Group Collaboration in an Online Problem-based University Course

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Group Collaboration in an Online Problem-based University Course

Donna Russell
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education, USA


This study applies sociocultural learning theories to evaluate online collaborative learning in a problem-based graduate course at the School of Education of a U.S. university. The course was designed to build advanced problem-solving abilities and knowledge in students through the use of online collaborative workspaces. Students' discussions were evaluated and related to their effectiveness in generating the problem solution. Some of the conclusions made from the study are that the facilitator should monitor students' online discussions based on the principles of effective group work, groups should define their roles through a series of guided reflections and self-assessments, and the course should be designed around real-world problems to encourage meaningful collaboration.


As more and more university courses, degree programs, and even entire universities go online, concerns are increasingly raised about the quality of the learning and the productivity of the knowledge construction process in these courses. For instance, how does online collaboration support advanced learning processes? What is the quality of the knowledge resulting from these courses? What are the sociocultural models for designing collaborative and constructivist online learning environments?

It is the premise of the design and evaluation of the online problem-based learning course which is the subject of this study that learning online can be productive if the course is designed based on theories of sociocultural learning. This points to the importance of the collaborative culture of learning, the social aspects of the inter-and intrapersonal processes of learning, and the concepts of problem-based learning (Vygotsky, 1986; Jonassen et al., 1999; Bereiter, 2001). The theoretical grounding for this study is the sociocultural theory of human interaction and development (Vygotsky, 1978; Bruner, 1990) with an emphasis on understanding the processes of mediated activity (Wertsch, 1998). A systems framework for understanding the collaborative process in context and over time is used based on cultural historical activity theory (Engeström et al., 1999; Il'enkov, 1977). This research is an attempt to develop new understandings about the pedagogical aspects of designing collaborative online learning environments that are aligned with socio-cultural theories of learning.

The theory of constructivism focuses on active student involvement in the learning process, unlike previous theories of learning that focused on the passive role of the learner and the student's ability to reproduce learning behaviors when the teacher provided a stimulus. In constructing knowledge, students create meaning by comparing what they already know with new experiences. They resolve the inconsistencies by either adapting or assimilating the new knowledge into their existing knowledge base. Bruner (1990) calls this process meaning making. In constructivist theory, learning is a process where "students are actively engaged in working at tasks and activities that are authentic to the environment in which they would be used" (Savery & Duffy, 1996, p. 37).

Research in constructivist learning environments suggests that instructional designs grounded in constructivist principles engage students in purposeful activities as they attempt to tackle a complex problem, overcome an obstacle, or negotiate a contradiction in their thinking (von Glasersfeld, 1998). In addition, such designs allow students to apply their knowledge more effectively under appropriate conditions (Brown et al., 1989). Students are presented with a complex problem and, through the process of responding to that problem and comparing their theories with other students' through discussions, they acquire knowledge and skills that enable them to revise their theories and develop new ones. When students have the opportunity to articulate what they have learned and reflect on the process that they went through and the knowledge that they acquired in that process, they understand more and are better able to apply that knowledge in new situations. Jonassen (2000) refers to this as intentional learning since students are focusing their learning on satisfying their personal goals. Constructivist learning theories include situated theories of learning (Greeno, 1997; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and distributed cognition theory (Pea, 1993; Resnick et al., 1991; Salomon, 1993), the latter explaining how the responses of the learner and the design of the learning environment impact the cognitive development of knowledge in students.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that addresses the complex challenges that students will face in the future by asking students to tackle complex, ill-structured real-world problems. PBL proposes that learning experiences are built on the interdependent attributes of meaningful learning including authentic, intentional, active, constructive, and cooperative learning (Jonassen et al., 1999) and involve meaningful application of knowledge and skills. One of the tenets of PBL is that it is difficult to give meaning to knowledge once it is taken out of context. Hence, PBL immerses students in a context similar to that in which the problem normally occurs outside the classroom. Students, additionally, can consider themselves as active members of their community of students within the context of the problem, a phenomenon Lave and Wenger (1991) call legitimate peripheral participation. Although the literature varies on the unique characteristics of problems, there is agreement that the problems should be ill-structured and of wicked complexity (Rittel & Webber, 1984).

