Education Opinion

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning: Student Partnership in Online Classrooms

By Matthew Lynch — February 12, 2018 5 min read
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By Amy Michalowski, Dean of The Virtual High School

Cooperative and collaborative learning are not new concepts in the field of education - they have been studied for decades and have been used as classroom practices for much longer than that. Although experts in the field might differentiate between the two, I’d suggest that the subtle differences are not all that important. What IS important is that the value proposition of each is similar: to create conditions where students gain interpersonal and cognitive skills necessary for work and life. Development of interpersonal and cognitive skills necessary to partner with others is a critical priority of education.

For those with an interest in the language of education, the distinction between the two practices is primarily in the ownership of the learning process, although there are some who believe that cooperation and collaboration are essentially the same practice because they “overlap in their typical characteristics (i.e. shared knowledge and authority, socially co-constructed knowledge through peer interactions) and long-term goals which help students learn by working together on substantive issues”.

When specified, the major differences between cooperation and collaboration are with the role of the instructor in the process and the degree to which the community develops valued and shared vision. Cooperative activities are “typical” classroom activities, such as jigsaw, think-pair-share, peer-review, lab groups, or projects where students create a single, unique product that is shared with the class. Students work individually and together and are accountable to the group for the overall success of the activity. Work is structured, with clear expectations and tasks for students. A truly collaborative activity involves more open-ended assignments where students work together to solve a problem or make meaning together. There isn’t as much structure presented to the students during the beginning of the activity, leaving the students to work out the “how” of their project along with the “what.”

Cooperative activities are more often utilized in the secondary classroom because the teacher assists in organizing and supervising work, whereas truly collaborative activities require students own the process of learning more independently. It is a nuanced difference, which is why many use the term collaboration to describe both types of activities.

Regardless of terminology, we should all agree that as students progress through education they should be presented with frequent and meaningful opportunities to work with and learn from each other. There are many benefits to learning in groups - the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University outlines many benefits of group exercises on their website. The list includes development and reinforcement of skills that transcend individual and group exercises, such as: time management, project planning and task management, effective communication, and sharing or receiving feedback on performance. In addition, there are a variety of skills that are specific to collaboration, including: delegation of responsibilities, sharing and respecting diverse perspectives, leveraging knowledge and skills of others, risk-taking, establishing group identity, and developing a personal voice and perspective (“What are benefits of group work?”).

Let’s face it: working in groups can be hard. Group activities can be especially challenging in an online classroom where students may live in different states or countries. Thanks to the work of education leaders and groups like Education Superhighway, improvements in access to infrastructure, devices, and software have made it easier for students to connect with peers around the world. Challenges to group efforts do still exist, however, including many “typical” issues such as absence, inequity of effort, or poor product.

When these roadblocks present themselves, teachers may be tempted to switch to an individualized version of an activity or move away from group activities in the future. When I was teaching in my online classroom in the early 2000s there were times I was tempted to do so myself. Abandoning collaboration because it isn’t easy sends our students the wrong message. They learn that it might be better to go it alone rather than work together, and the opportunity to build those crucial life-skills might be lost. Partnership for 21st Century Learning published a research brief entitled “What We Know about Collaboration” that contains valuable information and highlights examples of success. This report affirms the value of collaboration as a critical skill to develop in our students.

Instead of tossing in the towel, here are some ideas to reflect upon, regardless of whether you are a teacher in an online or face-to-face classroom. This list is not exhaustive and certainly doesn’t guarantee a successful group exercise, but the items highlighted below are the result of feedback from our students, teachers, and curriculum staff that have worked in cohort-based online classrooms for the past 20 years. They are the benchmarks used by our curriculum team as we discuss online group experiences and are an excellent starting point for any educator interested in enhancing the quality of cooperative or collaborative activities in their classroom.

  • How important have I made community in my classroom?

    • Have we gotten to know each other?
    • Have we established classroom norms and/or a social contract?
    • Are meaningful, content-rich discussions regular occurrences?
    • Do students work with each other frequently, or is “group work” saved for rare occasions/big projects only?
  • Is the activity created in a manner that will lead to success?

    • Do students understand what needs to be accomplished?
    • Are directions and outcomes accessible to all students?
    • Are roles and expectations outlined and/or assigned?
    • Do students have adequate time to get to establish closer working relationships and achieve the goals of the activities?
    • How am I available to support individuals and groups?
  • Are students incentivized to fully participate in the group?

    • How is group activity assessed? Do students earn credit for quality participation?
    • Are elements of the project interdependent enough that a single group grade should be applied?
    • Is the work contextualized so that students understand the value of the learning?

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.