Supporting Collaborative Learning in Asynchronous Learning Networks
Invited Keynote Address for the
UNESCO/ Open University Symposium on
Virtual Learning Environments and the role of the Teacher
Milton Keynes, England April 28 1997
Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Raquel Benbunan-Fich
Final Draft submitted for publication
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Copyright, 1997



Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs) use Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) to support online courses of study, in which anytime, anywhere access to interactions among the students and the teacher/facilitator is a key element. The asynchronous nature of the interaction leads to new paradigms for teaching and learning, with both unique problems of coordination and unique opportunities to support active, collaborative (group or team-based) learning. Collaborative learning appears to be crucial to the effectiveness of online learning environments. To some extent, special software structures embedded within a CMC can encourage and sustain collaborative learning. However, the most important elements for an ALN learning environment to support collaborative learning relate to the "social construction" of an interaction environment, consisting of appropriate expectations and norms of interaction. In particular, the instructor/mentor must re-conceptualize his or her role as a "teacher" and create a set of opportunities and reward structures that encourage students to look upon their interactions with their peers as valuable resources for learning, rather than focusing on memorizing lecture-type material presented by an instructor. Possible barriers to and applications of ALN in less developed countries are discussed.


1. Introduction

An Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) is a teaching and learning environment located within a Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) system designed for anytime/anyplace use through computer networks.

Over the last decade, a research team at NJIT has been involved in constructing a specific version of an ALN which we called the Virtual ClassroomÒ , and studying its use in a wide variety of courses, including all of the major courses for a B.A. in Information Systems degree. This paper draws on these experiences. It reviews the nature of collaborative learning, and its key role in facilitating desirable educational outcomes. Then it summarizes the way in which software was constructed to support collaborative learning, and the social construction of such a learning space-the "adaptive structuration" of such a system by a teacher and students-and argues that this is the most important determinant of what happens online.


2. What Is Collaborative Learning?

Passive approaches to learning assume that students "learn" by receiving and assimilating knowledge individually, independent from others (Johnson & Johnson, 1979; Bouton & Garth, 1983). In contrast, active approaches present learning as a social process which takes place through communication with others (Mead, 1934). The learner actively constructs knowledge by formulating ideas into words, and these ideas are built upon through reactions and responses of others (Bouton and Garth, 1983; Alavi, 1994). In other words, learning is not only active but also interactive.

In particular, collaborative or group learning refers to instructional methods that encourage students to work together on academic tasks. Collaborative learning is fundamentally different from the traditional "direct-transfer" or "one-way knowledge transmission" model in which the instructor is the only source of knowledge or skills (Harasim, 1990).

In collaborative learning, instruction is learner-centered rather than teacher-centered and knowledge is viewed as a social construct, facilitated by peer interaction, evaluation and cooperation. Therefore, the role of the teacher changes from transferring knowledge to students (the "sage on the stage") to being a facilitator in the students' construction of their own knowledge (the "guide on the side"). Some examples of collaborative learning activities are seminar-style presentations and discussions, debates, group projects, simulation and role-playing exercises, and collaborative composition of essays, exam questions, stories or research plans (Hiltz and Turoff, 1993). This new conception of learning shifts away the focus from the teacher-student interaction to the role of peer relationships in educational success (Johnson, 1981).

Cooperation and teamwork supports learning evaluation and feedback, resulting in clarification and change in mental models . Secondly, exposure to alternative points of view can challenge understanding and motivate learning (Glasser and Bassok, 1989). Third, a group structure provides social support and encouragement for individual efforts.

3. The Importance of Collaborative Learning in an ALN Environment

There is no question that ALN's have disadvantages as well as advantages in comparison with traditional classrooms. The major advantage is convenience ("anytime/anywhere"), which in turn facilitates students being able to have more total interaction each week with the teacher and with peers, and being able to learn at the pace and the times best suited to their individual needs. The major shortcomings are (1) limited bandwidth or "media richness" (Daft & Lengel, 1986) and (2) the frustration of waiting an unpredictable amount of time to receive any reaction or feedback. The weaknesses of ALN as a mode of communication decrease the feeling of "social presence" of the teacher and the other group members. In turn, this can severely decrease feelings of motivation and involvement, and thus negatively affect the learning outcomes. However, an emphasis on collaborative learning can emphasize the advantages and overcome some of the disadvantages of asynchronous computer-mediated communication.

