Collaborative Learning Online

Collaborative learning activities are a great way to actively engage students in their own learning. In an online or hybrid course, collaborative learning opportunities can help foster community and counter potential feelings of disconnection or isolation; at the same time, they help students take shared ownership and responsibility for their learning. The following resource introduces the benefits of collaborative learning online, highlights some strategies for effective collaborative learning, and overviews some of the Columbia-supported tools to facilitate collaborative learning online. 

The CTL is here to consult with instructors on further exploring collaborative learning strategies. To schedule your one-on-one consultation, please contact the Faculty Programs and Services team at

Collaborative Learning: The What & Why

Collaborative learning is a type of active learning that involves several students working together “and sharing the workload equitably as they progress toward intended learning outcomes” (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 4). This collaboration and equitable division of work “engages students actively in their own learning […] in a supportive and challenging social context” (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 13). In online or hybrid courses, collaborative learning can help foster community among students who may be feeling otherwise disconnected. Collaborative tasks or assignments also give students an opportunity to engage in team building and develop positive group dynamics.  

These activities can be designed for students to complete: 

  • Synchronously: using breakout rooms in Zoom or other collaborative tools 
  • Asynchronously: using a CourseWorks discussion board 

Your course structure and student needs (e.g., multiple time zones, access to reliable internet, conflicting schedules) will determine the mode of these activities. If your hybrid or online course has synchronous class time, consider allocating that time for collaborative learning. 

Research has shown positive correlation between collaborative learning experiences and students’ achievement of learning outcomes. In their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques, Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) identified some of the benefits specific to online learners. According to their research, collaborative learning in an online course can help to: 

  • Improve student learning, 
  • Eliminate students’ feelings of isolation,
  • Forge peer-to-peer relationships, and  
  • Improve outcomes in the course (p. 29-30). 

Strategies for Effective Collaborative Learning

Like any class activity or lecture, collaborative learning requires intentional planning and preparation to ensure effectiveness.  

Foster an inclusive environment & classroom community 
Successful collaborative learning is dependent upon an inclusive classroom community, where students trust and respect each other. Consider using social icebreakers (e.g., learning names, finding common interests) to help students warm up to each other before they begin their collaborative activities. For more strategies on fostering community in your online or hybrid class, see the CTL’s Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses resource.  

Intentionally design and plan for collaborative learning 
Effective collaborative learning requires forethought and planning. While in a face-to-face setting, it may have been easy to ask students to quickly form ad-hoc groups, the online or hybrid modality may require considerations such as the technological and pedagogical strategies to best support the activity’s learning goals. See the CTL’s Teaching Online resources for detailed technology and pedagogical support. 

Communicate the purpose and expectations of the activity 
When students understand the rationale and the specific actions steps of the given activity, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their learning. 

  • Be clear with students about the purpose of the particular activity: What do you hope they will gain from the collaborative nature of the task? Collaboration can take place for a variety of purposes. For instance, to facilitate social bonding, you may ask students to identify their geographical location on an interactive map and share with each other one interesting fact about their location. In another activity, to encourage collective inquiry and discussion, you may ask students to respond to a prompt as a group in a collaborative document.
  • Be explicit with your expectations: Should each student take notes, or will there be a single note-taker for the group? Are you expecting groups to share-back to the whole class? 

Partner with your students
As one of the primary goals of collaborative learning should be to actively engage students in their own learning, helping them take ownership of the process and experience, it’s important to partner with your students throughout. This partnership can take many forms, depending on the goals and context of your course. Some activities you might consider include: 

  • Co-construct guidelines and expectations for the collaborative learning experience. 
  • Assign students’ roles (or ask them to choose their own roles). Using roles in collaborative learning helps each student take responsibility for a different part of the given task.   

Engage specific technologies to facilitate collaborative learning activities 
Whether you’re teaching a synchronous, asynchronous, online, or hybrid course, the tools you choose will be dependent upon your course goals, the goals of the specific activity, as well as the modality and context of the course. For example, if you are asking students to complete an activity during synchronous class time, you might consider using Zoom breakout rooms along with a collaborative document (like a Google Doc). If you are teaching a fully asynchronous course, you may consider leveraging your CourseWorks space, engaging students in online discussion board forums. 

The following section introduces a few of the Columbia-supported tools to help facilitate collaborative learning.    

Columbia-supported Tools to Facilitate Collaborative Learning 

Collaborative learning online, while sharing many of the features of in-person activities, requires specific attention to the technologies used to support the activity. There are a number of Columbia-supported tools available to help facilitate collaborative learning online, regardless of course format (e.g., fully online, hybrid, asynchronous, synchronous).


