How-to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies

“CL (collaborative learning) occurs when small groups of students help each other to learn. CL is sometimes misunderstood. It is not having students talk to each other, either face-to-face or in a computer conference, while they do their individual assignments. It is not having them do the task individually and then have those who finish first help those who have not yet finished. And it is certainly not having one or a few students do all the work, while the others append their names to the report (Klemm, W.R., 1994).” (Laal & Laal, 2012).


Group Collaboration

Providing interactive learning opportunities in online courses is frequently cited as a best practice by institutions offering distance education—Penn StateUniversity of Illinois and Grand Rapids Community College are three of many examples. Yet I know from experience on both sides, as a student and educator, the challenges of functioning within and facilitating collaborative learning activities—group work especially.  In theory, collaborative learning is a sound idea given the numerous studies that suggest the benefits of students learning from and with each other by sharing ideas and perspectives:

…Samuel Totten (1991) who claims that: The shared learning gives learners an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers. (Laal & Laal, 2012)


Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest that online courses that are rich with student interactivity facilitate the development of critical thinking skills, better learning, socialized intelligence, and reflection.  (Zygouris-Coe, 2012)

Yet all too often students’ experiences in small virtual groups contrived for the purpose of creating group learning experiences, result in frustration and even resentment. It’s no wonder educators often question whether group work is worth the aggravation. Is student collaboration really necessary for learning? And if it is, how can it be successful?

This post aims to offer support and resources for readers looking for answers to these questions; I incorporate research from four recent papers on group work and collaboration in online learning environments specifically that shed light on the realities of contrived collaborative activities for students. One in particular, “Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions)” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007) provides practical and helpful suggestions for course designers developing group activities and for instructors facilitating group work. Another, “Collaborative learning: what is it?” (Laal & Laal, 2012) is particularly helpful and applicable to educators; it clarifies what collaborative learning looks like and describes in detail the required elements.

Group Work for Closed Courses not MOOCs
This post outlines essential conditions for group work in online learning environments and suggests four strategies that hone in on the key components needed to create collaborative activities specific to closed, online courses, not MOOCs. In my experience with Massive Open Online Courses, it is not possible, nor desirable for instructors to require or mandate class activities where students collaborate in small groups. Collaboration in MOOCs is ideally student-driven, in keeping with the pedagogy of massive courses. In small, closed and for-credit online courses, the pedagogical approach is different—it requires involvement of the instructor, and a more structured learning environment and activities that support specific learning objectives typically associated with for-credit courses.

Learning Theory and Demand Behind Group Work
Before discussing practical strategies, it’s worthy to examine how group work became an accepted practice in education. The idea that students need to work together to learn, stems from several learning theorists including Piaget, Dewey and Bruner. The premises of their theories are that learning is active, and knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment (constructivism). Building on the constructivist premise is social learning, where learning happens through active engagement with others (Vgostsky). Yet the concept of students needing to work in groups to learn, is not the only driver of group work in online spaces. The other is the idea that students of today require a unique skill set to work, engage and collaborate as global (and digital) citizens. Businesses also demand that employees be team players, have excellent communication skills that includes working virtually in teams, as well as proficiency with digital platforms. Recently the Wall Street Journal featured an article about companies that seek employees who are able to collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world, often without ever meeting in person (Rubenfire, 2014). These factors contribute to the perceived need to provide learning opportunities for online students that involve small groups.

Group Work: Cooperation versus Collaboration
Two concepts frequently used interchangeably when discussing group work is cooperation and collaboration. Though each concept is distinct; each suggests a different level of learning in practice. I suggest that both exist on a continuum of student interaction in online environments, with students ‘discussing’ a topic (in a forum for instance) on one end, and ‘collaborating’ where students work and learn as a team—creating for example, a final product interdependently that represents their knowledge construction, on the other.  In their paper, Laal & Laal define each:

  • Cooperation is a structure of interaction designed to facilitate the accomplishment of a specific end product or goal through people working together in groups;
  • Collaboration is a philosophy of interaction and personal lifestyle where individuals are responsible for their actions, including learning and respect the abilities and contributions of their peers. (2012, p. 494).

