Online Collaboration for Learning:
A Case Study of a Post Graduate University Course

Shirley Agostinho, Ph.D. Candidate, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522

Geraldine Lefoe, Education Consultant, Centre for Educational Development and Interactive Resources, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522

John Hedberg, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522


World Wide Web, collaborative learning, computer mediated communication, technology-based learning, problem-based learning, constructivism.


This paper describes how the World Wide Web was used in the implementation of a post graduate course. The interactions that took place amongst the students and between students and instructor illustrate how collaborative learning and problem solving can be supported by the Web. Of special note, the course content focused on technology-based learning thus allowing the students to be immersed in an authentic learning environment while undertaking the course. This paper describes the course strategy and discusses several examples which illustrate the varied strategies used by students to facilitate the problem solving process. On the basis of the case studies and examples, several resulting guidelines for pursuing online collaboration are discussed.

Designing Effective Learning Environments

What attributes constitute "effective learning"? This is a question which has kept educational and psychology theorists pondering for decades. In a quest for answers, recent literature seems to be supporting a common theme, that is: social interaction amongst learners plays an important part in the learning process, in fact, it can have a significant impact on learning outcomes. (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, and Haag, 1995; Eastmond and Ziegahn, 1995; Berge, 1995)

Collaboration is an essential ingredient in the recipe to create an "effective learning environment" as it provides learners with the opportunity to discuss, argue, negotiate and reflect upon existing beliefs and knowledge. The learner is "involved in constructing knowledge through a process of discussion and interaction with learning peers and experts." Harasim (1989, p.51)

To facilitate collaboration so that personal knowledge can be constructed, there needs to be a purpose for the collaboration and the purpose needs to be meaningful to the learner. Thus it is important that an appropriate context is set for the collaborative activity, for example, assigning a "real world" task for learners or a problem to which all learners can relate. In addition to setting the context, there needs to be a vehicle through which collaboration can take place. In traditional face-to-face educational settings, collaboration mostly occurs through conversation, that is, individuals interacting with one another via the use of language.

Therefore, in terms of creating an effective learning environment, four attributes surface as being paramount:

In essence, these attributes form the underpinning principles of constructivist philosophy. (Jonassen et. al., 1995.)

The World Wide Web is a tool that can create and support such a learning environment. Its ability to promote computer mediated communication (CMC), that is, the use of computer networks to allow learners in different geographical locations to interact with one another either in synchronous (real time) or asynchronous (delayed) mode via text-based communication for the purpose of discourse, can aid the construction of knowledge as learners can formulate their ideas into words and build on these ideas through the response from others. The opportunity for reflective interaction (Harasim, 1989, p.52) can be encouraged and supported, which is a feature not readily demanded in traditional university lecture settings. Jonassen et. al. (1995) argue that CMC tools can function as cognitive tools assisting with the processing and generation of new knowledge. All of these claims form a growing research base about computer mediated communication and how its features can support collaborative learning. (Jonassen et. al., 1995; Harasim, 1989, 1993; McLoughlin, 1996; Kaye, 1989, 1992; Ellsworth, 1995.)

A Technology-Based Learning Course

Implementation and evaluation issues regarding technology-based learning (TBL) environments are complex areas of study. The introduction of technologies in each training context is quite unique. Therefore, in order to prepare the students to manage such projects, the fundamental issues can be identified and addressed by critiquing appropriate literature, but it is best learned when the students have to apply this knowledge in an appropriate context.

Implementation and Evaluation of Technology Based Learningis a post graduate course offered by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Wollongong. In the Spring session of 1996, this course was implemented using World Wide Web and video conferencing technologies. Students were required to physically attend class. One class was held on campus and commenced at 4.30pm and the other at The University Centre in Sydney and commenced at 5.30pm. There were eight students and a participant observer in the Wollongong class and six students in the Sydney class. The instructor physically attended each class on alternate weeks. The two sites communicated through the use of World Wide Web chat and collaboration spaces, and video conferencing.

