LT 7008 Activity 6: Collaborative Activities

There are numerous challenges that must be faced when attempting to utilize collaborative activities in an online course. Conduct an in-depth research of no less than three specific challenges. Analyze the challenges from different perspectives and present potential solutions to the challenges. Use at least three to five outside references in your paper.

The emergence of technology has changed the way students learn and the way educators engage students in learning activities. The design and development of an effective and quality e-learning opportunity begins with understanding how students learn. Learning within the online environment, often termed e-learning, differs from the traditional on-campus course as "frequently off-campus classes suffer from the loss of the learning community" (Geer, 2000, p. 2425). Andrew Feenberg, an early innovator of online learning discussed the fact that faculty must focus on instructional design and the different pedagogical approaches to deliver instruction (Feenberg, 1999). The challenge is to overcome the lack of a learning community and to build a sense of presence in the classroom using appropriate learning techniques and strategies based on research (Lehman and Conceicao, 2010).

According to Hiltz, 1998, and Hughes and Lindsay, 1998 (as cited in Geer, 2000) "using collaborative learning approaches can enable Internet-based learning to be as effective as the traditional classroom where collaborative learning is a common feature" (p. 2425). Bender (2003) noted "it is important and beneficial to vary the learning activities in the online class. . . . to match the different ways in which students learn and to challenge them to greater heights" (p. 118). In fact Kim and Bonk (2006) noted a significant gap between learner preferences and instructor pedagogy as supported by their research as 40 percent of the participants preferred activities which were interactive and required critical and creative thinking yet only 23 - 45 percent of online instructors actually used such activities in their courses.

Inclusion of collaborative activities within an online course leads to positive outcomes as described by several sources (as cited in Haythornthwaite, 2006) "collaborative group interaction in educational settings promotes these positive outcomes: active learning (following constructivist learning theory, [48]); co-construction of knowledge [49]; emulation of expected future workplace requirements; social interaction and a learning community [6, 50, 51]; and a sense of belonging [5]" (p. 11). As Geer (2000) noted "inherent in collaboration is interactivity" (p. 2425). While the outcomes associated with collaborative activities are positive the ability of instructors to design activities to promote learners to engage effectively and interact online is no easy task. Given the availability of a wide range of communication tools designed for online learning the ability of learners to interact with each other has changed rapidly in the last 20 years and so has the role of the online instructor (Geer).

Three issues encountered in the e-learning environment are highlighted on this wiki page to illustrate a few of the challenges associated with utilizing collaborative activities in the online environment along with providing a list of potential solutions for each of the challenges which are:

  • How to establish teams, develop team guidelines, and support team activities
  • How to create and manage online discussions
  • How to conduct peer assessments for online discussions in a collaborative environment

Team Challenges
Team, often referred to as a group, activities span from informal discussions to highly-structured activities and from very small groups or dyads of two learners to very large groups within the learning environment (Ko & Rossen, 2010). The challenge faced by instructors is how to establish teams within the online learning environment and how to promote initial activities for teams to develop team guidelines without taking an instructor-centered approach to learning (Bonk, 2010b). It is important for learners to feel empowered and the role of the instructor is to find a balance between too little and excessive instructor intervention into team activities (Bonk; Ko & Rossen). According to Broadbent (2002) “online instructors need to find ways to move themselves out of the spotlight and into the background. One way to do this is to have the entire group of participants take on some of the community- building activities (p. 125).

Ko and Rossen (2010) noted "many students have no idea how to collaborate on a task in a course. Thus it is vital to provide detailed guidelines on the responsibilities of each member of a group" (p. 174).Several solutions are offered to overcome the challenges associated with team activities as noted by multiple sources:
  • Orchestrate the participants in the teams - in general it is best for the instructor to play a role in dividing learners into teams (Bender, 2003; Ko & Rossen; 2010)
  • Know when to let learners choose their own teams - activity based on interests of learners; natural groups already exist; blended courses (Ko & Rossen)
  • Model group norms and posting expectations - post the first discussion and the last discussion post for learners to follow and know you have been present (Bender, 2003; Bonk; Haythornthwaite, 2006)
  • Start with an initial dyad activity as an ice-breaker - a first step for learners to begin to form a sense of community (Bonk; Ko & Rossen)
  • Size matters - discussions can be 10 or more while collaborative assignments four or five works best (Bender; Bonk; Ko & Rossen)
  • Maintain groups for duration of course when possible - development of group norms and assignments takes time (Ko & Rossen)
  • Explain roles - clear expectations posted before the assignment is attempted; assign roles of leader, devil's advocate, summarizer (Bender; Bonk; Ko & Rossen)
  • Expect conflict – facilitative movement through conflict so that students can create norms for working with one another successfully (Palloff & Pratt, 2001)
  • Expect problems - stay present and monitor the dialogue within groups and the participation level of group members (Bonk)
  • Deal with issues and address flaming promptly (Bonk; Palloff & Pratt)