Zoom breakout rooms are a valuable resource for engaging your students in synchronous collaborative learning. Breakout rooms create a space for students to engage with each other in smaller groups, outside of the larger class. It can be helpful to assign students to breakout rooms, alongside a shared Google Doc, Google Slides, or Jamboard (discussed further below). The collaborative document space can help you, as the instructor, gauge students’ understanding and progress, while giving each group a space to work collaboratively. For support in engaging students in active learning using Zoom, see the CTL’s Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom resource.  

Google Suite/LionMail Apps 

Faculty and students have access to a whole host of Google Suite apps through their university email accounts. Perhaps most relevant to collaborative learning online are Google Docs, Google Slides, and Jamboard. Prior to engaging with any of these apps, it’s important to first understand sharing and access permissions. Please note, if you have students with both LionMail and affiliate accounts, you may want to consider creating a course parent folder for accessibility. For more information or support in creating this folder, please contact the Learning Designer liaison for your school or program. The following video offers a brief overview of creating, sharing, and accessing various Google suite applications, like Google Docs and Slides.  

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at

Google Docs 

Google Docs offer a great space for collaborative note-taking, a process that requires students to take shared responsibility for their work. Whether done as a whole class activity (asking students to take shared notes during a lecture or discussion) or used within small group activities, collaborative note-taking offers a number of benefits for students’ learning and engagement. Writing on her use of collaborative note-taking in an online course, M. Brielle Harbin (2020) identifies three benefits to the process. Collaborative note-taking can help to:

  • “[Level] the playing field for students with different levels of prior preparation,
  • [Provide] a consistent access point for assessing student comprehension and learning, and 
  • [Improve] the quality of classroom discussion” (p. 216). 

In Google Docs, students can collaboratively annotate and comment on a given text or image, using various features like bookmarks, tagging, and suggesting mode. Previous versions of a working document can always be accessed and retrieved when necessary. The following video highlights some of these Google Docs features that can make the collaborative note-taking process more effective and productive. 

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at

Google Slides

Like Google Docs, Google Slides offer a space for students to take collaborative notes. If you are asking students to share back with the whole class, Google Slides have the added benefit of being “presentation ready.” Using Google Slides, you can ask each group to create their own presentation slide deck; this is particularly useful if you are asking for larger presentations from the groups. To help with toggling between slides, you can also create a single slide deck, with assigned slides for each group. This is helpful if you are looking to gauge student understanding and progress throughout an activity, as you can follow along with groups as they work. 

Google slides also offer a Q&A feature, which can help create a collaboration between instructors and students during a lecture. The Q&A feature allows you, the instructor, to accept student questions or comments while presenting and show those questions and comments on the current slide in real time. Doing so allows students to actively engage in the presentation, collaborating with you to make meaning throughout the course. You can also ask students to come up with questions as a group and submit them together. The following video offers an overview of using Google Slides for collaborative note-taking as well as the Q&A feature. 

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at

Google Jamboard

Google Jamboard is a collaborative space that functions as a digital interactive whiteboard for students. You might consider using this for whole class engagement, with all students contributing responses to a given prompt or question; you can also create multiple boards for different groups to contribute to. Students can annotate using a number of features such as drawing, text boxes, images searched online, and sticky notes. Additionally, you can customize the background of the board. For example, you can use a map background and ask students to annotate and identify particular locations and features on the map. The following video introduces some of the basic Jamboard features that can be used to aid collaborative student work in class. 

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at


There are a number of features in CourseWorks to help facilitate collaborative learning online; while these features work across different formats, they are especially helpful for those classes that are fully online and asynchronous. 

Discussion Board

The CourseWorks Discussion Board is a great space to have students work together in response to a particular reading or prompt. Using the discussion board, specifically threaded discussions, students can co-construct knowledge, and actively and collaboratively engage with course material. Additionally, CourseWorks Discussion Boards support a range of media, so students can respond and post using text, audio, video, images, etc. For further support facilitating online discussion, see the CTL’s resources on Learning Through Synchronous and Asynchronous Discussion and Teaching with CourseWorks


The Groups feature in CourseWorks makes it easier for students to collaborate on assignments, while also helping to break down larger projects and concepts for small groups. Using groups, students can communicate with only those assigned to their groups using a discussion board, the announcements, or the conference feature. Within CourseWorks, each group has their own calendar, discussion board, group files, and collaboration tools, making it easier for students to organize and work together more effectively. This is particularly helpful in larger classes, as you can read, review, and assess group reflections rather than sorting through individual comments or posts. 

Resources & References

CTL Resources 

Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Classes

Learning Through Synchronous and Asynchronous Discussion

External Resources 

How to Make Breakout Rooms Work Better from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching” Column  

The Power of Group Note-Taking from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching” Column


Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H., & Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty, second edition. Jossey-Bass. 

Harbin, M.B. (2020). Collaborative note-taking: A tool for creating a more inclusive college classroom. College Teaching 68(4), 214-220.  

The CTL researches and experiments.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.