Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

PedagogyTechnologyCollaborationCollaborative LearningCSCLLearning Sciences
Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) research has become pervasive in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education over the last several decades. Guided by sociocultural and social constructivist theories of learning, CSCL focuses on shared meaning making and is influenced by the three pillars of CSCL: enabling technologies, pedagogical designs, and modes of collaboration. This chapter identifies four different approaches or clusters to CSCL that involve different combinations of these pillars. Focusing on two of these clusters, this chapter (a) identifies robust themes in this field and (b) discusses the positive outcomes associated with these aspects of CSCL. Outcomes include learning gains, process improvements, and affective outcomes. Across clusters, results demonstrate that scaffolding and feedback in different combinations affect outcomes. Moreover, different combinations are used with learners at different ages and with different learning goals. Designing CSCL for different learning environments requires considering the complex system of learning environments that emerge from the interaction among contexts, learner characteristics, and learning activities.

Many contemporary theorists characterize learning as that which is fundamentally social rather than individual (Danish & Gresalfi, 2018). Advances in computer technologies have enabled diverse modes of collaboration and set the stage for Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). CSCL refers to collaborative learning that is mediated in some way by computer technology (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2014). It rests on three major pillars: the technologies that support and enable CSCL, the pedagogical designs that apply CSCL to learning, and the modes in which learners collaborate. In describing the goal of research in CSCL, Miyake (2007) argued that research and design of CSCL  environment must take "collaboration seriously, and implements and evaluates technological support to materialize effective learning designs" (p. 248), addressing three key foundations of CSCL. Similarly, Roschelle, Bakia, Toyama, and Patton (2011) have argued that we need to understand the compound resources at play in complex learning environments. By looking at different combinations of CSCL design elements, we move closer to being able to understand how to design for CSCL in different contexts. This chapter considers how different combinations of these pillars affect the outcomes of CSCL research with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, where much CSCL research has been conducted (Jeong, Hmelo-Silver, & Jo, 2019).

CSCL: An Overview

The pillars of CSCL are the technology, the pedagogy, and the mode of collaboration. CSCL environments may be synchronous, that is, with learners collaborating at the same time, or asynchronous, with learners collaborating at different times (Jeong et al., 2014). Synchronous collaboration can be at a distance (e.g., web conferences), or it can be face-to-face. An example of synchronous face-to-face CSCL is secondary school students discussing simulations in their classroom together (e.g., Sinha, Rogat, Adams-Wiggins, & Hmelo-Silver 2015), whereas an asynchronous CSCL design can involve learners distributed across time and space (e.g., Yukawa, 2006).

Within CSCL, the focus is on learning through technology-mediated collaboration as a coordinated effort to build shared knowledge (Stahl et al., 2014). A broad range of theoretical perspectives can apply (Hmelo-Silver & Jeong, 2021). However, because a general constructivist sociocultural orientation or sociocultural framework accounts for the majority of CSCL research, we ground our discussion in these latter frameworks, as they have been the dominant paradigms.

This chapter adopts a broad view on technology, focusing on the affordances and supports rather than technical features that these technologies provide for collaborative learning. Jeong and Hmelo-Silver (2016) proposed seven affordances of CSCL for learning. Affordances here refer to the ways technology mediates learning in CSCL. CSCL technologies provide learners opportunities to (a) engage in a joint task, (b) communicate, (c) share resources, (d) engage in productive collaborative learning processes, (e) engage in co-construction, (f) monitor and regulate collaborative learning, and (g) find and build groups and communities. Different combinations of these functions can be used in CSCL designs to support a range of instructional designs and pedagogical approaches.

Learning Check

What are the three pillars of CSCL? (select all that apply)

  1. Enabling technologies
  2. Gamification
  3. Pedagogical designs
  4. Modes of collaboration

What is an example from this chapter of synchronous collaboration that occurs at a distance?

  1. In-class presentations
  2. Self-moderated learning modules
  3. Web conferences
  4. Discussion boards

What is an example from this chapter of synchronous collaboration that occurs face-to-face?

