Five Elements that Promote Learner Collaboration and Group Work in Online Courses

woman teaching
“Foundational elements” iStock

This is the first article in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes. Implementation of group work in online classrooms may be stymied by faculty members who struggle with effective implementation of group work…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

This series is in response to the need that exists for professional development for online instructors, specifically for the skills required to promote and support learning that comes with students’ collaborating, sharing and discussing with their peers. I’ve had many discussions with educators about the challenges of getting students to collaborate and build knowledge together; there are numerous barriers. On the top of the list is the lack of skill development and support that institutions offer for faculty and instructors teaching online. This is what motivated me to develop this series. I include in this series, research from  studies specific to group learning in online courses, personal experience creating group learning activities with faculty for undergraduate online courses, and feedback from students on their perspectives on group work.

In this post I cover the five foundational elements needed for effective collaboration in online learning communities. Post two addresses the strategies, and skill set required for facilitating group collaboration and learning, and post three includes students’ experiences with online learning, barriers to group learning and strategies to minimize barriers that exist.

Why Group Work?
Educators and even students cringe at the idea of group work, more so in an online course. Instructors often view it as impossible due to barriers inherent in the online format—students envision chaos, frustration and even more work than individual projects entail. Yet as online becomes a ubiquitous format for learning, and collaboration in virtual environments becomes an essential skill in the 21st century, teaching students how to work effectively in online groups becomes just as critical to the undergraduate learning experience as the benefit of the knowledge gained through the learning experience itself.

The benefits of students’ learning together, truly collaborating, discussing and sharing [not just dividing the work up and putting it together at the end] is great. Research supports the premise that students, in well designed learning environments experience meaningful learning, develop higher order thinking, and learn to evaluate and acknowledge multiple viewpoints.

“Research has continued to emphasize the need for effective group dynamics and collaborative approaches in projects and approaches to problem-solving (Dennen & Wieland, 2009; Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2006; Rovai, 2004). Academic settings are an important venue for information about group processes to be disseminated and for students to be provided with opportunities to practice and gain skills in effective group work (Ilera, 2001; Smith, 2008). Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes.”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Though we know the benefits and acknowledge its value, the question becomes—how can educators create an experience that facilitates this kind of learning in a virtual space?

Five Elements Needed for Effective Group Work
Creating a collaborative and rich learning experience through group activities requires a different and unique set of skills, but what’s also needed is awareness of the underlying dynamics that exist when students are physically separated from peers and their instructor. The face-to-face experience provides an opportunity for groups to build trust and cohesiveness through verbal cues, facial expressions, and physical presence. Considering the elements that make up a strong online learning community is necessary when shifting to online teaching. Such elements include creating social presence, a safe learning environment, and a commitment to a learning team.

“Currently, online collaborative learning tends to focus on the cognitive process by emphasizing task-oriented communication, while assuming that the social dimension will occur automatically via communicative technologies (Kreijns et al., 2003). However, individuals will not willingly share their tentative ideas or critically challenge others’ opinions unless they trust group members and feel a sense of belonging (Kreijns et al., 2003; Rourke, 2000). Therefore, collaboration often remains shallow due to the lack of affective group support.” 

Teacher Perspectives on Online Collaborative Learning: Factors Perceived as Facilitating and Impeding Successful Online Group Work (2008)

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)
Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

Below I list five foundational elements that are critical to effective student collaboration and knowledge sharing and creating. Not all elements are within the control of the instructor, though an awareness contributes to instructor effectiveness. Some elements are based upon the Community of Inquiry [CoI] framework created by scholars at the University of Athabasca. CoI is a theoretical model that outlines a process for creating deep and meaningful learning experiences [online] through the development of three interdependent dimensions – social, cognitive and teaching presence. Establishing social presence helps students to establish themselves as a community member and contributor to the course, necessary for successful online learning that leverages group knowledge building and sharing. I’ve also incorporated findings from a paper on teacher perspectives in online collaborative learning published in the journal Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

1. Social Presence: For students to be successful in online learning environments, introducing themselves, making connections with classmates and establishing themselves in the learning community is critical. Student anonymity in learning spaces is a barrier to establishing trust and building learning community. Establishing presence is facilitated through several methods including, 1) introductions at the beginning of the course, that includes the instructor’s involvement,  2) synchronous lectures sessions where students can chat on back channels (Twitter, etc), 3) orientation activities at beginning of, or before course beginning, 4) social media platform for the class, Twitter, Google +, etc.  It’s also a good idea to wait two weeks from the course start date before group work begins.  More in-depth reading on social presence, at the CoI website.

