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Collaborative online learning: the experience of undergraduate students

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posted on 17.02.2017, 02:24 by Restall, Gregory Charles
This study investigated the learning experiences of undergraduate students enrolled in a fully online international relations course at an Australian university. The main aim of the study was to provide a comprehensive account of how students experience such courses cognitively, socially, and instructionally, and to consider the implications for teaching and learning online. In particular, the study examined how students interpreted the expectations inherent in the instructional design of the course and its associated resources to achieve its planned outcomes. The course was designed to promote collaborative learning in groups using a student-centred pedagogy that engaged students in interactive processes of inquiry to further the shared knowledge of the community of learners. The course comprised two stages of learning: first, the shared response to topics central to understanding international relations, and second, the ‘real-world’ application of those understandings to a role-play scenario based on an escalating international conflict. The investigation employed a mixed methods case study design, and adopted an interpretivist orientation. Forty of the 132 students enrolled in the course in 2006 agreed to participate in the study prior to its commencement. The participants were allocated to three of the six seminar groups in the first stage of the course, and then randomly allocated to smaller country forums for the role-play scenario in the second stage of the course. Participants were selected for focused examination to compare individual with group experience. Data relevant to student experience in the course were collected in the form of instructional resources and web forum transcripts. Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model informed the coding of the instructional resources and web forum transcripts using indicators of cognitive, social, and teaching presence. Two online surveys of student attitudes towards their experience and web data logs of student activity within the environment were used to corroborate findings and provide deeper insights. The analyses of cognitive, social, and teaching presence showed that individual students contributed in unique ways in addressing the set instructional tasks to achieve the planned learning outcomes. The analyses also highlighted that groups engaged in uniform and predictable patterns of participation, and that these patterns changed to reflect the nature of the different learning tasks. In the seminar discussions, students did not contribute as instructed, while in the role-play scenario they preferred different methods of communication to those provided to suit the problem-solving nature of the task. The students’ main concerns about the course were the volume and complexity of information, the lack of clarity around expectations, and the inappropriateness of the mediating technologies for particular tasks. The study demonstrated that student-centred pedagogies within a well-planned, scaffolded, and organised course environment can provide large and small groups of students with effective and supportive learning opportunities, especially when task-appropriate technologies are employed to support flexible delivery. However, not all students participating in groups possessed the metacognitive awareness to recognise when these opportunities occurred, or how to make best use of them for their personal learning and development. The online moderator was somewhat removed from the learning process for many who wanted greater levels of instructional visibility and direction in a highly student-driven environment. Future research might explore the role of the online moderator or the instructional designer in facilitating metacognitive awareness in students. The mediating technologies and strategies they employ in the process would help articulate the relationship between what individual students contribute to and what they gain from the shared learning experience.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Ilana Snyder

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Monash University. Faculty of Education. Education


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education