Build Collaborative Learning into Your Learning Strategy

Shauna Carson

What's collaborative learning doing for your organization? With a thoughtful implementation, it offers the chance to improve teamwork skills, increase knowledge retention and even generate new knowledge. Make sure you're benefiting from these opportunities by building collaborative learning into your learning strategy.

What Is Collaborative Learning?

At its most basic, collaborative learning "involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product." Despite the simple definition, it requires a fundamental shift in thinking for most organizations. Collaborative learning means people learning from and with their peers and not merely receiving information from a leader or instructor. Instructors may still facilitate a discussion, assign roles in an activity, or conduct assessments, but they do not play an active role in dispensing information.

Collaborative learning can be implemented on a small scale, with collaborative tasks and activities included as part of a formal learning program, or on a larger scale, when an organization takes a collaborative approach to building knowledge and creating learning materials and opportunities.

Large-scale implementations require the development of an informal learning environment. Online discussion groups and learner-generated wikis often take the place of online modules and instructor-led classes as learners take responsibility for seeking knowledge in response to immediate needs. This change can include the adoption of the 70:20:10 model, which holds that most learning already happens informally and the most appropriate role for the organization is to support that informal learning.

Collaborative learning, whether formal or informal, has several advantages over instructor-led training. It:

To realize the full benefits of collaborative learning, it should be adopted as part of a planned and organized approach laid out in your learning strategy. In What Does a Winning eLearning Strategy Look Like?, I described six key elements of an eLearning strategy. Read on to see how to incorporate collaborative learning into each element.

A Collaborative Learning Strategy

1. Goals

A significant change in the role of the instructor and even the organization itself must be recognized as a top-level goal. Even a smaller-scale introduction of collaborative or other forms of social learning into a formal learning program should be acknowledged as a goal in the learning strategy. Such role changes require patronage, support and active change management for successful implementation throughout an organization.

To be meaningful, goals must be measurable. It's never enough to say your goal is to "increase the use of collaborative learning" in your organization. Measurable goals might be to:

  • Include collaborative activities in 50% of online modules
  • Have a certain number of new entries or hits on an employee-generated wiki
  • Have 75% of departments engage in a particular collaborative learning activity
  • Change attitudes toward collaborative learning endeavors, as shown by survey results

2. Audience Description

When introducing collaborative learning, it's necessary to define your audience from a change management perspective. Your audience isn't just learners, but also instructors, instructional designers, IT support personnel and everyone else who will be affected by the new approach.

With a wide and varied audience, it may be useful to borrow the concept of profiles or personas from design thinking. "Design thinking means focusing on the person and the experience, not the process", an approach consistent with both collaborative learning and change management.

Using profiles involves creating descriptions of typical audience members, describing their background, demographics, work environment and challenges. Effective change management and learning strategies are ones that are appropriate for the work environment and helpful in addressing challenges.

3. Technology

An effective collaborative learning strategy will include a list of carefully-selected collaboration tools. Many online tools are now available, but not everything is equal. There is considerable variation in cost and accessibility. Additionally, modern learners are often challenged by technological demands. They may know how to use Facebook, but that doesn't mean they're equally comfortable with the document management software you've chosen for collaborative projects. It's therefore important to consider both ease-of-use and consistency, so there are fewer programs that learners must learn.

Your collaboration tools may include programs for:

  • Instant Messaging (IM)
  • Group and Private Chats
  • Wiki Creation
  • Discussion Forums
  • Videoconferencing
  • File Transfers
  • Online Meetings
  • Document Management

4. Personnel List

Small-scale implementation of collaborative learning will require few changes to the personnel list, although instructors and learning developers must have the ability and knowledge necessary to develop collaborative activities.

Large-scale implementation will require more personnel, beginning with an interested and committed senior management sponsor who can expedite the organization changes needed to realign your approach to learning. Also, additional IT support is necessary to support new collaborative tools.

It's easy to underestimate the need for instructors or facilitators in collaborative learning. While instructors are no longer the source of information for learners, it can take just as much time and effort to oversee collaborative activities and ensure that:

  • Activities have value for learners
  • Learners participate in activities, if required
  • Communications remain respectful
  • Incorrect or inappropriate information is not disseminated

5. Content Development Plan

The content development plan is the heart of the collaborative learning strategy. An easy misstep here is to include all the many possible collaborative activities you can think of. A better option, especially if you're focused on knowledge building, is to select a few activities or products you have the resources and expertise to support. Two or three items done well are more valuable than 15 sketchy half-finished ones.

6. Financial Analysis

There are two elements to the financial section of a learning strategy:

a. Budget

Informal learning may occur even without support, but it happens more often and far more effectively with properly-resourced support. Financing is necessary to:

  • Identify learning needs
  • Carry out change management
  • Market new initiatives and create interest
  • Oversee collaborative activities
  • Analyze effectiveness and identify opportunities for improvement

b. ROI

This is where you find out whether you're getting the benefits you anticipated from collaborative learning. If you've added it to a formal training program, compare training results with and without the collaborative elements. If you've instituted a fully collaborative informal training program, our article on Measuring the ROI of Informal Training will give you some ideas for assessing your progress.


This article has reviewed the role of collaborative learning in each of the elements of a learning strategy. Whether you're implementing collaborative learning on a small or large scale, you'll get the most out of it if you prepare your plan ahead of time.

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.