Online groups – Cooperative or Collaborative?

“Work teams Cooperate; learning teams Collaborate

What is the difference between collaborating and cooperating? Online communities and group work in particular has generated much discussion lately, and I’ve written several posts about group work, peer evaluations and more. Interesting, though the definitions differ ever so slightly, [cooperate: the process of working together to the same end, versus collaborate: to work jointly on an activity to produce or create something] yet how each is executed in the online learning environments differs significantly.

I’ve experienced both as a student in online communities – there is a stark contrast between the two – the process, experience and outcomes were all different. Most group work happening online today is likely cooperative in nature. Cooperative group work is not a negative – essentially students are engaging at a different level of cognitive skills (in context of Bloom’s Taxonomy). When online groups cooperate they apply, plan, develop. When collaborating, students analyze, synthesize and construct knowledge, problems are solved collectively. Higher order thinking skills are engaged.


When virtual [online] groups cooperate, it’s a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, usually each group member is responsible for completing his or her ‘section’, which usually involves discussion and negotiation. From this point on, the work is done individually, and an ambitious (and gracious) team member puts all the various sections together and attempts to create a common ‘voice’ and consistency.

How do you create Collaborative (or Cooperative) group activities?

As most online educators know, creating virtual teams, and placing students into groups within the online learning platform, and providing assignment guidelines does not make cooperation or collaboration happen. From experience both as a student and as instructional designer, the type of interaction and learning (and success) of the group experience depends in a large part on the instructional strategy. A good place to start is by asking the question – ‘what learning objective does the assignment need to achieve’?  It is at this level that the instructor determines what kind of activity can be developed, and which approach is most effective in context of the learner (i.e.level of course, experience with online format etc.), and online environment. Choosing what one wants the student to do to achieve the objective, (i.e. synthesize or analyze) drives the instructional strategy, in that the group activity is constructed incorporating actions around the content to be learned or problem to be solved. See Bloom’s taxonomy below for ‘learning in action’ verbs.

SVG version of
SVG version of by John M. Kennedy T. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can Collaboration work in online environments?

Several educators have suggested that given the barriers of space and time, collaborative work in groups online is virtually impossible. I disagree, challenging – yes, impossible, no. That being said,. according to research it is how the the group task is structured, communicated and supported — that collaboration happens, thus higher order thinking skills are engaged (Paulus, 2005).

Collaborative learning – closing thoughts…

  • Learning happens in the dialogue, the conversation the problem solving (or not solving)
  • When groups come together to solve a problems, they need to use online tools to collaborate, Skype, Google +, Google Docs, Elluminate Live., and need to be introduced to the tools early in the course and have time to practice with them
  • Instructor support for students ‘dialoguing’, is critical to collaboration – this may mean professor prompting discussions among groups and/or providing encouragement and further direction to students at the beginning of the group process.

Related Posts
The Difference between Collaboration and Cooperation,
Why we need Group work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Making Peer Evaluations work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Teaching and Learning at a Distance, Collaborative vs Cooperative

Paulus, T. M. (2005). Collaborative and cooperative approaches to online group work: The impact of task type. Distance Education, 26(1), 111-125. doi:10.1080/01587910500081343

19 thoughts on “Online groups – Cooperative or Collaborative?

  1. This is a really interesting article. I myself have experienced online learning teams in an educational environment, and like you say, “providing assignment guidelines does not make cooperation or collaboration happen”. For the most part, some individual will have to take the lead (become team leader) before the cooperation and collaboration occurs. Learning teams can be both frustrating and rewarding at times.

    Anyways, I enjoyed your article.


  2. I actually blog too and I’m authoring a thing alike to this excellent posting,
    “Online groups – Cooperative or Collaborative?
    | online learning insights”. Would you care in cases where I actuallyuse
    a lot of of your personal ideas? Thanks a lot ,Alison


    1. HI Clark,
      I used several research papers, and my own experience as a student working with groups, and as an instructional designer for online programs.

      Here are some sources for further reference:
      Paulus, T. M. (2005). Collaborative and cooperative approaches to online group work: The impact of task type. Distance Education, 26(1), 111-125. doi:10.1080/01587910500081343

      There are additional resources listed at the bottom of this post in which you are referring to.

      Hope that helps! Debbie


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