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Online Collaborative Learning Theory

Yue Zhang


Collaborative learning refers to a strategy in which students of different performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. Students are responsible for each other’s learning as well as their own (Gokhale, 1995). The strategy of online collaborative learning moves collaborative learning from face-to-face to online.

Amid the concurrent development of both constructivist learning approaches and the Internet, online collaborative learning theory (OCL) was developed by Harasim (2012) from foundations in computer-mediated communication and networked learning (Bates, 2015). Bates (2015) stated that OCL theory is grounded in and integrates cognitive development theories which center around conversational learning, deep learning conditions, academic knowledge advancement, and knowledge construction. According to Harasim (2012), in OCL, students are encouraged to collaboratively solve problems through discourse instead of memorizing correct answers; the teacher or instructor plays a very essential role in this process. Teachers not only facilitate the process by providing appropriate resources and learning activities to encourage students’ learning, but also serve as a member of the knowledge community under study and ensure that core concepts, practices, and discipline standards are fully integrated into the learning cycle.

Previous Studies

In most previous studies, OCL has been widely considered as an effective learning model that has a positive influence on students’ academic achievement. For example, Tsai and Guo (2011) had 93 college students participating in their experimental study that investigated the impact of OCL on student achievement in a campus-based “Internet Marketing” course. The results of this study showed that OCL had positive influences on students’ academic performance; it also suggested that more studies need to be conducted in different courses and countries at different education levels.

According to Zhu (2012), participants in her study reflected that each group member had an opportunity to contribute to group work during online collaboration, which helped them achieve more knowledge than those who studied alone. More recently, Magen-Nagar and Shonfeld (2018) had 92 masters students participating in a study to examine the contribution of an OCL program to attitudes towards technology in terms of technological anxiety, self-confidence, and technology orientation. The findings of this study indicated that a high level of OCL could decrease technological anxiety, improve technological self-confidence, and increase the liking of technology.

Model of OCL

Figure 1 presents the process and relationship between concepts, constructs, and the proposition of OCL theory.

Model of Online Collaborative Learning Theory

Concepts and Constructs

According to Harasim (2012), three phrases of knowledge construction through discourse in a group exist: idea generating, idea organizing, and intellectual convergence.

In the process of idea generating, individual students engage in a group discussion of a specific topic or knowledge problem. Each participant logs on to the discussion to present their initial perspectives on the subject. Students are able to express their own ideas and begin to generate a range of divergent views through this process of brainstorming. This phase is highly democratic, and it leads to the second stage of discourse, which is idea organizing. At this stage, students really reflect on the various ideas presented and begin to interact with others. For example, they can agree or disagree with others, clarify, critique, elaborate or reject some views and identify relationships in organizing linkages among other ideas. Students confront new ideas and engage in relevant course readings suggested by their classmates or the teacher. As a result, individual understanding grows into shared understanding. The teacher introduces new analytical terms that are applied by students to deepen the discussion and understanding of the topic. The discourses in this stage advance to the third stage, which is intellectual convergence. In this phrase, groups actively engage in the co-construction of knowledge based on shared understanding. The group members synthesize their ideas and explicit points of view for positions on the topic. The outcomes of this stage are consolidated. This intellectual synthesis and consensus could be presented through an assignment, an essay, or other joint piece of work.


OCL theory proposes that, for academic and conceptual development, discussions need to be well-organized by instructors and they need to provide the necessary support, which allows students to achieve the advancement of ideas and construction of new knowledge.

Using the Model

The OCL model supports an effective teaching strategy for educators, but several design principles also need to be considered when educators are designing courses (Bates, 2015). For example, teachers can consider appropriate technologies, clear instructions for student online behavior, student orientation and preparation, clear educational goals, and appropriate discussion topics. In addition, cultural and epistemological issues may be challenges for teachers in the process of using OCL. Students with different backgrounds might have varying attitudes and perspectives toward discussion-based collaborative learning. Therefore, teachers should be aware that any student may have difficulties with language, cultural, or epistemological issues (Bates, 2015). Further, Bates (2015) stated that both teachers and students may face diverse challenges when adopting a constructivist approach to the design of online learning activities. Instructors can take specific steps to support students who are not familiar this learning approach.

To improve the effectiveness of the OCL model, researchers could explore the following three aspects: the learning environment, learning interaction, and learning design. The learning environment refers to tools that can be used to facilitate the collaborative environment. According to Razali et al. (2015), a flexible and accessible environment has a positive influence on promoting and enhancing interaction and collaboration between learners. Moreover, as the backbone of any online learning, interaction also should be defined and investigated precisely. Interaction refers to not only involving students with other students, but also supporting the relationship between instructors and students (Razali et al, 2015). For the learning design, researchers could select appropriate collaboration technologies and create and test motivating learning designs, examining the outcomes of, as Kaur et al. (2011) stated, instructors providing students with diverse resources and comprehensive learning activities and using clear delineations while considering their learning styles. In the next stage of research, researchers could use the concepts and constructs identified in the previous sections to design and develop an online project-based collaborative learning prototype.


OCL is a strategy for constructivist teaching that takes the form of instructor-led group learning online. It provides a theory and model of learning to encourage and support students to create knowledge through collaboration, to invent and explore innovative methods, and to seek conceptual knowledge needed to deal with problems. In this theory, as a connection to the knowledge community, instructors play a crucial part in providing students with necessary support (Bates, 2015).


Bates, A. (2015). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. OER at https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/221.

Gokhale, A. A. (1995). Collaborative learning enhances critical thinking. Journal of Technology Education, 7(1).

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning theory and online technologies. Routledge.

Kaur, A., Shriram, R., & Ravichandran, P. (2011). A framework for online teaching and learning: The S-care pedagogical model. 25th AAOU Annual Conference. 1-12.

Magen-Nagar, N., & Shonfeld, M. (2018). The impact of an online collaborative learning program on students’ attitude towards technology. Interactive Learning Environments, 26(5), 621-637.

Razali, S. N., Shahbodin, F., Hussin, H., & Bakar, N. (2015). Online collaborative learning elements to propose an online project based collaborative learning model. Jurnal Teknologi, 77(23), 55-60.

Tsai, C.-H., & Guo, S.-J. (2011). Towards n effective online collaborative learning environment: A case study on traditional classroom instruction. International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, 7(5), 1-16.

Zhu, C. (2012). Student satisfaction, performance, and knowledge construction in online collaborative learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(1), 127-136.


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Online Collaborative Learning Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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