Fostering Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education

What is collaborative learning? Learn how to foster online collaborative learning in colleges and higher education with these five easy steps.

Helping students socialize might not be at the top of every higher learning leader’s priority list. But maybe it should be: During the pandemic, many college students identified remote learning and social isolation as major stressors. 

Online collaborative learning in higher education needs to become a strategic focus for administrators and faculty alike. Remote learning is set to become a more prominent feature in the digital age, and while online courses open doors for many people, they also put more students at risk of social isolation. 

Tackling this issue is critical because the long list of severe impacts — including anxiety, depression, illness, and impaired cognitive functioning — can impact learning outcomes. A growing number of experts are also concerned about an epidemic of loneliness among Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) that stems from factors unrelated to social media or the pandemic. 

The bottom line is that mass feelings of social isolation aren’t new, nor are they necessarily temporary. A study published in 2015, for example, looked at the problem of social isolation in distance learning and identified that “peer contact, as well as appropriate support, is required to overcome this isolation, yet this is a challenge without face-to-face contact.”

At the same time, these challenges don’t always evaporate in the context of in-person learning because social isolation can also stem from feeling disconnected from others even when in their presence. 

Here’s the good news: with advances in technology, supporting online collaborative learning has never been easier for both remote and in-person environments. It just takes the right approach.

Cooperative vs. Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning can be confused with cooperative learning, but these are two distinct approaches — and only one is really of interest to higher learning leaders and faculty. Both approaches can involve students working in small groups. 

But while collaborative learning is student-directed, cooperative learning requires more active instructor participation. For this reason, cooperative learning is more appropriate for K-12 environments. 

Integrating this approach into the course curriculum involves some time and effort. Still, it’s well worth it. 

Studies have shown that collaborative learning helps with:

  • Development of higher-order thinking
  • Student retention
  • Better faculty interactions
  • Preparation for the real world
  • Exposure to a diversity of thought

Collaborative learning also impacts learning outcomes indirectly by boosting student satisfaction and empowering students to connect, whether they’re sitting side-by-side or at different ends of the continent. Furthermore, a focus on collaborative learning can help higher learning leaders bring the benefits of the traditional in-person classroom environment into remote settings

Five Collaborative Learning Tips for Higher Education

Higher learning leaders and faculty can boost student satisfaction, drive better learning outcomes, and support well-being by promoting social learning. Here are five tips for incorporating collaborative learning into your course curriculum:

1. Deploy Open, Complex Group Tasks

Group problem-solving exercises foster positive interdependence and help students build strong social ties. These activities can take on several forms, and not all group tasks are created equal. According to one study, the most influential group problem-solving exercises involve a complex assignment that requires students to create something unique and original.

Choosing a scenario with no right or wrong answer is paramount. For example, the instructor could ask students to develop a presentation that addresses a multifaceted problem, such as how a municipality can address citizen demands for a much-needed yet costly infrastructure project. 

Whenever possible, encourage students to use software like Google Slides, which helps multiple users work on a single version of a presentation saved to the cloud. Ultimately, this helps students collaborate in real-time, even if they’re working from different locations.

2. Gamify Teamwork

Gamification in the higher learning environment can motivate and engage learners as individuals, particularly those who grew up using games for entertainment. They can also be used to foster teamwork. 

Some games are designed specifically for team building with no educational element. While these icebreaker games might be beneficial during student orientation sessions, students might get annoyed if they’re required to play them too frequently. 

Platforms like Kahoot! have a team mode where the instructor can create educational games to get students to absorb course material while connecting with other students at the same time. With the software, instructors can create their games based on course concepts and deploy them virtually or in person. Students can compete against other teams or a computer opponent. 

3. Promote Social Learning Via In-Book Texting

A lack of communication among team members can hamper effective online collaboration. Fortunately, many instructors embrace social media and encourage students to set up informal message boards, such as Discord groups. Students can stay connected throughout the semester and ask each other for help when working on individual and group assignments when there is an open line of communication.

Social media platforms aren’t the only way to boost communication, however. Robust learning enablement platforms, like BibliU, come equipped with in-book discussion capabilities for digital textbooks. This enables social learning by allowing students to discuss the contents of a specific book or section of content. 

Sometimes, asking students to discuss a concept amongst themselves can generate a blank slate problem — nobody knows where to start. But when learners can send and receive text messages from within a digital textbook, they have a jumping-off point for asking each other informed questions. 

4. Keep an Eye on the VR Future

While it’s definitely not a mainstream thing yet, Virtual Reality (VR) holds promise as a tool in educational settings. At a University of Sydney virtual reality laboratory, for example, 71.5% of students surveyed reported that the use of VR improved learning outcomes. 

Pioneers are integrating collaborative elements into educational VR games. The Collaborative Learning Environments in Virtual Reality (CLEVR) is a design project launched by MIT. This team deployed Cellverse, a game designed to help students learn cellular biology. The leaders of this project have uncovered many best practices in VR for collaboration and determined that it’s vital to ensure players have an opportunity to contribute equally. This boosts the social aspect of the game.

Of course, higher learning leaders and faculty don’t need to worry about encouraging all students to buy Oculus VR headsets today. Simply keep tabs on the emerging research in this growth area and brainstorm ideas for potential pilot projects. 

Learn how BibliU customer, University of Leicester, uses VR in its library space

#5. Make Space for Facetime

Yes, social media and instant messaging apps are great tools for exchanging information and reinforcing peer-to-peer connections. 

Higher learning leaders and instructors need to be deliberate about making space for spontaneous face-to-face conversation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle argues, too much reliance on carefully crafted texts can make people feel more isolated. It’s critical, then, to explore ways to help students speak and listen to one another. While online video calls are far from perfect, they offer some benefits in spontaneous face-to-face contact, particularly if students know there’s a purpose for the call. 

Consider integrating one or two small, live group working sessions into the course syllabus for courses delivered remotely. 

For example, at the beginning of a session, the TA could ask the group to watch a thought-provoking, five-minute video that they then discuss. The goal is to build a social connection that gets reinforced at other moments throughout the semester through text-based interactions. 

Combating Social Isolation in Higher Education

The impacts of student loneliness are just too severe to ignore, and it’ll take much more than a handful of meditation apps to address. Building collaborative learning into the course curriculum helps prevent students from becoming too isolated — whether they are attending school online or in person. 

Want to learn more? See how you can kickstart online collaborative learning with BibliU Engage.

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