December 16, 2017

Two design models for online collaborative learning: same or different?

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

I am now about to wrap up my Chapter 5 on Design models, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Here I am looking at the work of two separate and important Canadian theorists and practitioners, what we might call the Toronto school, Linda Harasim and her former colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto (although Linda has been firmly based for 25 years at SFU in Vancouver/Burnaby), and the Alberta school, Randy Garrison, and colleagues Terry Anderson and Walter Archer. However, they are not the only contributors to the design of online collaborative learning, as the following post makes clear.

Perhaps more importantly, I believe that online collaborative learning is a key model for teaching the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. So here’s my first draft:

From the quite early days of online learning, some instructors have focused heavily on the communication affordances of the Internet. They have based their teaching on the concept of knowledge construction, the gradual building of knowledge mainly through asynchronous online discussion among students and between students and an instructor.

What is online collaborative learning?

The concurrence of both constructivist approaches to learning and the development of the Internet has led to the development of a particular form of constructivist teaching, originally called computer-mediated communication (CMC), or networked learning, but which has been developed into what Harasim (2012) now calls online collaborative learning theory (OCL). She describes OCL as follows (p. 90):

OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.

OCL builds on and integrates theories of cognitive development that focus on conversational learning (Pask, 1975), conditions for deep learning (Marton and Saljø, 1997; Entwistle, 2000), development of academic knowledge (Laurillard, 2000) and knowledge construction (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006)

Core design principles of OCL

Harasim emphasises the importance of three key phases of knowledge construction through discourse:

  • idea generating: this is literally brainstorming, to collect the divergent thinking within a group
  • idea organising: this is where learners compare, analyse and categorise the different ideas previously generated, again through discussion and argument
  • intellectual convergence: the aim here is to reach a level of intellectual synthesis, understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), usually through the joint construction of some artefact or piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

This results in what Harasim calls a Final Position, although in reality the position is never final because for a learner, once started, the process of generating, organising and converging on ideas continues at an ever deeper or more advanced level. The role of the teacher or instructor in this process is seen as critical, not only in facilitating the process and providing appropriate resources and learner activities that encourage this kind of learning, but also, as a representative of a knowledge community or subject domain, in ensuring that the core concepts, practices, standards and principles of the subject domain are fully integrated into the learning cycle. Harasim provides the following diagram to capture this process:

From Harasim (2012), p. 95

From Harasim (2012), Figure 6.3, p. 95

Figure 6. 1: Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion

Another important factor is that in the OCL model, discussion forums are not an addition or supplement to core teaching materials, such as textbooks, recorded lectures, or text in an LMS, but are the core component of the teaching. Textbooks, readings and other resources are chosen to support the discussion, not the other way round. This is a key design principle, and explains why often instructors or tutors complain, in more ‘traditional’ online courses, that students don’t participate in discussions. Often this is because where online discussions are secondary to more didactic teaching, or are not deliberately designed and managed to lead to knowledge construction, students see the discussions as optional or extra work, because they have no direct impact on grades or assessment. (It is also a reason why awarding grades for participation in discussion forums misses the point. It is not the extrinsic activity that counts, but the intrinsic value of the discussion, that matters – see Brindley, Walti and Blashke, 2009). Thus although instructors using an OCL approach may use learning management systems for convenience, they are used differently from courses where traditional didactic teaching is moved online.

Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry Model (CoI) is somewhat similar to the OCW model. As defined by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.

Garrison, Anderson and Archer argue that there are three essential elements of a community of inquiry:

  • social presence ” is the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.”
  • teaching presence  is “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes
  • cognitive presence “is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse“.
Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Other design principles

However, I consider CoI more of a theory than a model, since it does not indicate what activities or conditions are needed to create these three ‘presences’. I also see the two models as complementary rather than competing. Since the publication of the original CoI paper in 2000, there have been a number of studies that have identified the importance of these ‘presences’ within especially online learning (click here for a wide selection). Partly as a result of this research, and partly as the result of experienced online instructors who have not necessarily been influenced by either the OCL or the Community of Inquiry literature, several other design principles have been associated with successful (online) discussion, such as:

  • choice of appropriate technology (e.g. software that allows for threaded discussions)
  • clear guidelines on student online behaviour
  • student orientation and preparation, including technology orientation and explaining the purpose of discussion
  • choice of appropriate topics
  • setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion (e.g. respectful disagreement, evidence-based arguments)
  • defining clearly learner roles and expectations
  • monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly
  • regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’
  • ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.

