Chapter two


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This chapter is dedicated to the critical analysis of the most relevant and credible literature concerning collaborative learning. The first part of the review focuses on the theoretical underpinning of CL. It contains a brief overview of the learning trends in the 20th century and then proceeds to the review of the theories, such as constructivism, cognitivism, activity theory and theory of social presence, which help understand and conceptualise the process of collaborative learning. In the second section, the review focuses on CL itself by exploring its principles, advantages and challenges and determining its relation with teachers and students. The third section examines the relevant craft of group formation. It discusses the appropriate group structure and suitable strategies for effective group formation. The roles of group members are well defined in this section together with CL assessment needs. In addition, the section demonstrates what is expected to be seen in typical CL groups. Finally, the last part of the chapter explores cultural considerations of CL. Here, the author discusses literature on the CL adoption worldwide, as well as in the Middle East and Oman specifically. Additionally, challenges and opportunities associated with the adoption of this approach in Oman are outlined.


Theoretical Foundations of CL

Learning Paradigms of the 20th-21st Centuries

Education is constantly evolving in accordance with changing cultural norms, economic conditions, political situation, technological advances and demographic data. These drivers fundamentally change the ways in which information is presented to learners, as well as the ways learners perceive, remember and apply it to meet their increasing needs. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, perceptions and attitudes towards learning and education began changing under the influence of the pervasive industrialisation. Due to the immense progress in terms of industry production and increasing demand, the unprecedented amount of services and goods was created at that time. Education emulated the process of industry production and viewed students as raw materials that needed forming and polishing. Such attitude gradually influenced the design of instruction, curriculum and assessment in schools (Edgar, 2012). Various types of vocational-oriented institutions and engineer schools were opened at that time to address the demand for high-skilled workers (Wikander, Gustafsson, & Riis, 2012). They used practical training sessions and brief theoretical lessons to educate students and were limited to one or several specific subjects.

During the World War II, there was a high need in people knowing how to read and interpret the information because it often was a matter of life and death. Education faced the need to prepare people who can not only read but also understand and apply their knowledge and skills in critical situations (Edgar, 2012; Domenech, Brown, and Sherman, 2016). The first inventions and scientific principles introduced at that time demonstrated that the society needed the more educated and experienced workforce that could bring about collaborative effort and rebuild the world tormented by the disastrous war. By the 1950s-1960s and following the baby boom, more people received an opportunity to get secondary and higher education. During this time, an increasing attention to learning objectives and instructional design was paid, with scholars developing new approaches to learning that could address the needs of the evolving society (Edgar, 2012). Educational theories such as behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, social learning theory, experimental learning, etc. have been developed during this period, with the focus made on enhancing the learning experience and addressing each student’s abilities and needs (Harasim, 2012; Savage & Fautley, 2013). Notably, by the end of the 20th century, the tools used for educational purposes also diversified, which slightly changed the learning paradigms (Brown & van der Merwe, 2015). Thus, collaborative learning became useful for learning and started to be used by different communities.

In the 21st century, more open minded, creative and tolerant workforce is needed, which is why education is concerned with giving the most relevant life skills such as collaboration that will help students become successful members of the community (Wyatt-Smith & Cumming, 2009; McQuiggan et al., 2015). All-round development, critical skills and problem solving, innovation and creativity, communication skills, and ability to collaborate and work in teams have been central in the 21st-century education (Advanced Leadership Initiative, 2014). Because the demands have increased considerably, especially compared to the beginning of the 20th century, educators had to diversify and innovate educational tools and pedagogical approaches to modern students. Therefore, the trend towards greater use of collaboration, which started at the end of the 20th century, has taken on a new dimension nowadays.

According to Nawaz and Khan (2012), the incorporation of the CL paradigm is associated with several other shifts in the learning process, such as the transition to customised learning and learner-centred education and the shift from teaching-instruction to teaching-facilitation. Besides, Nawaz and Khan (2012) emphasised that CL has helped to make the process of learning more engaging and interactive as compared to traditional learning practices.

Uden et al. (2013) argued that during the past several years, the learning paradigm shifted from teacher centred to learner centred classrooms. The latter is defined as “learning through sharing, through social and mutual interactions, using CL platforms” (as cited in Berge & Muilenburg, 2013, p. 4). According to another definition, collaborative learning is “the acquisition of any knowledge and skills through the use of exchanging ideas in a collaborative setting.” (Geddes, 2004, p. 214). Both definitions highlight the informal nature of learning that is not limited to any teacher centredness and authority. In other words, CL takes place when an individual takes advantage of the group learning opportunity to build up knowledge and develop skills (Brown & van der Merwe, 2015). One needs to note that CL can now be a substitution for all other learning paradigms and definitely a solution to all challenges of the contemporary educational system (McQuiggan et al., 2015). Rather, it is a tool that helps enhance and personalise the learning experience. Because it is flexible and accessible in any classroom, CL successfully assists learners move away from the dependency of their teachers to get information from each other, which is an extremely important skill in the contemporary educational and workplace settings (Kalz, Bayyurt, & Specht, 2014).

Collaborative learning is another innovative learning paradigm increasingly used by contemporary students and teachers. As a dependable mode of advanced learning, CL creates a setting where learning is achieved through sharing of information among learners with the help of collaboration (Briganti, 2014). Unlike other forms of traditional learning which are inherently individualistic, this learning paradigm focuses on the group interaction and cognition rather than individual development (Ehlers, 2013). Teachers embracing this paradigm play a role of negotiators who facilitate and promote collaborative group cognition (Kock, 2009).

In this way, evidence provided in the literature vividly demonstrates the evolution of the learning paradigms from the beginning of the 20th century to the modern days. At the beginning of the 20th century, education was limited to vocational-oriented learning, which was based merely on practical learning. Gradually, there was a shift towards more theoretical knowledge, which was provided with the help of books and written materials under teachers’ full control of classroom activities. With the implementation of CL there was a dramatic improvement in the learning process, which became more students centred. Notably, as the CL paradigm evolved, teachers’ role in the learning process also changed from authoritative instructors to facilitators who merely monitor and direct the learning process in the required direction.


Theories Underpinning CL

CL is grounded in several theories, such as constructivism, cognitivism, activity theory and theory of social presence. These theories need to be analysed in detail because they can help get an insight into the CL as a pedagogical approach and understand the theoretical basis behind its principles and processes. Constructivist theory, which has been developed by such famous theorists as Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, is based on the idea that learners construct, or create their own understanding of the world by analysing personal experience and communicating with others (Wilson, 2014). As explained by Gordon (2014), constructivism is based on the idea that people possess the innate drive to make sense of the world. They do not absorb the knowledge passively but actively construct it by integrating the new experience and information into their picture of the world. Notably, constructivist theory typically has three forms, such as cognitive constructivism, social constructivism and critical constructivism. The first form focuses on the role of the individual cognitive process in meaningful learning, whereas the latter two highlight the impact of communication and social interaction on achieving meaningful learning (Snowman & McCown, 2011).

It is important to note that constructivism focuses on learning activities and environments rather than on learning objects. According to this theory, knowledge is not transmitted by the teacher but constructed by the learner as he or she gains meaningful experience (Tomei, 2008). These ideas were proposed by Piaget (1960, 1975), who believed that knowledge should be constructed in the process of active participation and interaction with the environment. Jonassen (1994) supported this view by emphasising that more attention should be paid to the design of the learning environment rather than to the sequence and instruction. This scholar maintained that carefully planned and comprehensive learning environment helps learners develop and facilitate their problem solving and decision making skills that are highly important for any student. Additionally, Vygotsky (1986) highlighted the importance of social interaction, discussion, practical experience and error in clarifying, modifying and extending understanding of the new concepts. In this way, researchers argued that in order to make the learning process more effective, it is necessary to provide children with the learning environment where they can explore physical, visual, sensory and sound information in different contexts.

Constructivist learning theory has made a significant contribution to the learning environments integrating new approaches, informing the development of collaborative learning. Cognitivists view CL as a useful tool to allow students construct and refine their cognitive perception of the world (Tatnall & Davey, 2014). As noted by Tatnall (2009), collaborative learning allows more engagement in reasoning, decision making, critical thinking and synthesis of information as they acquire it through diversified ideas. Therefore, one can assume that CL as a pedagogical approach based on exchanging of ideas to build up knowledge is also grounded in constructivism. CL helps create a favourable learning environment in which students can learn to generate multiple solutions to problems, apply and develop numerous skills and facilitate their communication and social skills as they construct the new knowledge (Linuma, 2015). In this way, CL allows learners to construct their understanding of the reality through active collaboration and interaction.

Another theory underpinning the application of CL is cognitivism. As explained by Harasim (2012), cognitivism was developed as an extension to the behaviourist theory, which assumes that there is a direct link between stimulus and response. Proponents of the cognitivist perspective on learning argue that the link between stimulus (input) and response (output) is not direct and that cognitive processes occurring in an individual’s mind can greatly affect the learning outcome. Therefore, instead of studying the external behaviour, cognitivists focus on the internal mental processes that help a person to make sense of the world. More specifically, they emphasise the role of such elusive yet essential processes as thinking, imagining and conceptualising, which behaviourists consider neither measurable nor observable (Harasim, 2012). Cognitivism postulates that these concepts need to be studied and analysed to understand how human mind works and develop teaching strategies that correspond to individuals’ mental structures and cognitive processes. The development of cognitivism is closely connected with the invention and advancement of CL strategies, whose operation can be used to illustrate the complex information processing occurring in a learner’s brain as he or she acquires the new information from other members of the group (Jones, 2015).

Cognitivist theory has been widely applied in practice, informing the investigation of personality, motivation, individual skills and learning styles as well as their impact on the learning outcome. Notably, educators applying cognitivist approach make sure that instruction creates cognitive structures instead of simply presenting the educational material (Mastrian, 2010). Moreover, teachers using the cognitivist theory acknowledge the role of several key principles without which learning is ineffective. Thus, for example, the cognitivist approach implies paying attention to the structured and logical presentation of material, building on prior knowledge, acknowledging differences in learning styles and giving cognitive feedback (Swerdlow, 2013). The application of cognitivism has also resulted in the design of smaller groups where students can process information through practical activities and social interaction.

CL embraces the basic ideas of cognitivist learning theory. In essence, CL uses social interaction to enable cognitive development and make the learning process more meaningful. In this context, social interaction and communication between students become the cognitive process itself, as learners collaboratively acquire information and construct the new knowledge. Interestingly, CL is also closely related to social cognitivism. Social cognitive theory postulates that individuals learn not only by trying something in practice but also by replicating someone else’s actions (Zheng, 2014). CL provides an environment where students can observe their peers’ actions and follow their example. In this way, CL helps construct knowledge through the complex socio-cognitive processes.

Activity theory is another approach that lies in the heart of the CL practices. In fact, activity theory is an umbrella term for a variety of different theories that attempt to understand and explain human activity as a process (Hasan & Kazlauskas, 2014). In the context of learning, Engeström’s version of this theory, which is often referred to as Scandinavian Activity Theory is the most applicable (Engeström, Miettinen, & Punamäki, 1999). This theory postulates that people use external tools (e.g. CL platforms) and internal tools (e.g. cognitive maps) to achieve their goals. These tools influence both the behaviour of the actors and the social structure within which these people interact. In the educational context, this means that CL platforms have societal meaning and define the way students interact with each other and perceive information. Therefore, instructors and teachers are recommended to use these platforms wisely and appropriately to create the favourable social environment for learning. When applied to CL, activity theory defines learning as collective, goal-oriented and culturally mediated human activity, which is based on the use of other peoples’ ideas as the input for constructing knowledge (Wang, 2015).

