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.

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