In most instances, group work in online courses is cooperative at best. Small group exchanges within online courses were examined and discussed in the paper “How much “group” is there in online group work” where students interactions were categorized as: 1) parallel, 2) associative and 3) cooperative interactions (Lowes, 2000, p. 4). Only one group of the five examined approached the higher level of cooperation. However, there are methods and strategies educators (and their institutions) can implement to move students along the continuum of group learning towards the collaborative. There are several conditions necessary for cooperative and collaborative learning identified in the literature referenced in this post—summarized below.

Required Conditions for Cooperative and/or Collaborative Learning in Closed Online Learning Environments

  • Dialogue amongst students is a fundamental component of the group activity; assignments should be designed to encourage discussion and brainstorming (asynchronous and synchronous) rather than a division of labour. One paper suggests that group assignments be constructed for “positive interdependence” where each group member contribution is unique and indispensable (Lowes, p. 12) though examples are not given
  • Understanding of the purpose of the activity—achieved by communicating to students why group work is necessary, e.g. sharing how the project aligns to the learning goals, how students will benefit
  • Access to digital platform(s) and tools that support online collaboration—for discussion, creation of final product, etc. e.g. Google Docs, Google Hangouts
  • Support for students unfamiliar with collaboration platform & tools
  • Guidelines that outline: student expectations, netiquette, procedure to deal absent group member(s), assessment methods, examples of collaborative exchanges between students, team roles, etc.
  • Instructor (and institution) efforts aimed at developing and supporting student skill set for cooperation, collaboration and working in teams
  • Instructor involvement to address non-contributing group members, group challenges, etc.
  • Inclusion of an assessment mechanism on two levels—group and individual

Four Strategies for Instructors (and Institutions) That Support Online Group Work

1. Design a Group Assignment that is complex, that challenges students to apply and discuss course content using multiple perspectives to solve a problem or develop a solution. Include expectations, purpose and clear instructions about how students can collaborate and provide feedback to each other. (Lowes, 2007, p. 12)

2. Model and support the development of collaborative skills • Develop collaborative learning protocols and establish clear expectations about student and instructor roles • Promote student self-monitoring of learning through progress reports, feedback, discussion forums, virtual student-instructor conferences  Cover the skills required at the beginning of the course… An extensive list of ideas in “Collaborative learning in an online teacher education course: lessons learned” (Coe, 2012, p. 339)

3. Facilitate and be involved in group activities.Closely monitor group discussion boards to identify student involvement at beginning of group work, contact students not participating early in the group process.  Collect ongoing data on student progress.

4.  Make the assessment criteria explicit. “Several effective solutions may be employed to do exactly as Webb suggests, that is, to measure group productivity and to measure the individual students’ abilities within the group. Exactly which of the solutions is the most
appropriate will depend upon the circumstances.” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007, p. 263).

There is no formula for creating effective group learning opportunities in closed online courses, yet there are shared experiences from educators and academics that provide a starting point as outlined in this post. I encourage readers to share their own experiences, ideas and suggestions for facilitating group interactivity either here with other readers, on other social media platforms or with colleagues. What works and what doesn’t?


Laal, M. & Laal, M. (2011). Collaborative learning: What is it? Social and Behavioral Sciences 31: 491 – 495. Retrieved from

Lowes, S. (2014). How much “group” is there in online group work? Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1). Retrieved from

Roberts, T. S. & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology and Society 10(4): 257-268. Retrieved from

Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Proceedings from ICITE 2012: Collaborative Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Lessons Learned. Rhodes, Greece. Retrieved from

17 thoughts on “How-to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies

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  2. Ivan

    I really appreciate this article! I have been trying to build an online course for my group but the tools available are all gear towards MOOCs! Do you have any examples of how group work has been successfully implemented online? And what tools would you recommend to someone like me who wants to build an online course for my group?


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  6. Chaitanya Yaddanapudi

    Hello Debbie,

    This is the first time I am using I have been through various posts and I found this post really interesting. The way you have articulated the post comparing cooperation to collaboration is brilliant. I personally feel that both these components are needed for the success of an online learning community. As you mentioned in the article, making assignments more tougher might ensure that people collaborate to achieve the given task. As the class size increases, as mentioned in point 3 ‘Facilitate and be involved in group activities’,it might take a toll on the Professor/TA to continuously monitor students activities.

