Key Themes from the Literature …

Following a review of the literature around the topic of collaborative learning, we have been able to highlight a number of important questions that have been raised about contributing factors to the success of particular web 2.0 technologies as they have been adopted for use in HE.  These considerations will help to inform the evaluation that is being conducted of existing JISC and University of Leicester (UoL) collaborative learning resources, and the creation of any additional materials:

1. Scaffolding vs. Autonomy

“While some studies support the claim that an excess of freedom in the way collaborative tasks are proposed may fail to engage all team members in productive interactions (Hewitt, 2005; Bell, 2004, Lui & Tsai. 2008; all cited in Demetiadis et al., 2009), others maintain that there is a danger also in exceeding in scaffolding students, that is “over-scripting” collaborative learning activities (Dillenbourg, 2002; Dillenbourg, 2004).  According to these authors, too much guidance may hinder learners’ creativity, flexibility and ability to self-regulate, therefore jeopardizing the co-construction of knowledge and ultimately causing a loss of effectiveness of the learning process (Dillenbourg & Jermann, 2007)” (Pozzi & Persico, 2011: 2).

Designers of student-centred constructivist learning environments – as blogs, wikis, and discussion boards have the potential to become – are expected to “[e]ncourage ownership and voice in the learning process” (Honebein, 1996: 12) by allowing the students to construct their own learning path and identify their own goals.  This is where the benefit of using such tools is deemed to lie; in their ability to engage learners in aspects of a topic that they are more interested in by offering them a greater level of control over the direction of their learning, and the shape of its outcome(s).  As Fountain, (2005) reports: “wikis work most effectively when students can assert meaningful autonomy over the process” .  Pozzi & Persico (2011) have concluded, however, that online activities require a “careful tuning of Task, Teams and Time” in order to most successfully encourage participation and steer students towards a shared goal.  When given complete freedom, students reportedly struggled to maintain a focus on deadlines or individual responsibilities within the group, leading to varying degrees of contribution and a lack of coordination.

2. Ownership vs. Anonymity

Within an educational context, “rewards (grades, bursaries, grants, publications and hirings) are still typically based on individual contributions and efforts” (Fountain, 2005), and so collaborative learning tasks conducted in an online environment may cause issues in grading and moderation when individual contributors are not so easily identifiable – in a wiki, for example.  While it is possible to set-up a wiki so that contributing authors can be made visible, and blog and discussion posts are clearly identifiable, there are advantages to anonymity that should be considered.  “Garcia & Steinmueller (2003) outline three potential advantages: 1) an intensification and diversification of non-ownership/non-proprietary models; 2) an emergence of self/other identification hybrids; and 3) the proliferation of consumer/producer horizontal assemblages, reflecting the multi-authored character or information goods produced through collaborations” (cf. Fountain, 2005).  It is also possible that by allowing contributors to remain anonymous – or to use a pseudonym – a greater level of confidence could be instilled  since it is thought that a “fear of how the message will be received inhibits critical expression” (Fountain, 2005; Richardson, 2006).

On the other side of that coin, however, anonymity reduces the level of ownership and responsibility that individuals can take over their own contributions.  Also, in knowing their contributions will be identifiable, students may be more likely to maintain a professional and respectful level of netiquette (Grohol, 2006: cf. James, 2009).  Richardson (2006) also goes so far as to suggest that publishing students’ work in an openly accessible wiki/blog/forum “can not only be a powerful motivator but can also create a significant shift in the way we think about the assignments and work we ask of our students in the first place” (28).

3. Individual vs. Group Accountability

Following on from this question of identification, is one regarding the rewards that are given for contribution – if in fact a reward is given at all.  Johnson and Johnson’s model of cooperative learning environments suggests that ‘individual accountability’ is an important factor for making sure that each member in the group learns all of the content.  In this sense then, by offering grades based on individual performance in a group task we can assess how well each student has performed/to what extent they have contributed.  It is possible, however, that by separating individual marks the group mentality is lost in favour of an ‘every man for himself’ style of contribution – “where learners and peers are committed to achieving the same goals, they tend to regulate each other’s performances [55]” (Boulos, Maramba, & Wheeler, 2006: 4).  In order to reap the benefits of group working, while maintaining and encouraging individual ownership, then, “Hertz-Lazarowitz, Kirkus and Miller (1992) suggest that the product of the collaboration process, e.g. a final collaborative problem solution, should be considered “group knowledge” to evaluate the quality of the collaborative knowledge construction.  According to Salomon and Perkins (1998), it is important to analyze both individual and collaborative learning outcomes when investigating collaborative learning” (Kopp & Mandl, 2011: 17).

We will be interested to observe the ways in which the projects/resources we review have been designed, with regards to the considerations outlined above, and how such factors may have impacted on their success/failure in terms of: participation, engagement and student/tutor feedback, etc.