For assessment purposes, students were required to complete three pieces of work:

  1. Present a seminar and facilitate a discussion on a topic. (30% of final mark)
    The instructor suggested that this task be conducted as a collaborative exercise between two students, one from each site. The students were to lead a discussion and provide the class with learning experiences which would create links between the two sites. A formal written paper from each student was also required for submission.
  2. Develop a portfolio of resources relating to implementation and evaluation of TBL relevant to the student. (40% of final mark)
  3. The option of evaluating the implementation of this course as a TBL project (a concept referred to by Berge (1996) as metacommunications) or evaluating an educational software package of their choice. (30% of final mark)

The first five weeks of semester consisted of a review of relevant literature in the form of class discussions and workshops facilitated by Web chat and collaborative work sites and video conferencing. The following nine weeks consisted of student led discussions. It is the strategies implemented by students which is the focus of this paper.

All students were encouraged to access the Web outside class time. Seven students used the University's Internet infrastructure, while the remaining seven either had Internet access at their work place or subscribed to external Internet Service Providers. One student in the Wollongong class works at the University and was involved in providing a support role for the instructor. During the course she became the "informal" support person from whom most students sought assistance.

As part of the University initiative to trial flexible delivery methods, this course was one of the first to experiment with such a combination of delivery media. As such, the students were novices but all very keen and enthusiastic to use these technologies. Thus, the delivery strategy was experimental and one which resulted in some interesting findings.

Uniqueness of the Context

The context set for this course is perhaps unique in that it used a technology-based learning environment to teach the principles of implementing and evaluating technology-based learning. As such, the experiences students acquired during the course are synergistic with learning about the content.

In order to encourage collaboration, both sites needed to be "engaged" in a common activity. Problem-based learning (PBL) was thus employed as an instructional strategy to facilitate this collaboration. Irrespective of how PBL is implemented, a learning environment needs to support the following principles if it is to be classed as problem-based learning. (Savery & Duffy, 1995; Boud & Feletti, 1991; Koschmann, Feltovich, Myers, and Barrows, 1995; Camp, 1996)

  1. Learning is an active and engaged process. Rather than being told what to do or how to solve a problem, students are able to generate their own learning issues. Therefore, learning is situated in a context meaningful to the learner which leads to greater ability to transfer to other situations or settings.
  2. Learning is a process of constructing knowledge. Consistent with the philosophical principles of constructivism, (Savery & Duffy, 1995), problem-based learning purports that learners construct their own knowledge.
  3. Learners function at a metacognitive level. Learning is focused on thinking skills rather than working on the "right answer the teacher wants". Students generate their own strategies for defining the problem and working out a solution. The instructor's role is that of a facilitator, a guide or coach, probing students' thinking, monitoring their thinking and generally keeping the process moving.
  4. Learning involves "social negotiation". Problem-based learning requires group collaboration. Students are able to challenge their thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and existing knowledge by collaborating with other students thus assisting their cognitive development process.

Problem-based learning encompasses the four attributes of an effective learning environment as it fosters personal construction of knowledge by creating an appropriate context and enabling collaboration through conversation.

Implementing the Web-Based CMC Environment

In supporting the view of Berge and Collins (1995, p.5) that "responsible use of CMC means using it in addition to other media, not as a replacement", a mixed mode delivery approach was used for this course. Students experienced Web synchronous and asynchronous interactions, face-to-face class sessions and video conferencing gatherings. The Web site developed for the course provided information about each student (they were requested to submit a personal profile of themselves), relevant references, a guide to each week's readings and access to the CMC tools described below. A hard copy resource complemented the Web site by providing key reading material.

Figure 1: Home page for the course

A Live Chat tool was used synchronously during class sessions. The messages are "vertically stacked" with the most recent message appearing at the top of the screen. Each student has the option to enter their name or an alias and the maximum length of each message is approximately three lines. Messages are not stored, although dialogue can be saved during the live chat sessions.

The Collaborative Work tool, Basic Support for Cooperative Work (BSCW) site enables students to create "workspaces" which allows them to share files, messages, URLs, etc. This tool was chosen as it is a collaborative tool used in other flexible delivery programs, for example, Collis (1996). Students initially accessed the tool directly from the origin site (Germany) which caused slow response times. Even though the software was then downloaded onto a server on campus, students still found this tool cumbersome to use. Comments were made regarding the complexity of the interface and the "noise" created by the various graphical icons.

