There is a wealth of research on group work that suggests that collaboration, compared with individual work, can foster better problem-solving and greater learning outcomes (e.g. Barron, 2000; Roseth, Johnson and Johnson, 2007; Slavin, 1995; 2011; Webb, 1989; Webb and Palinscar, 1996). Social interaction has a central role in constructivist and sociocultural theories of learning, although there are various interpretations of the mechanism through which it promotes learning (Piaget, 1952; Vygotsky, 1978). Social interaction is at the heart of collaborative learning. However, placing people in groups does not necessarily lead to collaboration or learning. Rather, it is engagement in specific types of interaction that fosters learning. Broadly speaking, collaborative learning has been conceptualized as a specific form of social interaction that involves a shared goal (Johnson and Johnson, 1999). The term has been used to cover diverse situations that vary in terms of the number of learners, the nature of the learning experience, the structure and medium of communication, and the degree to which learners construct a common understanding (Lipponen, 2002; Dillenbourg, 1999). Collaborative learning situations range, for example, from a pair of students conducting an experiment, to a community of students participating in an online course. This diversity of learning situations is reflected in the variety of definitions of collaborative learning (Dillenbourg, 1999).
Further, many researchers distinguish between collaborative and cooperative approaches to group learning. For example, Roschelle and Teasley (1995) argue that “cooperation is accomplished by the division of labour among participants, as an activity where each person is responsible for a portion of the problem solving”, in contrast with collaboration that involves the “mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together.”
The principal aim of research on collaborative learning has been to understand how to foster social interactions that foster learning. This involves a) identifying patterns of social interaction that facilitate or inhibit learning, and b) understanding the factors that lead to different patterns of social interaction. Researchers have also developed theoretical frameworks to explain how particular social interactions facilitate learning, and have devised instructional approaches to foster positive social interactions in group learning situations (e.g. Slavin, 1995; Johnson and Johnson, 2009).