There’s been some buzz across the blogosphere recently about the educational, social and economic benefits of cooperative learning. Cooperative learning is not the dreaded “group project” where one or two members shoulder the burden of the assignment while the others do as little as possible. Nor is cooperative learning quite the same thing as collaborative learning; the latter being basically a synonym for “group learning” where learners work together in a discussion or project-centric context.

In contrast, where the focus is on both individual and group “accountability.” Fostering true cooperation requires structuring the interaction so the each group member is responsible for learning a specific concept—and then bringing the rest of the team up to speed on it.

The idea (sometimes referred to as “positive interdependence”) is that all group members sink or swim together. Each participant has a role to play that is essential to realizing the desired outcome. Whereas individual learning can be covertly or overtly competitive, cooperative learning requires each person to tap into the skills and resources of the others. Asking others for input, evaluating others’ ideas and monitoring others’ work are typical in cooperative learning scenarios. The role of the teacher is not to provide information, but to facilitate group success.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, cooperative learning has garnered widespread academic interest. Three basic styles of cooperative learning have evolved:

  1. Formal (highly structured), which works best in face-to-face classroom environments
  2. Informal (ad-hoc), which in practice perhaps doesn’t differ much from “group discussion”
  3. Cooperative (ongoing), where group members meet regularly to support another and generally hold one another accountable for their level of contribution

So what’s all the fuss? Turns out that “division of labor” and being accountable to the group are highly beneficial to learners—yielding better comprehension across all learning styles. Teaching peers reinforces learning, allows others to learn successfully, and helps everybody keep up across all ability levels. Motivation is often higher when the success of others as well as oneself is involved. And with group grading, more students often get to “win.”

Most importantly in the eyes of many, cooperative learning teaches valuable life skills, such as working towards a common goal, mastering leadership, improving communication skills, resolving conflict and more. Plus cooperative learning can reduce expenses for things like supplies, since materials are shared.

Does cooperative learning have a place in the shift towards online education? How can advances in educational technology facilitate this learning modality? How can it be adapted to online environments? I found multiple sources that alluded to the future success of “digital cooperative learning” but few that specified any current online models.

Indeed, online education tends to work best for those who want to connect anytime/anywhere, on their own. Other people are usually represented by words on a screen; there is little “social presence” compared with traditional classrooms.

One author cited research indicating that “online learning environments may have more direct impact on the way interaction is structured, including the kinds of information accessed, the amount of learner control, the mode of interaction, and the immediacy of interaction. For example, in classroom environments, face-to-face discussion and brainstorming are a big part of cooperative learning. Online, pre-scheduled chats or group message boards can simulate this function.

The European organization , recognizing that online learning environments tend to isolate students and often fail to support collaboration beyond discussion forums. However, game-based learning online, as well as online role-play, have proven supportive for cooperative learning online. Palloff and Pratt, in a key paper from 2005, identify the key elements for online cooperative learning but don’t describe any actual, real-world systems that are accomplishing it.

Is cooperative learning happening online today? After researching the topic, I feel—oddly!—like I’m not exactly sure.

Are you aware of any cooperative online learning environments? Or relevant research? Please comment and share your thoughts.

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Featured image courtesy of Sebastian Bergmann.

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