Topic 3 – Synergistic collaboration

A painting of four monks, by Claudio Rinaldi (1852-1909 CE)

(Dorotheum, Munich) / Wikimedia Commons

Collaborative learning is when the learning outcome by a group, is greater than if the group members had learned individually. Learning often happens in group settings, but the learning outcome is typically similar to the learning outcome if the group members had learned individually. When does synergistic collaborative learning happen?

I have been pondering this question for the last two weeks. My first port-of-call, was to look into the theory of complex systems for answers. In gist, complex systems is the study of behaviour of systems with many interacting parts, so might provide some insight into group interaction. However, the insights I could gain were fairly basic: for example, complex systems help explain how interactions between only a few members (2 or 3) might be qualitatively different from interactions between many members (20 or more). Further, the principle of balanced segregated and integrative information processing, is observed in many complex systems. It also seems to a principle of complex systems, wherein bursts of collaboration (integrative information processing) and often followed by periods of self-reflection or reflection within smaller groups (segregated information processing). However, I could not see any obvious answers for when synergistic collaborative learning takes place.

I also asked this question to Kay Oddone and Alastair Creelman after Kay’s webinar on the ONL211 course. They provided some very useful insights. Kay mentioned that groups which take time to build relationships with each other are often more successful in collaborative learning. Alastair observed that effective collaboration learning often happens when the learning task is difficult, because it requires everyone to contribute.

Further, I found some literature on the 4 dominant research paradigms on collaborative learning outcomes (Lai (2011), Dillenbourgh et al. (1996)). The effects paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best within heterogenous groups, as a result of conflict between different perspectives. The conditions paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best within groups comprising experts and novices, through interactions between experts and novices. The interactions paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best in a conducive learning environment, irrespective of the members comprising a group. The computer-assisted paradigm proposes that collaborative learning happens best when the most suitable collaborative learning technology is used.

However, the most illuminating example I found of collaborative learning is of a monastic learning community, especially some of these communities from the Middle Ages. Tellingly, these communities embodies many of the principles I have mentioned above, for e.g. they emphasised interaction between community members (integration), but also periods of solitude (segregation). Building relationships was also considered important, and community members collaborated on the complex task of interpreting Scripture. Community members assumed heteregenous roles (effects paradigm), and learning took place both horizontally and vertically (roughly, the conditions paradigm) and the conducive environment of the monastery provided the perfect setting for collaborative learning (interactions paradigm) (Long (2016)).

I believe these monastic learning communities offer three insights for synergistic collaborative learning. One, learning is a holistic process and should ideally be integrated its one’s lifestyle. Second, effective learning often involves hetereogeneity: in learning methods, in the roles of adopted by group members, the direction of knowledge transfer. Finally, technology can facilitate learning by removing constraints of space for members to be part of a community, but learning still needs the conditions I have mentioned above in order to happen effectively.


  1. Lai (2011) “Collaboration: A literature review” Pearson research report []

2. Dillenbourgh P., Baker M., Blaye A., O’ Maley C. (1996) “The evolution of research on collaborative learning.” In E. Spada & P. Reiman (Eds) Learning in Humans and Machine: Towards an interdisciplinary learning science. (Pp. 189-211). Oxford: Elsevier

3. Long (2016) “High medieval monasteries as communities of practise (COPs): approaching monastic learning through letters” Journal of Religious History 41(1):42-59

Posted by Nitin Williams

About Nitin Williams

Post-doctoral researcher in Neuroscience Methods at Aalto University, Finland
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