Collaborative or cooperative learning is the process of getting two or more students to work together to learn. Sometimes a distinction is made between the two terms based on the age of the learners: cooperative for K-12 education and collaborative learning for adult education, and some practitioners contend that there are important differences between the two based on the unique pedagogical needs of each corresponding age group. However, the terms are often used interchangeably or applied to any age group, for example: graduate students participating in a cooperative learning environment.
In cooperative or collaborative learning, students work in small teams composed of participants with differing ability levels and using a variety of learning activities to master material initially developed by an instructor, or construct knowledge on substantive issues. Each member of a team is responsible for learning what is taught and for helping teammates learn.
Cooperative learning methods are now used in over a third of higher education courses, and their use has increased in the past six years more than any other learning method, according to a recent survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. Many recent reports in the training and business sectors and educational disciplines such as engineering contend that workers will need much better teamwork and communication skills to succeed in the future (global, high-skill) economy.
Employers want workers with collaborative skills and are looking for graduates of educational programs that teach these skills. Research has indicated that cooperative learning can be more effective than interpersonal competitive and individualistic efforts in promoting cognitive development, self-esteem, and positive student-student relationships.
Online learning models are natural environments for collaborative or cooperative learning, but they are not cooperative learning environments by definition. Learners may interact with other learning participants without collaborating, for example when receiving on-line tutorial help. Learning activities have to be specifically and somewhat carefully designed to work effectively, since cooperative/collaborative learning runs counter to the experience of most teachers (and students, too). Fortunately, a growing body of research and practice is available to draw upon should you decide to incorporate collaborative or cooperative learning into your online courses.