As learning and collaborative practices occur in many contexts throughout life, this paper aims to focus and discuss these terms in a higher education, online environment. A combination of social, technological and economic drivers has resulted in major pedagogical changes in higher Education online (Engineering Subject Centre 2011). Much of the change is centred to accommodate the increased amount of diverse students and their needs as they pursue study in the online environment. The increased diversity of online students is believed to enhance collaborative experiences in an online environment. John-Steiner (2000) states that, "collaboration thrives on diversity of perspectives and constructive dialogue between individuals negotiating their differences while creating their shared voices and visions". Collaboration forms the foundation of community learning online, as it allows for mutual exploration of ideas, development of critical thinking skills, an opportunity to reflect on and develop those ideas, and a collaborative, supportive approach to academic work (Preece 2000). A true collaborative learning environment must contain a setting where the learner acts by using tools or devices and collects and interprets information whilst interacting with others (Atan, Samsudin & Idrus 2003). Theorist and research has shown and proven that collaborative environments are highly influential in the learning process; as humans are in fact, very social beings. Collaboration in the online environment does not only equip students with the skills and ability to construct content knowledge in their courses; it is fair more versatile and transferable by supporting future interactions and embodies lifelong learning. The implications of collaborative approaches to learning and the way in which advancing technology influences the way in which we interact with each other will be also discussed in this paper. Collaborative approaches to learning have been proven to suit the needs of most online learners; however, implications to this approach must be understood to further enhance learning with others.
The diversity of online students enhances collaborative experiences. Greater accessibility to online education has encompassed a larger and more diverse online learner population. Online learner profiles have diversified to include all types of participants from a variety of backgrounds. In its beginnings, distant learners held a more homogeneous profile of mostly adult, usually already employed, place-bound, goal-oriented, and intrinsically motivated. As progressions in information technology have advanced, a generation of more dynamic, younger and more responsive students emerge in the online education system, resulting in encompassing both young and old learners (Dabbagh 2007). The increased diversity of students now include those from different geographical locations, time zones, part-time or full-time workers, stay at-home-parents, single parents, retirees and those who are striving to further their career by advancing their education (Narozny 2010). The change and emerging nature of the online leaner and the multiplicity of learning styles with generational differences can positively affect the way in which learners collaborate online. Research shows that diverse working groups are more productive, creative, and innovative than homogeneous groups due to an expanded knowledge system with varied experiences, beliefs and perceptions shared. Every single person in this enormously diverse and ever-changing system has the power to serve as an invaluable resource for all others—students, teachers, and the community as a whole as they have their own expertise and unique experiences in which they can draw on in discussions; providing additional dimensions to concepts and ideas (Muukkonen, Hakkarainen & Lakkala 1999). The nature of asynchronous discussions also proves to be more democratic and equitable through the presentation and inclusion of...
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