First Experiences in Collaborative Online Learning: A Case Study

Shironica Karunanayaka, The Open University of Sri Lanka.

Using online methods for learning is rapidly growing among higher education institutions all over the world, especially in Open and Distance Learning contexts. The Master of Arts in Teacher Education (International) Program of the Open University of Sri Lanka integrated collaborative online learning in the course, “The Teacher Educator as an Educational Technologist”. Using a web-based Learner Management System, an interactive learning environment was created, to enhance collaborative learning among students. This study investigated the successes and impacts of the initiative, and challenges faced by students who were novices to online learning. The online learning environment supported students to interact with the subject matter content, with each other and with the teacher. As a result of this experience, students were gaining confidence in self-regulated and reflective learning, while developing a social bonding among them. Although they faced certain challenges such as coping with the technology and changing from conventional approaches, a sense of achievement was claimed once the activities are completed. This paper elaborates on the roles of teachers and learners in a collaborative online learning environment, and also stresses the necessity for design of interactive learning grounded in pedagogy, in order to ensure a successful learning experience for learners.

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Using online methods for learning is rapidly growing among higher education institutions, especially in Open and Distance Learning contexts. Online learning provides opportunities for students learning at a distance, to share experiences and work collaboratively (Bates & Pool, 2003). Online learning environments also enable access to a range of resources, learning tools and communication facilities, and thus can function as ideal constructivist learning environments that allow learners to construct their own knowledge (Khan, 1997).

The Faculty of Education at the Open University of Sri Lanka, developed an innovative practitioner-oriented professional development program for teacher educators, namely, the Master of Arts in Teacher Education-International (MATE-I) Program, in partnership with the Commonwealth of Learning, Canada. This program was inaugurated in 2005, and initially offered to a pilot group of Sri Lankan teacher educators, studying in the distance mode. A unique feature of the MATE-I Program is its pedagogical design - Scenario-Based Learning, which is based on the principles of constructivism. This design promotes a more learner-centred focus shifting away from the traditional content-driven approach, also offering opportunities for collaborative learning. (see MATE-I Program Handbook, 2004; Karunanayaka, Lekamge, Gunawardena, Naidu, & Menon, 2005a; Karunanayaka, Lekamge, Gunawardena, Naidu, & Menon, 2005b; Naidu, Menon, Gunawardena, Lekamge & Karunanayaka, 2005; Naidu, Menon, Gunawardena, Lekamge & Karunanayaka, In press ).

The MATE-I programme comprises six compulsory courses and a portfolio project. The learning environment consists of self-study materials including print, multimedia and online resources, supplemented with face-to-face contact sessions and electronic communication with tutors. ESP 2242 - The Teacher Educator as an Educational Technologist, is one of the courses in the MATE-I program, which aims at developing competencies of teacher educators to design, develop, implement and evaluate appropriate educational technologies. A series of learning activities that lead to completion of four major assignments enable students to achieve the desired learning outcomes (see MATE-I Study Guide - ESP 2242, 2004). In addition to the resources mentioned before, an interactive online learning environment (OLE) was created, using a web-based Learner Management System (LMS), to enhance collaborative learning among students.
This paper describes an investigation on the impacts of the OLE integrated in the course ESP 2242 of MATE-I Program. It further discusses the challenges faced by students who were novices to online learning, with a focus to identify the roles of teachers and learners in such a learning environment in order to ensure a successful learning experience.

A constructivist view to learning emphasizes learners constructing their own knowledge through engagement in challenging activities, resulting in a meaningful learning (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999). Constructivism also emphasizes a social negotiation of meaning among individuals who construct their own understandings (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). Group learning processes such as cooperative learning and collaborative learning, where learners interact with each other through dialogs or discussions, will support a constructivist approach to learning. Cooperative learning proceeds through empathetic sharing of old knowledge, whereas collaborative learning proceeds through empathetic discovery of new knowledge co-constructed by the participants, resulting in all participants becoming ‘owners’ and ‘knowers’ of the new knowledge (Kawachi, 2003).

By having learners research and share information in the pursuit of a meaningful, consequential task, learning communities can be fostered. In such situations, emphasis should be placed on the social and cognitive contribution of a group of learners, with students collaborating and supporting each other towards commonly accepted learning goals, rather than forcing students to conform to pre-packaged instructional requirements (Jonnassen et al., 1999). Hence, while all learners become owners of the new knowledge in a learning community, it also supports reflection on the knowledge constructed and the processes used to construct it by the learners.

Encouraging learner collaboration is an important component in any professional development program, as it will broaden the knowledge and expertise of educators. Collaboration among learners is especially needed in distance education systems where opportunities for students to meet frequently are limited by time, distance or resources. (Robertshaw, 2000). ICT can play a major role to enhance this through effectively using facilities such as e-mail, chat and computer conferencing to support interaction and socialization among individuals. (Sharma & Chaudry, 2003). However, although introducing ICT to facilitate collaborative learning is a significant fact, it is essential that the courses are well designed, and that the use of networked technologies adds value and is integral to learning (Haughey, 2000).