Fostering Online Collaboration and Teaming by Curtis Bonk

Online Discussions Challenges
The online learning environment is different from the face-top-face learning environment and instructors must find a way to develop learning activities to promote conversations through online discussions. According to the video "Managing an Online Course: Discussion Forums" by Bonk (2010c) online discussions must be well-structured and well-managed. It is important to empower the learner through active learning and to include opportunities for learners to reflect as well as share their point of view (Bonk; Bender 2003). As noted by Benfield (2002) "students have flexibility to contribute to the discussion at a time and place that suits them. They also gain time to reflect on their contributions and those of others (p. 1). Learners must be informed from the beginning of the expectations for the course and for each individual assignment in terms of learner roles and communication criteria (Bonk). Learners may be easily distracted and it is the role of the instructor to keep learners on course by guiding the conversations when needed (Bonk). According to Beaudin (1999) the key is to find "the fine balance between keeping on topic and allowing learners to talk about learning in their way is a challenge" (p. 41).

Online discussions require instructors to moderate the discussion forums and Benfield (2002) stated "the ‘emoderator’ must actively work to ensure online discussions engage students and lead to high quality educational outcomes (p. 1). An example discussed by Benfield noted when referencing clarity of thought and vigorous exchange of views "for the discussion to stay tightly focused on one or two main themes. So you might 'ban' long-winded 'dissertation'-style contributions, say by setting a maximum line length, or a ‘two screens maximum’" (p. 2). The development of collaborative online discussions requires the instructor to build in adequate time for learners to interact and converse as "online communication takes longer than classroom communication in most cases" (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). The challenges for online instructors are how to construct a collaborative discussion forum which is interactive and meets the needs of learners with different learning styles as well as how to manage the discussion to keep learners focused on the learning outcomes. The following are tips and suggestions provided by multiple authors:
  • Ensure learners are able to use the tools required for online conversations - humanize the experience (Bender, 2003; Benfield, 2002)
  • Create an informal first discussion - one that is meaningful and is a challenge (Bender; Bonk, 2010c)
  • Start with good critical questions - avoid yes/no and one sentence "answers" (Beaudin, 1999; Bonk)
  • Use threaded multi-question discussions - promote deeper learning (Vonderwell, Liang, & Alderman, 2007)
  • Establish protocols for conversations at the beginning of the course and reinforce with each assignment - post netiquette rules (Beaudin; Benfield; Bonk)
  • Make it required and make it graded (Bender; Bonk; Ko & Rossen, 2010)
  • Assign roles to learners along with responsibilities - rotate roles of leader, antagonist, summarizer, and so forth (Bonk)
  • Size is critical - 10 to 12 learners in a discussion forum is ideal (Bonk)
  • Build in time to reflect - sense of ownership (Bender, Bonk)
  • Establish deadlines (Benfield; Bonk)
  • Provide feedback - gently guide the discussion when necessary and provide final feedback for an assignment to encourage future participation (Benfield)
  • Develop peer assessments to strengthen the learning opportunity (Hou, Chang, & Sung, 2007)

Managing an Online Course: Discussion Forums by Curtis Bonk

Peer Assessments Challenges
Comeaux, 2005 (as cited in Vonderwell, Liang, & Alderman, 2007) stated “assessment events drive learning outcomes and are essential for the design and structure of a learning environment” (p. 310). As mentioned previously the design and structure of learning activities are critical to support collaborative discussions and to appropriately develop teams which must work together within the online environment and it is essential to have these linked to appropriate assessments of the activities. Bender (2003) and Bonk (2010c) noted the importance of creating a sense of ownership through collaborative activities which are reflective and the inclusion of “classroom assessment can provide instructors with immediate feedback to promote student learning and progress and help students take ownership of their learning” (Vonderwell et al.). According to the Australian National Training Authority (as cited in Vonderwell et al.
) “online learners need to manage their own learning through self- and peer-assessment, discovery learning, reflection, and articulation” (p. 311).