Finally, because CL implies the considerable degree of social interaction between learners, the theory of social presence is also applicable. Social presence was defined by Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) as “the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p. 65). Simplistically, the theory defines social presence as the feeling that individuals are involved in meaningful collaborative communication exchange (Amichai-Hamburger, 2013). As one can assume from this definition, the theory of social presence relates to classroom collaborative communication, mostly via a variety of learning activities. The underlying benefit according to this theory, CL communication involves a number of verbal cues (sound, dress, facial expression, etc.), so it is extremely high in social presence. Because individuals share verbal information, they are likely to perceive communication as supportive and intimate.

With the growing use of collaborative learning, the theory of social presence gains the increasing importance in education. Scholars believe that the degree of perceived social presence influences the functioning of the learning community and ultimately impacts positively on learning outcomes (Jonassen & Land, 2012). This happens because students gain the sense of the social connection when they see and hear their peers and feel the interdependence that usually develops in CL real-life classes. This idea was proved in several empirical studies showing that social presence indeed affects motivation, learning performance and learning experience (Gibson, 2009; Kohlmeyer, Seese, & Sincich, 2011; Yang et al., 2016). Therefore, the theory of social presence allows suggesting that in order to make the learning process more effective, communication should be natural, giving students the feeling that they interact with other people for a purpose. Moreover, CL should provide more interactive learning environment that fosters collaboration and personal communication, as these aspects are believed to increase the perceived social presence (Ferdig, 2008).

Naturally, the degree of social presence affects the degree of social interaction and quality of learning in CL environments as well. Evidence suggests that social presence increases students’ satisfaction with learning and social interactions, which are the foundation of CL (Jia, 2012). Therefore, according to the theory, CL should focus on facilitating group cohesion and group culture that could in turn promote quality interactions. It is also important to study and incorporate collaborative and self-regulated strategies that could increase learners’ sense of social presence. Students need to feel they are studying in an intimate group despite the fact that learners come from different backgrounds and culture and possess distinctive learning preferences and interests. One can suggest that because of its unique social context, CL requires specifically tailored plans and arrangements learning that would give learners the sense of belonging to their group and motivation to collaborate with peers (Jia, 2012).


Concept of Collaboration as a Guiding Principle of CL

CL is based on the notion of students collaboration in learning, which is a type of the social activity “in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together” (as cited in Jones, 2015, p. 61). Some scholars distinguish between cooperative and collaborative learning. As explained by Jones (2015), the first term typically relates to the division of workload and mutual assistance whereas the latter implies stronger interdependence and assistance as ways to achieve learning goals. Orvis (2008) argued that cooperative learning is characterised by a high degree of member interdependence, individual accountability and social skills development. Collaborative learning, in contrast, cultivates free thinking and independence. The goal of this type of learning is to teach students to find multiple solutions to abstract problems, thus creating new knowledge through social interaction (Orvis, 2008). Collaborative learning may be required by the teacher or instructor or consciously chosen by students as a more effective and interactive way of acquiring and practicing new knowledge (Jones, 2015).

In CL, collaboration is the basic principle that determines the learning practices and academic outcomes. As explained earlier, CL is based on interaction and collaboration of students from different backgrounds and cultures and with different learning preferences and interests through collaborative platforms. One needs to stress that CL is not focused on individual knowledge building. Rather, it aims to create meaning and knowledge in the process of joint activity (Orvis, 2008). In other words, unlike other learning paradigms concerned primarily with educating individual students and raising their academic and cognitive abilities, CL encourages collaboration and group cognition as the basic components of knowledge building. CL redirects skills and understanding from the individual to the group, thus creating shared cognition through communication and interaction (Orvis, 2008).

Benefits of collaborative learning have been widely discussed in the literature. It is believed that this type of learning is associated with greater academic achievement, increased motivation, improved social skills, etc. For instance, Chen (2001) argued that collaborative learning allows learners to gain new knowledge or find solutions to the complex problems, which would be difficult or impossible to achieve individually. In the collaborative learning situations such as conversations, discussions and debates, learners can share ideas and construct their own understanding of the situation. Herrmann (2013) found that collaboration increases student engagement and promotes dialogue and argument as ways to constructing knowledge and understanding. Leaning (2015) noted that collaborative learning has a significant positive influence on the psychological state of participants because it helps them deal with stressful situations and deadlines. Additionally, collaborative learning benefits employers by providing them with the workforce experienced in teamwork and cooperation, without which the contemporary organisational setting cannot operate (Leaning, 2015). One can also distinguish the civic benefit of collaborative learning, as this process teaches students not to compete but support each other, thus raising socially responsible citizens.

There is no unified collaborative learning theory because this process is so multidimensional and complex that it cannot be reduced to one approach. However, there are some theorists who attempted to conceptualise and explain collaborative learning from the theoretical perspective. One of such scholars is Gerry Stahl. His collaboration theory developed in 2004 postulates that social interactions such as debates or discourse help learners construct new knowledge. According to Stahl (2004), learning is not a passive process of acquiring the information provided by the instructor or teacher. Instead, it is the dynamic and continuous process of finding, processing, remembering and applying information through communication. This is a gradual accumulation of information and experience that have been developed though social interaction and collaboration in the learning group.

Stahl (2002) identified four main themes in his collaboration theory. The first theme called collaborative knowledge building is achieved by “intertwining of group and personal perspectives” (Stahl, 2002, p. 2). Unlike conventional learning based on the transmission of information to individual students, collaborative knowledge building focuses on diverse activities that take place within learning groups, such as discussions, debates, argument, etc. (Stahl, 2011). The focus of such learning is not only on the achievement of personal learning but also on teaching individuals to work in the group and helping them experience intellectual engagement and motivation. The scholar highlighted that not all knowledge can be collaboratively built, as the learning of facts and dates, for example, requires the traditional learning approach (Stahl, 2002).

Group and personal perspectives is another aspect of the Stahl’s theory that needs to be described in more detail. According to the researcher, each member of the learning community brings one’s personal perspective and experiences, which then interact in the process of knowledge building (Stahl, 2002). In his recently published book Constructing Dynamic Triangles Together; Stahl (2015) argued that humans have the unique ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, which helps them understand different perspectives on one problem or phenomena. According to the scholar, this perspectives’ sharing is the basis of collaborative learning and social interaction. Stahl (2002) also stressed that while personal perspectives certainly contribute to knowledge building, it is the interaction of different perspectives and the contribution of all members that truly matters in collaborative learning.

Furthermore, Stahl (2002) paid much attention to mediation by artifacts occurring in collaborative learning. According to Stahl’s (2002) definition, “artifact is a meaningful object created by people for specific uses” (p. 11). Broadly speaking, artifacts can be physical (e.g. video recordings) and symbolic (knowledge as the final product). For example, in the context of CL, artifacts can be recorded texts, articles, handouts that are used to share and acquire information. Mediation, in turn, occurs when a group of learners use a software system to study a new topic and this software system serves as a medium through which students interact. Finally, Stahl (2002) argued that this interaction needs to be investigated to understand how mediation and artifacts function in different contexts during collaborative knowledge building. This helps explore how learners solve problems through collaboration and get an insight into how they think, decide and learn in a group setting.

According to Stahl (2002), his theory of collaborative learning and its four basic aspects are not useless theoretical claims. In fact, they are closely related to CL in real practice and may serve as a framework for conceptualising and understanding this pedagogical approach. More specifically, the notion of knowledge building highlights the importance of various activities associated with learning and knowledge acquisition. Connection between personal and group perspectives established by Stahl suggests that specific approaches, practices and curriculum should be developed for CL classes to promote individual and team contributions. Furthermore, mediation of artifacts points to the necessity to get a better understanding of CL systems and digital software as mediators of knowledge. Finally, Stahl’s interaction analysis may inform the facilitation of CL practices by measuring the successes and challenges and assessing the learning activities’ effectiveness.


CL as a New Educational Theory

Principles and History of CL

Although CL is typically perceived as a relatively new phenomenon, the first studies conceptualising this type of learning were published in the 1960s. At that time, CL was based on the behaviourist perspective, which perceived learning as the simple memorisation of facts. As a result, the first CL programs used small groups of student to practice language presented to learners in small, logically structured parts (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006). However, some scholars argue that the actual history of CL began with the work of Doug Engelbart (1973), who studied synchronous collaboration among individuals in a group setting. Notably, for several decades since Engelbart’s publication, the focus was made on group cooperative work (GCW) and the research was limited to young learners. Scholars such as Coleman (1999), Greenberg (1991), Grudin (1994) and many others investigated how collaboration can facilitate teams’ collaboration with the help of physical interaction. As suggested by Strijbos, Kirschner, and Martens (2006), GCW was the precursor of CL because it set the basis for investigating knowledge construction within physical teams.

Gradually, psychologists and educators began recognising that collaboration may also be useful in the educational setting (Bruner, 1996; Tomasello, 1999, etc.). Learning theorists, educational psychologists, instructional designers and software developers increasingly paid attention to the potential benefits of collaboration and argued that it may become beneficial for promoting learning and facilitation of teaching. The first scholars developing the CL paradigm were inspired by the immense potential of the approach and believed that constantly improving CL strategies could significantly facilitate collaborative learning, for example by accurately assessing group learning (Stahl et al., 2014). Although the term   collaborative learning was first used in 1989, it was recognised as the new paradigm only in 1996 and since then has been gradually established in many educational institutions around the world (Koschmann, 1996). A variety of approaches and programs of CL learning have been developed for various educational settings and subjects. Nowadays, research concerns the practical application of CL, processes of joint activity, construction of meaning, artifacts, and so on and explores the ways of facilitating CL processes in secondary and higher education.

CL is based on the interaction and collaboration of learners through, which ultimately generates collective knowledge. CL participants do not study things individually, but remain focused on the common goal and engaged with a shared task for the whole group (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006). This learning paradigm is based on the idea that learners do not simply acquire the new knowledge from their teachers and peers but construct it through social interaction and communication. The main idea behind CL is that although much of the cognitive work is done individually, only collaboration with others makes this cognitive experience meaningful and leads to the better acquisition of information (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011). In this way, CL helps develop the basic communication and collaboration skills that help learners succeed in the contemporary organisational setting that largely depends on teamwork and cooperation. CL also helps participants to improve their critical thinking and information sharing skills, which also helps prepare the competent and effective workforce (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011; Law et al. 2015).

CL strategies may vary significantly depending on the available resources, educational aims, students’ abilities, etc. Quite often, CL structure and processes depend largely on communicative and interactive abilities and advancements of educational institutions and facilities.


Advantages of CL

It is believed that CL has multiple academic, social and psychological advantages. To begin with, CL is associated with enhanced critical thinking skills. For example, the study conducted by Posey (2007) revealed that students’ critical skills were trained and improved during the CL interactions. More importantly, scholars found that higher-performing students helped to develop critical thinking skills of their lower-performing peers, which demonstrates that CL also fosters communication and knowledge sharing. CL is beneficial for students’ problem solving skills as well, which is supported by empirical research. Thus, for instance, Baghaei, Mitrovic, and Irwin (2007) revealed that participation in CL activities improves learners’ problem solving skills and helps develop more effective collaboration strategies. Students’ cognitive elaboration skills are also developed in CL because they learn to explain their perspective and vision to other members.