These issues are discussed in more depth by Salmon (2000); Paloff and Pratt (2005; 2007); and Bates and Poole (2003).

Therefore, although there has been a wide range of researchers and educators engaged in the area of online collaborative learning and communities of inquiry, there is a high degree of convergence and agreement about successful strategies and design principles.

Strengths and weaknesses of online collaborative learning

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning:

  • by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor,
  • that reflect the norms or values of the discipline, and
  • that also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.

Thus there are two main strengths of this model:

  • when applied appropriately, online collaborative learning can lead to deep, academic learning, or transformative learning, as well as, if not better than, discussion in campus-based classrooms. The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion.
  • online collaborative learning as a result can also directly support the development of a range of high level intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation, which are key requirements for learners in a digital age.

There are though several limitations:

  • it does not scale easily, requiring highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors, and a limited number of learners
  • it is more likely to accommodate to the epistemological positions of faculty and instructors in humanities, social sciences, education and some areas of business studies and health and conversely it is likely to be less accommodating to the epistemological positions of faculty in science and engineering. However, if combined with a problem-based or inquiry-based approach, it might have acceptance even in some of these subject domains.

It could also be argued that there is no or little difference between online collaborative learning/Communities of Inquiry than well-conducted traditional classroom, discussion-based teaching. Once again, we see that the mode of delivery is less important than the design model, which can work well in both contexts. Indeed, it is possible to conduct either models synchronously or asynchronously, at a distance or face-to-face.

However, there is certainly enough evidence that collaborative learning can be done just as well online, which is important, given the need for more flexible models of delivery to meet the needs of a more diverse student body in a digital age. Also, the necessary conditions for success in teaching this way are now well known, even though they are not universally applied.

Over to you

I am of course inviting Linda, and the Albertans, to respond to this (well, it is Grey Cup tomorrow: Calgary, Alberta vs Hamilton, Ontario, in a curious game called Canadian Football, which is almost as good a dust-up). However, I’d also like comments from some less committed educators with regards to the following:

1. Can you see the differences between ‘Open Collaborative Learning’ (OCL) and ‘Communities of Inquiry’? Or are they really the same model with different names?

2. Do you agree that either of these models can be applied just as successfully online or face-to-face?

3. Do you see other strengths or weaknesses with these models?

4. Is this common sense dressed up as theory?

5. Has anyone had any experience of using either of these models in the quantitative sciences such as physics or engineering? If so, do you still have a job?


Bates, A. and Poole, G. (2003) Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education: Foundations for Success San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Brindley, J., Walti, C. and Blashke, L. (2009) Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 10, No. 3

Entwistle, N. (2000) Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: conceptual frameworks and educational contexts Leicester UK: TLRP Conference

Garrison, R., Anderson, A. and Archer, W. (2000) Critical Inquiry in a Text-based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education The Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 2, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marton, F. and Saljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2005) Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Pask, G. (1975) Conversation, Cognition and Learning Amsterdam/London: Elsevier (out of press, but available online)

Salmon, G. (2000) e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online London: Taylor and Francis

Scardamalia, M. and Bereiter, C. (2006) Knowledge Building:  Theory, pedagogy and technology in Sawyer, K. (ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences New York: cambridge University Press



  1. Terry Anderosn says:

    Hi Tony
    Thanks for this summary that includes the work that Randy, Walter and I did to develop the Community of Learning Model way back in the last century!!

    I think you basically have it right- it was a social constructivist reaction to the world of distance education at the time, that was focussed on instructivist models that evolved in pre-interactive, cognitive -behaviourist pedagogical models. This one-way pedagogy evolved mostly due to the “new” technologies’ capacity to support two way communications – mostly as you suggest for asynchronous communication, but today the COI seems to thrive best in mixed synch and asynch contexts. In fact Randy with colleagues Norm Vaughan and Marti Cleveland-Innes have a a relatively new open access book on using the COI in Blended learning contexts see

    A small point, I am sure my friend Marguerite Koole does not claim copyright to the infamous three circles that have come to define to the COI – why not call it Creative Commons CC myself, ’cause I THINK I exercised my massive Powerpoint graphic skills to create it a very long time ago.

    I too am not sure the COI is a learning theory, but it has proven value to both researchers ( >2,000 citations for most of the 4 articles we created on the model) and as a practitioner heuristic – it is simple to understand and helps one think about struggles one may be having with one’s courses. I’m not sure that I would agree that the COI doesn’t provide at least guidelines for practice. It isn’t perspective but if you look at the indicators we used to measure the various ‘presences” from text analysis of CMC interactions, or the items that have been created for the COI survey instrument (see ) you will see that one can easily extract a set of best practices from the indicators or as Vaughan et al. has done in their recent book.

