Collaborative Activities for Online Learning

Shauna Carson

Online learning doesn't have to be isolating. Collaborative learning offers social contact while encouraging learners to engage in higher-level thinking like analysis and evaluation. How can you incorporate collaborative learning in your next online course?

What is collaborative learning?

I've encountered a number of definitions of collaborative learning while writing this article. Many simply provide a brief description of the process, summarizing it as "an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product." While working together is an integral part of collaborative learning, this definition neglects the heart of the process. Collaborative learning is a form of social learning in which learners engage in higher-order thinking as they gain knowledge, understanding and other benefits from those they collaborate with. Simply contributing a bit of piecework to create a shared product is not sufficient; learners must work together, learning through "discussion, clarification of ideas, and evaluation of other's ideas."

Effective collaborative learning has several advantages over instructor-led training. It can:

  • Build community and overcome isolation, which can otherwise inhibit engagement and lead to poor retention rates in eLearning programs
  • Offer opportunities to develop and practice teamwork skills
  • Improve knowledge retention
  • Generate new knowledge

Collaborative learning can be implemented at multiple levels, ranging from collaborative activities included in more traditional courses, to entire courses built on collaboration, to organizational learning strategies founded on the principles of collaboration. Whichever level your organization is interested in, collaborative activities will be central to the process.

Online Collaborative Activities

1. Group discussions

Group discussions belong at the head of the list in any discussion of online collaborative activities. Occurring through forums or videoconferencing, they provide an excellent opportunity for discussion, clarification and evaluation of ideas and issues. Yet the reality often falls short of the potential for collaborative learning. Perhaps only a handful of particularly verbose learners actively participate, often repeating their statements without analysis or consideration of other positions. At other times, many participants chime in, but offer only minor variations on similar conclusions.

These common pitfalls are avoidable. To make a group discussion a valuable learning experience, the first thing you need is a well-crafted discussion question or prompt. It's a common mistake to frame group discussions around questions that have a correct answer, usually in the hope that the group will discuss their way to the 'right' answer. This results in students repeating a certain answer, slightly differently, ultimately stagnating the conversation. The best discussion topics are higher-level analysis and evaluation questions with many possible solutions or answers or those that include some degree of controversy.

Varying the structure of the basic group discussion can also promote an engaging and interactive experience for learners. Useful ideas include:

  • Have learners complete readings or review relevant course material to prepare for the discussion.
  • Include other interactive elements. For example, poll learners before and during the discussion. After the polls, discuss the reasons for any changes.
  • Ask learners to post their initial responses to the prompt and review other responses before the discussion. This can ensure that more reserved learners share their ideas and tends to increase the variety of viewpoints raised.
  • Think / Pair / Share: Separate learners into groups of two or three to clarify their ideas and responses before the main discussion. Begin the discussion by asking each group to present its position.
  • Hold a debate instead of a simple discussion. Divide the learners into two groups and assign each group a position. Allow the groups time to discuss their position and strategies before the debate.

2. Role play

Role play presents another opportunity for collaborative learning. For example, learners may be asked to enact a difficult or contentious interaction:

  • Between an employee and manager
  • With a client or customer
  • Involving characters from a case study

Much of the value in role play comes from debriefing and discussion after the event. How well was the encounter handled? What strategies might have worked better?

3. Producing a product

Collaborative activities may be directed to the production of some sort of product. Possible products include papers, presentations, blogs, microlearning resources, and any number of other options a creative instructor or instructional designer can imagine.

Instructor involvement is necessary to ensure that group work is collaborative. Without oversight, some groups may divide tasks in a way that produces a loosely connected patchwork of independent efforts rather than a truly collaborative product.

4. Jigsaw technique

The Jigsaw technique involves making learners the experts in various issues. Groups are formed to complete a project or investigate a problem. They begin by discussing the project as a group. Next, each group member is assigned a task or sub-topic. After working independently on their assignment, they meet with members of other groups who have the same assignment to discuss their progress and develop their ideas. Finally, they return to their original groups, where they provide the necessary expertise in their assigned task or field for the group to complete the project or investigation.

5. Inquiry or Problem-Solving

Another option for collaborative learning is to give small groups of learners a problem to solve. Real-world issues are most engaging for adult learners, but a realistic scenario can also work. Learners in technical disciplines can be asked to solve a technical problem, while those working on soft skills can analyze a case study, solve a mystery or identify appropriate next-steps for a realistic scenario.

Once the groups have accomplished their tasks, they should present their results to the class.

6. Sharing feedback / peer review

The goal of collaborative learning is to encourage learners to think, analyze and develop their understanding. Providing feedback to each other gives learners the opportunity to first learn about others' viewpoints as they review their colleagues' assignments, analyze those positions as they articulate their feedback, and then directly assess their own work as they receive feedback from others.

To construct an effective feedback exercise, consider:

  • Making feedback anonymous so learners feel free to criticize (constructively!)
  • Providing guidelines for constructive criticism
  • If feedback includes grading, provide a rubric to base the assessment on. Also, always ask reviewers to justify their grades. "3/5" does not provide enough information for a learner to reassess their work unless it's accompanied by an explanation of why the work received 3 out of 5.


A range of activities are available to the instructor or instructional designer who chooses to reap the benefits of collaborative learning in their learning program. Collaborative activities that can be implemented in an online environment include group discussions, role play, producing various products, the jigsaw technique, inquiry, and peer review. But that's just the beginning of the list. What have you tried, and what new ideas would you like to try out?

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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.