Furthermore, CL has proved to increase student involvement, especially in small groups (McKay, 2015). It creates an environment of active and exploratory learning; gives learners the feeling of freedom and control over their educational process and encourages responsibility for the outcome. Nickel (2015) suggested that because CL is based on collaborative reflection, discussion, and debate, it usually results in high levels of student engagement. Istance and Kools (2013) and Gomez, Wu, and Passerini (2010) argued that CL facilitates student engagement because this learning paradigm is more learner-centred than conventional educational paradigms. Instead of giving learners monotonous and boring theoretical information to remember, CL allows students to construct this knowledge on their own. Moreover, a study conducted by Ada (2009) found that the use of CL promotes lifelong learning skills that are essential for professionals in any sphere. The researcher also determined that CL improved participants’ teamwork, self-reflection and interpersonal skills. In educational settings using CL as a learning paradigm, classroom results are improved, especially in relation to student retention, class attendance and innovative teaching strategies.

CL is also associated with enhanced academic performance. Raisinghani (2013) argued that CL involves many innovative and useful activities such as video presentations, critical writing, knowledge sharing, giving feedback, etc., which promote learners’ understanding of the acquired information and help achieve higher academic performance. It is also believed that because CL gives more freedom to students, they become more satisfied with the learning experience, which ultimately leads to better academic performance (Strijbos, Kirschner, & Martens, 2006). Abraham, Muda, and Choo (2015) agreed with this point of view and noted that collaborative learning that underpins learning confidence promotes soft skills development (e.g. critical thinking and problem solving), which in turn positively affect the acquisition of new knowledge. Zhu (2012a) evaluated students’ perceptions of CL and found that they believe collaborative learning promotes the deeper understanding of the learning content. Finally, Elleithy et al. (2010) argued that improved academic performance in CL can be explained by the fact that students feel personal responsibility and individual accountability for the success of their group, which motivates them to study harder.

Furthermore, scholars maintain that as a collaborative process, CL develops students’ social skills (Kennedy-Clark, 2014). Unlike individual learning, CL as a form of team learning helps participants develop communication and interaction skills without which tasks cannot be completed. CL may also promote social cohesion, as students working in a group learn to care about other members and provide support when needed. Panitz (1999) described many positive effects of collaboration on social interaction. Thus, the author argued that collaborative learning fosters diversity awareness and teaches students to criticise ideas, not people. Besides, collaboration helps practice desirable social behaviours and models that can greatly help in future employment (Panitz, 1999). Phielix et al. (2010) studied the effect of CL on high school students and found that peer feedback and reflection encouraged by the collaborative learning environment enhanced their satisfaction with the process and improved overall performance of the group. Based on these results, the authors suggested that CL promotes social interaction and teaches participants to become aware of interpersonal relations and behaviour in the community. This is particularly important for the young generation which spends too much time in traditional based classrooms and which have inadequate social skills. Additionally, CL helps develop positive responses to problems within a group and fosters conflict resolution skills, which are essential for students’ future careers. Notably, a study conducted by Cress et al. (2010) revealed that CL may be beneficial for intellectually challenged students as well, as this type of learning encourages them to communicate with their peers more and learn to interact with people to achieve certain goals.

Some scholars recognise psychological benefits of CL. Thus, for example, Roberts (2005) argued that collaborative learning environment increases students’ self-esteem and establishes a positive atmosphere for peer interaction. A study by Zhu (2012a), which examined student satisfaction in two different cultural contexts showed that CL generally positively affects satisfaction with the learning process. The researcher highlighted that although there may be significant differences in terms of perceived satisfaction among different cultural groups, on average, students tend to be satisfied with CL and academic outcomes. Panitz (1999) also suggested that collaboration among students helps reduce classroom anxiety and text anxiety, thus improving academic outcomes. The researcher also noted that unlike traditional learning, collaboration creates more positive attitudes towards instructors and teachers because students have more freedom and responsibility (Panitz, 1999).

Among other benefits of CL, one can emphasise the flexibility regarding assignments and classroom activities demand. Undoubtedly, collaborative learning breaks down the classroom individual demands and creates a stress free atmosphere for learning. This initiates more possibilities for learners to decide when, how and where they want to study (Taniar, 2008). Students’ anxiety is reduced because they realise that they can move forward together as a team and that none can be left behind. With CL, physical presence is important and this improves attendance in classrooms. Students will get motivated to attend classrooms as they know that their absence can affect the group performance. CL participants enhance their time management and organisational skills because they learn to plan their studying and adapt to the group needs (Taniar, 2008).

As seen, literature presents multiple advantages of CL as a learning paradigm, especially in terms of academic achievement, social skills and learner satisfaction. However, it is important to note that there is a lack of up-to-date, credible empirical studies that would assess the impact of CL on academic performance and students’ social skills. To the author’s best knowledge, there is an extremely limited number of studies published within the past five years, which highlights the need for further research in this area. Moreover, evaluation methods used to analyse CL effectiveness are still undeveloped, and researchers cannot achieve consensus on the most appropriate ways to assess academic performance, cognition, understanding, collaboration, etc. (Strijbos, Kirschner, & Martens, 2006; Juan, 2009). Finally, although there is substantial evidence that collaboration positively affects the learning process and achievement, still a correct evaluation tool for CL elements does not seem to exist.


Challenges of CL

Despite multiple benefits of CL cited in prior empirical studies, this learning paradigm is associated with considerable difficulties in the implementation and acceptance. More specifically, students and teachers’ concerns are related to problems in collaborative work, communication and the fundamental change in the learning paradigm to which many participants cannot adjust. Schneider and Kröner (2009) outlined some of the most important barriers to collaborative learning in the CL environment. The scholar noted that the ability to work collaboratively, as well as self-regulation skills, are not equal in all group members. They may have different aims, academic performance, and social skills, which inevitably affect group coherence and performance.  It may be challenging for CL students to align their individual abilities with the group dynamics, as well as decide on the most suitable collaboration patterns to adopt (Schneider & Kröner, 2009). Ludvigsen (2016) added that the challenge is also related to how researchers and educators conceptualize and assess students during CL classrooms.  It is also important to highlight that in CL, collaboration becomes a “moral imperative” for students, something that ought to be the way people learn (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013, p. 211). This may pose a challenge for students who got used to working individually.

Furthermore, there seems to be a large gap between the theory and practice of CL. As stressed by Conole (2010), “there is a gap between the potential of collaboration in learning and the actual use in practice” (p. 483). Whereas many advanced strategies for CL have been developed for the past decade, educational institutions are very slow to incorporate them into practice. When looking at contemporary school systems, one can see that there are teachers who still appear to be doubtful of CL benefits and they fail to implement it fully. Little is done by some higher education institutions to put together coherent CL strategies and programmes (Looi et al., 2011). Whatever pedagogical and cognitive wonders the CL programs promise, the actual deployment of this form of learning remains limited. Looi et al. (2011) suggested that schools and universities have not yet achieved much in incorporating CL into the everyday practice because too many aspects need to be addressed. It is necessary to assess the available resources and adapt them to the local conditions; conduct extensive research; create infrastructure; develop teacher training and pedagogical programmes and raise students’ awareness about CL benefits (Looi et al., 2011). All these steps require massive funding, administrative support and practice improvement that educational institutions are unable or unwilling to provide.

Reluctance or inability to change the pedagogical approach to learning is also a barrier to successful CL incorporation into the educational process. Adjusting CL to the learning environment can be challenging because educators who attempt to use collaborative learning practices in schools often face pedagogical barriers to transforming conventional classroom practices. Looi and Chen (2012) emphasised that pedagogical patterns based on good practices in traditional teaching processes cannot be applied in CL settings because they have fixed routines and clear goals. Classrooms are still predominately teacher-centric and focus on achieving individual performance, which means that collaborative learning practices need new pedagogical approaches. Furthermore, Pozzi and Persico (2013) argued that the available pedagogic planning tools, such as the Pedagogical Pattern Collector, Pedagogical Plan Manager, ScenEdit and the Learning Design Support Environment (LDSE) are not helpful in designing CL activities but can be employed only to set general goals and plans. The problem is that little collaboration currently exists between teachers and technical staff who create CL resources, which does not allow aligning teachers’ needs with educational goals. Dillenbourg, Huang, & Cherubini (2008) suggested that teachers may be reluctant to change their conventional pedagogical approaches because they fear that their role in the learning process will be reduced to zero. They realise that CL implementation will greatly interfere with their activities and are not ready to become facilitators instead of leaders.

Besides, learners’ and teachers’ CL skills may be inadequate to take advantage of the approach. Students may opt for the traditional learning form because they do not possess adequate communicative skills. Such people may think that teacher centric lessons are more reliable and believe that they can provide them with more educational opportunities and confidence. Grading is another issue that needs to be addressed by institutions using CL because the majority of schools, colleges and universities assess individual students’ academic performance and have no accurate and relevant strategies to evaluate group collaboration and academic progress (Ge, Ifenthaler, & Spector, 2015). Furthermore, a study conducted by King and Boyatt (2014) at the University of Warwick revealed that adoption of CL was hindered by inadequate staff attitudes and skills and student expectations. According to the participants, insufficient resources, as well as the lack of administrative guidance and staff training, negatively influenced the adoption of CL at their university. This study is crucial as it highlights the challenges other universities and colleges might face when attempting to incorporate CL into their educational programs. In this way, one needs to highlight that in order for CL to be effective for all students and teachers, pedagogical issues need to be reconciled. More efforts should be made to attach CL to educational practices and facilitate its adoption in secondary and higher education.


Teachers’ Role in Enhancing CL

Scholars are unanimous that teachers play a crucial role in enhancing active participation of students and promoting collaborative learning (Gillies, Ashman, & Terwel, 2007). A study conducted by Song and Looi (2011) provided a comparative analysis of two teachers’ beliefs and their role in CL effectiveness. Results indicated that these teachers’ attitudes and beliefs concerning CL ultimately affected their practices and students’ learning outcomes. Based on the generated results, researchers concluded that collaborative oriented teaching is the most appropriate in education because it facilitates the use of peer support and makes learning more effective (Song & Looi, 2011). Although this study had a limited sample size, its results are still relevant because they clearly demonstrate the central role of teachers in CL success and the importance of choosing the adequate pedagogical approach.

In the CL environment, teachers are expected to regulate, monitor and guide students instead of simply providing them with the new information. Kock (2009) explained that the most important role of the teacher in CL is to regulate student-student and student-teacher interaction so that the learning process is coherent, effective and acceptable for all participants. Teachers should also monitor and encourage student discussions by assessing, listening and giving feedback (Kock, 2009). The latter, which may come in the form of graded assignments or informal evaluation, is an essential part of CL as it shows the students their progress and outlines areas of weakness that need to be improved. Although CL learners are given more freedom and accountability than traditional students, they still need to be guided in the right direction to achieve certain academic goals.

