OCL Theory

Linda Harasim is an expert in the field of online education

Collaborativism aka Online Collaborative Learning Theory

Perhaps the greatest challenge that I experienced as a practitioner, researcher, and technology developer of online education, were  the questions: “Does OCL work?”  “How do you know it works?”  “Is it effective?” and  “Can you demonstrate learning effectiveness”?   I felt these questions were of the highest ethical and educational priority for our students, our teachers, the public, and the field, and thus began the development of a theory that would explain what OCL was and how we could identify learning within activities that were based on OCL pedagogies.

The challenge as I experienced it was not just that I was proposing to offer higher education courses in a very new and unknown environment–that itself was a significant challenge. But far more difficult was the lack of research literature to define or demonstrate effective learning in general.   Didactic learning, dominant in the 21st century,  was defined as getting “the right answer”; the measure was based on efficient learning as demonstrated by quizzes and exams. Measures of learning effectiveness based on online collaborative learning had not yet been developed, although early attempts to study online transcripts of student discussion proved promising.

A theory of learning should define and explain the indicators of learning in order to assess the quality of learning taking place, that is, the effectiveness. This need became the driver for me to develop a Collaborativism (aka OCL), to provide a framework for the field that took into account the invention of online technologies, and could explain, study and assess the quality of collaborative learning that occurred online.

Building of a theory based on field practice could help educators and others to establish benchmarks and criteria for success as well as pedagogical approaches to implement OCL.

Online collaborative learning theory emphasizes the role of peer discourse as key to learning and defines learning as intellectual convergence, achieved through three progressive stages of group discourse: Idea Generating, Idea Organizing and Intellectual Convergence.

  • Idea Generating. The first phase, Idea Generating, refers to divergent thinking within a group; brainstorming, verbalization, generating information, and thus sharing of ideas and positions on a particular topic or problem. Many perspectives emerge. The role of the instructor is to facilitate idea generation and encourage active participation by all members of the group.
  • Idea Organizing. Phase two, Idea Organizing, is the beginning of conceptual change.  As participants confront the new or different ideas which had been generated by their peers or encountered in the course readings, they begin to discuss in a more focused way to clarify and cluster these many ideas according to their relationship and similarities to one another. Idea organizing behavior demonstrates intellectual progress and the beginning of convergence, as students discuss and/or debate to  select the strongest and weedi out weaker positions (using such processes as referencing, agreement, disagreement or questioning).
  • Intellectual Convergence. The third phase, Intellectual Convergence, is typically reflected in shared understanding, a shared position (including agreeing to disagree), or a mutual contribution to and construction of shared knowledge.

Collaborativist theory is distinct from constructivist learning theory;  nonetheless, collaborativism builds on constructivist learning theory by exploring and emphasizing the role of discourse as theorized by Lev Vygotsky.