Being mother Teresa with an iron fist?

Facilitating successful online collaboration

Now, when the Open Networked Learning (ONL) course opens up again, the subject of online collaboration and how to facilitate this process becomes very relevant to me. Collaboration, together with creativity and innovation, critical thinking and communication, are among the learning and innovation skills, or so-called 21st centuries skills (1) that will define who’s going to fit better into our global society.

Online (OL) collaboration occurs when the individuals connect with each other through technology and find opportunities to research, discuss, learn and produce together (2,3). Thus the virtual community that they integrate will be a place of shared ownership and lifelong learning.

OL collaboration is attractive due to its flexibility where members of the online group can work together independently of their geographical location and without time constraints. Myriad of collaborative tools available simplifies the OL team interaction as effectively as in the face-to-face (f2f) situation.

Ironically, OL collaboration is vulnerable to the lack of f2f interaction. Difficulties to decipher the body language of the speaker, time lags, poor bandwidth, language misunderstandings and reticence of social interaction among other factors affect the OL group performance. Thereby OL collaboration is not automatically facilitated by the use of technology but by a facilitator who is a person guiding the learning process during the OL session.

As I came to think now: a facilitator will be a sort of Mother Teresa with an iron fist who has the challenge to provide the initial structure and manage the group but at the same time will be the emotional presence that bonds the group, retreating when the group is ready. A facilitator has no power to “make” collaboration but it could propel the group towards a positive experience. Therefore I conducted some research to find out more about successful groups and how I could use this information to mimic their patterns of work.

Successful groups are described in the literature as composed by participants who share a common goal and leave space for negotiation, where the final product of their work can be translated in the contribution of each member (4). These groups are often cohesive and so effective because their work advances based on all members contributions. None is rejected or ignored without a previous dialog (5).

Successful and less successful groups differ in term of the outcome, divergences in group processes, patterns of work and social presence (3,4).

Successful groups

  • Identified a common goal
  • Negotiated an approach to their working process
  • Clarified from the beginning the focus of the project
  • Had a work plan
  • Selected responsible persons for each task
  • Scheduled the activities to make sure things were done on time
  • Reached consensus during asynchronous work by answering and discussing each other’s questions
  • Gave critical yet respectful comments to each other
  • Built on colleagues inputs without excluding or ignoring any member contribution
  • Harmonized everyone’s participation and upon disagreement could negotiate, have a dialogue
  • Built a learning community

Unsuccessful groups

  • Were more anxious
  • Changed often mind and focus of the project,
  • Lacked leadership
  • Did not build on each other’s work,
  • Had poor trust within the members.

Finally, some online tools that we could use to engage students in online collaboration are listed here among them is padlet which I have used with Master students at Linköping University to share useful articles and with postgraduates students in the Problem Based Learning course to gather tips for future PBL mentors. Padlet is easy to use and a recommended tool to brainstorms, discussions, sharing pictures, audio, videos, and many more things. Yet another tool that picked up my curiosity was Perusall, introduced by Professor Mazur in this video It is a sort of interactive platform where you can post articles, scenarios or other documents that you want your group to discuss prior to a seminar, or lecture. The group can then mark and comment on the difficult parts of the articles while getting feedback from their peers and the supervisor.

And now I think I have to end this blog post but in a next entry, I promise to tell you about the progression of my group @ ONL181. We started to connect this week and still have a wonderful 10-week period ahead. I am looking forward to seeing if some of these tips will help to guide the group in their journey. Will we have a successful collaboration?

The pictures included are  free stock photos from (CC0) 


  2. Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism:  Learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1).
  3. Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).
  4. Oliveira I, Tinoca L, Pereira A. (2011). Online group work patterns: How to promote a successful collaboration. Computers & Education, 57 (1).
  5. Barron B (2003). When smart groups fail. The journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(3).

By Gizeh Perez Tenorio/ Didacticum Sep 2018

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