There seems to be some misunderstanding concerning the role of the teacher in CL. One may falsely assume that because CL is based on students’ collaboration, teachers lose their authority and control over the process. Indeed, CL limits the role of the teacher as the primary knowledge provider, shifting the focus to the construction of knowledge through interaction and communication (Jones, 2015). However, this constructivist approach to learning does not mean that teachers are no longer required. Rather, their function in the educational process changes from a “knowledge provider” to a “conductor” who monitors and facilitates communication, provides feedback and guidance and sets academic goals (Dillenbourg, Jarvela, & Fisher, 2009, p. 15-16). Scholars often use the term “facilitator” to accurately describe the function of a teacher in CL. As defined by Dimitriadis, Zigurs, and Gómez-Sánchez (2006), a facilitator is “a teacher performing a minimal pedagogical intervention in order to redirect the group work in a productive direction” (p. 156). In other words, the teacher’s role moves from providing the knowledge to encouraging self-regulated and collaborative knowledge construction (Van Leeuwen, 2015). Instructors in CL set educational goals and then monitor how students achieve these goals with the help of reflection, explanation, discussion, justifications and debates. They can intervene and provide explanations (definitions of terms, deadline specifications, etc.) to make the work more productive.

Van Leeuwen (2015) also discussed the unconventional role of teachers in CL. Researcher agreed that in the CL environment, teacher’s function is of a mere facilitator. At the same time, Van Leeuwen (2015) acknowledged that without this facilitation, the learning process would be unstructured, chaotic and unproductive. The author stressed that the teacher’s support is especially important during various problem-solving activities and highlighted that teachers need to know when and how to intervene so as not to impede the collaborative knowledge construction. In order to provide this timely intervention, teachers need first to observe the situation carefully and then evaluate the group’s progress. Only when students have obvious problems in terms of understanding the task of finding solutions, a teacher must intervene; otherwise, the harmonious learning process would be undermined (Van Leeuwen, 2015). Moreover, the scholar distinguished four types of learning activities including cognitive, social, metacognitive and metasocial processes. The teacher is expected to differentiate between these activities and regulate them with relevant interventions. For example, when learners discuss the strategy to complete a particular task (metacognitive activity) the instructor can help them by communicating a deadline and grading rubrics.

Orvis (2008) provided recommendations for instructors to help them facilitate CL. To begin with, the scholar noted that teachers working with CL inevitably face certain practical challenges, so it is crucial to know how to address them timely. Orvis (2008) suggested that instructors should necessarily ensure that all students understand the CL principles and processes. Therefore, they need to provide them with clearly structured and concise information and learning plans containing comprehensive requirements and guidance. Moreover, instructors should assist in dissemination of information to all students and monitor the accurateness of shared information. Furthermore, Orvis (2008) emphasised that instructors should constantly convey the feeling of reality because students need to understand the benefit of the social interaction and communication in CL.  Learners must therefore be reminded that they are collaborating with others as a team and that their success depends on their ability to interact with peers.


CL from the Learner’s Perspective

Puntambekar, Erkens, and Hmelo-Silver (2011) noted that learners have different understanding, perceptions and expectations of learning situations, which may affect the way they interact during collaborative classrooms. Therefore, it is important to view CL from learners’ perspective and determine whether this learning paradigm is truly more student-centred and flexible than conventional approaches. Thus, Hsu et al. (2008) conducted a study to understand factors that affect learners’ collective behaviours and collaboration in CL settings. Researchers selected 100 undergraduate students and divided them into 20 groups to explore how group composition will influence learners’ perceptions of collaboration. Results have demonstrated that extravert learners were more likely to benefit from CL collaboration and positively affected the group context. As explained by Hsu et al. (2008), extraverts are usually active participants in social interaction and group communication, and they play an important role in ensuring the group cohesion and productivity. Given their advanced communication and interpersonal skills, they easily adjust to the CL collective behaviours and feel more confident while working in a group as compared to introverts. Moreover, Hsu et al. (2008) found that learners’ perceptions of the group context significantly affected their supportive behaviours. According to the scholars, strong norms of cooperation established in a CL group encourage learners to assist their peers and develop a positive attitude towards collaborative learning. At the same time, researchers argued that in cases of task conflicts, learners may be less willing to coordinate actions and share the workload with their group mates.

Popov et al. (2014) also explored how individual differences between learners influence their behaviour and experience in CL groups. Sample size included 56 Dutch and 64 international students engaged in CL. Results revealed that CL was perceived more negatively by students from individualist cultural backgrounds as compared to perceptions of students from collectivist cultures. This suggests that it is highly important to consider the CL group composition because different perceptions of students with individualist and collectivist orientation may create conflicts and uncomfortable atmosphere for collaboration (Pavlov et al., 2014). At the same time, however, students from individualistic cultures had better academic outcomes than their peers. As explained by the scholars, this paradox stems from the fact that individualists value the conflicts of opinions that occur in learning groups. Unlike their collectivist group mates, these learners are more willing to exchange ideas and embrace opposing viewpoints when they help to achieve the learning goal. Collectivists, on the contrary, do not like conflicts and prefer to collaborate with those having the same ideas and perspectives (Pavlov, 2014).

Furthermore, Pavlov et al. (2014) found that perceptions of CL may vary significantly among culturally different individuals and representatives of different sex. For example, it has been found that women studying in a culturally similar group consisting of individualist students had a more negative experience of collaborative learning as compared to men working in the same group. Pavlov et al. (2014) also found that the combination of a cultural background and personal characteristics affected the way learners perceived each other. For example, one student may perceive a straightforward peer as rude whereas another value his or her honesty and openness. These results show that the success of CL depends on the complex interaction of students with different cultural backgrounds, personal characteristics, perceptions, attitudes and experiences (Pavlov et al., 2014). This suggests that instructors of culturally diverse CL groups need to pay more attention to group coordination and structure of collaborative activities to accommodate users from different cultures (White, King, & Tsang, 2011). Notably, a study by Slof, Nijdam, and Janssen (2016) partially confirmed this point, as scholars found that CL learners’ interpersonal skills predicted their behaviour and academic outcomes in the CL lessons. However, research by Abedin, Daneshgar, and D’ambra (2011) showed that factors such as learners’ characteristics, instructor characteristics and course characteristics did not affect students’ perceptions of self-representation. This inconsistency highlights the need to conduct more empirical research on the relationship between students’ characteristics, CL setting and academic performance.

Yoon, Woo, and Chang (2016) studied learners’ perception of conflict in the CL setting. Scholars interviewed nine students in the CSCL course and found that their perceptions of intellectual conflict differed significantly. Some students confided they faced intellectual conflict while working collaboratively, whereas others claimed they encountered no conflicts at all. Some of those facing conflict in the CL group admitted it was helpful for the learning outcome, whereas others perceived it negatively. Interestingly, some of the participants viewed intellectual conflict as something that should not happen in the collaborative setting (Yoon, Woo, & Chang, 2016). Finally, one can mention the study of Gweon et al. (2007), which found gender differences towards attitudes to feedback in the CL environment. Results revealed that male learners preferred and benefited more from the immediate feedback, where they could take on the role of help providers, whereas female students preferred to receive help. Although this study had a small sample size, it showed that collaborative processes in the CL setting may differ depending on the gender composition of groups.

Another group of studies investigated perceived actual advantages and disadvantages of CL. Thus, for example, Charoenwet and Zurida (2013) explored students’ self-regulated learning behaviours and perception towards CL as a learning platform. Results indicated that collaborative learning activities improved learners’ self-regulated behaviours and showed that students generally have a positive attitude towards this learning environment (Charoenwet & Zurida, 2013). A study by Pavlov et al. (2014) mentioned earlier revealed that students positively evaluated text-based communication format used in the CL setting. They confided they felt comfortable being able to reflect on the information and generate responses without being distracted or interrupted. It was also important for the respondents that CL provided them with an opportunity to practice learner independency and to engage in face-to-face negotiations (Pavlov et al., 2014). One can also add that CL can potentially benefit students by enhancing their tolerance, preparing them for real life dialogues, improving motivation and interest, as well as developing their stronger socio-cultural and communication skills.

However, there are some real and perceived disadvantages of CL for students. Thus, for some students, the lack of teacher guidance may be the biggest problem, as they got used to being constantly motivated and directed by instructors. For instance, teachers play a central role in the Chinese educational setting, so Chinese students may find it difficult to adjust to more flexible and self-regulatory CL environments (Zhu, 2012a). The lack of lectures and verbal context cues from teachers may also be challenging for CL students because it is difficult for them to interpret their peers’ intentions and mood. Learners may also not know how their messages are interpreted and understood by others, which may create uncertainty and anxiety (Pavlov et al., 2014). Capdeferro and Romero (2012) identified several other problems faced by students in the CL environment. Thus, researchers found that students often perceive that not all group members provide the equal contribution to the learning process, which creates frustration. Furthermore, Capdeferro and Romero (2012) argued that learners’ experience in CL can also be negatively affected by the unproductive group organization, the lack of shared goals, the imbalance in individual contributions and difficulties in organising communication. Researchers suggested that all these sources of frustration need to be addressed by instructors to make the CL activities more effective and motivate students to collaborate more willingly.


Requirements for CL Implementation

Educational institutions aiming to adopt CL need to address multiple administrative, resource, pedagogical and training aspects. To begin with, the decision to implement a successful CL program needs to be taken by the administration, which develops the plan and decides what resources and funding are required. Administration needs to collaborate with the teaching staff to determine how the CL program would fit into the larger curriculum and assessment (O’Malley, 2009). Furthermore, Khandaker (2011) argued that adopting CL programs requires the teacher to choose the relevant CL activities and CL settings that will suit the educational goals and be usable for all participants. The teacher also needs to think over the relevant pedagogical aspects including learning objectives, evaluation tools, materials and teaching methods that will compatible with CL. During this preliminary work, a teacher has to determine the potential barriers students might face when collaborating in the CL setting. More importantly, the instructor needs to consider group composition and such aspects as sex, cultural background, level of academic performance, personal characteristics, etc. (Khandaker, 2011). Naturally, in order for teachers to address all these issues, they need to be trained properly. As identified earlier, CL is the unconventional approach to teaching and learning, so teachers’ awareness needs to be raised concerning their roles in the educational process (Van Leeuwen, 2015).

Furthermore, McConnell (2014) outlined some of the basic technical issues that should be necessarily addressed. Thus, in order to participate in CL, both teachers and learners require a CL favourable atmosphere, or simply an atmosphere that will remove stress and teaching and learning pressure. As one would expect, learners need to be trained on using these CL platforms so that they will have a deep understanding on the goals of CL (McConnell, 2014).  Although CL is more flexible than traditional learning paradigms, teachers still need to inform learners concerning team work and interdependence, as well as appropriate ways of making contributions. When all this preliminary work is done, it would take some time to introduce CL, evaluate its effectiveness and eliminate the arising challenges to make the learning process productive and sustainable.

Researchers agree that multiple organisational, technical and human factors matter when adopting the CL program. For example, Zhu and Wang (2011) argued that organizational characteristics and cultural values are the most important factors that determine the scale of CL adoption in secondary and higher education. More specifically, the scholars highlighted that the shared vision, supportive leadership, orientation on CL and ability to collaborate on all organisational levels (student-student, student-teacher, teacher-administration, etc.) are related to the successful implementation of CL programmes (Zhu & Wang, 2011). Similarly, an empirical research conducted by Zhu (2012) found that cultural aspects such as the ability to collaborate and interact, as well as school organisation (leadership effectiveness and level of innovations’ adoption) have the direct impact on the success of CL implementation. Thus, evidence suggests that CL implementation is a challenging process because educational institutions have to consider numerous organisational, pedagogical and human resource issues to make sure that CL students receive high-quality education that is not inferior to traditional classroom learning.


