Collaborative Learning in an Online or Hybrid Classroom


The purpose of this article is to consider ways to maximize the positive outcomes on collaborative learning techniques in online and hybrid course settings. Many of the ideas discussed in the previous articles, Group Project/Collaborative Learning Overview and Forming Successful Groups for Collaborative Learning, can be applied to the online/hybrid setting as well.


Key Components

From the article, "How to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies:"

Creating Successful Online/Hybrid Group Projects

Required Conditions for Cooperative and/or Collaborative Learning in Closed Online Learning Environments

  • Dialogue amongst students is a fundamental component of the group activity; assignments should be designed to encourage discussion and brainstorming (asynchronous and synchronous) rather than a division of labour.
  • Understanding of the purpose of the activity—achieved by communicating to students why group work is necessary, e.g. sharing how the project aligns to the learning goals, how students will benefit
  • Access to digital platform(s) and tools that support online collaboration—for discussion, creation of final product, etc. e.g. Google Docs, Google Hangouts
  • Support for students unfamiliar with collaboration platform & tools
  • Guidelines that outline: student expectations, netiquette, procedure to deal absent group member(s), assessment methods, examples of collaborative exchanges between students, team roles, etc.
  • Instructor (and institution) efforts aimed at developing and supporting student skill set for cooperation, collaboration and working in teams
  • Instructor involvement to address non-contributing group members, group challenges, etc.
  • Inclusion of an assessment mechanism on two levels—group and individual

Four Strategies for Instructors (and Institutions) That Support Online Group Work

  1. Design a Group Assignment that is complex, that challenges students to apply and discuss course content using multiple perspectives to solve a problem or develop a solution. Include expectations, purpose and clear instructions about how students can collaborate and provide feedback to each other. (Lowes, 2007, p. 12)
  2. Model and support the development of collaborative skills. Develop collaborative learning protocols and establish clear expectations about student and instructor roles. Promote student self-monitoring of learning through progress reports, feedback, discussion forums, virtual student-instructor conferences. Cover the skills required at the beginning of the course.
  3. Facilitate and be involved in group activities. Closely monitor group discussion boards to identify student involvement at beginning of group work; contact students not participating early in the group process. Collect ongoing data on student progress.
  4.  Make the assessment criteria explicit. “Several effective solutions may be employed to do exactly as Webb suggests, that is, to measure group productivity and to measure the individual student's abilities within the group. Exactly which of the solutions is the most appropriate will depend upon the circumstances.” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007, p. 263).

Forming Groups in Online/Hybrid Classes

Because it can be more challenging for online groups to meet and become efficient collaborators, instructors may wish to form base groups that will work together for several class sessions or throughout the term. See the article Forming Successful Groups for Collaborative Learning for more information on base groups and methods to form them.



From Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Barkley, Cross, Major, 2014), here are a few examples for incorporating collaborative learning exercises into an online/hybrid class format.

Example: Sociology: Contemporary Issues course in an Online Setting

Collaborative learning activity: Critical Debate (4-8 students, single session project)

An instructor used Critical Debate to explore issues related to gun control. First, in an online poll, he asked his students to rank their opinions from strongly in favor of changes to gun control laws to strongly opposed. He used the results of this poll to create groupings. Next, he posted a paragraph that explained the rationale behind the debate as well as the discussion proposal and the assignment directions. He then announced students would debate from a position opposite their personal views, with the intention of investigation into the contrary position. They would have the opportunity to share their real views at the close of the debate.

He organized the students into Pro/Con teams and created a protected discussion board for each team.  On the whole-class discussion board, he informed students of their team assignments and gave teams one week to research and post their arguments to the boards. After the week was complete, he opened the discussion boards to the whole class and instructed them to read through the arguments on the boards from the side opposed to their own and then allowed an additional week for students to formulate and post rebuttals.

The instructor then summarized and synthesized the debate and developed a follow-up threaded discussion in which students were asked to share how it felt to assume the contrary position to their own views. He invited them to say whether or not the debate changed their viewpoints or gave them new information to consider. (Barkley, Cross, Major 183)

Example: Business Management Practices course in an Online Setting

Collaborative learning activity: Role-Play (4-6 students, quarter-long project)

A professor teaching an online course decided to use a Role-Play game to teach concepts and content. Groups were formed with each representing a company and each student assuming one of the following roles: chief financial officer, financial officer, operations chief and marketing executive. The companies competed against each other for three phases of a company’s life cycle: start-up, growth, and independence. Each week of the course simulated one year of the company’s history, and each year the students employed in the company established crucial input data, such as price, advertising costs, purchase, production, and size of sales force. The instructor collected data and compiled them for the role-play, creating output data for the company that included units sold, backorders, market share, etc. Then, the instructor evaluated the companies based on results after the activity closed.

During the exercise, the instructor met weekly with the participants in regular conference, during which the employees discussed data. In another conference, the student’s participated in management-related discussions. (Barkley, Cross, Major 209)


Best Practices

Group Roles in an Online Setting

The traditional group roles that work in an on-site class may not hold for online instruction. For example, the role of recorder may become obsolete in a text-based online class, and the role of timekeeper may not matter to a completely asynchronous one. Consider establishing some of the following roles when creating collaborative learning exercises in an online/hybrid setting. Remember, all roles will not be applicable or appropriate for all exercises, and roles should be rotated through the collaborative group frequently to give all students a chance to acquire the learning opportunities each role provides. 

Data Gatherer: responsible for researching and finding important information necessary to complete group tasks

Multimedia Specialist: responsible for collecting new information in the form of images, video, audio and interview sources

Data Manager: responsible for ensuring meaningful information has been collected and will suffice as evidence for arguments.

Community Manager: responsible for ensuring that the work group is functioning properly, meeting deadlines, and attending any synchronous sessions.

Curator: responsible for managing the technology and ensuring that it is working correctly and information is being shared appropriately.

Editor: responsible for making sure the final product, whether video, audio or text, is produced well and is error-free. (Barkley, Cross, Major 89) 



Barkley, E., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

How to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies. (2014, August 14). Retrieved from

Additional Online Group Resources

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