The course that is the subject of this research was developed based on a PBL design template created by the author (Figure 11.1). The template incorporates many of the concepts of a constructivist learning environment. In this model, phase 1 of the PBL design process engages learners in questioning the relevance of the problem to begin challenging them to recognize the legitimacy of the problem (Barab & Duffy, 2000) and to develop a local context for the issues raised in the problem. It is through this process that students formulate issues for study within their group's topic—the problem space. This is an initial questioning phase to establish relevancy and encourage student interactions by asking the question "Why is this problem important to us?"

In phase 2, students develop an area of expertise within their group's inquiry process. The concept of collaborative learning is supported by research on the nature of developing conceptual understanding of complex issues (Bruer, 1993; Brown & Campione, 1990; Brown et al., 1993; Palinscar & Brown, 1984). The students in each group work on a different area of expertise to gather some aspect of the information necessary for the final solution. This kind of group collaboration has been called a jigsaw (Aronson et al., 1978). The concept of this process of developing expertise is supported by research on the nature of apprenticeship and expertise (Brown et al., 1989). In this phase, learners are responding to a wider issue: "How do other people, including outside experts, perceive and attempt to solve similar problems?"

In phase 3, the groups present a strategy for solving the problem. In this course, students were required to formulate a plan for implementing the educational technology program that they had chosen for their research which would respond to the issues and topics identified in the first two phases. This final phase is designed based on research on building a community of learners (Brown & Campione, 1990). Students are asked to bring together the different areas of expertise and respond to the problem by identifying a justifiable course of action that resolves all the sub-issues identified by the group. In this phase, students are concerned with the question "How can we develop a feasible solution that incorporates all the knowledge and aspects from phase 1 and phase 2?"

The Course

This online course, Development of Technology-based Programs in Education, was part of a master's degree program designed to develop educators' capability to design, develop, and evaluate learning technologies in a variety of learning environments. The course was conducted completely online in a Blackboard learning environment where students worked in online groups interacting using synchronous and asynchronous communication tools including a discussion board, a chat room, a digital drop box, and email. At the first online discussion, students were asked to choose a problem—how to and why implement a new technology into an educational setting—as a potential topic of study. They then formed groups according to their choice of problem. Each group collaborated online to produce the artifact for each phase. They were required to research topics, carry out online discussions, collaboratively write proposal papers, present their final solutions, and evaluate the other groups' solutions. The three artifacts that each group had to produce were three papers that defined the problem space, identified the areas of expertise, and developed and justified a plan for the problem solution.

Phase 1 of the course involved the definition of the problem and identification of issues for consideration. Students were required to include in their paper (1) a focus statement or question, (2) description of the problem, (3) elaboration of research into the problem including a minimum of three other technology-based educational programs of a similar nature for comparison and evaluation, (4) identification of technology-related issues concerning the problem including benefits and costs, and (5) a summary statement defining the aspects of this problem that made it unique and identifying possible strategies for its solution. During this phase, students discussed in an online group workspace those issues related to the problem, including identification of important characteristics of the problem, group members' areas of research, potential benefits and constraints of technology-based responses to the problem, as well as possible solution strategies.

Phase 2 entailed the identification of the areas of expertise required for solving the problem. Students were required to include in their paper (1) a goal statement, (2) a description of the required areas of expertise, (3) responses to contact with experts in these areas, and (4) a decision-making matrix correlating expertise areas with their responses to the problem space. During this phase, students carried out discussions in the online group workspaces with experts on areas of expertise as well as with their own group on these areas and on solution strategies.

Phase 3 involved the design and development of the plan of action for problem solution. Students were asked to include in their paper (1) a description of the solution strategy, (2) the design of the technology program including a flowchart and schedule of implementation, (3) a list of human and capital resources needed to develop the program, and (4) a summary statement listing the criteria for evaluating the new technology program over a single session and over three complete iterations of the program (a session is a single lesson, while an iteration is an entire educational cycle such as a semester course). The criteria for assessment of the paper included (1) a description of the technological response to the problem and a justification statement; (2) discussion of the evaluation process, including formative and summative assessment of the impact of the technology program's activities on the educational setting; (3) identification of the progress of program implementation; (4) assessment of the plan's potential success in meeting the educational program's goals; and (5) any new materials needed to implement a plan of action such as the curriculum, including assessments or lessons, and appropriate plans for the evaluation and field-testing of these materials. In their group discussions during this phase, students evaluated all their proposed strategies using their decision-making matrix and then chose a strategy for the final problem solution, drew up a plan of action and a schedule for implementation, and established an evaluation process based on the decision-making matrix.