CL Implementation: From Teacher Architecture to Social Architecture

CL has become a viable alternative to teacher centric learning in classrooms, which reflects its key benefit as an augmented learning approach enriched and expanding towards globalization. Nevertheless, as it was pointed out by Beetham and Sharpe (2013), CL is essentially not about receiving input but about communication, collaboration and participation. The primary concern about communication and dialogue rests within the domain of social sciences, which determines the need for CL to evolve from a teacher architecture to a more comprehensive social architecture. Kreijns, Kirschner, Jochems and van Buuren (2007) pointed out that the majority of early CL projects exhibited poor, dysfunctional group dynamics because of behavioural and cultural problems of students. This change happened in the CL field upon CL experts’ recognition of the need to relate to a much longer tradition of cooperative, collaborative learning, and that CL environments require support of social interaction to establish positive socio-emotional processes determining group dynamics (Goodyear & Retalis, 2010).

O’Malley (2009) also recognised that CL is one of the educational approaches which put specific emphasis on group learning; its design and entire philosophy rests on the perception of knowledge as a learner construction promoted by interaction with other learners in their physical classroom environment. Given that CL is devoid of teacher centredness, students’ interaction develops awareness and builds learning confidence towards better construction of knowledge. To make the social component of CL work, numerous teachers and curriculum designers work on creation of socially conducive interactions and cooperation (Koschman, 2002).

The importance of social infrastructure in CL can hardly be overestimated; according to numerous researchers, social interaction is the key promoter of communication and knowledge acquisition through negotiation of meaning and collaboration (Gass & Torres, 2005; Lang, 1989). For this reason, active interaction among learners contributes to effective, comprehensive input and advanced performance. Assistance to students in initiating social interactions may be provided in CL environments through implementation of expressive social and cognitive presence mechanisms. Perceived social presence plays a vital role in effective CL interactions as it promotes a comfortable atmosphere of collaboration and strengthens students’ relationships with each other. Furthermore, a higher level of perceived social presence leads to greater expressive social presence embodied in students’ active participation, issuance of utterances and arguments in collective discussions, etc. (Popescu, Lau, Pata, Leung, & Laanpere, 2014).

These observations were supported by White, King and Tsang (2011) who noted that social climate is an important component of sociability in CL. It is of vital importance to establish and maintain a secured and friendly environment for open discussions and critics to take place among CL participants. Moreover, features of confidentiality and trust are also significant in determining participants’ willingness to enter discussions and collaborative partnership with other group members (Saarenkunnas, 2004).

A solution offered by Kreijns et al. (2007) in terms of enhancing social components of CL is the creation of sociable CL environments full of friendship and trust. As the researchers’ empirical findings showed, sociable CL environments enable and facilitate socio-emotional processes (e.g., affiliation, development of interpersonal relationships, trust-building, social cohesiveness, and formation of a sense of community). Such processes result in the establishment of a sound social space in which interpersonal trust fosters constructive collaboration for learning. Rovai (2001) confirmed that point earlier by noting that in CL environments, usually students do not have trust and confidence in each other and the group has no common goal when it starts. In such conditions, social CL environments may be of much assistance in creation of positive group processes and dynamics.

The social architecture of CL presupposes that people interacting with each other are in a relationship of cooperation; though CL settings allows for individual construction of knowledge as they exchange ideas and information. Learning in CL is possible only under the conditions of intense, close collaboration among participants, so enabling of CL social architecture was accomplished with the help of cohesive groups. This approach sees collaboration as a special case within the wider phenomenon of CL; viewing participants of collaboration as one team (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013).

Social component of the CL is effectively analysed with the help of social links analysis techniques, helping visualise and estimate the nature and strength of ties among CL participants. Martinez, Dimitriadis, Gomez-Sanchez, Rubia-avi, Jorrin-abellan et al. (2006) conducted a series of social links analyses to examine participation in CL environments. They found out that CL participants are not independent social actors because they influence each other and are influenced by the CL context as well. Thus, it is evident that the social CL architecture is as significant in determining the learning outcomes as the functional architecture is.

A contemporary challenge for social CL architecture is the widespread adoption of Web technologies undermining and changing the craft of collaborative structures in CL. As it was observed by Beetham and Sharpe (2013), Web educational interventions for education include the collaborative use of blogs, wikis, virtual worlds and mobile social media. Such a change in modes of social interaction through network affects natural interactions in CL groups. Interestingly, the majority of perfect social interactions still take place in physical classrooms. Therefore, CL design needs to incorporate social infrastructures, geared towards embracing micro-level interactions in classroom small groups (Jones, Dirckinck-Holmfeld, & Lindstrom, 2006).


Need for Systematic CL Design for Effective Education

The field of CL is relatively well-researched, with the majority of projects focusing on the social characteristics, collaboration, and learning activities employed in CL systems. Intense research has been undertaken in the field of synchronous form of interaction, optimal group sizes, problem-based and project-based learning specifics, etc. However, as Strijbos et al. (2006) pointed out, the majority of authors are quite vague in their descriptions of collaboration, which challenges a systematic review and assessment of CL effects. Such superficial approaches hinder the ability to identify differences between collaboration learning and other educational forms that actually affect the learning behaviour of CL participants.

Another problem faced by the modern CL implementation is educational institutions’ reliance on old materials, ideas, and pedagogies in their transfer to CL environments, which creates dysfunctional learning environments unadjusted to the CL requirements. Based on the assumption that CL interactions take place similarly to real life interactions, this approach is a successful one; it causes satisfaction of teachers and students, increase of motivation, and effective use of environment and time (Strijbos et al., 2006). Such CL interactions are highly convincing for the overall field of CL. However, Absence of wise implementation and systematic CL design is often detrimental to the learning process.

In response to this problem, many researchers tasked themselves with identifying components and criteria for systematic and efficient CL designs. For instance, Vatrapu, Suthers and Medina (2009) proposed a three-component design evaluation framework that set criteria for determining its systematic design: usability, sociability and learnability. The researchers defined usability as a feature of easy use and higher learner satisfaction with CL. Sociability was defined as CL system support for social interactional processes, e.g., conversation, cooperation, deliberation and argumentation. Finally, learnability should be interpreted in terms of student learning processes and products. Vatrapu et al. (2009) tested the application of such systematic designs in a series of experimental case studies and concluded that this evaluation framework is efficient in determining systematic CL design.

No systematic design may be implemented in practice without effective scripts – the tool forming the kernel of CL usability (Miao et al. 2004). Scripts serve as explicit guidance giving students and teachers detailed specification of the process of CL. Scripts are akin to cinema movies scripts that guide the actor systematically what and how to perform (Miao et al. 2004; Miao et al. 2005). Such scripts describe in great detail what CL participants should be doing during CL classes. They also describe the resources, activities, group formation and roles. These scripts can identify the suitable mechanism for CL such as, distribution of tasks and their sequence. Miao, Hoeksema, Hoppe and Harrer (2005) assert that teachers can use the scripts and in particular group formation to promote expectable behaviour of students during collaborative lessons.

Miao, Hoeksema, Hoppe and Harrer (2005) proposed a new CL scripting language that would enable systematic, holistic and complete design, communication, analysis, simulation and execution of collaboration scripts for systematic CL functioning. The researchers pointed out that though the importance of scripts in CL environments is well-acknowledged, there has been no general modelling language to formalise collaboration scripts. Moreover, there is so far no recognised CL tool that would enable CL developers to create, integrate and customise CL scripts in correspondence with their individual purposes and needs. Based on their developments and research, Miao et al. (2004) offered a new language and described its application in CL by editors, viewers, for syntactical mapping, for multi-perspective presentation of models, simulation, model-based prediction and monitoring of the learning flow. Thus, based on their conclusions, one can see what features a systematic design of CL presupposes.

Another model for systematic design was proposed by Strijbos et al. (2006); the researchers found a solution to research problems and disappointing, non-systematic research findings in a framework for design of CL environments that is geared towards designing effective conditions for attainment of individual learning outcomes. At the same time, a systematic CL design should be able to grasp and control instructional variables for creating a specific skill-targeted CL environment. Since the multitude of individual and group interaction level variables is a challenge for the system, it ultimately becomes next to impossible to predetermine productive learning and instruction conditions. Addressing this issue is seen by Strijbos et al. (2006) as relying on probabilistic approach to system design advocating a stronger focus on learning and interaction processes. This approach is based on an assumption that it is much easier to control learning processes than to predict, control and determine learning outcomes. Consequently, every learner in the systematically designed CL environment acquires certain skills and knowledge based on a specific chosen method, but may as well acquire only a part of skill or the skill complemented with additional, unforeseen and unplanned knowledge. Such a system functions on the basis of educational affordance principle – a relationship between an object and characteristics of a user that enable interactions between him/her and the object (Strijbos et al., 2006).

Isotani, Mizoguchi, Inaba and Ikeda (2010) also proposed a systematic approach to collaboration enhancement in CL. In their opinion, despite advances in support for the design of collaborative learning scenarios in the CL practice, absence of a systematic evaluation approach predetermines limitations in designing methods and tools. As a result, it becomes hard to develop intelligent comprehensive systems for CL user guidance for effective collaboration. Isotani et al. (2010) saw a solution in a consistent approach to formalising group learning processes in an understandable way. An expected outcome of systematic design is an effective CL practice, which serves as a benchmark of a methodologically consistent, holistic approach. Stahl and Hesse (2009) described efficient CL practice as proper attention to enact practices supporting CL collaboration, consideration to affordances of materials enacted by user practices, and CL adaptation to new strategies.


Solutions to Current CL Implementation Challenges

Taking into account a number of student- teacher related challenges in the context of CL implementation, one should dedicate proper attention to the discussion of their solutions. Solutions of CL design were discussed at length above and are mostly tied to greater convergence of CL systems to innovative collaborative platforms for students. There should be development of a systematic CL design and formulation of authentic CL frameworks and tools (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Popescu et al., 2014; White et al., 2011). Additional technological challenges are inherent in the CL approach and may be methodologically eliminated once the coherent, unified CL design approach is agreed upon. These complex issues should be addressed consistently with the help of policy changes and prioritisation of resources distribution for the sake of CL success.

Besides purely practical aspects of CL implementation, an essential aspect determining the efficiency of CL implementation is the human factor, both from the side of teachers and students. Wen et al. (2012) and Pozzi and Persico (2013) observed that many educators are reluctant to adopt the CL change and continue applying their traditional methodologies and pedagogies to CL environments, which hinders their efficiency and reduces student motivation. One of the reasons for such resistance to change is that of inadequate CL skills, both among students and teachers (Ge et al., 2015; King & Boyatt, 2014), which pushes them away from new educational approaches. Consequently, solutions to such resistance to new approach adoption should be sought in practicality by providing training to instructors and students. By means of familiarising themselves with key elements of CL systems, both educators and students may adopt a much more positive attitude towards them, which in its turn fosters adoption and diffusion of innovation (Prieto et al., 2013).