  1. Elementary school students posting self-introduction videos to a class discussion board while at home
  2. Secondary school students discussing simulations in their classrooms together
  3. Researchers participating in an online Zoom meeting (online video conference software) to discuss research methods
  4. Teaching assistants collaborate to create a test review while they are in different offices

How is asynchronous CSCL design different from synchronous CSCL design?

  1. Asynchronous CSCL design involves learners interacting in the same space
  2. Asynchronous CSCL design can involve learners interacting with learning material face-to-face
  3. Asynchronous CSCL design can involve learners across time

What is the focus of CSCL?

  1. encoding of informational details like time, space, and meaning of words
  2. visual representation of the relationship between ideas
  3. the input of information into the memory system
  4. learning through technology-mediated collaboration as a coordinated effort to build shared knowledge

Jeong and Hmelo-Silver (2016) proposed that technology can mediate learning through engagement in a joint task and engagement in co-construction. What are three of the five other ways technology mediates learning in CSCL? (select all that apply)

  1. Communication
  2. Sharing of resources
  3. Proliferation of ineffective learning practices
  4. Engagement in productive collaborative learning processes
  5. Promotion of in-person collaboration

Effects of CSCL on Learning

Recent meta-analyses suggest that CSCL has significant effects on student learning. Chen, Wang, Kirschner, and Tsai (2018) examined the role of collaboration, computer use, and overall CSCL environments on learning. They found overall moderate effects of CSCL on learning outcomes and social interaction, with large effects on group tasks. Vogel, Wecker, Kollar, and Fischer (2017) focused on scaffolding with CSCL scripts. They found small effects on knowledge gains and a moderate effect on collaboration skills. Scripts were particularly effective for learning domain knowledge when they prompted learners to engage in activities that built on the contribution of other group members or when they provided additional content-specific support. In a meta-analysis of CSCL in STEM domains, Jeong et al. (2019) found a similar overall moderate effect size. They did find, however, that effect sizes were affected by types of technology and pedagogy, education levels of learners, and modes of collaboration. For example, representational tools (e.g., simulations, modeling tools) were more effective in face-to-face than in asynchronous settings, as was inquiry learning. The use of scripts and discussion boards were more effective in asynchronous settings.

These syntheses suggest that CSCL is effective. However, these syntheses found that different factors moderated the effectiveness of these approaches. Jeong et al. (2019) drew from a larger corpus of CSCL research that was coded for types of technologies, pedagogies, and collaboration modes (c.f.,McKeown, Hmelo-Silver, Jeong, Hartley, Faulkner, & Emmanuel, 2017). They found that there was not just one CSCL but rather four unique clusters of CSCL designs:

Here we focus on the first two inquiry-oriented clusters to show how CSCL has been used in different learning designs. This focus was selected because these were among the most commonly identified clusters and they provide a useful design contrast in considering how inquiry-oriented pedagogies are used with different technologies.

Learning Check

According to Jeong et al. (2019), what are two examples of how the effectiveness of teaching tools and pedagogies differ from face-to-face synchronous to asynchronous settings? (select all that apply)

  1. Representational tools and inquiry learning are more effective in face-to-face settings
  2. Scripts and discussion boards are more effective in asynchronous settings
  3. Representational tools and inquiry learning are more effective in asynchronous settings
  4. Scripts and discussion boards are more effective in face-to-face settings

Which of the four clusters of CSCL designs are discussed in this chapter? (select all that apply)

  1. Asynchronous teacher-structured discussion
  2. Online generative inquiry (OGI)
  3. Problem-based learning (PBL)
  4. Face-to-face collaborative inquiry with dynamic feedback (F2FCI)

Face-to-Face Collaborative Inquiry with Dynamic Feedback (F2FCI)

This cluster emphasizes face-to-face collaboration with inquiry and exploration pedagogies using dynamic technological tools such as simulations, games, and immersive technology. These provide feedback based on learner actions as well as rich contexts. In addition, a substantial number of the papers in this cluster also used sharing and co-construction tools. Within the cluster, the majority of papers were in K-12. 


Learning under this type of CSCL led to significant learning gains, promoted student engagement, and supported positive process outcomes such as critical thinking and reasoning skills. These outcomes cut across quantitative and qualitative studies, disciplinary content, and education levels. K-12 math students improved their problem-solving skills (e.g., Roschelle, Rafanan, Estrella, Nussbaum, & Claro, 2010; Sao Pedro, Baker, & Rodrigo, 2014), conceptual understanding (Lai & White, 2012; Turcotte, 2012), and group collaboration (Chen et al., 2012). In physics, positive effects on learning gains were found in primary and secondary education (Turcotte, 2012; Echeverría et al., 2012, respectively). Primary students experienced positive learning gains and improved critical thinking skills from designing digital science games (Yang & Chang, 2013). Primary students who were guided either with awareness tools or scripts learned more about photosynthesis through a drawing task than students in a control condition (Gijlers et al., 2013).

F2FCI research also highlighted positive effects on student engagement and affective measures at multiple education levels. Primary students using handheld devices in an authentic outdoor learning task were enthusiastic and developed great interest in the assignment (Avraamidou, 2013). Secondary biology students who participated in a CSCL review game were more engaged than students in the control group who participated in traditional paper and pencil review sessions with CSCL support (Annetta, Minogue, Holmes & Cheng, 2009). Additionally, computer science secondary and tertiary students felt empowered in their own learning (Tsai, Tsai, & Hwang, 2012).

Furthermore, lessons using dynamic technologies with inquiry and exploration pedagogies promoted meaningful interactions between elementary students, which in turn led to greater learning outcomes (Lai & White, 2012). For example, students engaged in high quality interaction patterns which entailed discussing the problem, task delegation, and helping each other in turn complete more assignments correctly than students with poor communication and collaboration (Chen, Looi, Lin, Shao, & Chan, 2012).

Factors That Support Effectiveness

Overarching themes that emerged from this cluster are that both (a) pedagogies that support collaborative inquiry and (b) rich problem contexts that establish a joint task are needed to promote positive outcomes (e.g., Chiang, Yang, & Hwang, 2014; Kong, Yeung, & Wu, 2009; Lai & White, 2012). Authentic problem contexts can be set in games and simulations (e.g., Nelson & Ketelhut, 2008; Sinha et al., 2015). One way facilitators provided guided instruction was by giving assistance and feedback throughout collaborative inquiry, and by providing authentic problems for problem-based learning (e.g., Avraamidou, 2013).

Instructors provided guided instruction ranging from very open-ended to more highly-structured. For example, undergraduate and graduate students were given very open-ended guidelines as they engaged in mobile learning outside of the classroom (Tsai et al., 2012), whereas secondary-level students were provided more facilitation in a student-driven augmented reality game to help them learn electrostatics (Echeverría et al., 2012). Even greater structure was provided for primary students who were given systematic processes to follow as they engaged with inquiry learning to help them with knowledge sharing (Chiang et al., 2014). In a grade 5/6 study of Knowledge Forum, teacher and researcher questions were helpful in advancing student thinking (Turcotte, 2012).

Closely tied to the theme of guided inquiry is feedback (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). In studies with F2FCI with dynamic feedback, participants at a variety of educational levels received immediate feedback on a task or problem from facilitators (e.g., Kong et al., 2009;), peers (e.g., Lai & White, 2012), and/or software (e.g., Chen et al., 2012; Holmes, 2007; Roschelle et al., 2010). Software feedback could include direct hints or prompts or be more indirect in providing changes in the state of a simulation or game in response to learner actions (e.g., Eberbach & Hmelo-Silver, 2010). Teachers noted elementary student success with technology required active teacher feedback (Chiang et al., 2014; Kong et al, 2009).

Factors That Inhibit Effectiveness

Factors that may inhibit student learning and engagement are related to feedback. An example of the importance of informative feedback emerged from two studies with primary students and teachers. When teachers lack content expertise, the technology itself needs to have that content feedback embedded or risk leaving student questions unanswered (Kong et al., 2009). This is also a problem when a teacher is working with several groups and cannot provide consistent active feedback for each group (Chiang et al., 2014; Kong et al., 2009).

The lack of consistent, active feedback are pedagogical and technological concerns applicable at all educational levels. Technologies can be used to provide content feedback in such situations, but as Turcotte (2012) noted, just because technology provides affordances for particular kinds of activity such as elaborated explanations, learners do not always take advantage of those affordances.

Summary and Implications

In this cluster, there was a trend for students to be collaboratively engaged with authentic problems and their learning nurtured by guided instruction, feedback, and discussion. Together, these combinations were associated with significant learning gains, positive student engagement, meaningful interactions between students, and improved group collaboration and communication skills.

Simulation tools and augmented reality games allow students opportunities for practice, feedback, and revision as they collaboratively engage with disciplinary content and practices without the time or expense of physical tools. In this cluster, learning with authentic problems was supported by opportunities for guided inquiry and immediate feedback from the tools and discussion. Technology played a role in helping students to work in settings that are more authentic and have opportunities to directly test their ideas and solutions, with the tools providing dynamic feedback.The main difference between the higher education and K-12 school environments was the control retained by the instructor. When this design was used in higher education, students had greater autonomy than primary and secondary education students. Questions remain about how much information needs to be embedded in the technology and how to help teachers support their students.

Learning Check

What are the overarching themes present in the F2FCI cluster? (select all that apply)

  1. Pedagogies that support collaborative inquiry
  2. Use of open educational resources
  3. Amount of time spent engaging in informational gathering activities
  4. Rich problem contexts that establish a joint task are needed to promote positive outcomes

Why is feedback an important factor in F2FCI?

  1. Feedback will provide more opportunities for the students to solve problems independently
  2. An absence of feedback will leave students' questions unanswered
  3. An absence of feedback is proven to cause all students to experience detrimental levels of stress

Think About It!

What type of collaboration does F2FCI emphasize and what tools does it use?

What is an example of how a need for structure may vary from one group of learners to another in an F2FCI environment?

Online Generative Inquiry (OGI)

This cluster was primarily concerned with integrated learning environments (e.g., learning management systems) or online sharing and co-construction technologies (e.g., wikis). Asynchronous collaboration with inquiry and exploration pedagogies was a main focus, but collaboration and pedagogy were more varied than in some of the other clusters. By nature, integrated environments offered a variety of tools that could be used to collaborate asynchronously or in face-to-face environments. Most OGI research focused on higher education, suggesting connections between learner education level and collaboration types. Communication and discussion occurred through sharing/co-construction tools and integrated environments that allowed direct communication through built-in chat tools or discussion forums.


Research in this cluster primarily reported process gains as well as some learning gains. The positive process gains included metacognitive skills supported by a knowledge-building environment (Pifarre & Cobos, 2010) and improved reasoning and collaboration via e-learning environments or wikis (Huang, & Nakazawa, 2010). In an undergraduate statistics course, student report writing was completed individually or collectively via a wiki (Neumann & Hood, 2009). There were no differences in terms of final report quality, but students who collaborated within wikis were more engaged and had higher attendance than those who worked alone.

Learning gains in this cluster were not uniform. On one hand, collaborative use of a multimedia-enriched concept map produced greater short-and long-term retention scores than a control group that received regular instruction and worked on assignments individually (Marée et al., 2013). However, another study found no differences between the final grades of a group that collaborated through wikis and a group that worked independently with a word processor, despite positive engagement (Neumann & Hood, 2009). Here, some students reported dissatisfaction with using the technology, and task completion could be negatively affected by low group member participation. Mixed learning gains were reported in Krause, Stark, and Mandl (2009) in examining the role of adaptive feedback in an asynchronous statistics class. They found that feedback was beneficial for students with low prior knowledge but had no effect on students with high prior knowledge.

Factors That Support Effectiveness

In a wiki co-construction environment, students reported more interaction with peers than with their instructor, and that the instructor moved to more of a moderator role, allowing students to initiate interactions (Huang & Nakazawa, 2010). Students also noted the importance of receiving public feedback about revisions within the wiki where these could be discussed by group members. This feedback functioned as collaborative scaffolding and an anchor for their discussions. In using representational tools, Marée, van Bruggen and Jochems (2013 when there was less teacher guidance.

This OGI research also offered some promising implications about specific technologies and pedagogical practices. For example, in asynchronous discussion threads (i.e., a technology), particularly when students act as facilitators (i.e., a pedagogical practice), they need to understand different types of thread patterns and how questioning, summarizing, pointing, and resolving may affect discussion thread development and closure (Chan, Hew, & Cheung, 2009). Feedback, whether from instructors or peers, may promote more reflection--especially when it offers explanations (Krause et al., 2009). Thus, regardless of the source, feedback should be thoughtful, thorough, and encourage students to go beyond remembering information. Pifarre and Cobos (2010) demonstrated the importance of scaffolds in improving peer questioning and co-regulation.

Much of this research investigated how students used and perceived specific technology. These suggest that the use of collaborative group activities, instructors’ timely feedback, and support materials embedded within an integrated system all related to student satisfaction with a variety of STEM related vocational e-learning courses (Inayat, ul Amin, Inayat, & Salim, 2013). When guided instruction and immediate feedback are integrated within these pedagogies and technologies, it can lead to improved student learning (Krause et al., 2009; Marée et al., 2013) and task completion (Hämäläinen, & Arvaja, 2009).

Although scripts might be effective for task completion, they do not necessarily avoid variability in collaboration processes among groups. In a study of university students engaging in case-based learning, Hämäläinen and Arvaja (2009) still found differences in collaborative activity with unequal participation or a dominant group member. This suggests that the structure from script may not be sufficient to promote uniformly productive collaboration.

Factors That Inhibit Effectiveness

Again, feedback was mentioned in relation to factors that inhibit effectiveness. Consistent with findings in other clusters, a lack of feedback can negatively affect students’ learning outcomes (Krause et al., 2009). Meanwhile, too much feedback, or using facilitation techniques that resolve conflicts or summarize key points can lead to discussions closing prematurely (Chan et al., 2009). Without enough guidance regarding the importance of positive collaboration, students may have high task activity but not necessarily high-quality collaboration (Hämäläinen, & Arvaja, 2009).

Summary and Implications

Timely guidance from teachers and peers plays an important role in increasing student outcomes as well as favorable perceptions of the environment. The results for this cluster also highlighted the importance of keeping the guidance at an optimal level.

In contrast to F2FCI, communication was heavily mediated in this cluster. It made students’ thinking visible in ways that a face-to-face classroom may not allow. Teachers can thus follow persistent threads of discussion along with the artifacts being created. This gives teachers opportunities for ongoing formative assessment and may also provide grist for student reflection on these ongoing interactions in ways that face-to-face discussions may not. This may be particularly important in higher education contexts with their larger class sizes that might otherwise offer few opportunities for discussion and feedback.

Learning Check

What is OGI primarily concerned with?

  1. Providing learning tools to groups of learners
  2. Promoting the adoption of cognitivist learning theories in teaching practices
  3. Integrated learning environments or online sharing in co-construction technologies
  4. Adoption of practices that integrate in-person context-based learning activities

What are the two primarily reported gains in OGI? (select all that apply)

  1. Systematic gains
  2. Proscriptive gains
  3. Process gains
  4. Learning gains

What did the study conducted by Hämäläinen and Arvaja (2009) suggest regarding scripting?

  1. Scripts may not be enough to promote uniformly productive collaboration
  2. A script reader's comprehension is essential to the improvement of learning gains
  3. Scripts are lesson guidelines that allow for flexibility in teaching
  4. Scripts are only recommended for teachers who feel comfortable with the material they are covering

Think About It!

How did OGI learning gains vary across different studies?


It is clear that the three pillars of CSCL—collaboration, technology, and pedagogy—are used in different combinations to design effective learning environments. However, we need to better understand how to design for the balance between developing appropriate structures and supporting student agency in ambitious learning practices promoted by CSCL (Glazewski & Hmelo-Silver, 2019). This is particularly important in being able to support diverse learners (Uttamchandani et al., 2020). We review this in the context of the major issues this chapter has identified.

First, feedback and support are themes that run through all the clusters, whether the feedback comes from the teacher, peers, or tools. Questions about feedback consider both timing and quality. Poorly timed feedback that does not address appropriate content, skills, or practices may impede learning. In designing effective CSCL, it is important to think about feedback and support as part of the CSCL system of technologies, pedagogies, and collaboration modes. It is important to consider which aspects of feedback and support should be fixed and part of the environment and which should be adaptive to the needs of the situation. Much dynamic feedback needs to come from teachers and peers. Not enough research has addressed ways to support high quality peer feedback (De Wever, Van Keer, Schellens, & Valcke, 2010). Research on scripts and roles may be one way to scaffold students to provide good quality feedback to their peers. To support teacher feedback, CSCL environments should provide mechanisms for teachers to monitor multiple groups, identify challenges that groups might face, and provide appropriate feedback and resources.

Second, certain technologies lend themselves better to particular communication channels and/or pedagogical goals. Dynamic representational tools are generally used in face-to-face environments as the F2FCI Cluster demonstrates. Rapid cycles of activity and engagement with such tools lend themselves to the immediacy of being in the same place at the same time. Additionally, the tools allow for deictic referencing as learners can easily point to phenomena on-screen and observe the gestures of others. Effect sizes were larger when dynamic representational tools were used in face-to-face settings (Jeong et al., 2019). Similarly, the use of sharing and co-construction tools dominated the OGI cluster. These tools may be more critical for online environments because learners’ interaction channels are limited and thus need to be mediated by communication tools. When communicating and collaborating with these tools, learners need to be more explicit about their actions and contributions, which can provide opportunities for reflection, thus fostering knowledge co-construction .

Third, different learning environments are used for different learnersCSCL involving younger learners tends to involve face-to-face collaboration rather than online collaborations. Online collaboration requires dealing with a broader range of communication modalities and as such may be used for more mature learners. The trend seems to be for more structure and face-to-face collaboration for younger learners, perhaps due to the need for social presence in this population as they tend to be in the same physical space. In addition, technology tools can add to cognitive demands and pose increasing challenges for regulation that may be difficult for younger learners. However, these challenges are not unique to younger learners. Creating social presence and supporting self-regulated learning is challenging even for more mature learners in online environments.

Learning Check

What are the three major issues identified within this chapter? (select all that apply)

  1. Feedback
  2. Retention
  3. Assignment of technologies to different environments and pedagogies
  4. Learner and learning environment compatibility
  5. Language

True/False: CSCL provides a one-size-fits-all solution to collaborative learning.

  1. True
  2. False

Implications for LIDT

Considerations for Practice

Helping stakeholders become aware of the usefulness of CSCL is a first step in implementing evidence-based practices. This includes reporting on CSCL in practitioner venues publications. In addition, professional development training is important for instructors in order to effectively implement CSCL. Facilitating CSCL requires mastering the technology, tailoring it to tasks, and providing adequate scaffolds that can be differentiated for student skills and prior knowledge. 

CSCL as a Complex System

It is critical to consider CSCL as a system of compound resources (Roschelle et al., 2011). There is no one-size-fits-all solution; how CSCL is used in different learning environments needs to be tailored to the particular level of the learners and the learning goals. Designers and teachers will need to consider how the collaboration modes, technology, and pedagogical choices fit together in ways that are more than the sum of their parts. A consideration of the seven CSCL affordances can help them to directly design efforts along with considering the learning contexts and educational goals.

LIDT in the World

While you watch this video, pay attention to how the technology is being used to facilitate collaboration:

Video about the Parkland School Division implementing new collaborative technology in classroomsWatch on YouTube

Write a paragraph or two reflecting on how the technology in this video reflects what you read in this chapter. Here are some questions you may want to think about:


This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation [Grant # 1249492]; and the National Research Foundation of Korea [Grant # NRF-2016R1D1A1B03935697]. We thank Jessica McKeown for her contributions to this synthesis. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies.


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Cindy Hmelo-Silver
Dr. Cindy Hmelo-Silver is a full-time, Distinguished Professor of Learning Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington where she has also served as Barbara B. Jacobs Chair and director for the Center for Research on Learning and Technology.
Heisawn Jeong

Hallym University

Heisawn Jeong is a Professor of Psychology at Hallym University in South Korea. Her research is in the area of learning sciences with a focus on collaborative learning and technology supports for collaborative learning. She has done work on the effectiveness of CSCL along with CSCL research practices such as methodologies and theoretical approaches used in CSCL. She is also interested in interdisciplinary team collaboration and exploring ways to facilitate it. She is an active member of ISLS (International Society of the Learning Sciences) and Korean Associations of Cognitive Science and Psychology in Korea.