Learning in communities – networked collaborative learning

What is the difference between collaboration and cooperation? Both words mean work together, but the words labour and operate have different uses which colour their meanings. We associate labour with giving birth; with the Labour Party. Most of the social work we do (emotional work1, face work2,3) is unpaid labour. If a task is laborious, then it is particularly draining for embodied subjects. In contrast, operations are things done to people, using specialist equipment under sterile conditions; a new stereo comes with operating instructions; a committee will meet to establish the operating principles of an organization. When human activity is framed in terms of operations, human beings seem to fade into the background, and equipment and logistics take centre stage. So, labouring feels more humanized than its more mechanistic cousin, operating.

Dividing the work of a big project between many individuals is of course essential for any sufficiently large or time-consuming project, but when we ask students to work together on a task, we are also usually engaging them in a constructivist pedagogical technique. In other words, we don’t just want them to get the maximum amount of work done in the most efficient way possible; we really want them to come together in mutual engagement around a common activity—as a community of practice4—in order to negotiate and construct a common understanding. The point of group work in classrooms is not simply to get the task completed or to vary the mode of learning: it’s to access the synergy of the group, to learn in ways that are irreducibly social, and which would therefore be impracticable individually. We can align this distinction, between socially grounded, mutually engaged work on the one hand, and the mere division of work on the other, with the earlier distinction between labouring and operating, respectively.  Collaboration requires co-presence; cooperation can be done more or less in isolation.

When we collaborate online, there is a risk that the mediated nature of the collaboration restricts this mutual engagement, and we end up with a flattened, dehumanized version of working together. During this ONL­5 course, I have seen that this is only a risk, however, not a certainty. By meeting the same group of teachers online in Zoom twice a week for 10 weeks, it was possible to interact in the moment, in a way that felt “real”, authentic, and valuable, and which was conducive to rich collaboration. This fairly intensive programme of Zoom meetings might not be practical for some courses, but the simple act of coming together at intervals is a requisite for online collaborative learning.

Three characteristics of our regular meetings seemed particularly valuable for generating and maintaining a feeling of community and authentic co-presence. The first of these was time for chit-chat. We had a range of participants from different countries, and with different personalities and working expectations. Within this, we were able to vary our off-task talk in a way that enhanced the sociality of the meetings. Although small talk can sometimes feel frustrating, especially within a crowded schedule, this was a valuable way to learn about each other, share experiences, and strengthen our collaborative relationships. The second characteristic emerged from our responses to the first. We had different appetites for small talk, and we found different things funny or interesting, but we still developed a shared atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion that accommodated and valued this range. Thirdly, we explicitly commented on how useful and rewarding the group meetings were as we went along—a great sign for us, but also a useful model for making process-based feedback explicit in our classrooms and other learning situations. This culture of explicit reflection also helped us to collaboratively learn and evaluate new digital tools each week.

So, when collaborating—online or in person—make time for small talk! It’s sensible to be critical of the digital tools we use, especially when we seem to acquire several new ones each week, but it’s also essential to explore ways of being authentically co-present using different tools in order to collaborate, rather than merely cooperate, within our digital networks.


  1. Horschild, A. R. (1983) The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Goffman, E. (1967) Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face interaction. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
  3. Brown, P. & S. Levinson (1986) Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Lave, J & E. Wenger (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. https://www.opennetworkedlearning.se/onl192-course-overview/

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