Features associated with the web such as high interactivity permitted by hyperlinks and communication tools such as e-mail, discussion boards and chat spaces, access to vast range of online resources, openness, flexibility, and authenticity, makes it a unique medium that facilitate meaningful learning (Khan, 1997). Whereas traditional instruction tends to discourage social interaction, Web-based instruction creates a medium of collaboration and instruction (Relan & Gillani, 1997; Sherry & Wilson, 1997). Computer-based conferencing, both synchronous and asynchronous, can support collaborative efforts among groups of people who are at a distance.
Online learning is considered better achieved through interactivity among learners, rather than learning alone (Kawachi, 2003). Hence, collaborative learning designs will be more effective for online learning than pedagogical approaches that emphasize individuals working alone with just materials posted online. Interactions in online environments primarily consist of student and instructor comments made in the asynchronous and synchronous communications forums. Stimulating and moderating activities in these areas can be the key to success in an OLE.

Successful collaborations are always the outcome of a successful negotiation, and the success of collaboration depends on the commitment, effort and conviction of the implementing partners (Sharma & Chaudry, 2003). To be effective, all partners in a collaborative learning environment should be concerned of their roles. The nature of online learning requires learners and instructors to be self-motivated as well as be aware of their responsibilities.

Questions have been raised as to whether the accepted belief that interactions among students make positive contributions to students' learning is justified in an online learning environment, because the interactions among students are mediated, there is an absence of non-verbal cues, and text-on-screen is a very limited mode for what should be semantically rich exchanges (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). The lack of face-to-face interaction and the feeling of social isolation in an online context can possibly lead to a negative learning experience. Social presence is identified as an important element in student satisfaction with online courses (Gunawardena, 2004). To establish a collaborative OLE, the sense of social presence must be created, as it is a most important factor that helps people actively collaborate, thus increasing a sense of belonging to the community.

The current study investigated the impacts of an collaborative OLE in student learning, the challenges faced by the students who were novices to online learning, and the vital roles of instructors and learners in such a learning environment in order to ensure a successful learning experience for learners.

The participants of the study were eight students enrolled in ESP 2242, in the first cohort of MATE-I, who were mature teacher educators, working in different parts of the country. Case Study method was used to investigate and descriptive data was collected during the period February, 2005 to February, 2006, using multiple methods such as, studying log of interactions recorded in the LMS, implementing a questionnaire, conducting interviews, and studying student reflections.
Initially, the LMS was introduced to the students at a face-to-face workshop, and a training session was conducted on how to use this facility, as this was a novel experience for all. During Semester 1, February, 2005 to July, 2005, students were encouraged to use the ‘Virtual Class’ – MATE (I) Program, to become familiar with the OLE. During this period the LMS was mainly used by the students to receive notices, and to communicate with staff and peers.
In Semester 2, the OLE was introduced to ESP 2242, and students were encouraged to engage in more structured interactions. Five threaded discussions, one to familiarize the students, and four in relation to the four assignments, were conducted, initiated and moderated by the instructor. Each discussion started with a question posed, with supportive web links provided as resources and students were given clear guidelines on their task. They were required to engage in each discussion by posting at least two meaningful contributions, and finally, considering everybody’s views, agree upon a suitable answer for each question. Each discussion continued for about two weeks. By mutual agreement, 5% of assessment marks were allocated for engaging in the discussions. Collaborative online learning activities continued from August, 2005 – February, 2006, and data were collected at different times during the process.


First impressions on online learning

Initial student feedback received at the end of the first Semester, after engaging in the OLE activities for three months, revealed that it was an interesting and exciting novel experience that enabled them to have quick interactions with each other and the instructor, while learning at a distance.

“I find this quite interesting and very useful as well... It is like chatting but this is sort of a academic chat we can have.”
“We will never be alone and we will not have to struggle a lot in doing our assignment all by ourselves.”

The above views clearly indicate that the students had immediately recognized and appreciated the opportunities posed by this novel facility in their learning process. This also shows their desire not to be alone and the need for support during their learning process.

Collaborative Learning
Analysis of the textual interactions in the OLE provided evidences of collaborative learning that had occurred. The instructor initiated each discussion, and mediated whenever necessary. Excerpts from student postings indicated various mechanisms of collaborative learning.

Self explanation:

“Friends, As one website given for our reference mentions educational technology 'may be defined as...However, as I feel this view is inaccurate. To support my view I can refer to... “

Requesting help:

“...But I feel there is some confusion about these two in the given readings. Please follow me...Then, is it not similar to instructional technology? Please help...”

Replying / Questioning:

“..According to many educationists both Educational and Instructional technologies are interchangeable. But concept wise...”
“Thanks M, but can you support your view with the literature given to us? Isn't that confusing?”

Suggestion/ Qualify:

“...I think through Education Technology we can change the way of teaching and learning. It also facilitates communication and provides assessment and feedback immediately... “
“...Better to say 'change positively'...”


