Collaboration in Online Classrooms:
Group Tasks and Patterns of Interaction

Colaboração em salas de aula online:
Tarefas de grupos e padrões de interação online

Lucio Teles, Ph.D.,
LohnLab para o Ensino Online
Universidade de Simon Fraser, Columbia Britanica


This paper discusses new approaches to learning via distributed environments on the Web. Three university courses delivered online, via distance education, are investigated. These courses applied principles of collaboration to designing the online classroom: students had both individual and group assignments. Data analysis shows that students had ongoing peer interaction for various course tasks such as problem-solving, creating animations, and class discussion. While this online exchange of messages was carried out mainly through messages containing only text, there were many messages that incorporated hyperlinks, and multimedia. The paper concludes with a summary of findings on patterns of collaboration for three online courses.


Online classrooms are environments that support collaboration and knowledge building (Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C., 1994; Harasim, L., 1997). These new environments are increasingly being used in higher education. Educators need to better understand the online classroom to shape these environments for improved learning outcomes.

Collaborative learning strategies are often used in online classrooms. They were used in the design and implementation of the three courses discussed in this paper. Classroom tasks such as finding a Web site, creating animations, or participating in class discussion are included in the design of the course and a percentage of the course grade is assigned to classroom tasks.

In this paper we discuss collaborative patterns and usage statistics information for three university courses. Communication patterns among students and with the instructor are investigated in regard to group communication, message type, and frequency: how often student communicated, how often they accessed the online classroom and their group tasks, what type of messages they used to communicate: text only, text plus hyperlinks, text plus multimedia, text plus hyperlinks and multimedia. Usage statistics information was also collected via the log file to determine frequency of access.

The three university courses offered entirely online selected for data analysis are: Business 362 (Introduction to Information Systems); Faculty of Arts 228 (Dance in Cyberspace), and Infoshare (Information Sharing on the Web), a four week long Continuing Studies module. There were 78 students enrolled in the three courses.

The system used to design and deliver the courses was Virtual-U, a Web-based groupware designed to support collaborative learning. Through analysis of conference transcripts, usage statistics and log files, patterns of the online classroom were identified such as frequency of communication among students, how often and when they access the online classroom, the type of messages they use to communicate and the types of online interaction.

Data analysis

Results for the three distance education courses show that students taking online courses can be geographically dispersed and access the online classroom around the clock seven days a week. The most active day in the Virtual-U classroom is Monday.

Table 1: Number of Messages by Day of the Week

Peak times for online classrooms, i.e. when most students are online, are 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and again from 8:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

Table2: Number of Messages by Hour of the Day

Students and instructors communicate using not only written words but include hyperlinks and to some much smaller extent multimedia effects (pictures, diagrams, etc.) in their messages.

Table 3: Message Type

Although the number of messages using hyperlinks is still very small and represents less than 5% of the total messages, this could refer to a developing behaviour which could increase over the next years. When the first entirely online courses were taught in 1985, hyperlinks did not yet exist and computer networks were not connected to a world wide network such as the Web today. With the advent of Web the possibility of including multipe references and sites into the discussion becomes possible.

Table 4:

Interaction Patterns for Nine Conferences

Selected from Three Courses


Interaction Pattern NRC (1) FPA229 (2) BUS362 (6)
Students' responses to the topics
Student to student responses
Students' questions
Instructor's response to students
Instructor's assignment/comment


Patterns of online interaction were studied for a sample of conference transcripts and it was found that most messages, or 75% of the total messages are peer-to-peer, and the remaining 25% are written by the instructor.


Results show that the online asynchronous classroom is accessed 24 hours/day, seven days a week and peak times are 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and again from 8:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

Students are beginning to use hyperlinks and multimedia in their text messages. Most messages in the online classroom are contributed by the students as opposed to the face-to-face classroom where the instructor lectures and has most of the "air time". Collaborative patterns identified through content analysis show that students generated 75% of the messages and instructors generated the remaining 25%.

More research is needed in these emergent patterns of the online classroom and on the implications of these patterns for teaching and knowledge building.


Harasim, L., Calvert, T. and Groeneboer, C. (1997). Virtual-U: A Web Based System to Support Collaborative Learning. In B. Khan’s, Web-Based Instruction, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Educational Technology Publications.

Hiltz, R. & Wellman, B. (1997) The virtual classroom. ACM Journal, September 1997.

Horvath, A. & Teles, L. (1997) Using the Web as a Tool to Support Student Research Tasks . Journal of Computers in Education, forthcoming.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.

Teles, L. & Rylands, J. (1998, forthcoming) The Infoshare Module: Using Collaborative Asynchronous Training to Improve Web Search Skills. Journal of Educational Media International, forthcoming.

Wang, X. & Teles, L. (1998) Online Collaboration and the Role of the Instructor in Two Universit Credit Courses. Paper presented at the ICCE98 - International Council for Computers in Education, Beijing, October 14 - 20, 1998.