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Collaborative learning & digital communities… What a challenge!

A couple of month ago, I started an on-line community (Google communities) for south-east Asia students that I was supervising on-line. The idea was to create an on-line peer-to-peer collaborative environment in which they would have been able to share their knowledge and experiences, supporting each other in the process of interactive generation of the substantial content for their studies.

Ideally, the on-line community and the flexible combination of synchronous and asynchronous digital tools and activities (i.e. Google Hangouts or Skype meetings, collaborative creation of documents with Google docs and Google Drives, or presentation with Prezi or ThingLink, etc.) would have facilitated a flexible and creative digital space in which my students would have assumed a central active role in the creation and conduction of their own learning process. By working together in an on-line environment, their studies were framed in a Learner Generated Content (LGC), in which they would have been the true protagonist, organizing themselves, self-managing their on-line collaborative time (Pérez-Mateo, Maina, Guitert, & Romero, 2011).

I said ‘they would have been’ but… they weren’t! What’s happened?

After certain reflections, perhaps the answer was that students were ill-equipped through their previous educational experiences to collaborate or to engage in peer-reviewing and peer-creating activities. In fact, they would have needed a sort of scaffolding progressive learning modules that would have helped to build their skills and on-line capabilities, leading to the creation of an effective working group (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009). In other words, learners do not necessarily have sufficient levels of digital literacy when register for an on-line course or activity. Curricula need to provide the necessary space for building those capacities from the very beginning of their collaborative learning.

Therefore, an adequate structured course, where participation and collaboration by learners have a concrete role vis-à-vis the achievements of the learning outcomes, and clear instructions from teachers, supervisors and tutors seem to be essential for guarantee adequate levels of on-line participation and collaboration. In this sense, teachers need to identify tasks and digital tools that would be most appropriate for group collaboration and relevant for the achievement of the established learning outcomes (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009).

In addition, feedbacks and availability from the instructor need to be considered also as essential factors for building the on-line confidence of the learners, paving the way for a secure and reassuring collaborative learning experience. Teachers need to be present within the digital course’s environment in order to provide learners with feedbacks and counselling support necessary to avoid ‘digital’ frustration and motivational decrement.

So far so good. But… What about time management?

Teachers’ permanent presence on-line could be indeed time-consuming and tiresome if they would like to follow all asynchronous and synchronous activities that take place during the course. In order to manage their time within reasonable limits, teachers need to re-adjust their traditional role as educational agents. As said above, in on-line collaborative learning, learners need to be considered as active participants in the creation of educational content.

Consequently, teachers’ role needs to be more passive, a sort of guiding on-line reassuring presence. Learners are responsible for performing all on-line collaborative activities. Teachers would need to be present in some key synchronous activities (i.e. Tweetchats), and provide feedbacks in some important asynchronous tasks (i.e. elaboration of collaborative documents or presentations).

Finally, teachers’  role in collaborative learning environments need to be complementary to peer-to-peer support, monitoring and evaluation. As main agent of their collaborative education, learners not only co-create and shape knowledge among peers, but also engage in a self-evaluation process vis-à-vis the achievement of the course’s learning outcomes.

If you have any comment or suggestion on how to approach these collaborative learning challenges, you are most welcome!


Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Available here.

Pérez-Mateo, M., Maina, M. F., Guitert, M., & Romero, M. (2011). Learner generated content: Quality criteria in online collaborative learning. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning. Available here.

Picture: Hands Hand Raised Hands Raised Hands Up Yes. License: CC0 Public Domain – Free for commercial use / No attribution required.

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Collaborative learning & digital communities… What a challenge! by Alejandro Fuentes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


3 thoughts on “Collaborative learning & digital communities… What a challenge!

  1. Indeed, we tend to be rather optimistic about students’ ability to collaborate and take charge of their learning, a belief that is often based on the “digital natives” myth. Collaborative learning challenges many deep-rooted beliefs for both teacher and student and as you wrote, we need to provide plenty scaffolding to help students learn how to learn. It’s a slow process even with younger students since although they are highly digital in some ways they often lack the study skills and more advanced literacies to participate fully.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely. And the fact that they could be ‘digital natives’ perhaps does not mean that they have gained collaborative skills. Playing on-line games requires some sort of collaboration among players, but that is just the beginning. The challenge would be to gain the capacity to organise, manage and develop collaborative learning modules within a process of co-construction of knowledge.


  3. I didn’t know you already have started an online course! That’s good. Based on your own experience, then, I also agree when you say that good scaffolding is necessary when a new course is starting up for building the on-line confidence of the learners. But when the course continues teachers’ role needs to be more passive and more responsibility should be put on learners. last year I came up with much the same conclusion, and composed this table to show my results:


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