Facilitating collaborative learning: A recipe for success

This article was written for the September 2012 edition of e.learning age magazine

Jane Hart is a Collaboration Consultant, and a speaker and writer on the use of social technologies for collaborative learning and working.  Here she shares her experiences of the online workshops she has been offering at the Social Learning Centre, a global online community for learning professionals.

In the “e-learning era” the focus of training moved to designing and developing sophisticated, self-paced, online course content, and then managing access to it in a LMS. With the emergence of the “networked learning era” training departments have begun to think about how they can add “social” into the mix.

One approach has simply been to bolt social approaches onto existing courses, e.g. by creating a supplementary learning community for course discussions. However, this has tended to mean that the two elements – content and community – are seen as quite separate by learners, and as they often find it annoying having to move back and forth from the content to the community, they usually end up ignoring the community altogether.

A more effective social approach, however, is where the content is well-integrated within the community, and in fact co-created by the community, and where the emphasis is placed much more on the interactions, knowledge sharing and conversations of the participants – than on the content per se.

In other words the focus is not on creating lots of very stylish content and pushing it down to people, but on promoting social and collaborative learning, such that the learners fully participate in the learning experience. In pedagogical terms, it uses a social constructivist, learner-centric, “guide on the side” approach – where the learners are equal partners in the process).

Harold Jarche and I have been using such an approach in the online workshops we have been running at the Social Learning Centre  (SLC) – and we have received lots of encouraging feedback. Here’s just one comment:

“When facilitators/moderators help make connections in conversation threads, add content without getting in the way and encourage collaboration – as Jane and Harold are doing here – the conversation and learning can be far greater and more satisfying than a f2f conversation. “ 

How did we do it?  Well, here is our recipe for success showing 10 key success factors.


1   – Some one who wants both to share his/her expertise but is interested in hearing the views and experiences of others, and is willing to facilitate discussions. In other words an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, credible, person who can stimulate conversation and encourage collaborative learning. (Note separating out the SME, design and delivery roles is unlikely to work as well, since participants like to know they can interact directly with the expert as well as the participants in a workshop)

2  – A group of people who are hungry to learn from the one another and willing to share their experiences.  We’ve found the minimum number is probably around 10, the maximum number is probably around 30-40.

3 – A private online group space where discussions can be held and resources can be shared.  This could be in a private community platform or enterprise network or in a private online group space.  Key features of the platform/ space that are desirable include user profiling, an activity stream (which supports real time updates and threaded comments), and notifications to keep participants up to date with new message.  Note this space should be one that focuses on enabling social interaction and knowledge sharing rather than managing learning, hence a course or learning management system, even with social functionality, is not the ideal platform. The SLC is powered by Buddypress, an open source social network plugin for WordPress.

4  – A period of time that allows for reflection and discussion, and takes into consideration everyone’s busy schedules. We’ve found 2-4 weeks works best with participants allowing for a commitment of 2-3 hours a week.


5  – Identify the performance outcomes – The first task is to identify what participants should be able to do as a result of their participation in the workshop. That is, it is important to identify performance objectives rather than learning objectives.

6  – Design some practical and reflective tasks – Next design some individual or collaborative tasks, probably 4-5 for a 2-4 week period.  These should be aimed at encouraging participants to share their experiences and/or to promote further conversation.

7  – Create some supporting content – Now start thinking about some content that will provide some input into each task. This is likely to include some readings and some explanatory text to stimulate thinking and discussion. But keep it short and simple! Basic web pages are quite adequate with just text and graphics. Embedded videos and presentations add further visual interest. But remember, it doesn’t require highly stylized, “all-singing, all-dancing” multimedia content.  The content is there to promote and support conversation and discussion, not be the focus of the workshop.

8  – Build in as much autonomy as possible – This includes supporting choice not only in terms of who signs up  (don’t force people to be involved who won’t benefit from the experience, see 2 above), but also in terms of how and when people carry out the activities (don’t try and force task deadlines) as well as in terms of how and when participates contribute (you can’t force people to be social, only encourage them to be so.).


9  – Provide lite-touch facilitation  – This should be bothproactive and reactive facilitation, and will include welcoming participants, providing some guidance on how the workshop will run, encouraging introductions and the identification of participants’ own performance objectives, answering questions, as well as sharing new resources. In fact, it is about modeling the new collaborative behaviours you are seeking to promote in the participants.


10 –  Encourage self-evaluation of performance outcomes – Finally, it is about helping the individuals evaluate the success of their participation in the workshop in terms of their own performance outcomes. As Harold says,

“You know when you are in a community of practice, if it changes your practice.”

If you would like to find out more about the online workshops we are running at the Social Learning Centre (which are focused around supporting the new skills of learning professionals in the Networked Era) please visit sociallearningcentre.co.uk/workshops-webinars/