Collaboration at a Distance: A case for collaborative learning in distance education

by Mr. Sheehy

The manager in a Dilbert cartoon tells his secretary to schedule a meeting. She asks him what it’s for and after he answers, she responds, “I’ll just write ‘waste of time.’” Above the word “Teamwork,” a Demotivators calendar pictures many hands piled together, as if about to chant “Go team!” or “Defense!” Below it, the insight reads, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” At the end of a cooperative project, a student answers the question “How well did your group work as a team?” by admitting, “At the beginning we worked together, but then we all did our own thing.” Certainly, collaborative work has received its share of criticism, much of it well earned, but despite the reputation, it continues to proliferate as an educational strategy. Most of the interest in collaboration and social learning theory traces back to Vygotsky and Bandura, who understood that children grow in social settings and learn from others’ modeling (Dabbah & Bannan-Ritland, 2005; Slavin, 2003). Research interest in collaborative learning sparked in the 1970s and continues to grow (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99). With the corresponding explosion in on-line distance education, collaborative learning has found a bedfellow, and the two are often wed. To an extent, the online environment merits such a union, but if educators are not cautious and intelligent, the make-shift collaboration that is wed to distance education could lead to an unhappy marriage – one where Dilbert and Demotivators describe the truth and where a quickly rising divorce rate could lead to the popular dismissal of the union as unwise. If done well, however, collaboration lends to online distance education a personal touch that can increase students’ learning and satisfaction with their education; but doing it well is both crucial and difficult.


The opposition to collaborative learning extends beyond cartoons. Students are often dissatisfied with their experiences in collaboration, as well with the outcome of such work (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99). These experiences may taint students against collaboration, causing them to enter future collaborative arrangements with attitudes predisposed against it (Brown, Eastham, & Ku, 2006). Even when in favor of collaborative learning, students point out that it takes more effort to maintain a learning community online than face-to-face (Dabbah & Bannan-Ritland, 2005), and if well designed instruction is used, methods like small group collaboration have not proved to increase achievement (Brewer & Klien, 2006). In addition, distance learners tend to be mostly self-directed and resistant to team projects (Brown, et al., 2006), and Simonson (2000) has claimed that mandatory interaction can be a detriment to learning and that the need for interaction in distance education is primarily for voluntary conferring.

Reasons for Online Collaboration

In light of such objections, instructors of distance education cannot consider collaboration a valid method without clear research that proves online learning communities are possible and that justifies their use. Though it has been rebutted clearly, an early objection to collaboration in online environments was that community could not exist apart from face to face interaction. A learning community can be developed on line, however, and that community can reach depths equal to face to face settings as participants construct a context of rapport and exchanged knowledge (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005; Gros & Adrian, 2005; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robbins, & Shoemaker, 2000; Rovai, 2001). The success of that community building depends largely on the instructor’s commitment to fostering it. Instructors who have ignored social constructivist theory when setting up distance courses have often found that their students do not respond adequately to their questions on discussion boards or that students do not interact with one another (Pallof & Pratt, 1999). When social constructivist concepts are utilized, the community that develops allows online distance learning classes to transcend prior models of distance education, like correspondence, as it transfers the student from an isolated, instructor-student dynamic into an interactive learning community (Haythornthwaite et al., 2000). In a sense, then, one reason for collaborating in online distance education settings is that it is possible to do so.

Doing something because it can be done is not ample reason to act, of course; a key area for examination of collaboration in online distance education is the effect the collaboration has on students’ work and learning. Like wider social constructivist theory, proponents of collaboration in distance education see it providing opportunity for students to interact and push each other to higher order thinking (Dabbaugh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Additionally, and perhaps most important to one who values theories of multiple intelligences or learning styles, is that the collaborative environments provide distance education students alternative environments for constructing knowledge and encourage instructors to use multiple technologies that utilize different teaching techniques (Gros & Adrian, 2005). While promising, these claims do not make interaction a magic formula for success in distance education (Simonson, 2000). The only solid evidence concerning the direct relationship between collaboration and students’ achievement in distance education is that there exists a correlation between the number of interactions a student has in a collaborative environment and his achievement in the course (Brewer & Klien, 2006) – a rather unconvincing declaration.

More compelling is the effect the collaborative audience has on a students’ work. The effect is well noted by writers, to whom audience provides motivation for producing material (Hunewell, 2007; Sheehy, 2007). In the online environment, instructors utilize audience and collaborative techniques by asking students to become producers of content (Gros & Adrian, 2005). Moving interaction throughout a group instead of keeping it between an instructor and a student generates powerful experiences for students (Palloff & Pratt, 1999), likely because students know, through the reception of encouragement and feedback, that the audience consists of more than the instructor.