Several studies have shown that collaborative learning strategies result in more student involvement with the course (Hiltz, 1994), and more engagement in the learning process (Harasim, 1990). Collaborative learning methods are more effective than traditional methods in promoting student learning and achievement (Johnson, 1981), and enhance student satisfaction with the learning and classroom experience.

Most studies have confounded the use of computer-mediated communication as a mode of course delivery, with the use of collaborative learning as a pedagogical technique. In the following sections, we will summarize some of the findings about the relationship between collaborative learning and positive outcomes for ALN based courses.

3.1 Evaluation Research Methods

The recently completed project at NJIT to put all of the major courses for a B.A. in Information Systems and a B.S. in Computer Science into distance courses employing a combination of ALN and videotapes, used a "multi-method" approach to evaluation. This included pre and post-course questionnaires completed by students, direct observation of online activities, automatic counts of amount of online activity, interviews with selected students, comparison of test or course grades or other "objective" measures of performance, an ongoing computer conference for faculty discussion of problems and solutions, and course reports by faculty using a standard format. Nested within the study was a field experiment in one course, which assigned students to individual vs. group work, online or in a classroom. The summary of results presented here is based primarily on the completed questionnaire data set for the entire project, and of the field experiment. (For more complete results, see Benbunan-Fich 1997; Hiltz, 1997; Hiltz and Benbunan-Fich, 1997). Data analyses and reporting of results is ongoing, even as we have entered a follow-on project to spread the innovation to other departments at NJIT and create a "virtual university").

Data were collected not only on all students in sections using the Virtual ClassroomÒ (VC) plus videotapes, but also in sections of the same course taught by the same instructor or set of instructors, using roughly the same syllabus, in three other modes: traditional face-to-face, "traditional" distance mode of all video, and a combination of face-to-face and VC. Though the mountain of data are still being analyzed, we have the main results for the post course questionnaire (over 600 responses from students who used the system) and grade data for all three years. In the post-course questionnaire, students were requested to compare their experiences in their course which used VC, to that in other college courses delivered face-to-face. Generally, the results of these subjective evaluations were positive. For example:

Over half of the students in the VC + video experimental sections felt that having this option available enabled them to complete more courses that semester than would have otherwise been possible (and thus make faster progress toward their degree).

Subjectively, the majority of students feel that the V C improved the convenience of course access (73%), access to their professors (65%) , and the quality of learning (58%).

Correlation statistics support the theoretical premise that active participation online by both faculty and students, and the use of group or collaborative learning strategies in ALN, are positively related to desirable outcomes.

A multi-item scale was constructed to measure perceived degree of collaborative learning, which correlated significantly (p=<.001) with scales measuring overall course outcomes (R= .31, N= 749) , and overall rating of the virtual classroom experience (R=.30; N= 632).

However, outcomes as measured by grades in the courses show no significant differences between modes. Only two courses showed significant differences, one in each direction. Course grades are only weakly correlated with most variables measured, except for overall grade point average (R2= .21, N= 1531, p = <.001).

Though the correlations between the degree of perceived collaborative learning in the course correlate significantly with perceived outcomes, "correlation is not causation." Being online is confounded with collaborative learning. In addition, all of the courses supposedly used collaborative learning approaches (though this was implemented better and more consistently in some courses than in others). We need a more experimental approach to test whether collaborative learning is a key mechanism in making ALN's effective.

3.2 A Field Experiment on Collaborative Learning

Recently completed dissertation research (Benbunan-Fich, 1997) is based on a field experiment that compared groups and individuals solving ethical case scenarios, with and without computer-mediated communication support. A 2x2 factorial design crossing two modes of communication (offline with a task time of two hours vs. asynchronous computer conference with a task period of ten days; these times were established as optimal in pilot studies) and two types of teamwork (individuals working alone vs. individuals collaborating in groups) was designed to assess the separate and joint effects of medium of communication and collaborative vs. individual learning strategies. In both conditions, students received the ethical case scenario comprising the task one week ahead of time, and were permitted to use whatever written or other materials they wished while discussing the case. In the individual offline condition, students solved the case individually, in an in-class exercise like an open-book quiz, and received individual grades based on their own performance. In the individual online condition, students submitted their individual responses on the computer conference by using the question-response activity software on Virtual ClassroomÒ (see below). In the group offline condition, team members discussed and solved the case by interacting face-to-face and prepared their report. In the group online condition, team members interacted asynchronously using the computer conference as the only means of communication, and submitted a group report.

