For a number of years, collaborative learning — a strategy that encourages students to work together in a real or virtual environment – has been on the rise. Learning in an online setting, sometimes known as 'eLearning,' is different from traditional classroom learning, yet it has been adopted by many as a solution to covid-19.

There are signs that this form of teaching and learning is not going anywhere soon, as learners embrace the ease of attending classes and organisations see the cost savings.

Online collaborative learning in itself is not a new thing. Remember the days of online forums whereby a student messaged a teacher, for the teacher to reply once a week? But it is something that absolutely needs to be done right to be effective, and to keep students motivated, engaged and ultimately learning. Research has identified that online collaborative learning provides a more enriched experience; increasing academic performance, knowledge retention and interpersonal skills.

How can you get it right? Based on my experience, here is how:

Being considerate of obstacles  

Physical, in-person classrooms are often deliberately designed to focus the attention of students on the learning objectives, and academic tasks at hand. They are also designed to minimise disruption, distraction and clutter.

In a remote classroom environment, students are faced with endless distractions – the main source of which stems from digital technology which is suddenly at their fingertips and disposal. Teachers find themselves struggling to motivate and engage their students; even to the point of getting them to turn up to classes on time. Structure and support for classes are still highly important as well as setting out the expectations of the learning exercise(s).

Another barrier to online learning is that students can find themselves feeling lonely and isolated. This study showed over three quarters (76%) of 5–16-year-olds suffered from loneliness whilst learning remotely, having struggled with being physically separated from their peers in a learning environment.

Ways to ‘spark’ collaboration in an online environment

Engaging students in fun activities to spark curiosity and debate is very much the driving force behind the recipe for a successful online collaborative learning experience.

More than half of our active students are not just passively watching, but actively learning too. They use chat or mic functions to ask each other, and the teachers, questions to make sense of the content they are learning. We also see that when students practice together after class vs. practising alone, they are more likely to spend more time revising altogether.

Enthusiastic content, mixed with engaging teachers is the winning combination. It encourages students to work together to problem solve, engage in healthy debate and ultimately stick with online learning for the long haul.

Gamification can also play a role in turning more traditional academic content into easily digestible pockets of information that students can break down and absorb.  Studies have shown that those who learn through gamified education methods tend to ‘score higher’ than those that don’t.

The same is true when it comes to the use of breakout rooms. Presenting students with a problem that they have to solve together naturally sparks conversation and debate. It also gives the opportunity for students to voice their opinion in a safe, secure setting amongst like-minded peers. Breakout rooms were something we implemented even before the pandemic and when combined with engaging content and enthusiastic teachers, it really helps students confidently speak out and learn from one another.

Peer-to-peer reviews – whereby students work together to review each other’s work – is really beneficial. Being responsible for giving as well as being receptive to receiving in-depth feedback from a peer helps students deepen their knowledge of the subject matter and enhance life skills.

Technology is key to bolstering online collaboration

Innovative edtech is working hard to enhance the overall online collaborative experience for students. The harnessing of technology will allow for like-minded students, all reaching towards the same goal to come together at the same time, proving hugely beneficial to their learning and engagement levels in the online classroom setting. Students can reap the benefits of not only learning with their peers, but learning from them as well.

Pushing notifications via an app to students to remind them about a lesson starting soon, or to ensure their team is prepared for a particular task is another way technology can drive the online learning experience.

The future for online learning is collaborative

Online learning is not something which can happen spontaneously. It requires careful planning, consideration and the right tools to ensure effective participation. Numerous studies highlight how collaborative learning techniques can help students feel engaged and motivated.

A peer-to-peer-centric experience, great teachers and fun learning activities are the tools for the online learning environment fuelled by collaboration and community, a real success.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Ed Technology. The original article can be found at https://edtechnology.co.uk/comments/future-of-education-must-incorporate-online-collaborative-learning)