Distributed Collaborative Learning in Online Education


Published: December 3, 2012 by Dr. Geoffrey Z. Liu

Collaborative learning is an instructional approach heavily promoted and widely practiced in online teaching. While the effectiveness of collaborative learning in face-to-face settings is well established and its benefits well documented (Johnson, Suriya, Yoon, Berrett, & La Fleur, 2002), collaborative learning in online environments is different. Instead of working face-to-face in groups, online collaboration takes a distributed form. Students from diverse geographical locations form virtual groups and rely on Internet communication technologies to coordinate group processes and carry out group activities. Group interactions are mediated by computer networks. This mediated and distributed nature of online collaborative learning spurs abundant interests of inquiry and has become a major focus of recent research.

The group tasks of collaborative learning may be as simple as learning about a topical subject through collaborative literature research and shared discussion, or as sophisticated as developing solutions to an ill-defined problem. In the case of content-centered collaborative learning, students are divided into groups to learn the content on a specific subject by participating in online interaction. As noted in Han & Hill (2007), asynchronous discussion may be more effective for content-centered collaborative learning, and indeed it has been more preferable to both instructors and students alike. In contrast, problem-centered collaborative learning necessitates frequent and much more intensive group interactions in real time, especially if the problem is ill defined. Students working in collaborative groups often need to make decisions both individually and as a group. Just like in onsite face-to-face settings, distributed collaborative learning requires students to make group decisions in order to achieve the common goal of completing the learning tasks. Such activities of group decision making may occur anywhere and anytime as necessitated by the group process, and may be characterized as “spontaneous group decision making”, to differentiate from traditional research.

However, in spite a large body of literature on collaborative learning and online group dynamics, there has been little understanding of how students make spontaneous group decisions in the process of conducting project-centered collaborative learning online. Identification of this gap prompted me to propose this area as a new research direction and to initiate a series of studies to systematically investigate student behaviors of spontaneous group decision making. Findings of a preliminary survey are reported in the initial article published in MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, and another article reporting findings of an exploratory quantitative analysis will appear in the International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design soon. A curricular analysis of instructional implementation of collaborative learning in online LIS education is reported in another article published in the online journal Issues in Information Science and Information Technology.

Future work will attempt to develop intervention measures for increasing effectiveness of student group decision making. Further, asynchronous group interaction for collaborative learning (typically implemented as online forum discussion) hinges critically on content interactivity – another issue that has not been adequately studied, and thus added to my research agenda as well.


Johnson, S. D., Suriya, C., Yoon, S.W., Berrett, J.V., & La Fleur, J. (2002). Team development and group processes of virtual learning teams. Computers & Education, 39(4), 379-393.

Han, S., & Hill, J. (2007). Collaborate to learn, learn to collaborate: Examining the roles of context, community, and cognition in asynchronous discussion. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 36(1), 89-123.