The subjects were 136 NJIT undergraduate students in the core course Computers and Society, and the ethics scenario which was the experimental task was one of the assignments in the course. Assignment to experimental conditions was done as close to randomly as possible. Most of the students were in a combination face-to-face plus VC course, but some were in the VC +video condition and could not be assigned to come to campus. Students randomly assigned to a group condition were then randomly assigned to a specific group. Perceived learning was measured immediately after the experiment in the post-test questionnaire, using a seven item scale adapted from Hiltz (1994; Chronbach's alpha = .92). Quality of the analysis produced was rated by three expert judges on a number of dimensions, including the extent to which the correct legal principles were identified and applied to the scenario. "Actual" learning was measured in the final exam with two similar ethical scenarios, two weeks after the experiment ended. Because this was a field experiment, we have chosen the .10 level of significance as the minimum for assessing results as worthy of note, but a minimum of .05 is required to refer to the results as "statistically significant."

The results indicate that working in groups, instead of alone, significantly increases motivation, perception of skill development and solution satisfaction. In terms of self-reported learning (see Figure 1), there is, as hypothesized, an interaction between medium of communication and group vs. individual learning. According to the results, conditions with (or without) both factors, i.e. individuals-manual and groups online, perceived higher learning than conditions in which only one of the factors was present.

In assessing learning effectiveness results and reported levels of motivation, a similar pattern of interaction appears: individuals online perform worse than the face to face conditions, but groups online do not.

The implications for ALN are that putting individuals online to interact with course materials is not as effective as the traditional classroom, but that using collaborative learning approaches can make online learning at least as effective as the traditional classroom.

4. Software Engineering for Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning

Different learning strategies and activities will suggest different approaches to computer use and will require different kinds of technological support. For example, a pedagogy emphasizing the acquisition of basic skills suggests the use of an integrated learning system in which skill practice is individualized and sequenced (Newman, 1990). In contrast, a pedagogy emphasizing collaborative learning will require a technological platform in which cooperative efforts can be carried out.

4.1 What is the Virtual ClassroomÒ ?

The Virtual ClassroomÒ (VC) is NJIT's trademarked name for a teaching and learning environment constructed in software, as enhancements to a computer-mediated communication system. The "heart" of the environment is a series of conferences set up for each class, where plenary discussions take place, "electures" ("electronic lectures," short didactic modules interspersed with questions for discussion) are presented, and students engage in various collaborative assignments. Students may access the system whenever it is most convenient for them to participate, using the Internet or direct dial.

The most fundamental software requirement to support collaborative work is a good conference structure (Turoff and Hiltz, 1995). A computer conference orders and stores all entries by all of its members, so that the entire discussion can be easily located and reviewed at any time. Among the features that aid the group discussion processes in a conference are :

1. A "reply" structure, also called "threading," so that replies to an item are attached to it, and the transcript is thus self-organizing into an outline form. Since in an asynchronous mode, many different topics may be under discussion simultaneously, this is a minimum feature necessary to help members cope with potential "information overload."

2. Moderator privileges; software to support an instructor or group facilitator's efforts to order the discussion by giving the person playing this role the privilege to open or close conferences as needed, add or delete members, edit, delete or move items that might be inappropriate or in the wrong place, etc.

3. An interface that is easy to use and to integrate with other software and resources. Currently, this means a web browser which allows users to cut and paste from commonly used PC software, and to link their discussion to Web sites.

Features tailored to support specific types of tasks can be added to a conferencing system to create "groupware." Specifically, the Virtual ClassroomÒ (VC) currently consists of enhancements to the EIESÒ computer conferencing system, to support collaborative learning activities. There are functional equivalents to many of the VC's features in other systems used to support ALNs, such as Lotus Notes' "Learning Space" tailoring.

Some of the software facilities and their traditional classroom analogies are summarized in Figure 2. Besides the main class conference, which is like the classroom or lecture hall, for special activities such as a debate or small group work, other conferences can be established (like moving from a lecture hall to breakout rooms). Private conversations, the equivalent of hallway conversations or office hours, take place via "messages."

