Combining digital technologies with collaborative learning
Digital technologies can often be associated with quiet or individual work.
While that style of learning certainly has its place, technology can be used to create some amazing collaborative and cooperative learning experiences for students.
In this article, we’ll explore what collaborative and cooperative learning look like, the impact it has on educational outcomes, and some examples of how educators can leverage technology to achieve this high impact teaching strategy.
Collaborative vs cooperative learning
Let’s start with some definitions.
“Collaborative learning occurs when students work together in small groups and everyone participates in a learning task” (2). In these types of tasks, students work in groups of two or more, mutually working to find a solution, complete a set learning task or produce a product (3).
Cooperative learning is sometimes separated from collaborative learning. This is because cooperative learning is achieved through the division of tasks and labour, where each student takes ownership of some portion of the assignment or problem-solving process (1).
Both of these types of pedagogical approaches involve students working together in some capacity, and often in collaborative tasks some cooperative learning is involved—making the distinction between the two more grey than black and white (1).
For simplicity in this article, we will be discussing these approaches together.
Now that we know what these types of tasks are it seems simple: students work together. However, great collaborative learning relies on each student actively engaging with the task, consistently negotiating their roles and responsibilities, and reflecting on their achievement and understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria (2).
When put like that, it becomes apparent how difficult these types of tasks can be for students, as well as for the teachers managing them.
Here, Laal (4) outlines some key elements that are essential for great classroom collaboration. These include:
- Positive independence—students understand and believe that there is value in working with other students.
- Considerable interaction—students both encourage and help each other to understand and master the content.
- Individual accountability—students must take responsibility for their portion of the task, as well as the mastery of content, and are held accountable by themselves, their peers and their teacher.
- Social skills—educators help students build their group work skills including leadership, communication and conflict resolution.
- Self-evaluation—students assess how well they are engaging individually as well as in a team and learn to make improvements for the future (4).
While this list is fairly extensive, most of it comes part and parcel with setting up a great group task and therefore requires little to no additional effort or planning on the teacher's behalf. However, it is good to note exactly what makes a collaborative task effective.
The impact of collaboration
Does collaboration in the classroom lead to higher academic outcomes? The short and simple answer is yes, but let’s take a look at the research.
Collaborative and cooperative learning moves the student from a passive learning position to an active one, forcing them to become more involved in the process of learning (3). Through this process, academic results are improved as they engage more heavily with classroom content, skills and problem-solving tasks.
Studies have shown that students who engage in cooperative/collaborative learning outperformed students who only engaged with content individually in both homework and tests (5). This is also true when looking at the difference between cooperative learning and competitive learning (6). Students perform significantly better when working together, rather than in direct competition (6).
The evidence is clear that by spending time on developing great collaborative tasks you'll see an improvement in student understanding and performance.
The introduction of great collaborative practices has also been known to help students increase their understanding of other students, create a more positive learning atmosphere, and build diversity and resilience between learners (3).
While driving student attainment is one of the main goals in the classroom, most teachers will also want to help foster students' social skills and create learning environments that are safe for all students.
The need to solve, think and work together on essential issues has dramatically increased and become a necessary twenty-first-century skill (3). By teaching students to work together, educators are arming them with incredibly valuable real-life skills that will serve them greatly in their post-school experiences.
It would be remiss to exclude some of the obstacles that hinder great collaborative learning.
Research has quantified four main obstacles which include:
- students’ lack of collaborative skills
- competence status
- and, friendship (7).
So while there are clear benefits, educators need to have these obstacles in mind when designing tasks and assessments that use this high impact teaching strategy.
Role cards are a fantastic tool that educators can use to combat some of the common obstacles faced by students when completing collaborative and cooperative tasks.
This goes beyond delegating set work and empowers each student to take an active role within the group that helps keep everyone accountable. Which in turn, develops team working skills, individual awareness and helps to boost confidence.
Some example roles could include:
- Group leader
- Time manager
- Note taker
- Conflict manager
We suggest always assigning roles to students, rather than letting them choose. This is a great opportunity for differentiation as educators can choose roles based on what students are already skilled at, helping boost confidence, or assign roles based on skills that need further development.
Combining collaboration and digital technologies
With the increased use of technology in the classroom, often students are pulled away from working together in favour of online platforms.
Below is a list of suggested activities that combine collaboration and digital technologies that help leverage the best out of both.