2. Presence of a Leader: This refers to two aspects, 1) the leadership of the instructor where he or she supports group work, ie. dealing with group members that don’t participate, holding Skype calls with individual groups to problem solve, provide instruction or guidance, and providing feedback to groups and class on the process [I build on this element in post two] and, 2) the presence of a positive leader within the group (An, Kim & Kim, 2008).  A leader of the group can be assigned by the instructor (recommended) or selected within the group. The group leader also acts as the liaison between the group and the instructor.

3. Purpose and clear Instructions: Outlining why students are completing a given learning activity is critical, students are sensitive to busy work, and seek meaningful learning experiences. They are more likely to engage and commit to a group project when it is aligned closely with the learning objective of the course and is meaningful.  Stating clearly in the activity instructions, “the purpose of this activity______” is appreciated by students, as are clear instructions that are specific to the expected outcomes of the project, the details, including due date, grading scheme, group structure etc.

4.  Skill Development for Working in a Team: Learners rarely have the skill set required for effective group collaboration, sharing and/or discussions in online spaces. The instructor should provide skill development resources for group interaction including specific guidelines for communicating [netiquette rules, for example NO CAPITAL LETTERS when communicating via text, and using emoticons:), steps to solve group problems or disagreements, including an option that involves the instructor as a resource. Stepping in as a mediator may be required at times, where the instructor can walk students through problem solving steps via a group meeting using Skype, or other synchronous medium.

5. Seamless Technology:  Though instructors may not always have direct control over the technology, guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is helpful. Technology is very often cited as a barrier by students, minimizing the barriers is within the instructors control, if not the institution. Ideally online communication should be seamless. Suggesting tools for groups is helpful, and providing resources on how-to use the technological tools or applications is also critical; better yet is practicing as a class with the tools before the groups members work together.

Next Monday, I’ll publish post two, the skills and strategies instructors need to build effective group learning in online class. I encourage readers to share their resources and/or experiences in the comment section so others can benefit.  I know readers benefit greatly from this sharing.

Post two in this series: Five Vital Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work and Collaboration, Online Learning Insights


16 thoughts on “Five Elements that Promote Learner Collaboration and Group Work in Online Courses

  1. The article has some merits. I liked the “Purpose and Clear Instructions” section. The “why” of a lesson is extremely crucial and needed in order for students to understand why they are learning the new or old information so they can begin to accept and be open to receiving the information from the lesson. Some students may not accept the “why” aspect for whatever reason and become disengaged with the material or if they do, they will simply go through the motions with a get-it-over-with mentality.


  2. I’ve facilitated online courses for many years and agree that the most challenging aspect is collaboration among students and within groups. Skill development is a key factor and I would suggest that the facilitator have a strong presence in that first week or two posting comments in reply and pointing out the positives in order to encourage more of the same. I look forward to reading your next two posts:)


  3. Great article! Instructors should all focus some of their PD on improving their collaborative-learning skills, and ways to implement proper group work in their training.
    I’ve noticed that you always have great images to go along with your posts. I was wondering what programs/software you use to create them?


    1. Hi
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Group work is perhaps the most challenging of all to manage effectively in an online course — and sadly there are few resources to provide support. Hopefully this series may help.

      I get my images from a combination of sources — I either use and search for those under the creative commons license, though the majority I purchase through iStock. I am quite lazy in searching for images using the creative commons i.e. through flickr etc., as it is quite time consuming, which is why a prefer to spend the money to save myself some time in getting images that work well for my posts. I purchase credits through istock, which seems to provide the best value, and search for the lowest price point.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment and read.


      1. Hi Debbie
        I’m currently studying Bachelor of Adult and Vocational Education and Training (LLN), by distance and we are using the online forum as the only interaction with other learners. We are expected to collaborate on numeracy problems, but I am not seeing any students (including me) challenge others’ opinions and therefore I agree with Kreijns et al., 2003; Rourke, 2000 that this is a shallow experience. What are some effective ways to build trust amongst the cohort in a short time (6 weeks from start of the subject to first assignment), so that collaborative learning experiences can be effective?


        1. Hi Gillian,
          Thanks for taking the time to comment and sharing your experience. You bring up an excellent point, that trust is essential to students sharing and learning with each other in an online environment. Having student introductions help, one I like is when students tell a bit about themselves in forum post, and then share three of their favorite websites that reveals the interests of the student.

          This website, about the Community of Inquiry framework also has some good resources and suggestions for building trust through teacher and learner presence.

          As far as challenging one another, ideally there should some sort of guidelines for discussions that includes the need to respectfully challenge other group member’s ideas and opinions, to go deeper into learning by asking more questions, and asking for clarification using ‘why’ questions. Stating opinions such as “I respectfully disagree with ____ position because _____.” Or, “I don’t see evidence to support your answer (or position). Can you provide further details?”

          Hope this helps!


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