The special features added to a basic CMC to support collaborative assignments have been integrated as "Activities," which are executable programs attached to an ordinary conference comment. Rather than automatically receiving everything that has been entered by any participant, as with comments, participants choose to do the activities only when they are ready, and explicitly give a command. A record is kept of done and undone activities for each conference member, and a review choice helps users to keep track of what they have accomplished.

While students may access only their own records of done and undone activities, the instructor can review the Activities status of any of the students. The instructor can require activities to be done in certain sequences and declare whether they are required or optional. Activity types include:

5. Social Engineering for Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning

Whether or not software tools designed to support collaborative learning will actually do so, depends mainly on the extent to which the instructor and the students create a social structure that supports these processes.

Unless the teacher facilitates the conference skillfully, it may be a disaster. It may turn into a monologue of lecture-type material, to which very few responses are made. It may become a disorganized mass of information which is confusing and overwhelming for the participants. It may even break down socially into "flaming" or name calling, rather than building a sense of community.

Many instructors seem to think that what they do in the classroom should be directly transferred to a digital form. However, the online lecture is deadly boring if it is simply a text version of a spoken lecture.

A class conference is an exchange of ideas and information. As with any group discussion, the moderator or leader needs to engage in several kinds of behavior that will facilitate the group's participation and productive collaboration.

The most basic premise from which all online teaching should begin is that the goal is to build a learning community and to facilitate the exchange of ideas, information, and feelings among the members of the community. Every "electure" (electronic lecture) should be designed to include questions for discussion or response, rather than simply representing one way transmission of "knowledge." The students, as well as the instructor, should be encouraged to raise new topics and ask questions of the class; and to respond to one another's contributions.

Figure 3 lists some guidelines for the instructor in trying to create an effective environment for collaborative learning online. An important principle about motivational structures needs to be emphasized. It is not enough to model and encourage active participation; the desired behavior also has to be rewarded. In a course, this means that contributions to the class discussion must be 'graded," and contributions to a group project must also be "graded."

6. Implementation Problems

There are two major limitations at present which limit the practicality of ALN for widespread, low cost education. One is equipment and infrastructure requirements, which are particularly troubling for less-developed countries and regions. The other has to do with scalability, or labor-intensiveness, of the teaching method; it will be omitted from this discussion.

Convenience of access is central to the effectiveness of ALN. This means that a computer, a modem and an economical remote connection to the central server or the Internet are necessary for both the teacher and the individual students. NJIT is an atypical environment on a worldwide basis; recently ranked the seventh "most wired" campus in the U.S., it has given a computer to every full time freshman who enrolls, for over a decade, with the costs covered as part of tuition. "Internet service providers" are a growth industry in the U.S., and have been competing with one another to give away free three month trials. Second and third telephone lines for homes are commonplace, and priced relatively economically. Thus, though equipment and telephone access do represent some additional expense for students, it is not prohibitive. In fact, for those who would have to make the typical commute of 10-50 miles to campus, the tradeoff of these extra costs with the costs of travel and parking and purchased meals are probably about even.

This is not true of less developed countries. As we were reminded by a current online student from Africa, people in many rural villages do not have electricity, let alone a telephone, let alone a computer in every home. Nor is such infrastructure particularly high in national priorities, when there may not be a reliable source of clean water, or the assurance of other basic needs for all, such as food and safety.

Under such conditions, ALN for the mass of students is not a near-future liklihood. However, it may provide an alternative for advanced university education for those who would otherwise be sent abroad. Not only would this be less expensive for governments than paying for the costs of travel and living in places such as Britain, France, or the U.S.; it would also have the probable benefit of lessening the "brain drain" of graduate students who are educated abroad and then do not return to their home countries.

A dramatic example of such possibilities comes from North Africa. After the last civil war in Ethiopia, a new cabinet came to power, composed mainly of men who had spent their adult lives as guerrilla fighters. Needless to say, they had not had the luxury of going off to Oxford or Harvard for a four year residential degree. The British Open University offered a solution to their need for obtaining a higher education in order to better govern their nation. All of the cabinet members were enrolled in a distance degree program, which they could complete without leaving their country or neglecting their government duties. A recent newspaper article featured a picture of the Prime Minister enrobed to receive his Master's degree from this program. In neighboring Eritrea, following the success of the Ethiopian program, over 100 government officials, including the President, are taking MBA courses from the OU. Though the particular program makes little or no use of ALN as a mode, it illustrates a potential application. The most urbanized regions generally do have the infrastructure to support ALN. The necessary computers could be purchased by and used at university laboratories, and special programs of study could be designed in partnership with one or more of the growing number of foreign universities offering degree courses via ALN. Such programs might be used in the education of teachers, doctors, and engineers, as well as civil servants.