The interaction inevitably engenders social bonds, and as learners develop feelings of community, information flows more easily among them (Haythornthwaite et al. 2000; Rovai, 2001). With the information flow, students may become supporters of one another, often in technical and strategic aspects of an online experience (Haythornthwaite et al. 2000). Additionally, and more directly related to students’ achievement, the bond that forms between students encourages them to share personal experiences that they have related to the course’s content, thereby achieving meaningful learning (Dabbah & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).

These social bonds also provide the power of accountability and encouragement that are needed for many students to overcome the natural obstacles of distance education. When learners in distance education are unable to connect with the collaborative community, they are more likely to have trouble overcoming the physical isolation involved in the experience. The interaction provides support that reduces isolation for them (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Palloff and Pratt (1999) equate the experience of signing into an online course and seeing no activity as equivalent to arriving at a class and seeing no one there. This isolation and lack of communication allows students to fall short of expectations with less resistance (Brown et al., 2006): they can “fade back” when they have no active obligation to a community (Haythornthwaite et al. 2000, p. 19). The feel-good quality of a community provides accountability, and required collaboration can even reduce procrastination (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99). As online distance education spreads and draws a wider variety of learners –especially a variety of learning styles and personalities – such social support will become more vital.

Collaboration defined

To apply social constructivist theory and collaboration to succor the isolation inherent in distance education and to increase the quality of students’ achievement, instructors need clarity about what it means to collaborate. Clarifying the term enables instructors to pursue that which is worth pursuing and to avoid negative experiences that develop from makeshift collaboration. In essence, collaboration is a process of interaction through which participants produce something new (Gros & Adrian, 2005; Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99) and where particular individuals’ contributions are indistinguishable from the whole (Hathorn & Ingram, 2002). It is marked by a dialogue where individuals lend their insights to others and seize opportunities to become aware of and articulate their own thinking (Gros & Adrian, 2005; Paulus, 2005). The dialogue acts in a self-supporting manner, building the initial social bonds learning communities require, and once they are built, providing students with opportunities to learn through authentic and challenging discussion (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Thus, the dialogue is the first step and the ultimate goal – to build dialogue where higher level learning is exchanged, one must begin with dialogue.

This explanation of collaboration gains significance when foiled against cooperative tasks. In terms of tasks, collaboration is not cooperation – an important distinction for instructors to make. Typically, a cooperative assignment is focused on a final product and could also be called an application task. In this context, students coordinate individual efforts and bring them together to produce a final product, often not discussing the course material. In contrast, a collaborative assignment is typically focused on the learning acquired and could be called a synthesis task. Here, students engage in dialogue about the course material to expand their understanding of it; typically, they do not have to produce a significant final product after discussion (Paulus, 2005).

Even when this distinction is understood, an instructor’s desire to construct collaborative experiences for students does not guarantee collaboration. Putting students in groups does not automatically create collaborative interactions (Hathorn & Ingram, 2002) and students may convert a collaborative task into a cooperative one, often due to time constraints, lack of accountability or guidelines, and lack of skills with online communication (Brown et al., 2006; Hathorn & Ingram, 2002; Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99). In reality, then, many collaborative experiences lose their distinction as collaboration and become cooperative application tasks. Collaboration has proved itself a difficult construct for online communities, and though collaborative work – and especially small group work – is not appropriate for every task in a course (Kitchen &McDougall, 1998-99), its role is vital. If it is to fulfill that role with efficacy, it must be nurtured carefully.

Effective Collaboration

Nurturing collaboration properly necessitates new goals for collaborative efforts. When utilized, collaborative work should emphasize synthesis tasks and make explicit the priority of the learning above the creation of a concrete product or project (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99; Paulus, 2005). Students are mostly accustomed to producing a “deliverable” at the end of group work, and instructors need to intervene forcefully to communicate the value of learning over production (Paulus, 2005, p.119). In actuality, a synthesis task does produce, but the product is more ephemeral: effective dialogue (Paulus, 2005).

Effective dialogue becomes a top priority in a learning community, and to sow collaborative interaction, it needs to be a primary mode of inquiry for participants (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). It is important to note that making dialogue a primary mode of inquiry does not necessitate making small groups a primary model of interaction. Many people equate collaboration with small group work, but Paulus (2005) suggests that larger groups (of 10 or more) “may be more effective for collaborative dialogue” (p. 120). Whatever the group size, establishing dialogue as a mode of inquiry rather than a slosh of prattle necessitates careful effort from students and instructors. Students need to be taught collaborative skills, and since the course content is of primary importance, the best way to teach students is by the instructor’s modeling and participation as a member of the group. An instructor’s careful attention to this “parallel stream to the content” (Palloff & Pratt, 1999, p. 30) reaps benefits when students begin to carry open, malleable views into dialogue. Given this, they should eventually operate as a community, asking expansive questions, facilitating discussion, and offering feedback to one another (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). If the skills are not taught, the students’ deficiency often leads to the aforementioned restructuring of synthesis tasks into application tasks (Brown et al., 2006): a frustrating development for students and instructors and a typical source of the bad name ascribed to collaboration.