    Chaitanya Yaddanapudi.


    1. Sarvani Mallajosyula

      I think cooperation and collaboration are equally required to make an online learning community successful.When a student collaborates with others students and acquires knowledge from them,he tends to share any piece of knowledge he learnt from else and share it with his peers.This type of collaboration leads to healthy educational practices where students collaborate to bring out the best by helping each other.The complex group assignment will make students interact more and cooperate with each other which will help them depend on each other and collaborate more.Adding more to Chaitanya’s post,I think with the increase in the class size it will be difficult for the instructor to monitor the student’s performance and to keep track of the activities being done by the student.Not only this but think about the case where the student has been given a complex assignment and the class size is also large,this will take a toll on the instructor to evaluate the solutions provided to the complex problem by large number of students.But otherwise,complex assignments will trigger critical thinking among the students and lead them to collaborate and cooperate.



      1. Debbie Morrison Post author

        Excellent points Sarvani. Your point of class size is valid. Complex group work projects are extremely difficult in large online classes, and are better suited to small closed learning experiences.

        Thanks for your comments Sarvani!


        1. Chaitanya Yaddanapudi

          Yes, I do agree with both of you. Based on the complexity of assignments, Instructor can choose to be a part of the online community. However, many studies have shown that the Instructor presence in an online learning community will be very helpful for students to take the course more seriously. They feel the sense of ownership and try to finish the assignments or course work as per the schedule. The survey also showed the improved the percentage of students completing the courses they registered for in the presence of an instructor. That said, I personally feel that Instructor should be a part of the online community but should have the freedom to choose out of the complex assignments with large number of students.


          1. Taruni Kancharla

            I totally agree with you on that one. Students tend to have less off topic discussions and generally have a more serious attitude when they know they are being evaluated by an authority. Also, I think you’ll be interested in this study:

            The results of this study showed that students tended to have more satisfaction when they increased the number of instructor postings that were related to teaching and social presence. Not only does the instructor facilitate learning on a higher scale, they also lead to the students having higher satisfaction rates.

            Can you give me a link of the survey you mentioned Chaitanya?


      2. Zongkun Yang

        I agree with you Savani, on that cooperation and collaboration are equally required to make an online learning community successful. Besides what you have mentioned that students tend to share any piece of knowledge they learnt when they collaborate with each other, I also think collaboration can press the work finish on schedule. Procrastination is common among students, if its individual work without collaboration with others, it would be more easy postpone work to several days before due date of work schedule than working with others. Collaboration balance the task pressure on group members, each group member need to make contributions, and meanwhile need work results from others, so there would form a mutual pressure to put the work on right track, according to the schedule. I think you maybe interested in this paper:

        This paper set out to expand the scope of collaboration from consideration of learning about content to consideration of the wider context of trust in groups, development of an online, knowledge community, and promotion of collaborative work habits.


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  9. djadja

    Reblogged this on Pendidikan: Benteng Terakhir Peradaban Manusia and commented:
    Menurut Akhmad Sudrajat, Kolaborasi mengasumsikan pentingnya kerjasama (koperasi) yang dibangun berdasarkan konsensus anggotanya, bukan kompetisi individual diantara anggota kelompok. Dalam kelompok akan terjadi pembagian peran, tugas dan wewenang dari setiap anggota kekompok. Masing-masing anggota kelompok berusaha saling menghargai dan memberikan kontribusi kemampuannya terhadap kegiatan kelompok.

    Ketika seorang individu (baca: guru) menerapkan filosofi ini ke dalam kelas, keluarga atau komunitas kelompok lainnya untuk kepentingan pembelajaran maka itulah yang disebut pembelajaran kolaboratif. Jadi, pembelajaran kolaboratif pada dasarnya adalah sebuah filosofi personal, dan bukan hanya sekedar teknik dalam pembelajaran di kelas (Ted Panitz , 1996).


  10. Veronica

    Thanks for this interesting post, Debbie – I always enjoy and benefit from reading your blog. The difference between cooperation and collaboration is something I struggle with too. And like you, I tend to see the former as helping someone, e.g. peer reviewing a classmate’s assignment, and the latter as working together to produce a group product, e.g. a video, presentation etc. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts! Veronica



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