Teachers’ perceptions regarding CL implementation also play a role in the process of CL adoption, since educators are the primary agents working with students and utilising the approach for the sake of achieving an educational outcome. In the pursuit of best CL practices, many researchers and policymakers forget that preferences are subjective and individually predetermined, so there is a need to consider teachers’ opinions and attitudes to certain CL aspects to ensure comfortable operation thereof. Prieto et al. (2014), for instance, conducted a mixed-methods study by surveying and interviewing teachers using CL to find out which aspects of CL suited their educational goals better. Their findings suggest that there is no single set of CL features that may be unequivocally assessed as the best one. The majority of Prieto et al.’s (2014) sample indicated that the most significant CL implementation benefit for them was its adaptability, i.e., an ability to reset groups and the possibility of using current available course materials already in use in their educational establishment for CL purposes. Therefore, enhancement of these CL features may potentially increase their acceptance among the educational community.

Another side of the CL implementation problem is the student factor. While the change in adoption resistance based on a lack of social skills is easily addressed with education and training workshops, group cohesion issues are a much deeper aspect of concern. As it was observed above, students have different aims for education, different level of capacity, and different learning and interaction styles. They manage their learning strategies differently and some of them prefer individual work to groups, thus reluctant to collaborate (Wen et al., 2012; King & Boyatt, 2014). Solutions to these issues are also diverse; Romero and Lambropoulos (2011), for instance, suggested using certain regulations to support knowledge construction and cohesion in CL environments. Dehler et al. (2011) and Bodemer and Dehler (2011) advocated the application of group knowledge awareness techniques for a more constructive group synergy, while Noroozi et al. (2013) formulated transactive CL design for facilitation of learning in multicultural and diversified groups. No matter what solution is offered, it should be tightly connected with knowledge on group dynamics and social skills; otherwise, a purely functional approach to group facilitation may be counter-productive.

As one can see from the presented evidence, both teachers and students experience hardship adjusting to the CL environments. Due to a lack of experience with such distributed learning environments, they may feel constraints regarding the necessary degree of participation and collaboration required from them in the CL setting. A solution to this problem was offered by Hillen (2014) in the form of discussion groups. The researcher pointed out that discussion for the sake of familiarising teachers and students to information exchange enable synchronous communication and increase flexibility of interactions among students and educators. Discussion groups are usually used at micro- and meso-levels in CL initial stages of CL implementation and follow the “read and discuss” formula, but despite their simple structure and form, they may efficiently boost effective and reflective discussions. Akin and Neal (2007) developed a CREST model for formulation of intellectually stimulating questions in discussion groups; its application, alongside with properly tailored facilitation of CL discussions, can provide a medium for sharing and development of ideas.


Group formation

Group structure and group roles

In CL group structure can play an important role and so instructors should determine group membership wisely (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). To orchestrate CL groups successfully, instructors need to form heterogeneous groups and should make their students aware of the knowledge differences ((Al-Issa, 2005; Almajed et al., 2016). So when structuring groups each group should have members with diversified experiences and knowledge (Al-Issa, 2005; Lin, & Tsai, 2016). We might group a shy student with a talkative student, a less active student with an active student and a cautious student with a risk taker student. Commonly, Introvert students can be teamed with extrovert students. Instructors should in addition be conscious of group size as it could affect group performance (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). Large groups might hinder individual active participation while small groups of four or five could work efficiently (Al-Issa, 2005; Almajed et al., 2016).

Team roles should be assigned to students based on responsibilities and personal talents or skills (Al-Issa, 2005; Almajed et al., 2016). Students might be allowed to choose the responsibilities they may like to take. For example, team leader, editor, writer, etc. These responsibilities might be rotated between group members periodically. We need to enhance group performance by getting each member to work seriously and to share adequately. Teachers must have regular scheduled meetings with individual groups to check group cohesion and to evaluate their work (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012).

Students should understand that collaborative learning assessment will contribute to their final grade of the course (Lin, & Tsai, 2016). This will encourage uncooperative members to work for the team.  In addition, it can establish good behavioural patters needed in social knowledge construction. It is possible to assess individual performance on a team project through peer assessment in order to improve team performance and interpersonal skills. The effort of each team member is graded occasionally by the instructor or through peer evaluation. Peer evaluation is developmental and can be an opportunity for those uncooperative students to correct their bahaviour (Almajed et al., 2016). It is therefore important that learning goals, criteria and standards for CL are well defined to students to make learners understand how they could achieve better in CL classes. These goals together with the criteria and the standards could be put in writing to make things more explicit. Instructors should review the goals, the criteria and the standards with their students to ensure that students are aware of these CL elements.


What we expect to see in typical CL groups

From this new vision of learning we expect learners to become knowledgeable, empathetic thinkers, strategic and self-determined (Kiely & Davis, 2010). Researchers point out that CL has proved to be a successful pedagogy which enables learners to interact lively with other learners, with the materials, with the context and with their teachers (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012; Kiely & Davis, 2010). In effective CL classrooms one should expect to witness dynamic communication and collaboration which researchers believe to be key components of the approach. Students in these CL classrooms should engage in dialogues and examine different perspectives. Moreover, instructors need to involve students in real-world tasks and to link new information to prior knowledge towards collaborative knowledge construction Kali & Dori, 2009; Kiely & Davis, 2010). CL as a team learning should solve problems and accomplish meaningful learning which might be impossible to happen when done individually. Group thinking and collective knowledge should promote interaction and change the role of teachers and students.

Chiriac and & Grandström (2012) believe that shared knowledge must be the metaphor for collaborative learning and that knowledge construction must become the whole group responsibility. Chiriac adds that in collaborative learning the role of the teacher is not to provide information as it is in traditional models of teaching but to respect and build upon personal experiences, knowledge, language, culture and strategies that students bring with them into the classroom. When students get the opportunity to share the knowledge which they know, they get motivated and in this way the whole class gets enriched (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012; Kiely & Davis, 2010; Kali, Levin & Dori, 2009). Instructors are required to value students’ experiences to empower them to learn in new ways and to make connections between what they know and knowledge learning.

Teachers and students should be sharing authority and learning responsibilities in CL classrooms and so instructors should avoid holding all authorities and learning responsibilities exclusively (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). According to Kali, Levin and Dori (2009) CL teachers should encourage students to set goals within the context of the lesson, provide them with options for setting activities that capture interests of the students and get them to reflect on what they learn. Instructors in CL classes help students respect alternative ideas, engage in creative and critical thinking and take part in constructive discussions (Kali, Levin & Dori, 2009; Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). Because knowledge and authority are shared between students and teachers, the teacher becomes a mediator of learning. This mediation emphasizes students to connect their experiences to new knowledge and helps them learn how they could learn in other areas. When students get stumped they can figure out what to do to solve uncertainties Kali, Levin & Dori, 2009). As a mediator the teacher regulates support and level of information to optimize students’ ability to take learning responsibilities.

To enrich learning in CL classrooms, learners’ backgrounds and experiences are important. CL is learning beyond the classroom routines which increasingly demand recognition of diverse perspectives, requiring instructors to create enough opportunities for students to constantly practice the approach (Kali, Levin & Dori, 2009; Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). In collaborative learning classrooms students should get the opportunity to learn from others, make contributions and respect what other say as they engage in a thinking curriculum.  It is crucial that in CL students never get segregated based on supposed interests, ability, achievement or any other personal trait. Segregation may impoverish the class and could lead to weaker collaboration and poor exchange of knowledge and experiences (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012). CL creates possibilities for brighter students to support the unsuccessful colleagues coming from traditional classrooms. As well it is possible for the brighter learners to learn a lot from average students. The insights produced by the so called weaker students will delight the teachers who teach collaboratively (Chiriac & Grandström, 2012; Kiely & Davis, 2010).  The main features of successful CL classrooms are symbolized by mediated learning, heterogeneous groups of learners and shared knowledge.

Cultural Considerations of CL

Cross-Cultural Adaptation of CL Adoption Worldwide

With globalisation, advanced educational approaches open up increasing opportunities for students from all over the world (Stanaityte, 2013). This internationalisation improves access to education and provides unique intercultural experience, which helps students become active and successful members of the globalised community. According to Lim et al. (2013), CL investment in higher education has been growing exponentially because educators recognise the role cultural diversity learning environments can play in teaching students to exchange and analyse information, collaborate, communicate and solve problems collaboratively. Educators turn to realise social skills -tolerance, trust, collaboration, patience and accountability to be able to provide up-to-date and quality education to their students, thus equipping them with a set of key social competencies. (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010). Examples of many countries from all over the world show that incorporating international students in their higher education in the can indeed be beneficial for students, making them more open minded and engaged in the learning process and preparing them for the competitive and demanding labour market that requires social skills (Lim et al., 2013).

It is widely recognised that educational outcomes can be shared across cultures and educational settings. In other words, educational learning approaches   such as CL can be applied to cultural diversity and educational settings across higher education institutions. However, when applied to culture which totally depends on traditional teaching approaches, CL needs to be adapted to that culture to be successful. To begin with, any new pedagogical approach need to be adjusted to the students’ educational and social backgrounds and teachers’ levels of understanding. Additionally, adjustment can be made in terms of learning groups, curricula, subjects, learning goals, and available resources. For example, the availability of CL course materials in schools is the primary condition that determines the adoption of CL learning (Thomas & Kobayashi, 2014).

More importantly, it is necessary to take into account cultural dimensions of learning and acknowledge that students from different cultures may have different perceptions, skills, attitudes, cultural background and approaches to learning. As noted by Finkelstein et al. (2011), students’ unique cultural backgrounds impact their communication patterns, collaboration with peers, interaction with teachers and knowledge acquisition. For instance, not all students are able to adjust quickly to peer communication, especially if they have never practiced collaborative or cooperative learning. Therefore, the adaptation of CL requires developing culturally sensitive instruction (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010). Cultural adaptation is also crucial because students using educational approaches not aligned with their culture can experience significant conflict, stemming from the incompatibility of teaching and learning styles. Similarly, teachers’ cultural background also needs to be taken into account because they might not be able to use the CL approach that has been developed for a different educational settings and academic outcomes (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010).

CL as an advanced educational approach possesses a range of characteristics that might hinder its adoption in some cultures. First, CL provides an unusual educational context of collaboration in the social context that might be problematic for individualistic cultures. Students from cultures cherishing individual achievement may find it difficult to cooperate with their peers, allocate workload and engage in collaborative decision-making. Second, as explained by Kirschner (2002), CL requires more team work, less individual performance and primarily direct contact between students. This means that students using CL need to feel comfortable using team collaboration, motivated and to become self generated. As seen, the structure and basic principles of CL demand flexible and motivated students who can collaborate productively and learn without the constant supervision of instructors.

Empirical evidence proves that CL requires certain cultural and organisational characteristics to be successful. Thus, Zhu (2012) selected 832 students and teachers from secondary schools in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Flanders, Belgium to determine how school organisational culture and overall cultural environment affect CL adoption. Results revealed that cultural characteristics such as openness and ability to collaborate, as well as organisational characteristics such as structured leadership and orientation on innovation significantly affected the scale of CL adoption and its impact on students’ academic achievement (Zhu, 2012). Notably, Zhu (2012) emphasised that interaction, communication, participation and satisfaction of students in the CL setting is influenced greatly by their cultural background. A quite similar study focusing on teachers’ perceptions showed that teachers from China and Belgium have different educational and cultural contexts that affect adoption of instructional innovations such as CL (Zhu, Valcke, & Schellens, 2010). Given the complexity of cultural effects on CL success, Xiong, So, and Toh (2015, p. 215) argued that “before-collaboration” assessment of students’ perceived readiness for CL should be conducted to improve subsequent learning outcomes. Authors argued that before incorporating CL into the new educational and cultural settings, it is important to evaluate behaviours, social skills and motivation for collaborative learning (Xiong, So, & Toh, 2015).

