The Places We Learn: Online Collaborative Learning

How do we learn? This question has fascinated ancient philosophers and modern scientists alike, from Plato to Piaget, and there is much we still don’t know. Educational psychology has only begun to explore the complexities of this uniquely human capacity, and effective teaching is still more an art than a science. However, in the past decade we have witnessed an explosion of online social interaction, which has opened new avenues of research. Research on the learning that takes place in online communities could help educators develop new teaching methods and give psychologists a more nuanced understanding of social learning1.

My interest in the online learning communities grew from my attempts to relearn chess. When I was young, I was quite good at chess; in fact, I was at one point one of the strongest players of my age group in the state of Florida. However, I lost interest around middle school, and it was only a few months ago that a friend convinced me to give the game a second look. What I discovered that I had not known about before was an online community where players came to discuss, improve, and play their game, and I found it remarkable the extent to which learning had become a collaborative effort. When I was younger, almost all of my instruction came from adult coaches. Although playing against other students was critical to my development as a player, I don’t remember ever discussing openings or solving puzzles with others of my skill. It simply was not a collaborative project for me. It was a surprise and a delight to find on that each daily puzzle had a thread where the community discussed its solution. On other parts of the forum, players could debate the strengths, challenges, and pitfalls of common openings, and less experienced players can ask for help. More advanced players posted and discussed grandmaster games. It was an approach to chess that I hadn’t considered before. is certainly not the only community of its type. For other competitive games like StarCraft and Magic the Gathering, online communities are thriving, as are forums for creative writing, math, and science., for example, hosts over one million readers and writers, who publish, critique, and help improve each other’s writing. Although each of these groups has its own unique character, they all seem to facilitate collaborative learning in one form or another, which has made them a subject of interest to educational psychologists2.

The theoretical framework that is often used to understand the success of these communities was developed in the 1990s by social psychologist Etienne Wenger. Originally, this theory of social learning was concerned with “communities of practice” formed by people who share the same trade. According to this theory, learning is a natural part of establishing a person’s identity within a group of learners. The essential idea is that by participating in community life, the learning process becomes part of forming an identity. Through socialization, learning ceases to be a mere task and becomes a part of who that person is. As a result, learners in these settings tend to be far more engaged in the process and willing to take imaginative risks, as they become personally invested in the goals of the group2.

This is the ideal that essentially all attempts at collaborative learning strive after. Almost everyone has had experience with collaborative learning in the classroom while working with other students on a project or lesson. Practically speaking, online environments offer flexibility and time to collaborative learning and help foster engagement1. For example, students have far more opportunities to collaborate with people who share a similar level of experience with them. For competitive games, this means that players can practice and converse with those of comparable skill. Research has shown the importance of approaching tasks that are challenging, but not overwhelming3. In more formal learning environments, having access to peers’ projects provides students a solid foundation to build from and an appreciative audience for their own work4.

At the same time, the online community also gives students opportunities to learn from people who are more skilled than they are. In the communities surrounding chess and StarCraft, there are many expert level players who contribute material for less experienced players to learn from and model themselves after. Indeed, several people have been able to make a living creating material for these communities. In academic settings, the ability to connect with identifiable role models has been highly beneficial. For example, many girls have difficulty because of the stereotype that they cannot do math, science, or programming as well as boys, and the online community makes it far easier for them to find successful girls who share a passion for her field of interest. Having access to these sorts of role models allows students who might once have felt excluded or marginalized to form an identity within the group, and engage in the material the way Wenger’s theory describes1.

Of course, educators have to overcome certain challenges when appropriating web-based strategies into their classroom. One of the main advantages that any web-based learning community has over a more formal learning environment is the fact that it is self-selecting. People participate in these communities because they are genuinely interested in the group’s pursuits. Further research is likely needed before the benefits of online communities can be successfully integrated into the more structured, mandatory setting of the classroom1.

This is also not to say that online communities have the potential to make everyone into a Chess Master. Like most things in life, mastering chess requires thousands of hours of practice and experience, and there is little way to get around that. However, even if mastery does not become significantly easier through engagement obtain in online communities, proficiency almost certainly does. Even in the past five years, online communities have evolved, creating social environments that mainstream education ought to explore.


  1. Resta, P. and Laferriere, T. “Technology in Support of Collaborative Learning.” Educational Psychology Review (2007): 19, 65-83.
  2. Henri, F. and Pudelko, B. “Understanding and analyzing activity and learning in virtual communities.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning no. 19 (2003): 474-487.
  3. Abuhamedeh, S. and Csikszentmihalyi. “The Importance of Challenge for the Enjoyment of Intrinsically Motivated, Goal-Directed Activities.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38 (2012): 317.
  4. Bruckman, A. “Learning in Online Communities.” The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  5. Image credit (Creative Commons): “Chess king.” Wikimedia. July 23, 2010. Accessed May 22, 2012.
  6. Image credit (Creative Commons): “Teaching and.” Wikimedia. October 31, 2011. Accessed May 22, 2012

Daniel Benner is a third-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in History and Philosophy of Science and Psychology. His interests include competitive gaming and martial arts. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.