The course ran for 16 weeks over the winter semester of 2006 at the School of Education of a U.S. university with 18 graduate students who were working toward a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instructional Leadership with an emphasis on learning technologies. The students grouped themselves into five teams. Group 1 chose to design an online e-portfolio program for preservice teachers. This group had four members that included a preschool teacher and three elementary school teachers. Group 2 decided to develop a five-year technology plan for a local private school. This group included three members with one technology teacher from the school concerned, one online curriculum designer, and one technology specialist. Group 3 elected to create a model for an online university course. This group comprised five members; two were teaching online university courses and the others were elementary school teachers. Group 4 chose to work on a plan to implement an online data management system for a school district. This group of four included a technology coordinator for the district that was considering installing an online data management system, an information system manager, and two elementary school teachers who were using technology in their classroom. Group 5 decided to develop a plan to implement assistive technology in special education classrooms in a district. This group consisted of two special education teachers. The various groups' artifacts were evaluated using a scaled rating system designed to assess their fulfillment of the assessment criteria for the projects. This scaled rubric was based on Bereiter's (2001) scheme of knowledge.

Research Methods

The purpose of this research was to assess the quality of group interactions in an online problem-based graduate course and to identify the relationship between the quality of group dialogue and the level of response to the course projects. Online collaborative group work was reviewed to rate the level of group interaction. The dialogic rating method was developed based on the methodology of cultural historical activity theory and the method of socio-constructivist dialogic analysis using the concepts of task roles and relationships in groups (Pfeiffer, 1991) and the association between productive group dialogue and effective group work (Russell, 2005a). These concepts allowed the researcher to rate the productivity of the dialogues in online group spaces based on the participants' roles in completing the required tasks and their relationships in the group. Analysis was then made to look for patterns of relationships between the dialogues, the effectiveness of online group work, and the design characteristics of the course (Russell, 2005b).

The task role categories for coding group dialogues are (1) task roles, (2) relationship building roles, (3) both group task and relationship roles, and (4) nonfunctional behaviors. Task roles are dialogic functions required in selecting and carrying out a group task, and they include (1) initiating, (2) seeking information, (3) seeking opinion, (4) giving information, (5) giving opinion, (6) elaborating, (7) coordinating, and (8) summarizing. Group relationship roles are functions required in strengthening and maintaining group life and activities, and they include (1) compromising, (2) consensus taking, (3) encouraging, (4) gatekeeping, and (5) harmonizing. Both group task and relationship roles include (1) evaluating, (2) diagnosing, (3) testing for consensus, and (4) mediating. The types of nonfunctional behaviors are (1) aggressive, (2) blocking, (3) self-confessing, and (4) competing. By coding text instances of task roles in the group discussions, the dynamics of each group's interactions in the present study were rated and their level of response to the problem was related to the assessment ratings of the group's artifacts (Russell & Schneiderheinze, 2005).


Group 1: Online E-Portfolios for Preservice Teachers

This group designed an e-portfolio template as the final solution to their problem. They completed a thorough response to the course requirements. The e-portfolio template included multiple media formats for structured storage of student projects. Additionally, suggestions were made for teacher training and technology support that would be needed to implement e-portfolios in the classroom. This e-portfolio proposal was sent to the curriculum and instruction chair to consider for adoption at the School of Education. Initially, when the group attempted to use the chat room, some members struggled with the technological aspects. However, they overcame the difficulty and used this synchronous online forum productively to make decisions related to their group projects.

Group 2: Five-Year Technology Plan for a School

This group designed a very thorough program for implementing a five-year technology plan for a school and suggested several potential grants in their final paper to support the implementation process. This plan was presented to the parents and teachers in the school and was accepted. The technology teacher in the group also initiated components of the plan, including establishing a technology committee to engage teachers and parents in an ongoing dialogue on potential new technologies. The group relied on the discussion board for their interactions. This asynchronous forum frustrated them with the wait time for group members to respond to their questions. In spite of this, they developed their respective areas of expertise and produced a quality final implementation plan that included all the group members' ideas and knowledge.