A Discussion Forum tool was introduced in the second half of session as a response to students' feedback on the limitations of the Live Chat facility and their difficulty in using the BSCW site. Students are able to create conferences by which all messages within each conference are archived and threaded. This tool can be used both in asynchronous or synchronous modes. In this course, it was mainly used synchronously in class time.

All students had access to email accounts, (although two students did not have email access for the first few weeks of the course). Email proved to be quite popular and was the medium most frequently used when exchanging files from the two sites or amongst students.

Strategies used by Students to Facilitate Collaboration

As part of their seminar presentation, each student was required to create a learning experience for the class employing various technologies. They were requested to provide the class with a set of resources relevant to their topic in the form of a HTML document which would be made available on the class Web site. Apart from this one request, the instructor provided one example to model how such a learning experience could be created. While all students had in a previous course composed a HTML document, they were left to ponder how discourse could be facilitated and supported within this technology-based learning environment. The deliberate approach of not specifying any discourse etiquette rules and providing minimum scaffolding about using the various technologies allowed students to experiment with the tools and to think about the issues involved when implementing technology-based learning projects.

What resulted was a range of approaches devised by the students. Three strategies are described illustrating how the Web via the use of CMC was used to encourage collaboration.

Case 1. The "Simpsons" and "Munsters" Live Chat Discussion

Two students, one from each site, collaborated on a topic about useability of video conferencing. The two students created a BSCW workspace a week before their presentation and solicited feedback from the class of their general impressions of video conferencing. The feedback obtained was summarised in their Web page.

The two students conducted a video conference session providing the class with some background to the topic. The tasks for the evening were explained as well as being provided on their Web page. One task involved forming two groups in each site and engaging in a live chat discussion with the respective remote group. The two groups in the Sydney class were referred to in the live chat space as the 'MUNSTERS' and 'SIMPSONS' (upper case), and the two groups in the Wollongong class were identified as 'munsters' and 'simpsons' (lower case). Students worked collaboratively with their corresponding remote group on an assigned question.

An excerpt from the live chat is provided in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: The Munsters and the Simpsons-"online"

simpson homer - 08/27/96:18:53: Shelley - what do you think about the qwuality of dialogue going on here?
simpson maggie - 08/27/96:18:53: I still want a question on content because I find it very had to concentrate on the content of most presentations (not tonights of course)
SIMPSON Marge - 08/27/96:18:53: Clare before we go when will you call or when will I call?
Shelley - 08/27/96:18:53: I'm not sure in what context it is taking place, so am finding it idfficult to pick up the threads
munsters-Regina - 08/27/96:18:54: I think using video conferencing helps in gathering data very quickly. The nt Howerver , the human interaction is not present. I am quite amazed with the use of technology on how to reach people. It saves time and the worry of poeple that has to travel
munsters - Clare - 08/27/96:18:54: D&F; the contextual clues are not on the IRC - seeing the person you are talking to is much better.
simpsons - 08/27/96:18:54: I think the content is important too - We often focus on the technology and forget the discussion
SIMPSONS (George) - 08/27/96:18:54: Regina, I much preferred chatting at dinner to you.George.
zorro - 08/27/96:18:54: ziggy. are you there in spirit?
munster(D&F;) - 08/27/96:18:55: agree!!!
simpson homer - 08/27/96:18:55: Shelley - visit this site to put it in context http:// (address omitted)
simpson maggie - 08/27/96:18:55: Wow oooh!!
munsters - Clare - 08/27/96:18:55: OOOOOOOHHHHHHH!!!!
simpson homer - 08/27/96:18:55: No ones asked me to dinner
zorro - 08/27/96:18:55: okay!
SIMPSON Marge - 08/27/96:18:55: blahhhhhhh
zorro - 08/27/96:18:55: children children!
simpsons - 08/27/96:18:56: Regina and George, Is having dinner virtual collaboration?

(Note: When using the Live Chat facility, the most recent message appears as the first message. To aid readability, this has been reversed.)