In the research by Vonderwell et al. (2007) "the findings indicated that structure of an online discussion is essential for successful learning and assessment. The students reported that a discussion topic that is not structured properly impacts student responses, and thus restricts learning (p. 315). Clearly there is a link between the structure of the online discussion and the importance of assessment to promote successful learning (Raban & Litchfield, 2006). Vonderwell et al. noted that the "structure of online discussions should engage students in self-regulatory processes in which learners can assess their own learning and growth." (p. 323). The challenge for instructors is how to create peer assessments for the online learning environment as there are so many variables (Bonk, 2010a).

  • First ask - "how can I reasonably assess the discussion?" (Bonk, 2010a)
  • Structure is critical - a well-structured discussion is essential for peers to assess the content and contributions (Bonk, 2010a; Bonk, 2010c; Vonderwell et al., 2007)
  • Understand the skills of the learners - are they capable of peer assessments; how will they know what to do (Bonk, 2010a)
  • Use rubrics - use of specific criteria and rubrics enable learners to understand the expectations for grading (Vonderwell et al.)
  • Clear and specific instructions on how to conduct the peer assessment are essential (Vonderwell et al.; Hou, Chang, & Sung, 2007)
  • Determine what will be graded - participation or a combination of content for relevancy and completeness (Bonk, 2010a)
  • Determine how to assess and which is best for peers - qualitative or quantitative or both; formative or summative (Bonk, 2010a)
  • Weekly ratings of participation levels and content contributions - early feedback (Bonk, 2010a; Raban & Litchfield, 2006)
  • Post examples used with permission from prior courses/learners - raise the bar (Bonk, 2010a)

Assessing Online Student Learning by Curtis Bonk

Literature Review
A thorough review of the literature is essential to understand all of the research and issues associated with this topic. The information provided in the resources and references sections of this wiki page provide further information related to the topics covered and serve as a good foundation to review the literature.

Personal Resources
Active Learning Presentations by Leah MacVie posted within Activity 4

e-Learning Challenges - Discussion topic of 300 - 400 words related to e-learning program development
e-Learning Challenges in the 21st Century - Discussion topic of 300 - 400 words based on the work of Andrew Feenberg
Initial Challenges - Discussion topic of 300 - 400 words related to ice-breaker activities
Bonk, C. (2010, July 31). Building community [Video file]. Retrieved from

Bonk, C. (2010, July 31). Building instructor and social presence [Video file]. Retrieved from

Presentations posted by Curtis Bonk located at:

Curtis Bonk - other resources

Beaudin, B. (1999, November). Keeping online asynchronous discussions on topic. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3(2), 41-53. Retrieved from

Bender, T. (2003). Discussion based online teaching to enhance student learning: Theory, practice and assessment. Sterling, VA: Sylus Publishing, LLC.

Benfield, G. (2002, June). Designing and Managing Effective Online Discussions. Retrieved from

Bonk, C. (2010a, September 21). Assessing online student learning [Video file]. Retrieved from

Bonk, C. (2010b, July 31). Fostering online collaboration and teams [Video file]. Retrieved from

Bonk, C. (2010c, July 31). Managing an online course: Discussion forums [Video file]. Retrieved from

Broadbent, B. (2002). ABCs of e-learning: Reaping the benefits and avoiding the pitfalls. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. (2004). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA:

Feenberg, A. (1999). Reflections on the distance learning controversy. Canadian Journal of Communcations, 8(3), 1-9. Retrieved from

Geer, R. (2000). Drivers for successful student learning through collaborative interactivity in internet based courses. In D. Willis et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2000 (pp. 2425-2431). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Facilitating collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Networks, 10(1,) 7-24.Retrieved from,38
Hou, H., Chang, K., & Sung, Y. (2007, December). An analysis of peer assessment online discussions within a course that uses project-based learning. Interactive Learning Environments, 15(3), 237-251. Retrieved from

Kim, K. & Bonk, C. (2006). The future of online teaching and learning in higher education, Educause Quarterly, 4, 22-40. Retrieved from

Lehman, R., & Conceicao, S. (2010). Creating a sense of presense in online teaching: How to 'be there' for distance learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Raban, R., & Litchfield, A. (2006, December). Supporting peer assessment of individual contributions in groupwork. Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Sydney, Australia. Retrieved from,38

Vonderwell, S., Liang, X., & Alderman, K. (2007). Asynchronous discussions and assessment in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(3), 309-328. Retrieved from