Why Write Collaboratively? Education Theory: Cooperative Learning

The Cooperative Learning (CL) Movement argues that learning is enhanced in small groups with positive interpersonal interactions. According to the Cooperative Learning Centre at the University of Minnesota

Cooperative Learning is a relationship in a group of students that requires positive interdependence (a sense of sink or swim together), individual accountability (each of us has to contribute and learn), interpersonal skills (communication, trust, leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution), face-to-face promotive interaction, and processing (reflecting on how well the team is functioning and how to function even better).

Cooperative Learning is based on social psychological research/theory and research into group dynamics. The main strategy is to place students into “learning groups” whose task is to develop expertise on a particular topic through group discussion, then share that knowledge with the rest of the class (Ede and Lunsford, 1990, p. 116-117).

Can, or should, we equate cooperative learning and collaborative learning? Comeaux (2002) notes that collaborative and cooperative learning are similar, in that "knowledge is constructed and negotiated in social/cultural contexts with others ..." (p. xxvii). However, in collaborative learning, "the interdependence of the learners and the communal nature of the process as knowledge is negotiated and constructed through dialogue, problem solving, and authentic experiences" (p. xxvii).

Thus, while cooperative learning also bases itself epistemologically in constructivism and the social construction of knowledge, it is not necessarily the same as collaborative learning. Indeed, speaking from the social and postmodernist perspectives shared by many rhetoricians, Ede and Lunsford caution that because cooperative learning developed out of “positivist, empiricist, and behaviorist assumptions,” it should not be equated with “collaborative learning in the Bruffee [knowledge-sharing] tradition” (p. 117). The goals of cooperative learning, they note, are to solve problems, answer questions, confirm hypotheses; to that end, “the tasks the students collaborate on are rigidly structured and controlled” (p. 118).

However, as Ede and Lunsford also imply, we need to explore connections between cooperative and collaborative learning—for some are bound to be fruitful. For example, we can look to Stahl’s essential elements for cooperative learning (1994), of which four are particularly relevant to collaborative writing outcomes and processes:
➢ “buy in” to the targeted outcome
➢ positive interactions and attitudes
➢ evidence of individual accountability
➢ face-to-face interaction (we can’t assume that this never factors into online collaboration).

For teachers, Tinzmann et al (1990) note the importance of striking an appropriate balance with respect to intervention. Students in groups need facilitating/coaching—such as encouraging groups to develop appropriate strategies for social interactions and behaviour, and not imposing standards from “the top down. ” At times they also need more explicit direction and support—such as providing a rich array of materials and manipulating the physical environment to make group work easier.

CL concepts like facilitating/coaching and manipulating the environment have a great deal of relevance for online collaboration. Teachers need to know when an online team needs intervention and what kind(s) will be most helpful. We also need consciously to design online learning environments so they enhance collaborative learning and writing, just as we would manipulate a physical classroom to make collaboration easier.

Thus, CL theory offers a number of useful insights into the group dynamics and interpersonal elements of designing successful collaborative online writing assignments.


Comeaux, P., Ed. (2002). Communication and collaboration in the online classroom: Examples and applications. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co.

Cooperative Learning Centre. (2007). The University of Minnesota. Retrieved 22 April 2007 from—http://www.co-operation.org/

Ede, L., & Lunsford, A. (1990). Singular texts/plural authors: Perspectives on collaborative writing. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Stahl, R.J. (1994). The essential elements of cooperative learning in the classroom. ERIC Digest ED370881. Retrieved 12 Jan. 2006 from—http://www.ericdigests.org/1995-1/elements.htm

Tinzmann, M.B., Jones, B.F., Fennimore, T.F., Bakker, J., Fine, C., and Pierce, J. (1990). What is the collaborative classroom? North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved 12 Jan. 2006 from—http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/rpl_esys/collab.htm