Facilitating collaborative learning in online education

Twee studentes werken samen achter een laptop

Teachers are increasingly using online teaching in their courses, and it is expected that they will continue to do so. But online contact by no means always leads to productive collaboration and to authentic and meaningful learning. How can you best facilitate this as an instructor? And what role does teaching presence play in this? Hanne ten Berge and Esther Slot (Educational Development & Training) together with Liesbeth Bijlsma and Ferdi Engels (Pharmacy) examined what the literature says about this. 

Teaching presence plays a central role

Online collaborative learning can be difficult because of the distance people can perceive, both during asynchronous and synchronous contact. For instance, students are less likely to experience a sense of community. As a teacher you occupy a pivotal role in this, and this goes further than assigning students to groups.

The teacher is a guide who guides students in collaborative learning. This can be challenging online.

In their community of inquiry model Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000; 2001) describe how you can build a learning community in which students collectively construct knowledge. According to this model you can learn deeply and meaningfully in online education by developing three forms of 'presence': social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. 

  • Social presence: the extent to which learners perceive themselves and others as 'real people' in online communication.
  • Cognitive presence: the extent to which learners experience that they are able to learn through online interaction.
  • Teaching presence: students' perception that social and cognitie presence are both facilitated by shaping and guiding the interaction between students with the aim of achieving valuable learning outcomes (this role can also be taken on by students; it does not say 'teacher' presence).

Strategies for developing or maintaining teaching presence

Teaching presence thus appears to play a central role in establishing the other presences and the perception of those (Garrison et al., 2010). You can increase teaching presence in five different ways (Garrison et al., 2000; Redmond & Lock, 2006):

  1. Design and organisation; 
  2. Creating and sustaining a learning community;  
  3. Facilitating discourse; 
  4. Direct instruction 
  5. Scaffolding learning; 

Some strategies relate to the design phase of education (1-2), others relate to facilitating the interaction process during education(2-5). These five elements correspond to the broader educational literature on what types of strategies teachers can use to fulfill their roles in the classroom. 

In the literature (17 artikelen) a total of forty strategies could be identified relating to developing and maintaining teaching presence. The majority of these strategies (70%) related to the strategies for design and organisation, so in the design phase of a course considering how you want to organise and structure the interaction between students. This finding may be a consequence of of the focus in the set in this review on asynchronous communication, for which it is required that you consider the structure and instructions beforehand. 

Instructional strategies

The studied literature provides two ‘instructional strategies’ you can use as a teacher: (1) role assignment and (2) digital tools. 

Strategies change during the process of collaborative learning

The literature review also showed that the strategies used by the teacher change during the process of collaborative learning: at the beginning of a course, he or she takes a prominent role in organising and directing interaction, focusing on community building (social presence), and later on the teacher is less active in the organisation and more focused on the students’ learning (cognitive presence). As a teacher, it is important to be aware of this and above all observe what the students need. 

What next?

In the research that was mainly based on asynchronous online learning activities (such as discussion forums on Blackboard), evidence was found for using strategies to develop a specific teaching presence (designing and organising education), and not so much for maintaining teaching presence (for instance, scaffolding learning). There is a need for more research into the role of the teacher during synchronous online collaborative learning, especially because this teaching format is becoming more prevalent at the university during the corona years. 

Further reading: whitepaper and infographic

Want to know more about the strategies found to facilitate online collaborative learning? Please see the infographic and the whitepaper in the links below.