colourful spice blends on arranged teaspoons

Can We Get More From the Blend?

Article by Lisa Jones, Senior Instructional Designer – Global, EY

Now that some of the resistance towards virtual learning seems to be falling away, I believe learning professionals have a great opportunity to push the boundaries of what can be done with asynchronous online learning.

I recently carried out a review of research articles into just this topic. Initially, I thought I was looking for best practices for social learning. However, the definition of social learning seemed to vary quite a lot and I eventually concluded that I was looking for how we can make the most of asynchronous online collaborative learning as part of a blended learning program.

What is it?

Asynchronous learning: Learning activities that do not occur in the same place or at the same time.

Online collaboration: The process of connecting users digitally to communicate in an online space. This may be on platforms such as Teams, Yammer, SAP-JAM and so on.

Group learning: An approach to learning where students work together towards shared learning objectives.

By combining the definitions, asynchronous online collaborative group learning would be where learners collaborate on an online platform at different times to achieve shared learning objectives.

Why would we want to do this?

With face to face learning decreasing recently and unlikely to return at the same rate as before learning professionals are being challenged to ensure online learning is as effective as possible.

Online collaborative learning whether synchronous or asynchronous expands the scope of what can be done in a virtual environment. The asynchronous element is going to be increasingly important as we move towards even more diverse working practices where real flexible working will mean our learners are working different times of the day. In a global environment this is already an important consideration.

As a learning professional imagine the increased impact your blended learning program could have if the learning was well spaced, with a variety of modalities; for example, a video to start, followed by a live online virtual class, then learners move outside of the class environment to collaborate online on a challenging case-study or other group projects, before re-grouping on the virtual class platform to share their learning with others. Through this we can break out of the confines of the physical or virtual ‘walls’ of the classroom and enhance the learning experience.

OK, I’m listening, so how do I make online asynchronous collaboration successful?

After reviewing 48 articles into a variety of topics such as; communities of practice, social learning, collaborative learning, and computer support for collaborative learning, I have compiled a list of recommendations for effectively building asynchronous online group collaborative learning into your blended programs.

Which factors contribute to the success of online collaborative activities?

  • Providing structure and guidance on the rules of engagement, i.e. how to interact with each other, with the chosen technology and with the facilitator.

  • Creating meaningful interactions clearly linked to achieving learning objectives. We must avoid the mistakes of old where we lazily tagged on ill-thought-through pre and post-learning that we couldn’t fit into the face to face course and called it a blended programme. The move of an activity from one environment to this one needs to be planned and justifiable.

Which instructional activities are most effective for online collaboration?

  • Tasks/activities need to be deemed worthwhile and complex enough to warrant collaboration within the group. If an individual can complete a task successfully alone, they won’t see the benefit of working in the group.

  • To help choose the right activity for the environment link the activity to the achievement of learning objectives and outcomes, this will avoid the use of the modality just for the sake of it, if the activity does not contribute to a learning objective, why is it there?

  • Be bold and creative in your selection of activity, if you put the right instruction and guidance in place it will be effective. Activities such as collaborative controversy assignments work well, but really anything you can do in a virtual live online class or physical class can work.

  • Balance complexity with cognitive load. Minimise extraneous cognitive load from the use of the technology, we want the learner focused on the activity and not distracted by how to use the technology.

The role of the facilitator in managing online collaboration

  • Constructing a safe collaborative environment is as important here as it is in any learning environment. Factors such as teamwork, trust, open communication, and cohesion are important.

  • The facilitator’s role is very similar across all modalities, however, whereas in synchronous environments you can immediately respond to learners’ interactions, there is a delay in this environment and so consideration will need to be given to what is a ‘timely’ response.

  • It may be difficult to replicate the speed of rapport-building that can take place in a synchronous environment in an asynchronous one, for that reason acclimatise learners to the environment and to each other before using activities that require team trust and cohesion.

  • For an asynchronous environment to feel facilitated the facilitator needs to role-model the level of presence and interaction required to make the programme successful. Learners will be more likely to engage if the risk is low and they are clear on the rules of engagement and expectations of them.

What is the ideal cohort for online collaborative activities?

  • Apply the same design principles as you would do when designing an activity for the physical classroom (e.g. plenary activities can be large, versus table groups (smaller) or pairs).

  • Consider what activity you want the group to engage in and decide on group size bearing in mind task complexity and opportunity for all to play a role.

  • You can’t make people participate, however by applying the principle that activities within this environment are linked to overall learning objective achievement, you can ensure the activities are meaningful and required and leverage indirect social pressure through team member accountability.

  • In terms of cohort mix, a good principle to apply would be if your objective lends itself towards diverse thinking, create a heterogeneous cohort and if it lends to deep specialism a homogeneous cohort may work better.

  • In the absence of research into cohort duration, a good principle to apply would be to link the time cohorts stay together with the duration of the overall learning programme.

You may have noticed a theme in the recommendations, I’m not suggesting anything out of the ordinary. I’ve said; make sure the activity is meaningful and complex; link it to the learning objectives, use good design principles to select the activity, group size, and so on. This is all good practice right?

I’ve also said you can do in this environment a lot of what you can do in physical and virtual. Do you agree with me? We tend to think a lot about the limitations of new modalities; I still remember my ears ringing with ‘you can’t do that in a virtual class’ over 6 years ago when I started to build more virtual learning for my Talent Development Team. I do believe as learning professionals we have a duty to innovate and push boundaries around ‘new modalities’.

The use of asynchronous online collaborative group learning as part of a blended learning program will add variety to our learners’ experience and enhance the learning impact. If you have been thinking about introducing this type of activity into your blended program I hope this article has given you some tips on successful implementation.


Colvin-Clark, Ruth and Mayer, Richard E (2016). e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. 4th edition. Wiley.

Duque, Rafael., Gómez-Pérez, Domingo., Nieto-Reyes, Alicia., and Bravo, Crescencio (2014). Analysing collaboration and interaction in learning environments to form learner groups. Computers in Human Behaviour Journal, 47 (2015) 42-49

Jeong, Heisawn and Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E (2016). Seven Affordances of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning: How to Support Collaborative Learning? How Can Technologies Help? Educational Psychologist, 51:2, 247-265, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2016.1158654

Johnson, Christopher M (2001). A survey of current research on online communities of practice. Internet and Higher Education 4 (2001) 45–60

Ku, Heng-Yu., Tseng, Hung Wei., and Akarasriworn, Chatchada (2013). Collaboration factors, teamwork satisfaction, and student attitudes toward online collaborative learning. Computers in Human Behavior Journal, 29 (2013) 922–929
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