Some interesting issues arise from this excerpt:

As stated by McLoughlin (1996), CMC supports many threads of conversation. In this example, there are eight threads of conversation taking place at the one time. Also, Shelley is not a student but a lecturer from another university who accessed this live chat discussion from another site. While quite a complex threaded discussion, the students managed well as they focused on the dialogue of their respective remote group. This may suggest that the potential "noise" created by multiple dialogues in the one live chat session can be minimised by structuring the task appropriately.

Notice how one group is able to review and participate in the dialogue of the other group. Also, a member of one group can join the discussion of another group or send a message to a member in another group without disturbing the flow of discourse. The facilitators meanwhile can monitor the entire process. Such "flexible interactivity" cannot be implemented in a traditional classroom environment with ease.

The facilitators of the discussion, that is, Ziggy and Zorro, were able to play multiple roles. When they needed to communicate with each other they assumed the aliases of Zorro and Ziggy. When they needed to facilitate the discussion they wrote the instructions in upper case and they were also able to participate in the discussions under the simpson and MUNSTER aliases (although this is not illustrated in the above excerpt). CMC allows this to occur easily with minimum disruption to the flow of discourse.

The informality of the tone of conversation allows incorrect grammar and spelling to be tolerated and enables humour to surface. Such elements seemed to enhance class bonding. For example, when the message from George was posted, the Wollongong class roared with laughter. These emotions were also conveyed in the discourse by the inclusions of "Wow oooh!!" and "OOOOOOOHHHHHHH!!!!".

Two students who worked together under the alias of munster(D&F;) are from non-English speaking backgrounds. They contributed to the discussion and when phrases or incorrect spelling were not understood, they asked for clarification and received prompt replies from others in the live chat session.

Case 2. Unstructured Threaded Discussion

One student created a learning experience for the class using the Discussion Forum tool. The topic focused on creating Teams when implementing TBL projects. A Web page provided background to the topic and provided a description of the problem the class was to tackle. Email was used to inform all class members that the Discussion Forum tool was to be used and that the class was to form small groups. The intention was that the small groups of three to four people would create their own "conference" space and collaborate on the problem assigned. The live chat facility would be available for any "informal" communication.

Many students did not access their email account prior to commencement of class and were unaware of how the class was to undertake the problem solving process.

Due to the facilitator's lack of structure in guiding the discussion, students did not form smaller groups and create separate "conferences". Instead, a large class discussion occurred. The facilitator created new "conference" spaces during class time in an attempt to guide students. She posted messages such as:

"You are working in a different space to the rest of us - please move over to Case Study. Click on topics, then Case Study, then Thread."

"We seem to be skirting around the issues and not getting down to the questions. Can we revert to the live chat for a while. I'm crossing over now, when you've crossed over would you register your presence please."

Despite these instructions, several students lost interest and motivation and as a result the problem task assigned was not concluded very well.

There was also a lack of depth of discussion. Possible reasons include:

Case 3. Structured Threaded Discussion

In this case, one student created a learning experience for the class using video conferencing, the Discussion Forum tool and the Live Chat facility. The topic dealt with Maintenance Evaluation. She constructed a Web page which provided students with a list of resources to access when working on the task assigned. Three problems were created. She assigned each student to a particular group. She deliberately placed one person in each group who was familiar with the background of the problem assigned. She also made sure that within each group of four there were two people from each site. Prior to commencement of class, she created three conference spaces in the Discussion Forum tool. Within each conference space the first message detailed the task. The Live Chat tool was used towards the end of the class session for the three groups to summarise their discussions. During the class session, groups collaborated on the task and they seemed to be more "engaged" in the task than in previous classes. The collaborative problem solving process worked so well that the class ran out of time to completely summarise their discussions.

The success of this strategy is supported by student feedback in their review of the course such as: "The most successful use of Interaction occurred when the organiser of the discussion had carefully thought out the tasks and allocated students to specific groups."


The insights from these cases have led us to form a series of general guidelines that are useful starting points for anyone wishing to pursue online delivery. The issues raised fall into three categories: pedagogical, technological and organisational.

