Invesigation of Online Course Environments of Collaborative Learning

1st Supervisor: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Bernhard Jung (ISNM)

2nd Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stephen Viller (University of Queensland, Australia)

There is no doubt that the development and delivery of university courses online is a complex and challenging task. Many courses offered online bear significant problems; for instance, establishing and maintaining a quality of course content and appropriate instruction. In addition, the nature of Information Technology concerning accessibility, bandwidth, stability, as well as the complexity of networked systems, all add to the difficulty of online learning environments (Bunker, 2002), (Herrington, 2000). Nevertheless, apart from technological obstacles, the effectiveness of online courses is a crucial question. It is dependent not only on the availability of appropriate technology but also on the underlying instructional model that guarantees high quality learning experiences. Many studies suggest that online courses are equal to traditional courses regarding learning outcomes by comparing grades of students participating in an online course with the grades of students in face-to-face settings (Baker, 2003). However, studies also imply that even if the learning outcomes are comparable, students joining an online course often experience isolation and frustration (Aragon, 2002). Learning can be defined as a socially embedded design process (Hampel, 2001). As in traditional classroom settings, active participation of students is a major factor for an engaging learning process. Online students are often geographically dispersed, therefore the online classroom can become a more socially and culturally diverse space. Online technologies often fail to support design-related and social aspects of learning (Hampel, 2001); consequently, group work is becoming an essential ingredient for successful online learning, as it goes beyond managing the course content and includes the development of analytic, communicative and behavioral skills (Joseph, 2003). The development of online learning environments and structures that support collaborative learning processes in a virtual space seems to be crucial for high quality learning. This thesis addresses the question of how to create an online environment that supports learning, effective communication and meaningful collaboration. What is the role of web-based collaboration tools and how do they support collaboration? What structures must be provided in online environments? And, if relevant technology and a constructivistic pedagogy are integrated, are there other factors to take into account for creating an effective online collaborative environment?