    Linda’s and our model are very similar (they are both extrapolations of a basic scientific model ala Dewey in particular with a heavy doe of post 1990 social constructivism. Initially we were more concerned with the final phase of application to REAL world, that Linda lists as “possible application”. I think we both took the Dewian or pragmatic position that learning had to be acted in the real world to be “real”.

    But we we were a bit surprised (and disappointed) to find so few of our cognitive items that coded in the final application phase. There has been discussion in the literature. Is this is a problem for the COI, inability to measure it, or for education more broadly – inability to create meaningful applications.

    Indeed, “the common sense is dressed up as theory” but like my favourite research methodology – design-based research, we academics need common sense language and ideas to propel ideas forward that have potential for making a difference on the lives of teachers and most important of learners. Sometimes the common sense needs to be cloaked in new or at least appropriate language to the audience to have effect!

    Terry Anderson

    • Many thanks, Terry – very helpful comments. I will add the ‘COI in Blended Learning contexts’ book to the reference list, and will change the credit for the diagram in the way you suggested (sorry, Marguerite!).
      My view is that CoI is a theory more than a design model, but that as a result of the research on it, guidelines for CoI design are evolving. I just didn’t feel qualified though to specify what those design principles would be that would be specific to CoI. If there’s somewhere where such design guidelines are delineated or collected together, I’d certainly like to include them.
      My question about common sense dressed up as theory was meant to provoke thought about what actually constitutes a theory in education – and also to challenge the idea of ‘common sense’ itself. Certainly with CoI you have a strong body of evidence to support it as a theory.
      Many thanks, once again, Terry, for your helpful and supportive comments.

  2. A potential weakness for any model of collaborative learning.
    To what extent can we expect a Matthew Effect (For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (25:29)).
    That is, the less able (maybe 70% of the student cohort) might gain only superficial or even distorted knowledge from the over-intellectual postings of the intelligentsia. Hence develop a feeling of inadequacy and reduced self-efficacy, so they are worse off than when they started collaborating. And/or they develop a culture of dependency.
    Why do I so conjecture?
    I like asynchronous (or synchronous) collaborative learning, but that’s because I think I’m good at it (learning through it). All the proponents, including Tony, Linda and Terry, are also good at it. That is a strong impetus for recommending it – thinking that all learners would benefit from collaboration. But what about the silent majority? Do they benefit, or are they overwhelmed?
    Is this a real danger? If so how to ameliorate it?.

    • Hi, Jack
      You have raised an excellent point, but wouldn’t it apply to most theories of learning, not just collaborative learning? Learning collaboratively – or in any other way – is a skill, and it’s our job as teachers to help students develop that skill – all students, not just the ones who already talk a good line. Students need to be introduced gradually to collaborative learning, especially if they not only have difficulties communicating ‘publicly’, but also if they come from cultures where speaking out is not part of the culture. I agree with Linda Harasim’s comment that discourse is an essential part of at least academic learning. Learning to discourse well is a critical skill in today’s society so we have an obligation, as you point out, to ensure all our students are skilled in this.

  3. Dear Tony and dear readers:

    It is a privilege to have Tony present my Theory of Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) in his book and to have the opportunity to comment on his presentation in this blog.

    Tony’s summary of OCL was well-done: Thank you Tony.

    What did my theory of OCL contribute specifically? (imho) 🙂
    1. the key role of discourse in learning. This is something that I believe distinguishes my theory and also which I feel gets to central aspects of how people learn and how we should design and implement learning practice;
    2. understanding the role of the teacher, which is now under attack.

    So briefly:
    1. Discourse is central to learning. In fact, humans invented speech in order to be able to be better able to learn and teach, and thereby survive/thrive. Discourse (discussion) is also how we bring learners & apprentices into our field. We professors and teachers introduce them to the “talk” of our domain expertise, the analytical language that we employ, and we then help them to learn to ‘walk the talk’.
    2. The role of the teacher has been increasingly under attack. In Behaviorist and Cognitivist Learning theories, the instructor is the font of all knowledge and it is his/her role to transmit information in such a way that the student will generate the “correct answer”. This is the basis of Instructional Design: transmit the information so that the learner retransmits it back ‘correctly. Assessment is merely a case of grading how well the student memorized and repeated what the teacher said.

