“Collaboration in Online Learning: How Do We Reach Common Goals?”

“Collaboration in Online Learning: How Do We Reach Common Goals?”


Authors:         Javaré Phillips, Ed.D.  Donna Smith, Ph.D.


Collaboration is a well-known strategy used in online education because of the learner’s physical disconnectedness to the institution. Instructors use collaboration to actively engage students in the learning process in efforts to encourage students to make meaningful connections with one another. However, some students have a difference in preference for learning in online settings. Informal conversations with online learners point to other avenues for exploration in relation to autonomy, responsibility, and mutual trust.

 Collaboration in Online Learning

Academic achievement is fostered by collaborative work (Lee, et al., 2016) and involves individuals working collectively and engaging in diverse thinking to explore problems and find solutions (Leeder & Shah, 2016). According to Pürcher et al. (2016), collaborative learning is effective in a virtual setting when group members equally share their experiences to enhance one another’s learning. Students engage in an asynchronous or synchronous learning environment where they co-construct knowledge, insight, and experience with others. Collaborative learning is beneficial to group members when they share and exchange knowledge and experience. However, this is not always the case, as some students prefer to work independently.

Some of the most common components of collaboration in online learning are building mutual trust and respect, diversity in groups, effective communication, positive dynamics, and social presence.  Most important, collaboration is effective when students cooperate. As the term collaborate and cooperate are used interchangeably, it would be important to understand the slight difference between the two. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines collaborate to work together with someone in order to achieve a single shared goal and cooperate is to work with other people to achieve one’s own goals as part of a common goal (Merriam Webster, n.d). 

In collaborative learning, group dynamic is affected by several common factors: student work ethic, personality, and experience. Therefore, an instructor’s effort to foster a sense of community through genuine student interactions is challenged. Students expressed a reluctance to fully commit to a group because they are unsure of each member’s work ethic and commitment. Some have shared working collaboratively to achieve a goal is rewarding and fulfilling. However, others have indicated that collaboration takes more time and effort in an online setting.

Why is Collaboration Difficult for Online Learning?

Collaborative learning requires more than just grouping people to complete a task; there is the need to make a conscious effort to build trust and comfort amongst peers to successfully work in a group. Research has shown that some collaborative online learning environments may cause students’ opposition to actively participate in projects (Capdèferro & Romero, 2012).  Student perceptions of the online learning environment can influence their performances, efforts, and motivation to learn (Place, 2017). Students who prefer working in groups are most likely to fully engage in the process and others will struggle, as a result of the desire for autonomy, mutual trust, and shared responsibility.

Autonomy. Informal conversations with students indicate that the expectation of discussing who needs to do what and how that will be accomplished is often fraught with dissention and over-thinking. They prefer having time to focus on completing an assignment rather than using their limited free time to debate what the assignment means and figuring out what the instructor wants.  In other words, they want to get their part done and collaborate on presenting the final product, even if it is not perfect. From their perspectives, it is important to delegate and prioritize so that they have time to manage the rest of the demands in their lives. Some individuals have had negative experiences working in groups and prefer to work alone to avoid challenges they faced in the past. However, others enjoy the experience and are willing to help those who are new to collaboration.

Mutual trust. Mutual trust is important if there is any intention to work successfully in a group. Student outcomes are dependent on how they work within a group and how students establish a rapport.  However, some students do not trust others to deliver the same quality that they expect of themselves. Most online learners are adult students (Markle, 2015) who have experience taking on diverse roles (Phillips, 2018). Therefore, they trust and depend on their own effort and work ethic in order to complete a task.  

Furthermore, others say they do not want to worry about what others are doing and prefer their teammates would just get the job done. Students are also reluctant to building trust as they find there is diversity in experience, knowledge, and work commitment in the group.  Furthermore, a struggle for trust arises for those new to collaborative learning.

Responsibility. In collaborative learning, establishing and defining responsibility is essential to accomplishing the team’s goal. This task is even more difficult for online learners as physical absence is a residing factor of online learning. According to Jones and Issroff (2005) students who are more able in the group tend to dominate the collaboration, while others who are less able will contribute less to the group. Students shared that when in groups they would end up pulling the weight of the group because not all team members were equally committed to their assigned task or role. They would essentially take on the role of leader (Phillips, 2018) to prevent poor group dynamics. As a result, inequity in work distribution, and participation is evident in group output. According to Ingram and Hathorn (2004) students who take on the bulk of the work while others contribute minimally is not true collaboration. Some students also expressed their willingness to come out of their comfort zone to take on new roles while others shared they did not mind taking on group lead as they enjoyed the experience of collaborating. 

For some students, the idea of responsibility with others to achieve a common goal can be frightening, but for others, it is an opportunity to learn from their peers. Students expressed they have become better problem-solvers and decision-makers as they observe how their peers think through and handle difficult tasks. In addition, others feel the sharing of responsibility contributes to the success of the project, helps all members feel important, and keeps members focused on the big picture.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Unsolicited student feedback has shown that online student perceptions of collaboration are directly related to preference. Student preferences may impact students’ willingness to participate in collaborative learning. As some online students’ perceptions towards online group collaboration have been unfavorable, there is a need to more completely understand the online learner and to more completely explore collaborative work in online settings. Most important, student perceptions of the online learning environment can influence their performances, efforts, and motivation to learn.

Online learners are self-motivated and display a single mind set for accomplishing their goals (Kenner & Wienermen, 2011). Collaborative work is a necessary component for some as it provides an active learning approach in an online setting. These students are most successful when they are active participants in the learning environment (Järvelä, Järvenoja, Malmberg, Isohätälä, & Sobocinski, 2016).

However, for others, the need to work and exchange ideas is not always an appropriate component for learning.  Therefore, the relationship between curriculum course design, student background, and abilities requires consideration, as it relates to student motivation, student satisfaction, and student performance.  Perhaps considering alternatives to the dynamics of collaborative learning in online settings would help online instructors better understand the online student’s preference, ability, and background for planning and instruction. Despite information gained from earlier research on academic proficiency, institutional support, and external circumstances in predicting student outcomes, more knowledge, and understanding of how to improve student progress is required (Jobe, 2016).


The research on collaboration in online learning is challenged by unsolicited feedback from students. While student feedback overwhelmingly supports that best practices include collaboration, there are indications that there is more that needs to be discovered. Collaborative learning in an online setting is perceived differently among online students. Some students have a single-minded purpose and goal for their experience and participation in an online setting.

As the gap in research about online learners in online settings continues to widen, the need for understanding how to best serve this student population is imperative. If leaders in institutions of higher education continue to concentrate on students in traditional settings, the gap in support for online students will continue to widen. In any effort to reach common goals among online learners about collaborative learning, there is a need to explore possibilities to improve the online experience, especially as student demographics continue to change.


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Javare Phillips
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