One may suggest that cultural and organisational differences between educational institutions around the world are the main reasons why CL adoption and success are so uneven. Traditionally, CL is perceived as mainly a Western innovation because the CL research community originates from Western Europe and Norther America, where this pedagogical approach has been particularly successful (Stahl & Hesse, 2011). It is generally believed that the idea of CL itself has developed in the European research, primarily in academic publications and reports presented at international conferences. Therefore, given the fact that CL was created in and for the Western cultural and educational setting, this innovation has been easily incorporated in both secondary and higher education. Currently, diverse tools for CL are designed in Europe and Northern America, which are funded by national and international programs and schools and adjusted for different populations’ needs. Notably, Thorstreinsson and Page (2007) emphasised that CL can be used not only for students but also for teachers in Europe. Researchers presented a program for in-service teacher education and training based on CL learning, which allows participants to communicate in face-to-face situations instead of limiting themselves to teacher centred classroom activities. As one can see, European educators continue to diversify the application of CL and adjust this pedagogical approach to various settings and students’ needs.

During the past decades, Asian countries have also been adopting the CL approach, adjusting it to their cultural and educational settings. They increasingly recognise the importance of collaborative knowledge building and creative thinking in preparing competitive and skilful individuals. Shanghai, for example, has been extremely successful in incorporating CL into its educational system. As suggested by Stahl and Hesse (2011), this achievement may be due to comprehensive and forward-looking governmental policies that refute conventional rote learning and attempt to provide more advanced and relevant skills and knowledge. Furthermore, Hong Kong has recently participated in the Knowledge Building International Project (KBIP), in which students from high schools in Hong Kong, Beijing, Canada and Spain engaged in collaborative knowledge building. Similarly, Singapore has been working towards diversifying educational opportunities for its citizens. Singapore Ministry of Education even established the National Institute of Education whose main function is to incorporate the latest research and educational innovations into educational practice (Stahl & Hesse, 2011). It helped launch the famous CL-based Group Scribble (GS) project, which has gained broad recognition at the national and international levels (Looi & Teh, 2015). Simplistically, GS is the CL program designed for various subjects including mathematics, languages, science, etc., which allows for different levels of interaction among students and teachers. Due to the extensive empirical research conducted by Singapore educators, GS has become highly customised and successful, proving that CL can be adjusted to the Asian cultural environment.

Asian success in CL adoption can be attributed to active participation in international conferences and programs. Thus, for instance, Asian countries regularly participate in the International Conference on Collaborative Learning (CL), which is held bi-annually since 1995. Besides theoretical and practical issues discussed during these conferences, participants learn about practical approaches and solutions to implementing CL in secondary and higher education. The 2011 CL Conference was held in Hong Kong, so Chinese educators and scholars have benefited much from the international academic exchange and collaboration (Stahl, 2016). The fact that Asian countries host such conferences also vividly demonstrates the willingness of this region to adopt innovative learning approaches. Evidence suggests that the Middle East countries have been slightly less engaged in CL research and development. In the following section, the researcher focuses on the successes of the Arab countries in keeping up with this innovative educational trend.


CL in the Middle East

During the past decades, the Middle East countries have been embracing the new learning trends by extensively incorporating educational developments (Al-Asmari & Rabb Khan, 2014). The increasing importance of collaborative platforms in the modern world and its influence on the learning process has brought about fundamental changes in the academic environment of Arab countries. Both secondary and higher educational institutions have introduced collaborative driven programs to improve students’ independency and prepare them for demands of the contemporary labour market (Al-Asmari & Rabb Khan, 2014). Such CL innovation has successfully complemented traditional classroom learning in the Middle East. It has been recognised that CL is beneficial for the Middle East students due to their interactivity, flexibility, personalization and adaptability, as they allow provide quality education to learning groups in classrooms (Safiullin et al., 2014).

Generally, the level of adoption of CL programs is high in the Middle East, and many institutions update their pedagogical approaches and curricula to incorporate CL best practices (Spinks & Bedi, 2012). There have been several institutions adopting collaborative learning, providing flexible and quality programs to students in group settings. Some institutions, like King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, have developed advanced CL educational programs based on the use of various communicative programs to exchange experiences and expertise between the local students and their counterpart international learners. The Hashemite University in Jordan has also established an advanced CL program (Mirza & Al-Abdulkareem, 2011). More specifically, it cooperated with Edutech Middle East on the creation of the CL Center, which provides students’ with a unique opportunity to engage in interactive processes across all disciplines. By using innovative synchronous face to face interactions and discussions in classrooms of higher education educators provide learners with stimulating collaborative content (Ferchichi, Achour, & Itmazi, 2013). However, despite the immense progress in terms of CL in this region, for now, the scale of adoption of CL in the Middle East is limited, especially if compared to the Western and Asian countries. Some experts argue that traditional teaching methods still dominate in this region, with teachers preferring to use rote memorization and testing rather than innovative and flexible pedagogical approaches (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011). Many institutions still lack the necessary awareness and readiness to diversify and innovate the learning process, and many students and teachers have low social skills to engage in the new learning paradigms.

Given these challenges, it is not surprising that collaborative learning is still a new concept in the Middle East and that there have been relatively few documented collaborative educational projects in this region (Porcaro, 2011). One of the first studies in this relation was conducted by Ghaith (2004), who investigated the use of students’  team achievement division (STAD) collaborative technique in Lebanon. The researcher administered questionnaire among 55 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers working in public schools. The main aim was to determine these teachers’ attitudes to instructional innovations. Results demonstrated that STAD was successfully adopted when teachers believed that knowledge is interpreted, not acquired passively (Ghaith, 2004). Although this study was conducted 12 years ago and focused on one country exclusively, it still vividly showed that teachers play a central role in introducing innovative pedagogical approaches.

Furthermore, Serce and Yildirim (2003) conducted a case study of a CL graduate course to explore the nature of learning collaboration, students’ experiences and perceptions and factors influencing the learning process in this setting. By using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, researchers collected data from students, a teaching assistant and an instructor involved in CL courses at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Results generated in this study provided a valuable insight into the students’ and teachers’ experience. To begin with, it has been found that it was difficult for students to engage in collaborative learning. Instead of completing tasks collaboratively, they divided the workload between group members and completed it individually, which is cooperation, not collaboration (Serce & Yildirim, 2003). Furthermore, researchers found that contributing, sharing knowledge and exchanging resources behaviours were the most prominent among students. Learners themselves assessed their experience in CL as positive and claimed that this pedagogical approach was quite effective. At the same time, they confided that such issues as disorganised communication patterns, lack of collaborative skills and experience to participate in collaborative activities sometimes hindered their learning process (Serce & Yildirim, 2003). Finally, researchers identified factors that affected collaboration in the given group. These included coordination, commitment, discipline, creativity, respectfulness, planning, interactivity, etc. This study is still applicable to the modern educational setting as it provided a detailed discussion of students’ experiences and challenges when working in collaborative environments.

During the past several years, an extensive body of research has been published concerning the principles and challenges of learning collaboration for the Middle East students (Porcaro, 2011). For example, a study conducted by Al-Ismaiel (2013) explored contextual and cultural factors that may influence the learning process in a blended learning environment. More specifically, the researcher investigated how Saudi Arabian students completed various collaborative tasks in the CL setting. Results indicated that the cultural background indeed greatly affected students’ learning experience. It has been found that Saudi Arabian students enjoy CL because they prefer face-to-face communication. The lack of experience in collaborative learning also negatively affected participants’ success (Al-Ismaiel, 2013). The main conclusion that can be made from this study is that Saudi Arabian students are well-prepared for engaging in collaborative learning because of their cultural attitudes and norms, as well as because of their efficiency in social discussions. This means that CL programs for this population group need to be simplified and carefully adapted to the students’ needs and skills.

A study conducted by Al-Ammary (2013) supports the idea that not all Middle East students are ready for CL. Researchers conducted a survey among university students to explore factors that influence the adoption of collaborative learning at the Kingdom of Bahrain. Interestingly, the majority of participants were aware of CL programs and enjoyed face-to-face interactions (Al-Ammary, 2013). Some of the students were not satisfied with the fact that during CL, the less successful peers relied on others in accomplishing the group tasks. At the same time, students recognised that collaborative learning provides them with more freedom and opportunities to engage in critical thinking. Based on these findings, Al-Ammary (2013) suggested that the success of CL programs depends on learners’ readiness and willingness to collaborate. Moreover, factors such as teacher guidance and student willingness were found to have a significant impact on the overall success of CL programs in Bahrain. Finally, researchers added that CL programs are best suited for IT and language courses, whereas theoretical disciplines such as art and management require traditional class-based learning.

In another study, Alkhalaf et al. (2011) suggested that collaborative learning may become the solution to students’ negative experiences with team work. Researchers collected evidence from faculty members and undergraduate students in Saudi Arabia to learn about their attitudes to CL. Results showed that participants were generally satisfied with CL and believed that face to face interactions allow for adequate exchange of information and knowledge with peers (Alkhalaf et al., 2011). Based on these findings, researchers suggested that online collaborative learning may provide the necessary level of communication and enhance the effectiveness of advanced learning pedagogies. Alkhalaf et al. (2011) argued that collaboration can provide the sense of belonging, which some students lack. Besides, collaborative learning is a perfect solution to the Middle East educational setting, where face-to-face communication between males and females is not encouraged. Al-Asmari and Rabb Khan (2014) supported some of these ideas by arguing that in order to overcome problems and challenges in the current CL environment in the Middle East, countries need to re-orient it toward collaborative learning.

Arkilic, Peker, and Uyar (2013) conducted another study in which they attempted to understand what communication tools are perceived as the most useful in the CL setting. Researchers selected 143 students of both sexes from the Middle East Technical University in Turkey to ask about their preferences. It has been found that students perceive private discussion groups, instant messaging, shared directories and collaborative document management systems as extremely useful for  collaboration (Arkilic, Peker, & Uyar, 2013). These results are important for practitioners because they show what communication tools can be employed to make the CL process more engaging and effective for Middle East students.

Grami (2012) conducted a study to explore the experience of Saudi female students engaged in collaborative learning. The researcher selected seven students and assessed their successes in completing collaborative writing tasks. Results indicated that students were generally satisfied with the new learning paradigm and successfully integrated into the traditional learning culture. More specifically, dialogues helped them to develop their critical thinking and communication skills and enhanced their literacy. Given these results, Grami (2012) suggested that educators need to consider introducing more collaborative learning classes to improve students’ learning experience. Although the study involved a small sample size, its results may still be useful for Middle East educators aiming to design engaging and interactive collaborative lessons.