“Friends, As I went through your answers to the question … I agree with you all…”

Social Grounding:

“Hello friends, …it is making use of technology to provide a better learning experience for the students … isn’t it the case dears…”

These postings clearly indicated mechanisms of collaborative learning such as agreement, alternative proposal, self-explanation, internalization, appropriation, shared cognitive load, mutual regulation and social grounding (Dillenbourg & Schneider, 1995). However, the final mutual agreement was not clearly arrived at, although some students tried to resolve it as evident from the postings below.

Hello friends, Why not write about the given topics soon, then we can finalize a final answer isn't it. Lets get together and finish it soon…
Dear friends, Suddenly I realized that I do not have enough time to wait for others replies so I thought of laying down how I felt about concept mapping after going through all the materials related to it…

This feature was visible in all the discussions, and it may be due to several reasons. Some students may not have realized the requirement for a mutual agreement in the discussion, or might not have considered it important. Especially as this is their first experience in such learning, the challenges faced such as access, use of technology, cost and time constraint could also have affected.

Student reflections on their experience in online learning, given at the end of the process, revealed various impacts it had had upon them, mainly in supporting their learning.

“The discussions made me think deeply…”
“I was highly taken up by the peer/tutor comments which motivated me towards learning.”
“We didn’t have much time to go through all books. Through the discussions you get the cream of it…”

Most students said that they engaged in the collaborative online learning activities, not just to obtain the allocated mark, but mainly because they saw the benefit of it in their learning, especially as these activities were leading them to complete their assignments. The ability to share ideas and resources, see from different viewpoints and making conclusions through a mutual discussion were found to be very supportive for students.
Further, this facility was appreciated by students as it also enabled building up a close relationship as a group, who were learning at a distance, coming from different parts of the country.

“It helped to build up a good relationship with the course participants and staff.”
“It changed our attitudes by sharing knowledge with others which lack among educators today.”

Another key outcome was students gaining confidence in handling the technology, and the self-satisfaction achieved through it.

“…I was a stranger to technology at the beginning of the course. But now I’ve gained confidence in using technology that gives me pride and self-motivation. No more ‘techno-fear’ for me…
“I have got a thrilling experience in using virtual class. I was very much surprised to understand that I could use such a technology without much effort…

Some students faced certain challenges such as coping with the technology and gaining access to the Internet facilities, as well as non-participation or delayed participation of some students.

“I had no Internet facilities in my home town. So I could use the LMS only during the weekends at the (OUSL) Regional Centre.”
“…The cost of Internet was high.”
“Due to certain interruptions of Internet connection, access was very time consuming and makes me tired.”
“I had to wait for a long time to get a reply from peers.”

In some instances they found strategies to solve those, such as obtaining help from family or friends and finding Internet access. Despite these challenges, all students continuously used the facility, indicating their motivation to engage in online learning.

Social Presence
The learners’ need for social presence of peers was evident from the postings made by them in areas such as Student Lounge and Anonymous discussions. Some examples are given below.

Topic: problems faced by students

“Shall we discuss the problems so then we can help each other, if possible?”
“One problem is that we have too much to do. With our professional work load and husband/wife demands don't we find it difficult to cope with the demands?”

Topic: Silence

“Is it because silence is golden everyone is silent?”
“I too was thinking about the silence.”
“Silence, but thinking seriously about the final assignment.”

Topic: Are you all alive

“I am not aware that I am breathing!”

The student reflections also revealed that the social presence of peers online enabled emotional support among them and feeling of a closer connection throughout this process, establishing social relationships.

“… some times I got very humorous and relaxing comments. Through that I felt I was really personally meeting them. I really liked that…”

“…I felt very much at ease…very light hearted … Mentally I was relaxed …”

“…When I read his problems, I felt as if it was mine. All were in the same boat…”

Thus, it was clear that social presence motivated student participation in the collaborative learning activities and inculcating a sense of belonging to the same learning community.

The OLE of ESP 2242 of MATE-I Program, which was designed to support students to interact with the subject matter content, with each other and with the instructor, had made a great impact on their learning. The requirement to engage in collaborative learning activities led to more interactions among students and enhanced knowledge construction through a process of negotiating meanings with others, supporting the social-constructivist view of learning.

As a result of this experience, students were gaining confidence in self-regulated and reflective learning. Although they faced certain challenges such as coping with the technology, time constraints and Internet access problems, a sense of achievement was claimed once the activities were completed.

The social presence of peers and instructor in the OLE was crucial in increasing students’ perceived feelings of connection with others. It promoted the development of a learning community where learners shared common interests and worked together towards a common goal.

To ensure a successful learning experience for learners through the OLE, the instructors need to facilitate learners throughout the collaborative online learning process by continuously encouraging, challenging and helping them to achieve the desired learning outcomes. The learners’ should also be able and willing to participate regularly in the interactions, changing from conventional approaches to learning and moving towards a more self-regulated learning.

An online learning environment can be effectively used to enhance student learning, by designing interactive learning grounded in pedagogy. By adapting a structure of interaction that is collaborative in nature, and placing a greater emphasis on the quality of the interactions that occur, a successful learning experience for learners could be ensured. A sense of learning community can be instilled and promoted, especially in a distance learning situation, through encouraging collaborative online learning.


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