7. Summary

Collaborative learning designs are more effective for online learning than pedagogical approaches that emphasize individuals working alone with materials posted online. Software structures can be constructed which will support group collaboration. However, they can only facilitate the desired behavior, not produce it. For the group to adapt a structure of interaction that is collaborative in nature, the instructor must mold, model, and encourage the desired behavior, and the students must be able and willing to participate regularly.

In less developed regions, the lack of required infrastructure blocks the use of ALN for mass education in the near future. However, it might be used to "train the trainers," and to decrease the "brain drain" of university students who might otherwise go abroad and not return.



The initial development of the Virtual ClassroomÒ was supported by the Annenberg/CPB project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Development and research on the B.A.I.S. degree via a combination of video and VC is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Continuing research on appropriate software structures for collaborative work via asynchronous computer-mediated communication is partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF-IRI-9015236). We are grateful to the many colleagues and students who contributed to this research, with special thanks to Ellen Schreihofer, Murray Turoff, and Amdissa Teshome.



Figure 1 GLM Analysis for Self-Reported Learning

Means by Condition

F = 1.45
p = 0.23
F = 1.44
p = 0.23
F = 0.34
p = 0.56
F = 3.42
p = 0.07


Figure 2

Communication Structures in the Virtual and Traditional Classrooms

Computer Facility 


Utilization  Physical Analogy 
Private Conferences 



Class Discussions & Lectures 

Student working groups 



Study Groups 


Messages  Student to student 

Teacher to student 

Transitory material 

Office hours 

"Hallway" conversations  

Membership Status  Who has read and done what assignments (tracking)  Visual Presence 
Binary File Attachments to 


Diagrams, Spread sheets, etc.  Sharing of PC software results 
Anonymous Signatures 


Encouraging Self-disclosure and experimentation 

Presenting mistakes 

Game and role playing 

Role playing 
Membership Directory  Finding members by common interests  Clubs, interest group formulation 
Question/Response  Forces independent thinking and active participation  Face-to-face discussion questions 
Selection  Manage distribution of unique assignments  Circulate sign up sheets 


Exam  Time controlled question set  Written exam 
Gradebook  Access to student grade record  Asking instructor 
Polling  Responding to structured questions  Questionnaires, ballots, show of hands 

Figure 3 Facilitating Online Courses: A Checklist for Action


1. Be responsive. Especially at the beginning of an online course or activity, ensure that every comment is responded to. If no one else replies, either respond by message or by mentioning the author's comment in one of yours.
2. Don't "lecture." An elaborate, logically coherent but long sequence of comments often produces silence. Use short comments that are open ended and invite response.

3. Be clear about expectations of the participants, for the course as a whole and for each module, assignment, or time period within it. Establish a predictable weekly or bi-weekly cycle of activities; e.g., assignments posted on Mondays and due on Saturdays.

4. Be flexible and patient. Guide the conversation but don't dominate it.

5. Don't overload. Contribute no more than one long comment a day, or less if the students are actively contributing. Several short notes are more likely to be read and appreciated than a single long entry.

6. Monitor and prompt for participation. Read the status report offered by the system frequently. Send private messages to those who are falling behind, or who are reading but not writing. If they have not signed in for a week or more and do not reply to these messages, call them on the telephone.

7. For assignments, set up small groups and assign tasks to them. If the class is too large to have a single discussion space without overloading participants, divide it into two or more discussion groups.

8. Be a process facilitator, who makes sure that participants understand and abide by good netiquette by not insulting each other or getting way off the topic of the course.

9. Write weaving comments every week or two, or assign individuals or groups of students to take on this task of summarizing and focusing the discussion.

10. Establish clear norms for participation and procedures for grading online work that give credit for good participation.

11. Assign individuals or small groups to play the role of "teacher" and of moderator for portions of the course.

Adapted from: Harasim et. al, 1995, p. 191-192





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