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Is Collaborative Learning the Future? (Or Is It Now?)


Photo by Natalia Kollegova on Pixabay

We took a look at collaborative learning and what you need to know about it for leadership development.

Years ago, we started talking about “blended learning” – bridging the classroom and the virtual experience. Typically, this was somewhat limited to adapting classroom content to a semi-virtual environment, such as mixing synchronous (live, facilitator-led training) with asynchronous (recorded or previously developed content). Even the definition of this type of learning seems grounded in a teacher-to-student relationship or the concept that “you are here to learn”. This type of training ties learning to a location, typically a classroom or computer through virtual self-study.

Recently, however, more people are asking for personalized, relevant training, inside and outside the classroom. A 2019 learner survey of over 1000 leaders found that “learning with/from others” – i.e. collaborative learning – was the most preferred method of learning when choosing from types of learning their organization provided.


What do learners want out of learning? (And what do they want to learn?)

In the same survey, respondents selected leadership and management skills as well as soft skills / technical skills as the most mission-critical skills that they felt their organizations should be focusing on for their development.

These respondents saw a clear connection between their personal development and the company meeting its critical business initiatives. In other words, they felt that “if the organization helps me grow, I will help grow the organization.” This perspective is in stark contrast with how some organizations are leery of providing training to employees, thinking “why invest in training, when they will just leave anyway?”


How Do You Define Collaborative Learning?

If you work on a team or in a group, you may already be working “collaboratively”. Or, as an L&D specialist, you set out to create programs and trainings to build teamwork and cohesiveness. 

Learning from and with others seems like almost too simple an explanation, but collaborative learning is not meant to be the same as learning within a group or as a group – which you are probably already doing in corporate classroom training in the form of group projects, breakouts, experiential activities, etc.

Collaborative learning could also be called “goal-based learning,” where the goal is achieved from the group working together, instead of carving it up into pieces by team member to meet an overall quota.

Here’s an example of how my team used a more collaborative learning approach: As a team, we wanted to hone our paid-social marketing strategy, specifically for Google Ads. We felt that before we could even define a goal, we needed to understand the platform, learn to use it more effectively, and decide as a team where it would fit into our overall strategy. Instead of assigning it to one person to figure out, we all took a training course together and used the time to talk as a group whenever a question came up, or an interest was sparked, or if we had a question about our own data. We felt much more confident in our choices and path forward than if we had one person learn and report back.


Where does the need for collaborative learning come from?

As learning specialists, we often talk about the fact that work today is the age of digital disruption, fragmented workspaces, global teams, uncertainty, rapid change, and high employee turnover. We often call it living in a “VUCA” world – one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Programs and trainings are often put in place to not only onboard or engage employees, but to address the moments of challenge and–ideally–counteract them, build consensus, and help steer the ship. In this constantly changing environment, leaders are craving personalization, people skills, leadership skills, and management skills as much as technical training.

Collaborating and connecting with others – especially if they work in a virtual environment or as a remote employee ­– gives employees an opportunity to really work with others, versus just reporting to them or managing them remotely.


Where does collaborative learning take place?

Traditionally, soft skills, leadership skills, and even onboarding take place in a facilitator-led classroom. Many studies show that classroom training is most often utilized; it is still a very popular development method and has benefits like any learning method.

However, just as many studies show that when learning is event-based only, most of what is learned is lost. Up to 70% of learning takes place after the event when people apply what they have learned. Collaborative learning can take place within the classroom, digitally, or on the job as follow up/reinforcement by encouraging participants to build collaboration into their everyday work habits – such as implementing group coaching and/or peer mentoring.


What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

The science of learning transfer is fascinating stuff. Researchers Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson describe the “Five Moments of Need” that (ideally) are met to train, transfer, and sustain learning. These moments are where learning should support a learner’s needs:

  • New – learning to do something for the first time
  • More – expanding what they have learned
  • Applying – Acting on the learning
  • Solving – using their knowledge
  • Change – forming new habits

While traditional learning might solve for “new” and “more,” collaborative learning picks up the pace on applying, solving, and–ultimately–changing, by bringing those needs into a social framework where learners are asking for and getting feedback, reporting out on the learning, developing the answers together, and analyzing results and holding each other accountable.


How will you start?

A good place to start is to look at your training programs or your personal development plan. Getting started learning as a group could be as simple as developing a lunch and learn series or as complex as implementing an entire LMS, but more likely it will fall somewhere in between.

Ensure your training has ample follow up built into it, like group coaching or accountability partners meeting on business or leadership goals. Encourage training participants to share their feedback or talk about what they have learned with their teams – and help them keep those conversations going.


After all, an important part of learning is sustaining the conversation with new information.

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Lauren Parkhill

Lauren Parkhill leads the marketing team in creating creative content that helps organizations develop their leaders and teams.