Group 3: Model for an Online University Course

This group was the largest and most productive team in the course. They were able to produce all the components of their projects at an extremely high level of sophistication. As part of their online course model, they created curriculum guides, media sources, discussion forums, a description and assessment of cognitive processes, and suggestions for professional development for faculty implementing online courses. Two members were able to implement the model in their own courses immediately.

A sample of one of their chat room discussions is shown in Figure 11.2. The purpose of this dialogue was to design the decision-making matrix for self-evaluation of their final solution. This group developed interesting group dynamics with one member, identified as MR, taking on the role of group leader and another, identified as AH, assuming the role of class clown by injecting humor into their dialogues. Both AH and MR were teaching online and understood the importance of developing a viable project that met their teaching needs. Figure 11.3 is a line graph of the ratings for the task roles observed in the group members, and Figure 11.4 is that for the relationship roles seen in the same chat. The students engaged in both positive task roles and relationship roles during their live chats, which in turn encouraged all the participants to put in their ideas and expertise and guided the development of their projects, eventually raising both their level of problem response and the assessment rating for their final project.

Mar 5, 2006 9:24:23 PM CS

Group 4: Online Data Management System for a School District

This group designed a program for implementing an online data management system in a suburban school district. The project was proposed by the group member who was the district technology coordinator. He eventually successfully presented the completed proposal to the school board and also implemented several components designed for this course project, including surveying parents, teachers, and administrators for their ideas relating to the implementation of this new online technology in the district.

The group employed the discussion board effectively to manage their project goals. However, they were unsuccessful at making regular use of the chat room for real-time decision making. After successfully collaborating on the phase 1 paper, the group decided on a new editor to monitor their progress and edit the second paper. Each member selected an area of expertise to study and write about for this paper. One member chose to study the impact of implementing an online data management system on parents, believing that parents are important players in this process and should be informed about a new technology that would allow them to access their children's teachers and check grades online. The editor, however, decided to exclude this group member's contribution from the paper. As a result, their second paper received a much lower assessment rating because it did not include all the areas of expertise that had been identified in phase 1 as important for addressing the problem. Additionally, it was revealed after the course was completed that this editor had also emailed negative comments to this same member outside of the online course workspaces. This e-bullying by a group leader greatly reduced the effectiveness of the group's dialogues because it discouraged certain group members from participation. The group ultimately picked a new editor for the third paper and included the role of parents as part of the final implementation strategy.

Group 5: Assistive Technology for Special Education Schools

This group was comprised of only two special education teachers. Their chosen problem was how to implement assistive technologies to aid their special education students. They did not use the chat room or the discussion board regularly but would telephone each other occasionally to make up for the lack of online communication. They met only once in the chat room, which was when they were attempting to create the decision-making matrix.

Their single chat is shown in Figure 11.5. This is an example of an unproductive online discussion in comparison to the productive dialogue of group 3 on the same topic shown in Figures 11.2 to 11.4. The type of task role or nonfunctional behavior exhibited is included in brackets after each response. The brevity of the discussion and the lack of productive decision making are obvious. The group had only two members, and this small number may be the reason for their lack of collaboration. Without the need for multiple group members to simultaneously meet online to discuss a topic, they fell back on an older technology for communication and thereby reduced their chance to view the problem from multiple perspectives. They were unable to complete the decision-making matrix, the schedule, and the flowchart, all of which required multiple collaborative dialogues for successful completion.

The group members each wrote their section of the papers without a comprehensive discussion on their initial problem space. Their papers were simply descriptions of assistive technologies for special education students and not strategies for implementing these technologies. This group was unable to prepare a justifiable implementation strategy. Their response to their chosen problem space was limited to research and the identification of individual perspectives without the multi-voicedness of collaborative online discussions. Because of this lack of multiple perspectives and inadequate problem solving, their papers rated lower than those of all the other groups.

Task Role Rating of Group Work Effectiveness

Using the task role ratings of group dialogues, the researcher identified the students' responses to online group work. The group working on assistive technology (group 5) had the lowest level of productive interaction. With only two members, their effectiveness in collaborative problem solving was probably reduced. The group designing the online university course (group 3) was rated as the most effective in using online dialogue tools. Two of their members were teaching university courses online, and they supported the group dialogues by engaging in productive leadership roles and positive relationship roles.