Key to this dialogue is its social aspect, and while instructors may find it nonsensical to devote effort to maintaining social interaction, such attention promotes the collaboration that can achieve synthesis dialogue. The equal emphasis of instructional climate and content makes a community possible (Dabbah & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Socioemotional interactions establish both connections between learners and a precedent for dialogue sustainable apart from an application-task (Rovai, 2001). A typical strategy for building the social bonds of an online community is to require students to post brief biographies during the first days, communicating their personality and purpose in the course (Brown et al., 2006), which begins dialogue and establishes the shared purpose of the learning community. Essential to sharing biographies is interaction – questions, affirmations, connections – as it is critical for students to feel acknowledged when bonds are still fragile (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

While other strategies for building community in an online course exist, a commonality among them is that they involve early preparation and intercession on the part of the instructor. In some instances, students could benefit from a mini-training session the opening week to address any skill or knowledge gaps in their ability to work collaboratively (Brown et al., 2006). Whatever the learners’ background, though, instructors must during the first days promote initial bonding (Haythornthwaite et al., 2000) and communicate their expectations for the course and for any collaborative work to come (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Community bonding can occur without the early effort from the instructor, but absent the push, it most often does not develop until the end of the course (Haythornthwaite et al., 2000).

Not that an instructor can relax after the first weeks of an online course. Maintenance of an online community requires monitoring, participation, and interaction, as well as securing of frequent opportunities for students to interact – both in the educational and social part of the program.That interaction should take place over a number of technologies, supporting more learners (Haythornthwaite et al., 2000) and preventing the experience from growing repetitive. Instructors also need to enforce established guidelines for frequency of communication, a frequency they must model as they maintain a presence within the community. While present, they can promote a connected, supportive dialogue, discouraging the growth of the independent and impersonal discussion that arises when learners are accustomed to competition rather than collaboration (Kitchen & McDougall, 1998-99; Rovai, 2001).

Though maintenance is difficult and arduous, the online instructor’s diligence pays off with the successful nurturing of a learning community. Such a collaborative community provides students opportunity to build knowledge through dialogue, engage with a wider variety of instructional techniques, and combat the inherent isolation involved with distance education. Poorly constructed collaborative experiences have led to widespread disillusionment with group work and terribly amusing comics, but if more instructors committed themselves to fostering collaboration and dialogue, comics and calendars might be funnier when satirizing the individual who believes he is smarter or more effective when alone.


Appendix A: The comic of the future?

A one panel comic is divided into two boxes, but the top box is subdivided into three panels. In the smaller boxes, individuals type and talk into computers, and on the computers’ screens are pictures of the other two individuals. Typed across them is an IM-style message saying, “& that solves r problem!J” In the bottom panel, the individual sits alone, pondering a computer with a Google screen in front of him. A thought bubble above him reads, “And now what?” Below the comic are these words: “Two approaches, one problem.”





Brewer, S., & Klein, J. (2006). Type of positive interdependence and affiliation motive in an asynchronous, collaborative learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development. 54(4), 331-354.

Brown, L. A., Eastham, N. P., & Ku, H (2006). A performance evaluation of the collaborative efforts in an online group research project. Performance Improvement Quarterly. 19(3), 121-140.

Dabbagh, N., & Bannan-Ritland, B. (2005). Online learning : concepts, strategies, and application.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Gros, B., & Adrian, M. (2005). The use of virtual forums to promote collaborative learning in higher education. Educational Technology. 45(5), 17-20.

Hathorn, L. G., & Ingram, A. L. (2002). Online collaboration: Making it work. Educational Technology. 42(1), 33-40.

Haythornthwaite, C., Kazmer, M. M., Robins, J., & Shoemaker, S. (2000). Community development among distance learners: Temporal and technological dimensions. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 6, 0-0.

Hunewell, C. (2007, March 28). [Weblog] A blogger as a writer. Newfound Technocalities. Retrieved March 30, 2007, from

Kitchen, D., & McDougall, D. (1998-99). Collaborative learning on the internet. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 27(3), 245-258.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace : effective strategies for the online classroom.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paulus, T. (2005).Collaborative and cooperative approaches to online group work: The impact of task type. Distance Education. 26(1), 111-125.

Rovai, A. (2001).Building classroom community at a distance: A case study. Educational Technology Research and Development. 49(4), 33-48.

Sheehy, G. (2007 March 23). [Weblog] Can I borrow your pickup? Moving day adventures. A Teacher’s Writes. Retrieved March 28, 2007, from

Simonson, M. (2000).Myths and distance education: What the research says (and does not say). The Quarterly Review of Distance Education. 1(4), 277-279.

Slavin, R. (2003). Educational psychology: Theory and practice. New York: Allyn & Bacon.