Literature Review: Key Factors Impacting the Success of Online Collaborative Learning

Literature Review:

Key Factors Impacting the Success of Online Collaborative Learning

Online collaborative learning can be studied from the perspective of social interaction among participants. In her discussion of Vygotsky’s theories, Woolfolk (2007) stated that “human activities take place in cultural settings and cannot be understood apart from these settings” (p. 39). This suggests that any study of online collaborative learning should include a focus on the relationships among participants, the structures of those relationships, such as means by which relationships are forged and maintained, and the different roles of participants involved in the collaborative learning exercise.

Sociocultural perspectives can be found in the literature, though researchers often focus on different factors relating to online collaborative learning. Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun (2009) demonstrated this socioculturalist perspective by elaborating on issues of trust and group practices in their study of online collaborative learning. The same perspective was evident in a study by Havard, Du, and Xu (2008) that discussed the effects of social presence and media richness on group identity. Smith (2008) demonstrated this socioculturalist perspective in her study focusing on the importance of trust issues in collaborative groujps. Chang (2008) studied the impact of online discussions on collaborative artifacts. Thompson and Heng-Yu (2010) examined interdependence, synthesis, independence, and participation to understand the relationship between online collaboration and the performance quality of groups.

In the study by Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun (2009) the researchers sought to understand the relationship between team satisfaction and instructor support, team members’ trust and familiarity with each other, communication, and organization practice. The factors and surveys used in the study were well grounded in the literature investigating online collaborative learning. Unfortunately, a convenience sample comprising mostly females was used to assemble participants. More than half of the participants had taken previous online courses. It might have been useful to test whether or not these were significant factors impacting the findings.

A study by Havard, Du, and Xu (2008) investigated communication media and collaboration and factors that impacted successful online collaboration. The researchers identified important elements of collaborative learning from which they developed the questions they sought to answer. Their topic of inquiry is therefore grounded in the literature. Their sample was somewhat small, though this was compensated for by large effects scores. In the qualitative phase of the study only five of the twenty-six participants were interviewed regarding their choices of media and useful factors impacting online collaborative study. It may have been helpful to gather perspectives from more if not all of the participants.

Smith’s (2008) socioculturalist perspective led her to investigate trust and group collaboration. The study indicated that trust was a complex, pervasive, and significant issue in online collaborative learning. The study of 47 adult post graduate learners incorporated robust data collection methods that featured triangulation of data sources to enhance validity. However, since 90% of the participants had never taken an online class, the sample may have limited the generalizability of the study. The large proportion of novice online participants might make the conclusions less relevant to learners who may have had prior experience with online collaborative learning.

The study by Chang (2008) examined the relationship between online discussions, a type of communication media for online collaborative learning, and the quality of project artifacts. The methods applied were exhaustive and focused attention on several pertinent factors. However, the study did not consider participants’ starting level of proficiency in the subject area utilized in the study, though statements were made about the performance of participants by the end of the study. Also, there were no measures included that could have been used to justify judgments about artifacts’ quality.

Thompson and Heng-Yu (2010) also reported on the quality of online collaborative artifacts. They considered this in relation to the degree of online collaboration. The criteria they used to judge the degree of online collaboration was derived from the literature surrounding this topic. There were some aspects of the sample that may raise concerns about the generalizability of the study. The sample was comprised entirely of women. Also, the groups involved in the exercise were numerically uneven. These group characteristics could have affected the degree of collaboration as well as the quality of the artifacts.

Media and its role in the conduct of online collaborative learning is an important aspect of the success of online collaborative learning. Due to the remoteness of participants in online collaboration, media is critical in providing clarity of meaning and connections among learners. Successful online collaboration requires that the appropriate media be used in specific cases. “Selected media differed based on its media richness and ability to convey social presence” (Havard, Du, and Xu, 2008, p. 43). When media is used effectively in online collaborative learning it supports such team members’ learning. Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun (2009) found that the “strongest relationship was found between clear communication and team satisfaction” (p. 203). The use of media also impacts the quality of artifacts produced in online collaborative learning. Chang (2008) stated with respect to one of the groups, “the content and frequency of online discussions had a positive correlation with its PBL work” (p. 497).

Trust among team members is another aspect of successful online collaboration. Online collaborative learning requires that team members share a common goal and depend on each other to accomplish this goal. As Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun (2009) noted, “Teams that trust feel that they are working towards the same goal and make their best efforts” (p. 197). A lack of trust may hinder sharing among team members and hurt the goal of collaborative learning. Trust is also a significant aspect of online collaborative learning because it can be pervasive and difficult to resolve. Smith (2008) discovered that “trust issues were consistent throughout group life” (p. 334). Understanding trust in online collaborative group settings is therefore critical to providing an encouraging learning atmosphere. In his study, Chang (2008) concluded in terms of students’ use of a general discussion board, there was a lack of trust which negatively impacted collaboration. The importance of trust also relates to the critical role of media and communication. As Chang noted, students’ lack of trust caused them to share thoughts on a general discussion board for fear of having ideas stolen. This mode of communication did not foster trust. Havard, Du, and Xu (2008) stated that online collaborative learning students “may never meet one another face-to-face.” They therefore postulated that trust and the choice of communication media are important considerations in promoting online collaborative learning. Trust fosters interdependence, and Thompson and Heng-Yu (2010) found that online collaborative teams with a level of interdependence produced high quality artifacts.

Apart from media and trust, the instructor’s role is another important factor impacting successful online collaborative learning. Havard, Du, and Xu (2008) found that “the instructor’s role is critical in designing the environment that supports and a course that encourages online collaboration” (p. 45). In their study, Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun (2009) seemed to find contradictory results. They found that there was not “strong support for the relationship between facilitator’s support and teamwork satisfaction” (p. 203). However, the researchers’ view of facilitator support included providing “information and resources” (103). Tseng, Wang, Heng-Yu, and Sun acknowledge the importance of structure in an online course. Such structure is a consequence of design, which the researchers identify as key factors in successful online collaboration.

The literature identifies media appropriateness, trust, and the role of the instructor in designing an encouraging online learning atmosphere as key factors impacting the success of online collaborative learning. However, within the studies there were some findings that suggested additional research may be necessary. In the study by Chang (2008), one group that did not demonstrate significant interaction produced high quality collaborative artifacts. Perhaps there should also be a focus on the design of courses and the required assessments of knowledge that are part of online collaborative learning. In addition, the literature is filled with studies investigating online collaborative learning among adults in masters and baccalaureate programs. Collaborative learning is also practiced within the K-12 environment. Considering the complex nature of the findings concerning online collaborative learning and adults, it may be reasonable to assume that special consideration and additional research be devoted to investigating online collaborative learning among younger learners. These learners are not as experienced as older learners and may have special needs.


Chi-Cheng, C. (2008). A case study on the relationships between participation in online discussion and achievement of project work. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 17, 477-509.

Havard, B., Du, J., and Xu, J. (2008). Online collaborative learning and communication media. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 19 (1), 37-50.

Satwicz, T. and Stevens, R. (2008). A distributed perspective on collaborative activity. In J., M. Spector, M., D. Merrill, J. van Merrienboer, M., P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communication and technology (pp. 21-28). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smith, R. (2008). The paradox of trust in online collaborative groups. Distance Education, 29 (3), 325-340.

Thompson, L. and Heng-Yu, K. (2010). Degree of online collaboration and team performance: A case study. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11 (2), 127-134.

Tseng, H., Wang, C., Heng-Yu, K., and Sun, L. (2009). Key factors in online collaboration and their relationship to teamwork satisfaction. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10 (2), 195-206.

Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology (10th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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