The group working on the online data management system (group 4) included four members who had a background in utilizing technologies in educational programs. However, no one in this group assumed an ongoing productive leadership role, not even the member whose district would be implementing the online system. This resulted in a lack of productive leadership roles in their dialogues and eventually a negative exchange occurred outside of the online course workspaces. By contrast, in groups 1 to 3, the member who proposed the project often assumed a leadership role. These members' desire to implement the new technology in real-life settings drove their interest in developing productive group dialogues and motivated them to monitor their group's dialogues.

The first three groups used the chat room and discussion board effectively to design the problem solutions of the three phases, all of which required group decision making. They utilized the online group workspaces productively to develop solutions that met or exceeded the requirements for problem solving established in the guidelines for the course. Additionally, these groups were assessed as using high levels of knowledge to develop these responses (see Bereiter, 2001).

Groups 4 and 5 did not use the chat room and discussion board productively. They utilized means of communication that were not monitored by the instructor, such as email outside of the Blackboard system or the telephone. These groups did not establish online interactions that were collaborative in nature and, as a result, their projects did not meet all the criteria specified for the course that required demonstration of multiple perspectives in their plans for addressing their problems. Understanding a problem from multiple perspectives is an important aspect of identifying a verifiable response to the problem space, and ultimately this can only result from collaborative dialogue. This collaboration was designed into the course and when it was not productive, as in the case of these two groups, the result was a lower level of response from the group.


Several questions guided this study, including how does online collaboration support advanced learning processes, what is the quality of the knowledge resulting from these courses, and what should be the socio-cultural models for designing collaborative and constructivist online learning environments. This study demonstrates that the use of high-level knowledge to solve complex open-ended problems requires productive online group dialogue. There are several design concepts identified in this study that can support the potential of a PBL course to develop these advanced knowledge capabilities.

Design for Engagement

Real-world issues should be used as the problem space and students should be able to choose their topic of study. By embedding meaningful topics in the problem space, students will be more engaged in developing their response. Online group discussions can be very productive if both synchronous forums for making real-time decisions and asynchronous forums for group questioning and feedback are provided. A relationship exists between the group members' motivation to engage in the dialogic process in a timely and productive manner and the success of the group in integrating multiple perspectives into their new knowledge for the problem solution.

Design for Facilitation

A facilitator who is responsive to the needs of the groups and the individual students should monitor the online group workspaces. The facilitator should also stipulate that all course-related group discussions be conducted in the open course forums. In this study, anti-task behaviors such as e-bullying were much more likely to occur outside these monitored spaces. The designer/facilitator should encourage groups of three or more to incorporate multiple perspectives in their dialogues. The same group work problems that can arise in face-to-face groups can also occur in online groups, and it is important for the facilitator to ensure that everyone is able to participate productively in group discussions so that all students feel encouraged to develop their ideas during the discussions.

Design for Self-Assessment

When designing a PBL course, the collaborative aspects should be defined and included in the assessment process so that students can appreciate the purposefulness of group discussions and understand how they are assessed. Groups should have a leader who can monitor their group work and keep the group on task. This can be designed into the course as a requirement for every group; for instance, in this course the groups were told to assign an editor to monitor their progress. Or it can be included in the self-evaluation process by asking students to define their roles in the group work process and self-monitor by completing surveys or reflective questionnaires about their roles in the group and the group's overall functioning. By including guidelines for productive online discussions in the course syllabus, they can become a part of the expectations and assessment of students and thereby increase the potential for successful group dialogue.

Conclusion and Implications

Collaboration in an online PBL course is one of the most important factors affecting how complex and creative the final solution can become. Students in this course acquired advanced conceptual knowledge and were able to develop high-rated projects by working collaboratively in online groups. Students who were unable to establish productive collaborative processes in their groups developed projects that were assessed at a lower rating.

Online PBL courses can be productive if they are designed based on theories of constructivist learning (Russell, 2007). Understanding the design of effective online PBL courses is crucial with the trend toward online courses in all areas of higher education. Additionally, collaborative problem solving is becoming essential in an increasingly complex and fluid technology-driven work environment that requires problem-solving capabilities for success. As a result, designing online PBL courses that require students to work collaboratively and productively to solve complex problems will increasingly become a necessary aspect of higher education's role in society.


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Group Collaboration in an Online Problem-based University Course

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