discussions, group discussions, communication between participants and online assessment and feedback. The most popular method of communication proved to be group email rather than the discussion forums.

Thirty-four forums were supplied in the Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren and Ram (2000) case study, on emergent collaborative learning. Six categories of emergent-collaboration learning modes were developed and implemented: "Web-supported social interaction, Web-supported critical group-reading, Synchronic and asynchronic issue-discussion, Peer evaluation and review, Collaborative construction of knowledge bases and Group projects online presentation". It was discovered that for approximately three quarters of the time a student entered the forum only to observe the latest discussion or to check replies to previous postings, not necessarily to post a new message.

The lack of collaboration between students could be explained by students being unfamiliar with each other, having no face-to-face meeting to get acquainted, or the fact that students may be instructed to be careful as text only messages can easily be misunderstood (Curtis & Lawson, 1999). Another collaboration restriction is a student's fear that they would have to do the bulk of the work in a project to achieve a reasonable level of quality. The students in Paz Dennen's (2000) course were assessed using a combination of group and individual work, ensuring each student gave a reasonable contribution. Wegerif (1998) states that "a sense of community... seems to be a necessary first step for collaborative learning" as students in a community are less likely to feel anxious and more willing to take the risks involved in learning.

Developmental, administration and learning time

One other finding by Nachmias et al (2000) was that the time demanded to develop and administer an online collaborative course increased when compared to the traditional face-to-face course. Students also experienced an increase in time demanded to successfully complete the required assessment tasks. Pilkington et al (2000) suggest that the additional development time and additional contact hours online, with students, was a disadvantage although students benefited from the flexibility of delivery associated with online collaboration. The increase in development, administration and student learning time could be seen as a disadvantage to online collaborative learning (Nachmias et al, 2000).


Much of the literature on the implementation of online collaborative learning is dominated by post-graduate courses. This implies that online collaborative learning is not widely used in the undergraduate section of tertiary education. Foster et al(1999) have offered the opinion that:

From an academic point of view the current situation has been described as 'opaque'. The university support structure is considered to be fragmented, with expertise present but uncoordinated.

As has been illustrated, online collaborative learning courses within tertiary education can prove to be successful and the following recommendations may enhance the collaboration process:

With the shift in the student demographic and the demand for undergraduate studies to be more flexible (Curtis & Lawson, 1999) it is necessary for higher education institutions to integrate advances in information technology and communications into their offered subjects.

Actual case studies well-detailed in the literature are few. Of the seven case studies investigated here, four were in a post-graduate environment, one was mixed undergraduate and post-graduate, and two were undergraduate. It appears from this small sample of studies that online collaborative learning is not widely used in the undergraduate sector of education and only sparingly implemented in the post-graduate sector. The authors believe that given the success for both students and educators in all case studies it argues that online collaborative learning can be successful in all levels of tertiary education. With further research and practice, successful online collaborative learning could be more widely introduced into tertiary education at an undergraduate level. Ngeow (1998) suggests that online collaborative learning:

...should prepare learners for the kind of team work and critical interchange that they will need to be effective participants in their communities and workplaces in the future


Agostinho, S., Lefoe, G. & Hedberg, J. (1997). Online Collaboration for Effective Learning: A Case Study of a Post Graduate University Course. [viewed 28 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002 at]

Curtis, D. & Lawson, M. (1999). Collaborative online learning: An exploratory case study. Proceedings HERDSA Annual International Conference. Melbourne, 12-15 July 1999. [verifed 19 Aug 2002]

Davis, J. E. (1999). Online Collaborative Learning. [viewed 7 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Foster, J., Bowskill, N., Lally, V. & McConnell, D. (1999). Preparing for Networked Collaborative Learning: An Institutional View. Presented at European Conference on Educational Research. Lahti, Finland, 22-25 September 1999.

Fyfe, S. (2000). Collaborative learning at a distance: The Human Biology experience. In A. Herrmann & M. M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000, Perth, Curtin University of Technology, [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Hiltz, S. R. (1998). Collaborative Learning in Asynchronous Learning Networks: Building Learning Communities. Invited address at WEB98 Orlando Florida, November 1998. [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Hiltz, S. R. & Turoff, M. (1978/1993). The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer. Revised edition, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

McNamee, L., Roberts, T. & Williams, S. (2001). Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education, [viewed 2 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Nachmias, R., Mioduser, D., Oren, A. & Ram, J. (2000). Web-supported emergent-collaboration in higher education courses. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 94-104. [verifed 19 Aug 2002]

Ngeow, K. (1998). Enhancing Student Thinking through Collaborative Learning. ERIC Digest, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN, ED422586.

Paz Dennen, V. (2000). Task structuring for on-line problem based learning: A case study. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), ISSN 1436-4522, pp 329-335, [viewed 25 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Pilkington, R., Bennett, C. & Vaughan, S. (2000). An evaluation of computer mediated communication to support group discussion in continuing education. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 349-360, [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Wegerif, R. (1998). The Social Dimension of Asynchronous Learning Networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 2(1). [viewed 25 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Authors: Lissa McNamee is a third year student at Central Queensland University, Bundaberg, where she is completing a Bachelor of Informatics. In 2001 she played a major role in the development of the Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education web site at, and was awarded a Faculty Spring/Summer Scholarship in early 2002. Email:

Tim Roberts is a Senior Lecturer with the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at the Bundaberg campus of Central Queensland University. He teaches computer science subjects, including Programming A to over 1000 students located throughout Australia and overseas. In 2001 he, Lissa McNamee, and Sallyanne Williams developed the Online Collaborative Learning web site at In 2002 he was awarded the Bundaberg City Council's prize for excellence in research. Email:

Please cite as: McNamee, L. and Roberts, T. S. (2002). Online collaborative learning in a tertiary environment. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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Created 19 Aug 2002. Last revision: 19 Aug 2002.
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