Playing Together or Parallel Play: How to design and implement a collaborative student assignment

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Group projects are one way students can promote collaborative learning.  How can we incorporate effective teaching techniques to provide students with skills that promote valuable team work? Join us to learn more about how we’ve developed assignments that promote collaborative learning and explore creating one of your own.


Lisa is the Director of Online Learning for the University of Rochester's Institute for Innovative Education. She holds a Doctorate of Education, along with an Advanced Certificate in Online Teaching and Learning. Additionally, she teaches future teachers how to teach online at the University's Warner School of Education.

Extended Abstract

Group projects are one way we can promote collaborative learning. However, some group projects turn into examples of parallel play; where students divide the work and conquer the project without any forms of collaboration.  They are cooperating, not collaborating. According to Laal and Laal (2012), “Collaborative learning (CL) is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. … The term CL refers to an instruction method in which learners at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal.” 


Well-developed collaborative learning assignments are designed to engage all members of a group to work together to collectively process information, come to consensus to construct a knowledge base, and actively engage in completing assignments.  Collaborative assignments can successfully be incorporated into all modes of course structures, face-to-face and blended and online.  Although some feel teamwork is not conducive in an online environment, research suggests that incorporating collaborative assignments in online courses adds to overall student success. (Barkley,15-17) 


Collaborative learning in an online course incorporates the three main elements of the Community of Inquiry Model: social, teaching and cognitive presence that are necessary for a quality online course. The instructor's presence is evident as they set the stage for collaborative learning, stepping away from the role of a subject matter expert to a facilitator of collaboration. Students engage in social constructivism using cognitive skills to complete group tasks through discourse and applied activities. (Garrison, 107)


How can effective collaborative teaching techniques be incorporated into various disciplines in Higher Education to provide students with skills that promote valuable team work skills? How do facilitators design a well-structured collaborative assignment?  What critical aspects should be considered when selecting collaborative online tools to support collective learning? With so many different online tools available how can instructors select appropriate tools that support collaboration and learning activities?


This session will explore how to design a good collaborative assignment, how to build teams in advance of the group project work, how to coordinate the assignment of teams, and what to consider when choosing tools for students to use in team assignments.


Level of Participation: Presenters will share their experiences from different courses and different group situations including graduate level education students and undergraduate students with virtual exchange partners from international universities.  They will also share changes in pedagogy from lessons learned through years of trial and error. Participants will then design an online collaborative assignment and work through issues in small groups. Each group will then share their ideas.

Session Goals: Key takeaways from this presentation will include aligning online tools for collaboration with learning goals and objectives and the ability to create a collaborative assignment using online tool(s). Participants will leave with the experience of working in a small group to create a collaborative assignment. 


Barkley, Elizabeth F, et al. Collaborative Learning Techniques : A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, Ca, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2014.

‌Garrison, Randy, and Michael Grahame Moore, editors. “The Community of Inquiry Theoretical Framework.” Handbook of Distance Education, United Kingdom, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 104–20.

Laal, Marjan, and Mozhgan Laal. “Collaborative Learning: What Is It?” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 31, 2012, pp. 491–495,, 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.12.092.