CL in Oman: Challenges and Opportunities

Raising the quality of education has been the primary concern of Oman’s Ministry of Education for the past decades. Its primary goal is to “keep pace with demographic changes” and “prepare Omanis for life and work in the new conditions created by the modern global economy”, which is why new educational approaches have been gradually introduced in many educational institutions across the country (Rassekh, 2004, p. 9). All educational system components in this country including teacher training, curricula and educational materials and methods have been reviewed an enhanced to take advantage of modern educational approaches. Like other advanced Middle East countries, Oman has actively introduced the CL approach to provide more up-to-date and interactive education to its citizens. The public comprehensive Sultan Qaboos University, for example, has recently increased  CL programmes, improved   classroom CL settings, and even established a centre for student collaborative activities (Porcaro, 2011). In 2007, the country even established the Omani Society for Student Directed Learning (OSSDL) which is concerned with “planning, implementation, and successful application of CL strategies through utilization of social skills and face to face dialogues in governmental and private educational institutions” (OSET, 2012, n.p.).

At the same time, despite the country’s willingness to keep up with the global trends, some challenges still exist (Al-Maskri, Al-Mukhini, & Amzat, 2012). Porcaro (2011) argued that there is still a limited number of well trained staff on CL and there are no scripts that could effectively guide the implementation of CL institutions, which prevents students from engaging in CL willingly. It shows that much still needs to be done at the national level to stimulate the adoption of CL. Overall, the existing CL infrastructure can hardly address students’ multiple demands and goals, which highlights the urgent need to enhance educational requirements in Oman. With this in mind, Porcaro (2011) suggested that CL has great potential as an approach for enhancing students’ learning potentials, communication, decision-making and social skills and making them highly competent and successful professionals in the contemporary labour market.

Generally, one needs to look at research assessing collaborative learning in Oman. Thus, for instance, a study conducted by Tai (2015) aimed to compare individual, pair and group work and its outcomes in writing assignments. The researcher selected 41 students from two regional schools in Oman and divided them into three groups to compare their learning experience. Results indicated that collaborative writing, when compared with individual and pair work, positively affected the overall quality of texts and their fluency, accuracy and lexical resources (Tai, 2015). Moreover, it has been found that learners generally perceived collaborative writing positively, which allows suggesting that students may be satisfied with CL as well. Notably, Tai (2015) emphasised that the Omani collective culture contributes to students’ positive attitudes to peer interaction and collaboration.

Furthermore, Khan (2006) explored the effects of CL communication (CLC) on the Omani higher education female students. Researcher administered a questionnaire among randomly selected participants to learn about their experience with CLC. Results revealed that female students did not prefer CL communication, especially in the mixed group setting. Students explained that face-to-face communication was challenging for them because of shyness and the fear of being misunderstood, laughed at or ignored (Khan, 2006). Therefore, collaborative learning is preferable conducted to single gender groups of students because it gives them more flexibility and freedom to express themselves. Khan (2006) concluded that face-to-face collaborative learning in the Arabic culture is so far not much effective due to certain religious and cultural limitations, which is why we need to reorient the approach to the academic population in Oman to encourage women’s participation in mixed groups during the learning process.

There have been several studies published recently focusing on CL in Oman, which demonstrates that this learning strategy is gradually becoming popular in the country. For example, Al-Rawahi and Al-Mekhlafi (2015) explored the effect of collaborative learning on English as a Foreign Language learners’ academic success. This quasi-experimental study involving 93 students was conducted in Nizwa College of Applied Sciences, Oman. Researchers assigned all participants into two groups – one group collaborated in carrying out the task, whereas another group completed tasks individually. When all assignments were completed, Al-Rawahi and Al-Mekhlafi (2015) used a language test to evaluate participants’ reading and writing skills, as well as attitudes and project scores to determine how the learning setting affected educational outcomes. It has been found that collaborative learning significantly improved students’ writing skills if compared to individual learning. Al-Rawahi and Al-Mekhlafi (2015) concluded that collaboration is a useful approach to teaching languages in Oman because it stimulates purposeful and meaningful interaction between students and improves language skills. Contrary to the argument by Porcaro and Al Musawi (2011) and Khan (2006), researchers also suggested that because Middle East students are more comfortable working with peers from the same gender, instructors need to consider avoiding mixed groups in classroom based collaboration. Finally, Al-Rawahi and Al-Mekhlafi (2015) added that although collaboration is associated with some challenges, such as the lack of language skills, it is still a valuable tool both for Omani students and teachers.

Furthermore, Porcaro and Al Musawi (2011) provided a detailed discussion of CL and analysed the scale of its adoption in Oman. To begin with, researchers argued that the adoption of CL in Oman is associated with increased focus on student-centred and problem-based learning that originate from constructivist methods. Although authors acknowledged that CL adoption in higher education is still limited, they maintained that this learning approach perfectly suits the Arab culture. They explained that because of the social barriers between males and females, Omani female students find it difficult to engage in face-to-face collaboration in mixed groups. In this way, grouping students gender wise in CL provides them with an opportunity to study without breaking the cultural and social norms (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011).

Researchers also provided some practical suggestions for Omani educators on how to enhance the use of CL. Thus, Porcaro and Al Musawi (2011) noted that purposes and processes of collaboration need to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders before beginning its implementation. Students need to be given some time to familiarise themselves with the CL system and understand its functions and principles. Some small-scale preliminary projects might be useful to understand whether students are ready to engage in the new activity and determine potential challenges that may arise during the collaboration process (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011). Furthermore, researchers encouraged instructors to support students as they get used to the new learning paradigm by giving regular feedbacks and motivating them to collaborate and express themselves more actively. It is also important to select widely-used and comprehensive CL tools to avoid misunderstanding and ensure that all students can use them easily. Instructors should not rely on CL exclusively but should be ready to complement it with traditional approaches, especially when some problems occur (Porcaro & Al Musawi, 2011). Scholars emphasised that although CL may seem too difficult to implement, its benefits for Omani education undoubtedly outweigh the existing challenges.

Porcaro and Reeves (2013) provided several more considerations on the use of CL in Oman. Researchers suggested that because Omani students got used to traditional instruction, it may be difficult for them to take initiative and control their learning process by themselves. Therefore, teachers need to provide them with a feeling of freedom by encouraging student contribution and giving them an opportunity to choose projects and assignments (Porcaro & Reeves, 2013). It may also be difficult for Omani female students to adjust to the use of collaborative platforms, so teachers’ primary goal is to show them that CL is beneficial and that they support cultural values, not break them. Authors suggested that those students having very little confidence and skills need to be given easier tasks or allowed to work cooperatively with their peers (Porcaro & Reeves, 2013). Besides, Omani students tend to form their own groups based on gender, religious or tribal differences, so teachers should allow them to study in groups where they feel comfortable and secure.


Chapter Summary

This literature review provided a detailed analysis of academic literature concerning collaborative learning. In the first part of the review, the researcher dwelled on the transformation of learning trends and discussed how pedagogical approaches evolved with the growing demands of the labour market and society as a whole. It has been found that by the beginning of the 21st century, collaboration and globalisation have greatly influenced the way knowledge is acquired and used. With the increasing demand for high-skilled, competent, sociable and flexible workforce, educational institutions have become more team work oriented and focused on developing students’ decision-making, critical and social skills. Learning paradigms have also become more diverse, offering students an opportunity to choose the most suitable means of acquiring knowledge. For example, collaborative learning is among the latest and most innovative ways of studying in the current educational setting.

Moreover, when analysing theoretical underpinnings of CL, the researcher has found that the acquisition of knowledge has shifted from passive and individualistic learning to active and socially-based construction of knowledge. According to constructivist theory, learners construct knowledge through personal experience and interaction with the environment. Informed by this constructivist view, CL gives students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking, analysis and social interaction to construct their knowledge by themselves, not passively absorbing it from teachers. CL is also based on the cognitive theory, which postulates that motivation, personality and individual characteristics influence the way people learn. It also highlights the importance of such concepts as thinking, conceptualising and imagining in the process of knowledge acquisition. In other words, CL pays attention to each student’s individual needs and skills to make the learning process more student-centred and comfortable. Finally, both activity theory and theory of social presence that inform collective learning perceive meaningful social exchange and active interaction with the environment as the major sources of information and knowledge. In this way, by analysing these theories, the researcher has gained insight into the nature and basic processes underpinning CL.

In the second section, the author focused on CL by exploring its principles, advantages and challenges and determining teachers and students’ relation to this learning paradigm. To begin with, it has been found that CL is not a totally new concept in science and education. Since the 1960s-1970s, researchers have discussed such concepts as synchronous collaboration and collaborative work in physical teams’, which have ultimately informed the development of CL and its application in the educational setting. Although many collaborative activities have been originally designed for business or social interaction purposes, they bring no less benefit to CL by enhancing its flexibility and making it more student-centred. Additionally, analysis of literature helped determine the main principle of CL, which postulates that only collaborative activity makes individual cognitive experience meaningful and useful for knowledge construction. One needs to understand, however, that this collaborative activity should be directed by a teacher or instructor, whose role in CL is to facilitate and motivate knowledge construction.

Furthermore, analysis of literature helped reveal some of the main advantages and challenges associated with CL. To begin with, scholars maintain that CL enhances critical thinking, problem solving and social skills; improves student involvement and academic performance; gives students the feeling of freedom and promotes lifelong learning that is essential in the contemporary labour market. Despite these clear benefits for students, implementation of CL is challenging. Literature suggests that a large gap exists between CL theory and practice and highlights that only a limited number of educational institutions have managed to adopt CL successfully. One of the major barriers is infrastructure, as the lack of scripts that guides proper CL implementation. The absence of sufficient trained teachers on CL is additionally another problem.  Moreover, the lack of students and teachers’ CL skills, as well as poor organisational, self-management and social skills of learners impede the adoption of CL worldwide. Besides, learners’ perception, attitudes, cultural backgrounds and personal characteristics may also affect the way CL is used in the educational setting.

The role of CL is profound; given that it is a flexible social environment within interactional settings created to enhance team performance which is vital for successful functioning of CL. The literature review on this subject showed that CL currently lacks its own scripts and frameworks and mostly uses previously designed cooperative designs; however, their customisation and development of integrated, complex systems for enabling CL is currently at the forefront of CL research and practice. There is a variety of collaborative supporting strategies in CL, and their understanding is crucial for making collaboration work out in real CL environments. Due to large-scale development of CL, it is now not only a collaborative tool in which students and teachers collaborate; it has globally evolved into a social architecture allowing collaboration, interaction, knowledge sharing, and advanced communication; such trends allow concluding that CL is evolving and improving day by day. However, a number of challenges still exist on the way to full-scale CL implementation and adoption. Solutions for student assessment and regulation of interactions are still imperfect, and alongside with cultural barriers, social interaction and limited capacity barriers emerge. Addressing them is a present-day imperative of CL development.

Finally, the last part of the chapter explored cultural considerations of CL. Here, the author discussed literature on the CL adoption worldwide, as well as in the Middle East and Oman specifically. It has been found that CL is gaining popularity, especially in the Asian countries. Multiple new projects are being created and scholars exchange their experience and ideas concerning CL during annual conferences and meetings. The Middle East countries including Oman try to keep up with this educational trend and allocate funds for improving their educational pedagogies and CL specifically. Interestingly, the majority of researchers agree that CL can successfully be adjusted to the Middle East cultural and religious setting because they allow increasing women involvement in learning without breaking cultural norms. Overall, analysis of empirical research in Oman showed that although this country faces many challenges in adopting CL, this learning paradigm can potentially help the country modernise its educational system and make it more inclusive, student-centred, innovative and effective.




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