    However, Constructivist Learning Theory challenged the instructivist role but did not provide an alternative. What was the role of the teacher in a scenario/’theory’ of learning by doing? Was our role to merely provide the sandbox? What was learning? How could we see it? Support it? Assess it? Improve it?

    Connectivism, insofar as it is a theory which I would challenge, actually negates the role of the instructor. Siemens writes that 21st century learning requires no external organization or curriculum by humans; humans can somehow efficiently and effectively self-organize when engaged in massive groupsing of 2500 or 250,000 people. We do not need humans to be teachers, or professors, or organizers. We can try to self-organize or use technology to do it for us. Hence, AI software in place of teachers. MOOCs, for example, do not use real teachers.

    The above theories of learning (BTL, CgTL, CnTL) are based on objectivist epistemologies: epistemologies which hold that there is one truth. Machines help arrive at that truth.

    Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) has taken a very different path: a constructivist epistemology, altho not based on a Constructivist Theory of Learning. OCL gives the instructors a key role: the pedagogical activities are linked to conceptual processes that encourage change and progress and improvement over time. The instructor, the moderator, and/or a student-moderator facilitate such progress and change over time through the processes of :Idea Generating→Idea Organizing→Intellectual Convergence →(application in real life, professional courses like health, medicine, law).

    Teachers and professors are domain experts, representatives of their Knowledge Community, and (should be) pedagogical experts with “the special role of representing that community and indicting new members”. Harasim, 2012, p..95

    The Diagram: Should be viewed as dynamic. At any point, the discussion/debate may return to the initial or second phases and start again.

    Note that the process is one of moving from Divergent Thinking to Convergent Thinking. The Nautilus on the cover is a spiral: spinning, advancing but in my theory not unidirectional but frequently stopping to wheel again to get it better.
    Even now.
    🙂 Linda

  4. Tony has selected to place the Theory of Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) near to the discussion of Community of Inquiry (COI). I think this is unfortunate because COI is not a theory nor does it offer a pedagogy, a research methodology nor a means of assessment.

    In 2000 or 2001, I discussed COI with him, and until today I have the same comments and concerns. COI is neither a “theory” nor a “model”, altho the term model is not easily defined.

    Nonetheless, COI is not a theory of learning because it does not “explain” the learning process which is precisely the role of a theory. COI is perhaps a description of the components of learning. But it is not a theory because it does not tell me how learning happens and how I can facilitate it.

    For example, as a teacher, how do I realize or create “teaching presence”? How can I even try to assess whether my “teaching presence” has an impact on “cognitive presence”? What are the indicators of “cognitive presence”? WHose cognitive presence? That of the professor? That of the learner? How do they interact?

    Three “presences” are listed but they are nouns not verbs. COI does not provide teachers nor learners with an understanding of how learning occurs, how to advance it, facilitate it, or even identify it.

    COI is not a theory or even a map. Perhaps it is a photo of a moment….but even that is questionable because it is not a moment in time or in motion. Its static.

  5. Oops, apologies to Terry Anderson. I meant to say that I discussed COi with Terry around 2000 or 2001. The “him” in the sentence is meant to refer to Terry. I must have deleted an earlier sentence. And to be fair, Terry has not promoted COI as a theory. The COI model is useful as a photo of things that we need to consider as teachers, whether online or f2f. But it doesn’t provide explanations of how or why or in what order.

    And it reminds us as educators of how important theories of learning are, and why we need to understand and use them to support our role.

    Linda 🙂

  6. Hi Tony,

    I enjoy reading your post on these two design models. They are both powerful for designing online learning.

    I want to comment specifically comment on the section titled “What is online collaborative learning?” Coming from a background of Scardamalia & Bereiter’s knowledge building, I found this section might benefit from some additional efforts to distinguish a few concepts: knowledge construction, knowledge building, and knowledge creation. I agree knowledge building involves constructivist learning but would also argue knowledge building is closer to knowledge creation than to knowledge construction.

    A reading:

  7. Asip Suryadi says:

    Dear all

    I hope that the discussion have not finished yet. The last post was on Feb 2015 but I began to read this article on 2017. I,m late to read.

    I,m a teacher trainer. Some course are delivered online. I use Moodle as a delivery tool. In my practice, OCL is different from community of inquiry (COI). If COI an educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding, like Gerrison, Anderson and Archer say, so I use the method to delver conceptual knowledge. For instance, delivering teaching material comprehension. My role in this practice is low. But I use OCL to deliver material that ends with project. For instance: guide teacher to develop lesson plane.

    My question is: It is a right way?

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