Learning is a social process and the ability to collaborate, whether online or face-to-face, is a key skill for schools and colleges to foster. The advantages of collaborative learning are clear and have been discussed on this blog many times. However there is always a darker side to everything and a new report has caught my attention. It's called Are Online Learners Frustrated with CollaborativeLearning Experiences? (IRRODL, Vol 13, no 2, 2012) and has been written by Neus Capdeferro and Margarida Romero of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Spain. They have investigated students' frustration with online collaboration and outlined some of the problem areas.
Traditional e-learning was largely an online correspondence course where students worked their way through the material and tests largely on their own with little or no demands for collaboration. This method is still very common and suits many learners. Since online learners generally have full-time employment, families and other commitments synchronous meetings are extremely hard to organize even for small study groups. Students have different preferences for when they study and how intensively they study. Increasingly collaborative online courses demand that students with highly diverse study methods, schedules and attitudes work together in often randomly selected groups. Many thrive on this type of collaboration but others find it extremely frustrating and can even be counter productive to learning.
The study identified a number of sources for frustration in collaborative online learning, amongst which are the following:
- Imbalance of commitment between group members
- Lack of shared goals
- Communication difficulties
- Imbalance of individual contributions
- Negotiation problems
- Workload sharing and time spent on tasks
- Conflict in reaching consensus
Some students coming to online collaborative learning for the first time do not care for the idea of group work and can be apathetic or even on occasion actively hostile to the whole idea (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007).
Getting everyone in the group to agree on commitment levels and ensuring that all make equal contributions can involve lengthy discussions, reminders and irritation. Often the lion's share of the burden is taken by one or two group members and others make only marginal contributions. This is especially unfair when the assessment is at group level since the teacher cannot see who contributed what."In our study, we observed that the students’ main source of self-declared frustration is the teammates’ commitment imbalance. Preparing the learner for collaboration through instruction and development of the social and group skills necessary to work effectively in a group will have a positive effect upon the collaborative experience (Chapman & van Auken, 2001; Tideswell, 2004)."
The report advises a greater level of teacher involvement, both in first introducing and establishing guidelines for collaboration and then being able to help groups where collaboration is not working.
"The analysis of student frustration in our study also shows that assessment inequities are important sources of frustration; the implication for institutions is that they must conduct a coherent assessment. The use of individual, self, peer, and group assessment techniques can be extremely beneficial for both students and instructors in all forms of online collaborative learning (Roberts, 2005)."
Collaboration is never easy even in face-to-face situations and many of the frustrations voiced in this study remind me of experience from projects and classroom projects I have been part of. The main problem this study lifts is that many students are unprepared for collaborative learning in whatever form it may take and that guidance and coaching is required before the course starts. One of the main lessons learnt from taking part in any type of training is the ability to work in teams and all the negotiation skills that entails.