Sunday, October 29, 2017

Developing online collaborative competence

CC0 Public domain by Geralt on Pixabay
Education has until the last 20 years always been based around synchronous meetings in a physical space. Lectures, seminars and group discussions take place at scheduled times in specific places and if you can't attend, you miss out. The alternative was self-study. Digital technology has enabled the rise of asynchronous interaction, at first as simple text-based discussion forums and later developing to include audio and video interaction, social media, simulations and game-based learning. However, synchronous interaction is still seen as the ideal form for education and asynchronous interaction is still a second-best solution. A large proportion of educational technology is devoted to replicating the physical synchronous meeting as lecture capture, webinars and online group discussions using video, chat or both. However I would like to suggest that asynchronous interaction should be given much more respect and that we see it as a complement to and at times a better alternative to synchronous interaction.

Strengths of asynchronous interaction
  • You are never alone in your studies. Support is always available, either in the form of recorded tutorials and FAQ pages or by asking questions in class forums and other online communities. In many asynchronous online communities you can get answers within minutes and of course if necessary you can easily meet colleagues in a chat or a video call to discuss your problem.
  • Everyone has a voice. In synchronous arenas (both classroom and in web meetings) only the most confident students have a voice and dominate the discussion. Often it's the teacher who takes centre stage, even in seminars. In a discussion forum or using video tools like VoiceThread or Flipgrid everyone gets a chance to make their point and be seen and heard. Many students want to read more and reflect before voicing an opinion and the asynchronous mode gives them time to do so.
  • More time to think can lead to a deeper and more nuanced discussion. Often in class the opinions raised are spontaneous and superficial. The online discussion gives time for ideas to mature and the level of discussion can therefore be deeper.
  • Greater flexibility. No matter when you prefer to study you can still be part of the discussion.
  • Enables global participation. Trying to find a suitable synchronous meeting time for students from different time zones can be a major headache. An asynchronous arena offers suits everyone.
Weaknesses of asynchronous interaction
  • Effective asynchronous interaction is dependent on synchronous meetings to establish a sense of community in the group. This can be achieved by meeting either in a physical space or online but without first building an atmosphere of mutual trust and a sense of belonging all asynchronous interaction will be at best superficial.
  • Large open discussion forums will also become dominated by the vociferous minority and can easily become toxic unless a clear code of conduct is communicated and enforced. Better to divide the class into study groups with facilitators/tutors to establish safe spaces for real discussion.
  • Reaching a critical mass. Groups need a certain amount of encouragement and motivation to discuss effectively and this means that some members must be very active at the start to provide lots of positive feedback to comments and encourage the quieter members to contribute. This requires a conscious effort and training.
The key to more effective use of asynchronous learning spaces is the development of online collaborative literacy. Few people today have this skill and simply don't know how to use online spaces for meaningful discussion. One way to develop is maybe to re-examine how we use synchronous meetings and in some cases replace synchronous with asynchronous. I'm not saying that we should not meet each other in the future, that is a basic human need, but that we need to learn how to interact in new ways as well. The widespread use of asynchronous communication in the business world makes learning this skill a central part of higher education. We need to learn how to fully exploit the advantages of asynchronous learning spaces.


  1. This issue is complex. But the possibilities is now much greater than now than before - with when asynchronous learning just was a discussion forum (only) and content (mainly text). Now you can represent knowledge and communicate with all semiotic resources, to represent your knowledge, competencies, data etc. With tools such as VoiceThread, Padlet and e-books (EDUPUB format) as good examples. The new asynchronous learning spaces can challenge the LMS-plattforms modes.

    REF: and

    1. Exactly. Sometimes even asynchronous discussions can be "face to face"!

    2. Working within an LMS does cater for the asynchronous - discussion threads, wiki's , projects among many other activities. It does necessitate the effort of the facilitator or the pre-designed course to be structured. I agree that synchronous learning is effective as the facilitator and students are able to pick up cues in voice tone or expression but in most learning spheres critical thinking is scaffold-ed when all information is gathered and mashed out. The learner is able to critique and make informed decisions. Asynchronous learning allows the individual their space to take their own stance and be confident after evaluating.

  2. During our (PBL group 3) most recent Adobe Connect meeting, we talked about how we were actually in a synchronous and asynchronous meeting at the same time. We participated via video and microphone, but some participants also used the chat for asking and responding to questions, or for posting considerations. I quite liked that. We also talked about how this way of working could let more than the usual extroverts be active during a lecture/meeting.
    On my computer, I never dare to leave the Adobe Connect interphase, since the screen tends to freeze if I do, but I would like to eg write in our common Google Drive document during the meeting. So tchnlogoy, while it has come very far, is still not completely "supportive"....
    Can't figure out a good way to "sign" this post, but this is Charlotte Nilsson.

  3. Thanks for the comments Charlotte. I was involved in a very interesting project about trying to make webinars more interactive and using different tools with Adobe Connect. The project website has a lot of ideas, tips and articles on this theme if you are interested.

  4. Thank you for the post. I can say that I was a little unsure about online collaborative work until it came to topic 3 in the ONL course. I realized that by working together with benefits of online tools, the experience of collaborative learning is more fun and I can learn more. I could not agree more that working face-to-face and collaborating online have its own benefits. One may not be substitute for another. We just need to use it with the right circumstances.

  5. Interesting post :) Unfortunately, asynchronous learning is associated with the rare possibility of direct contact with other students and the teacher. This requires a lot of self-discipline from the participants.

    1. Of course if synchronous meetings are possible we should use them but we all need to learn to collaborate asynchronously as well. Synchronous meetings are sometimes so hard to organize. So that’s why I want us to focus more on building asynchronous skills.