Peer teaching is an instructional strategy where students adopt the role of a teacher, either in pairs or in a small group setting. Students will learn new information from each other, rather than through a teacher-centred approach. Students feel more at ease when working with their peers and can engage and reflect more effectively on their learning.
In addition, when students master the material themselves before delivering it to their peers they are gaining multiple exposures to the content which helps reinforce concepts (8). From the receiving students' perspective, they gain a sense of confidence that they can master the content because their peer has already done so (2).
Asking students to watch a video on two separate or related topics within the area of study is a great way to include peer teaching in the classroom. Students will need to summarise the video and understand the content before presenting it to their peers. Educators could ask students to produce a PowerPoint, summary notes or diagrams to aid in their delivery and ensure active participation from all students.
It's also a great idea to test student understanding after the task on both topic areas, to ensure all students understand the content from both videos. Atomi quizzes are fantastic at achieving this with little prep work required.
Jigsaw activities are an extension of peer teaching which involves more effort from both teachers and students. In this activity, groups of students are assigned different pieces of content or tasks. From here, students break away from their original group to meet with other students assigned the same work. Within these secondary groups, students can work together to master the content, solve problems or produce a product.
The benefit here is that students are learning from each other to gain mastery and don’t feel isolated in the process (9). Students then return to their original groups and demonstrate what they have learned, while the remaining group members learn from their peers.
These types of activities are a great way to use digital technologies as students can have access to a wide variety of resources, information and tools to present their work and are not limited to physical materials in the classroom. It also works when students are not physically in the classroom together and can easily be completed online.
From the educator's perspective in both of these tasks, they move away from the content delivery role and into a facilitator role, both for group work and content acquisition.
Having students mark peer work is a great way to incorporate collaborative tasks in the classroom, particularly when managing students both in class and at home.
In this activity students complete work as normal—but rather than handing it to the teacher for marking or feedback, they're encouraged to mark and edit each other's work. Uploading work to online platforms such as Google Classroom or Google Docs allows the flexibility for students to do this in class, regardless of where they are physically. The same applies to homework tasks, encouraging students to engage with one another positively outside of the classroom.
This is also a great strategy to include when conducting assessments. Students are often stressed about their work, hounding their teacher for more information or marking drafts. Including peer editing can lighten the marking load of educators, while also helping students hand in a far superior product as they're allowed to receive feedback and make changes to before submission (9).
Problem-based learning requires students to learn about a topic by working in small groups to solve an open-ended problem (10).
In this student-centred approach, students' motivation is driven by the problem set, often based on real-world situations (10). There are many benefits of including this type of task such as critical thinking, self-directed learning, problem-solving and social skill development (10).
However, the major benefit is that students are working together and not passively receiving information from the teacher. It allows them to be creative about how they need to learn and present their findings. Educators can take a more passive facilitation role, helping students develop the necessary skills and understanding of content without having to lecture or dictate information (9).
Providing students access to digital technologies is the easiest way to open their minds to the amount of information out there about any topic they should come across. Often limiting each group to one computer stops students from working in silos and encourages group collaboration. In addition, it requires students to read, think about and digress online information rather than copying and pasting.
Educators have access to so many wonderful resources and digital platforms can enhance the learning experience of students. However, it would be devastating to leave some of the wonderful pedagogical approaches educators have used for years in favour of something else.
Looking at ways to combine powerful teaching helps students reach their full potential and gain a more authentic understanding while also helping take some of the burdens from teachers. If students want to talk, let them. Just be crafty about exactly what they are talking about and how they're doing it!
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Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.
- Lai, E, 2011, Collaboration: A Literature Review, Pearson: Always Learning
- The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government
- Laal, M., Ghodsi, M, 2012, Benefits of collaborative learning, Procedia Social and Behavioural Sciences,
- Laal, M, 2013, Collaborative Learning; Elements, Procedia social and beahvioural sciences
- Hsiung, C, 2013, The effectiveness of cooperative learning, Journal of Engineering Education.
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning, Oxford, UK: Routledge
- Le, H, Janssen, J and Wubbles, T, 2016, Collaborative learning practices: teacher and student perceived obstacles to effective student collaboration, Cambridge Journal of Education
- Edith Cowan Unviersity, 2022, Peer Learning
- Felder, R. and Brent, R, 2007, Cooperative learning, ASC Symposium Series
- Cornell Unviersity, Problem-based learning, Center for Teaching Innovation