Lesson 5 - Theories of Learning

26. Online Collaborative Learning

26.6. Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Collaborative Learning

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning:

  • By assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor.
  • That reflects the norms or values of the discipline.
  • That also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.

Thus there are two main strengths of this model:

  • When applied appropriately, online collaborative learning can lead to deep, academic learning, or transformative learning, as well as, if not better than, discussion in campus-based classrooms. The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion.
  • Online collaborative learning, as a result, can also directly support the development of a range of high-level intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation, which are key requirements for learners in a digital age.

There are though some limitations:

  • It does not scale easily, requiring highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors, and a limited number of learners per instructor.
  • It is more likely to accommodate to the epistemological positions of faculty and instructors in humanities, social sciences, education and some areas of business studies and health and conversely it is likely to be less accommodating to the epistemological positions of faculty in science, computer science and engineering. However, if combined with a problem-based or inquiry-based approach, it might have acceptance even in some of the STEM subject domains.