Individual and collaborative learning – reflections

(This post is an edited version of part of my final essay for H800, Technology-Enhanced Learning: Practices & Debates, which I recently completed as part of my MA in Online & Distance Education. It acts as a final reflective piece on my experience of the module.)

There is a sense in which all learning is individual not collaborative. We are separate human beings from each other after all and, if we haven’t learned something personally and individually, it has not been learned. This is reflected very clearly in the way assessment is carried out on our education system. Exams, tests, assignments, portfolios and the rest are designed to check how much the individual has learned and what they are capable of. We do not award qualifications to groups but to individuals (things are a little more flexible in corporate life, where bonuses and recognition can be given to groups, as well as to individuals).

Of course, in another way, individual learning is actually very difficult to achieve. It may be possible to achieve some learning simply by observing the natural world but apart from this, all learning means at least a loose form of collaboration with someone. Reading a book, for example, is a sort of collaboration with the author. We debated this point early on in our H800 studies, in a discussion on the ideas of Sfard (1998) about learning as acquisition and participation. We were trying to think of a form of knowledge that was pure acquisition and this lead us to think that even reading was a sort of participation in the mental world of the author. Put simply, we usually learn from each other, whether in person or remotely, and in this sense everything we learn has been some sort of collaboration.

However, collaboration in learning normally refers to people learning together in groups. This was introduced as a theme very early in our studies in a recorded presentation by John Seeley Brown (2007), and in particular a bold claim from this talk:

“…one of the few deeply robust results in most educational theory today is that, in fact, the best indicator of success in college has to do with whether or not you know how to form, join, participate in study groups. Bar none!”

He is careful to stress that the study groups do not have to meet face-to-face – they can operate by instant message, email, discussion boards, social networking or other ways. This belief is clearly evident in H800, with all activities including the facility to post and review comments on a discussion board. This type of collaborative learning has proved interesting, as there have been a number of active “posters” who have quite different roles and perspectives to me, which has encouraged me to think broadly about educational issues.

The nature of our course and our lives also puts limitations on the functioning of our study groups. There have been certain activities, and certain times, when there is little or no posting going on in the discussion forums. This means that we have to revert to individual learning and study on our own. This would happen less if we really felt accountable to each other for our participation, but such accountability is hard to generate and generally harder if the group has never physically met (Pyoria, 2007). To compound the impact of lack of participation, it is well established that resentment about “lurkers” can reduce general engagement with the discussions (Fung, 2004).

Interestingly, towards the end of the module, a group of students gravitated to a Facebook group, which was used for a mix of sharing links, surveying ideas and general encouragement. The spontaneous formation of this informal group, bound together by a shared interest, is perhaps a small-scale example of “expansive swarming” (Engeström, 2007). For its members, the group has provided the critical mass, informality and integration with the rest of our lives that perhaps the “official” forums do not. Such groups have disadvantages, however – presumably they reduce usage of the “official” forums further, as well as excluding anyone who does not use Facebook.

There is another sense in which collaboration has been important to my learning in H800. A number of our readings in the course have emphasised that learning can be about becoming part of a particular group, gaining formal or informal membership and adopting a certain culture and way of doing things. This can go by various names – “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991), “participation metaphor” (Sfard, 1998) or “adopting a culture” (Brown et al, 1989).

In H800, the main relevant group is the academic culture/community and it has been interesting to re-engage with it as it is twenty years since I was last studying in a formal university setting. Key elements of the culture are use of research, academic “tone” and adopting specific referencing approaches. I can tell that I have gradually become more of a member of this culture, with probably the single most important mechanism for this being marking and feedback on my essays.

As it happens, the last year has also seen me move into a more academic environment in my career, with a new role running an undergraduate degree programme and my first publication in a peer-reviewed journal (Clark, 2012). In this sense, my studies have complemented my career well reinforcing the move across cultures and collaborating within a new context.


Brown, J.S. (2007) ‘Researching open content in education’, webcast, The OpenLearn Conference October 2007, Milton Keynes, The Open University, stadia/ preview.php?whichevent=1063&s=31 (accessed 21 September 2012).

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989) ‘Situated cognition and the culture of learning’, Educational Researcher, vol.18, no.1, pp.32–42.

Clark, D. (2012) ‘Social Media: Why It Matters to Everyone in Education’, The International HETL Review [online], vol.2, article 8. Available from (accessed 21 September 2012).

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Fung, Y. Y. H. (2004) ‘Collaborative online learning: Interaction patterns and limiting factors’, Open Learning, vol.19, no.2, pp.135-149.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pyoria, P. (2007) ‘Informal organizational culture: the foundation of knowledge workers’ performance. The Finnish Model of an information society’, Journal of Knowledge Management, vol.11 iss.3, pp.16-30.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13.


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Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

One response to “Individual and collaborative learning – reflections

  1. Pingback: Individual and collaborative learning – reflections | Student-Centric Learning |

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