Boulos, M.N.K., Maramba, I. and Wheeler, S. (2006). Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education. 6 (41) pp.

Fountain, R. (2005). Wiki Pedagogy. Available: Last accessed 25 Jun 2012.

Honebein, P.C. (1996). Seven goals for the design of constructivist learning environments. In: Wilson, B. Constructivist Learning Environments: Case Studies in Instructional Design. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications, Inc. 11-24.

James, L. (2009). Creating an online, course-integrated generational learning community. In: S. Wheeler. Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures: Cybercultures in online learning. North Carolina: Information Age Publishing Inc. 91-117.

Johnson, D. and Johnson, R. (2002). Cooperative Learning. Available: Last accessed 25 Jun 2012.

Kopp, B. and Mandl, H. (2011). Supporting Virtual Collaborative Learning Using Collaboration Scripts and Content Schemes. In: Pozzi, F. & Persico, D Techniques for Fostering Collaboration in Online Learning Communities: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. Hershey: IGI Golbal. 15-32.

Pozzi, F. & Persico, D. (2011). Task, Teams and Time: Three Ts to Structure CSCL Processes. In: Pozzi, F. & Persico, D Techniques for Fostering Collaboration in Online Learning Communities: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. Hershey: IGI Golbal. 1-14.

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. London: Corwin Press.

Introduction to P2.0PLE

Upgrading your institution’s VLE is an almighty undertaking for all those involved, and one that is often met with apprehension and negativity by academics, support staff and students alike.  But even such a challenging situation presents us with a wonderful opportunity; it gives us the chance to review our current practices and improve them by taking advantage of the shiny new tools the updated VLE has to offer.  In preparation for our upgrade, therefore, we took the opportunity to conduct an institution-wide review of current uses and experiences of the VLE, which has highlighted a distinct lack of interactivity in favour of a ‘content-repository’ approach to online course design and delivery.  This project was formed in response to this discovery as a way for us to make the most of the position we are in; to establish and encourage the understanding that our VLE is a supplementary tool, designed to enhance our course delivery and not just a way for us to provide 24/7 access to the same content.  Specifically, we aim to provide the resources (both new and existing) and support needed to effectively design for online collaboration and collaborative learning.

“From a variety of theoretical perspectives it is claimed that learning improves when it is carried out as a constructivist and social activity” (Baros and Ferdejo, 1998: 668); i.e. when carried out in collaboration with others towards a shared goal.  Under the Social Constructivist theory of learning, knowledge is considered to be constructed through participation in activities that are “discursive, relational and conversational in nature” (Ferdig & Trammell, 2004, Vygotsky, 1978).  In order to enhance online-learning experiences for our students, then, we aim to use the outcomes of this project as a way to encourage and facilitate collaborative activities and discussion.   But, why do we suggest that this be done through the VLE rather than through face-to-face group work?  Obviously, in a distance learning context, the only way to inject a little interaction into the curriculum is to do so through your VLE, but, in a more traditional face-to-face setting, computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) can also be beneficial.  Not only does “making available a wide arrange of tools, proposing different tasks and activities, and presenting the information in various formats mean[…] fostering a complex and rich learning process (Human-Vogel & Bouwer, 2005).” (cf. Ligorio, Loperfido, Sansone, & Spadaro, 2011: 65), but by taking part in online collaboration students can: contribute at any time of day, from any location and at their own pace (Barros, & Verdejo, 1998: 670); be more reflective in their contributions, which often encourages those that feel unable to contribute in class to take part (Beetham & Sharpe, 2007: 227); be actively involved in the construction of their own learning (Boulos, Maramba, & Wheeler, 2006); and “engage in higher-order, critical thinking and literacy” (Jonassen, Myser, & McKillop, 1996) going against the tradition where “teams simply divide up the work, work independently on their part, and then come together at the end and staple their independently completed work together, often with minimal editing to make it a cohesive paper” (Clinebell, Clinebell, & Stecher, 2010: 1).  “Publication also offers the opportunity for feedback, which, in turn, scaffolds a learner in his or her quest for knowledge construction” (Ferdig & Trammell, 2004: 1).

In approaching this task, then, we set out to conduct a review of currently available JISC resources in the field of online collaborative learning.  During the migration process from Blackboard 9.0 to Blackboard 9.1, we shall make use of appropriate JISC and University of Leicester resources, as well as additional materials created as part of this project, to provide the support our academics need in order to design effectively for collaborative learning in our new VLE.  As a starting point, we shall be evaluating the following project resources along a set of criteria to determine their successes/failures/areas for improvement so as to be able to offer appropriate and openly available resources for our own staff as well as the wider JISC community: