Digital Pedagogy Toolbox: Navigating Collaboration Together – Supporting Group Communication

Post by Jeanette Wu, educational technology support specialist, University of Victoria.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African proverb

Consider the last time you worked with someone else, either as a pair or a larger group. When was this? What was the objective? Were you working together in person, online, or a mix of both? How was your experience working with them? Whether you had a great, terrible, or middling time, chances are communication was a key factor in how it turned out.

Communication and collaboration are both listed as key competencies for learners today (Digital Learning Advisory Committee, 2021; Soffel, 2016) with a competency being defined as an amalgamation of one’s strengths, skills, and knowledge (University of Victoria; UVic, n.d.).

What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration, when two or more people work toward a common learning or problem-solving goal, can promote greater learning (Jeong & Hmelo-Silver, 2016), but it is a complex process requiring regulation and coordination of knowledge and skills to reach optimal results (Bakhtiar et al., 2018). Successful collaboration includes:

  • Working effectively in a group to reach common objectives, including demonstrating commitment to group goals (e.g., prior preparation, following through with assigned tasks, showing up and participating),
  • Sharing information and encouraging group member participation,
  • Supporting and motivating group members to do their best,
  • Accepting and providing constructive feedback in a considerate manner,
  • Recognizing when conflict may be appropriate,
  • Working throughout the collaboration in a professional manner, and
  • Considering the context, diverse people, and varied perspectives that constitute the group (UVic, n.d.).

Although the result of a collaborative effort may have been good (the group nailed the project), group members’ feelings of the overall experience is arguably as important because it could shape their perceptions of future collaboration — even emotions experienced earlier within the same collaborative episode can impact later engagement and mood (Bakhtiar et al., 2018). Imagine you are in a group where members don’t get along or agree on anything or where one member dominates all the airtime while others slack off. How eager would you be to work with that group again? Now imagine that same scenario happening repeatedly over time. How can we, as educators, faculty, and staff help mitigate these nightmarish group settings (and their accompanying dread)? A key component is effective communication.

What Is Communication?

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (n.d.) defines communication as “the activity or process of expressing ideas and feelings or of giving people information.” Communication as a competency can be described as fluency in appropriate communication across a variety of contexts with diverse people and includes:

  • Respectful communication, both verbal and non-verbal (UVic, n.d.),
  • Active listening, such as eye contact as appropriate, paraphrasing or summarizing, and clarifying questions (J. Caldwell, personal communication, July 13, 2021), and
  • Awareness and efficacious responsiveness to verbal and non-verbal communication, with sensitivity to cultural differences (UVic, n.d.).

How exactly do we communicate? Barnlund’s transactional model of communication explains this complicated process by centring various cues (stimuli) shaping our individual contexts: selecting which cues we focus on (or don’t), assigning meaning to cues, deciding what cues to share with others, and navigating how this cue sharing may occur (1970).

What does this have to do with collaboration in digital spaces? In Barnlund’s pilot model (1970), he identifies and describes three kinds of cues to which a person can assign meaning:

  1. Public cues, or things visible and perceivable to everyone in a given space and which they have no control over (e.g., physical décor, temperature)
  2. Private cues, defined as things experienced by the person (e.g., bodily sensations, stimuli that are perceived only by them)
  3. Behavioural, non-verbal cues, which are things that are within the control of the person (e.g., posture, mannerisms)

To translate these to a digital learning context:

  1. Public cues may be things in the shared digital space, such as the task that learners are to complete and instructions they are to follow, the learning platform that class content is hosted on, and the software learners are using.
  2. Private cues could be things unique to the individual learner’s environment that may be imperceivable to group mates, such as current emotional or physical state, room temperature, internet speed and bandwidth, background noise, thoughts, and emotions in relation to the group or task.
  3. Behavioural, non-verbal cues could be things like how the learner presents themselves to their group. This includes whether a learner is using video during a group call; punctuation and speed of response in text communications; use of emojis, GIFs, or reactions.

Because cues vary from person to person, it can be challenging to understand what people are talking about, or reacting to, in their personal and collective environments and why — especially if we can’t perceive these cues ourselves. Even if we could, for any one cue to be perceived and/or have the same meaning attached to it by more than one person in a group may require us to “…possess the same sensory acuity, overlapping fields of perception, parallel background experiences, and similar needs or purposes” (Barlund, 1970, p. 54), which is next to impossible in any given group situation. So how can we help bridge the gap between everyone’s different contexts, understandings, and perceptions? Some strategies include:


Researchers (for example, Bakhtiar et al., 2018; Barnlund, 1970; Kreijns et al., 2013) note that part of communication is awareness of oneself and awareness of the group. Awareness of yourself can include:

  • How you are doing physiologically
  • How you are feeling emotionally at any given moment and why
  • How what you are feeling could be expressed in your verbal and non-verbal communication
  • How those shared cues might be perceived by others

When you are metacognitively self-aware, you can choose to self-regulate and begin the process of overcoming whatever personal challenge you may face, whether it be cognitive, emotional, behavioural, motivational, or a mix (Hadwin et al., 2011; Hadwin & Oshige, 2011; Järvelä & Hadwin, 2013, as cited in Hadwin et al., 2018b). For example, if I am short-tempered with my teammates, I might ask myself: “Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? How long have we been at this part of the task? Maybe I am feeling irritable because I pulled an all-nighter preparing for the group session and haven’t eaten in hours.” Based on my honest answer of how I’m doing and why, I might choose to step away and take a break or try another method of engaging with my team members.

Awareness of the group could be thinking about:

  • How team members are faring
  • What they are feeling
  • What they are saying and why they might be saying it, etc.

A well-known quote from Theodore Roosevelt is: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In collaborative contexts, having a safe space and time to share how you feel and what you think with other group members can encourage self- and group awareness through reflection: “How am I really doing? How are we all really doing? Why? What can I/we do to overcome this?” These questions can open doors for conversation and lead to additional chances for cultivating group unity.

Fostering a Safe Space

Linked to awareness is creating and nurturing environments where learners feel comfortable bringing up how different cues impact them and their ability to function effectively within their group. Social interaction within collaborative spaces is expected; however, it often does not occur (Kreijns et al., 2013). Although a variety of technology is available for communication (ranging from team video calls on Microsoft Teams to Discord to email and everything in-between), Kreijns et al. argue that a crucial element of effective collaboration is establishing an appropriate socio-emotional environment. This entails creating a space where trust, cohesion, and recognition of group members as individuals are cultivated.

How can we encourage these kinds of spaces? Bakhtiar et al. (2018) suggest a positive socio-emotional group climate can be fostered through:

  • Personal group member preparation for a task (e.g., mastery of content and studying),
  • Identifying and providing support for emotions felt within the group,
  • Working together to overcome any challenges, and
  • Developing trust that comes from “…respectfully encouraging and supporting one another’s participation and motivation.” (p. 85).

Bakhtiar et al. (2018) also note that “interacting positively may not come naturally to group members and is, therefore, a skill that should be pedagogically encouraged and supported by instructors” (p. 85). As instructors, we may not be able to control what happens or how learners react within their group contexts, but we can provide scaffolding for positive socio-emotional climates, such as:

  • Scripting, where learners could be provided with specific roles, tasks, and the order in which to do things (Fischer et al., 2013), and/or prompts to promote group regulation (Hadwin et al., 2018a; Miller & Hadwin, 2015).
  • Group awareness tools can support coordination and regulation by providing information on possible differences within the group and therefore presenting opportunities for discussion and consensus-building (Miller & Hadwin, 2015; see also Reimann & Bannert, 2018).
  • Helping learners learn about and engage in effective self-, co-, and socially shared regulation (e.g., Hadwin et al., 2018b); for example, exploring and comparing learner and instructor task understanding (see Hadwin et al., 2009) and walking through and modelling the process of alignment and conflict resolution in a class setting.
  • Providing tools and training for effective communication, such as using “I” statements for conflicts or providing feedback (J. Caldwell, personal communication, July 13, 2021; Young, 2016).

This can be a lot of work, but safe spaces create opportunities for learners to acknowledge and support each other with their challenges, the associated emotions, and any needed regulation when starting or during a collaborative session (Hadwin et al., 2018b). For example, if I feel comfortable enough to express my reasons for being grumpy, my teammates have the chance to acknowledge my emotions (“I feel that too!”) and assist with regulation (“Let’s all take a five-minute break” or “What do you think about…?”) This can help me get out of my slump, build a sense of community within the group, and provide a positive feedback loop for the collaboration (Bakhtiar et al., 2018), potentially leading to a better overall outcome.

Communication Strategies

There is no shortage of materials available for communication strategies. One such resource is a TED Ed video (2016) that outlines several key ideas on communication:

  • Be mindful that when we communicate, we view things through our own subjective lenses (which are shaped by factors such as culture, race, gender, religion), and this impacts meaning and interpretation.
  • Be aware of personal perceptual filters.
  • Remember that context influences communication (e.g., hunger, noise, emotions).
  • Engaging actively with the verbal and non-verbal feedback of others can help reduce miscommunication, especially as we adapt our message to help others understand.
  • Listen with your eyes, ears, and gut — non-verbal communication matters, including body language, tone, and pitch (J. Caldwell, personal communication, July 13, 2021).
  • Present your idea/understanding and then ask others what their thoughts and perceptions are.
  • Seek to understand and be open to what others have to say. By realizing everyone has a valid point of view in a situation, our awareness can open doors for communication to build greater understanding and may lead to an outcome that might otherwise have been unavailable.
How miscommunication happens (and how to avoid it) – Katherine Hampsten

All in all, effective communication and collaboration may not come naturally, however, they are competencies that can be developed with awareness, education, intentional practice, refinement, and a willingness to continually engage with the process to transfigure these competencies into proficiencies.


Bakhtiar, A., Webster, E. A., & Hadwin, A. F. (2018). Regulation and socio-emotional interactions in a positive and a negative group climate. Metacognition and Learning, 13, 57–90.

Barnlund, D. C. (1970). A transactional model of communication. In Akin, Goldberg, Myers, and Stewart (Eds.) Language behavior: A book of readings in communication (pp. 43–61). Mouton.

Digital Learning Advisory Committee. (2021). B.C.’s post-secondary digital learning strategy. 

Fischer, F., Kollar, I., Stegmann, K., & Wecker, C. (2013). Toward a script theory of guidance in computer-supported collaborative learning. Educational Psychologist, 48(1), 56–66.

Hadwin, A. F., Oshige, M., Miller, M., & Wild, P. M. (2009). Examining the agreement between student and instructor task perceptions in a complex engineering design task. Proceedings of the Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA).

Hadwin, A. F., Bakhtiar, A., & Miller, M. (2018a). Challenges in online collaboration: Effects of scripting shared task perceptions. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(3), 301–329.

Hadwin, A., Järvelä, S., & Miller, M. (2018b). Self-regulation, co-regulation, and shared regulation in collaborative learning environments. In D. H. Schunk & J. A. Greene (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2nd ed., pp. 83–106). Routledge.

Jeong, H., & Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2016). Seven affordances of computer-supported collaborative learning: How to support collaborative learning? How can technologies help? Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 247–265.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A., & Vermeulen, M. (2013). Social aspects of CSCL environments: A research framework. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 229–242.

Miller, M., & Hadwin, A. (2015). Scripting and awareness tools for regulating collaborative learning: Changing the landscape of support in CSCL. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 573–588.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. (n.d.). Communication.

Reimann, P. & Bannert, M. (2018). Self-regulation of learning and performance in computer-supported collaborative learning environments. In D. H. Schunk & J. A. Greene (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2nd ed., pp. 285–303). Routledge.

Soffel, J. (2016, March 10). Ten 21st-century skills every student needs. World Economic Forum.

TED-Ed. (2016, February 22). How miscommunication happens (and how to avoid it) – Katherine Hampsten [Video]. YouTube.

University of Victoria. (n.d.). Using competencies.

Young, M. E. (2016). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques (6th ed.). Pearson.