Pedagogical Issues

Asynchronicity of the medium

The traditional mode of physically attending class for three hours each week was adopted and while students were encouraged to access the class Web site between sessions, many students did not find it necessary. If student Web pages were on the server prior to their seminar presentation, preparation for discussion and questioning could occur. The Discussion Forum tool could be used asynchronously during this lead up time and students would have time to reflect on the material and on comments made before making comments themselves. This may aid metacognition. It may also assist second language students who are having difficulties understanding some of the terms and also students who lack confidence in their immediate response. The following week the students presenting the seminar can then use the discussion summary to justify their position and finalise the discussion using the Live Chat space.

Students were responsible for facilitating their discussions during seminars however due to time constraints it was difficult to take advantage of this role. Mason (1991) highlights the need for online facilitators to clearly understand their role. "The lack of adequate leadership is one of the factors sometimes responsible for (online) conference failure; unless a moderator sets an agenda and keeps the group working towards its goal, nothing much will occur." (Kerr, 1986 in Mason, 1991) She suggests that it is not just the online instructor's role to moderate. "The initiative taken particularly by adult students in performing some of the intellectual functions of the teacher is also seen as a sign of active, self-directed learning." (Mason, 1990 in Mason, 1991.)

Collaborative activities

Smaller tasks could be introduced at the start of the course to encourage students to overcome difficulties with the technology.

Collaborative learning activities may be linked to assessment since in this course there was no real incentive to collaborate as all assessment was based on individual work.

Technological Issues

Planning and preparation prior to the course

Planning is an essential ingredient for any new delivery method. The use of technology needs to become seamless for both the students and the instructors involved if effective learning is to take place. At least six months is required beforehand to ensure that all aspects are considered.

Extensive collaboration is required with technical people on campus. It is fairly disheartening to discover that within five minutes of starting a Live Chat session the system crashes and the whole campus network has gone down because it simply can't cope with the traffic.

All software and Web access should be thoroughly checked and trialed, though flexibility may be important where it becomes obvious that the software is not meeting the needs of the students. (The use of the BSCW software is an example of this.)

The situation in this course was fairly unique as the evaluation and implementation of the technology used in the course was integral to the course itself. It raised students' awareness that planning and preparation are essential when implementing technology-based learning environments.

Web site development

The Web page design should be considerate of the variety of users and their machines. For students accessing from home on slower modems, an alternate text-based interface needs to be available to improve access.

Ideally a Web space should be set up by instructors in a way that suits the needs of themselves and their students. Students should be able to access their own materials, set up their own Web pages easily and transfer them to a Web server without having to go through a third person as did occur in the course. Students emailed their Web pages to the support person or physically went to see her in order to put their work on the server. What resulted was the support person spent a considerable amount of time each week setting up students' Web pages because of limited access to the server.

Student mailboxes need to be set up before the course or at the first class meeting so communication is not hindered.

Access to the Live Chat and Discussion Forum tools should have allowance for multiple and private chat rooms if required so small groups could discuss a number of topics. This would also permit private collaborations when organising seminars.

Training and Support

This is an essential component of any Web-based course.

For the students:

For the instructor:

Organisational Issues

Strategic planning and institutional support are very necessary. Decisions need to be made about Internet access for students. Will they dial in from home and use the campus network? Should they have their own service provider? If so, who are the recommended ones in the local area?

It is a reasonable expectation for post graduate students that if modem access is required for the course that students have their systems set up and are familiar with them before the subject starts.

Equity issues are also a consideration so on campus access or loan modems/machines may be required. There is a pool of laptops with modems available for student loan at the University of Wollongong. Loan machines are also available for instructors to provide them with Internet access whilst off campus. For this course, two students borrowed modems whilst none required a computer.


This study has provided insights into the nature of computer mediated communication within a post graduate course. In future course offerings, it is envisaged that the features of asynchronous communications will be better utilised to develop a more flexible and effective learning environment and the seeming reliance on fixed time meetings will be further explored. It is hoped that a useful model will be developed to enable instructors to use the flexibility of the systems now becoming available but the system developed should place limited demands for new skill development on the instructor. The methods of teaching discussed throughout this paper will become more widespread as higher education institutions seek to meet the development needs of an increasingly busy clientele. It also provides a unique method for more regional institutions to compete with well sited traditional institutions and still provide a dynamic and interactive learning experience.


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Shirley Agostinho, Geraldine Lefoe and John Hedberg ©, 1997. The authors assign to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers, and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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