With our increasingly mobile lifestyles, online collaborative learning is now a necessity. Virtual teams are formed by diverse members often located far away from each other, in different parts of an organization, different organizations, and sometimes different countries. How is online collaboration similar to or different from face-to-face collaboration, and what are the requirements and technologies that result in optimum online collaboration? While there are many similarities, the main difference between online and face-to-face collaboration is probably that online learning is about integrating various sources of knowledge acquired from wide social networks and sources, rather than merely knowledge acquisition, as recognized in the contemporary theory of learning called connectivism . In this view, effective learners are those who can best handle vast quantities of sometimes contradictory information, and who can actively create and sustain collaborative networks. Learning is not anymore something that happens only inside a person’s head, but something that encompasses connections and tight bonds within large communities of learners [1, 2], which often lead to higher levels of complexity and self-organization, i.e., group learning that is of much higher value than merely summing the individual parts. However, not everything is optimum in online learning, and some participants experience frustrations due to asymmetric collaboration caused by an imbalance in the level of commitment and the quality of the individual contributions, lack of shared goals, or difficulties communicating or using online tools .
Some reflection is therefore needed in order to address and fix the commonly reported frustrations, and thus improve motivation, attention and focus on the part of the students. Briefly, the online collaboration can be improved by (1) appropriate organization and planning on the side of instructors, and (2) by selecting the most suitable information technologies [4, 5].
(Point 1) Appropriate online course organization can be achieved if:
- The purpose, expectations and assessment of the group project are explicit and clear.
- Specific instructions and ground rules for proper participation are provided.
- Due dates allow for sufficient time for the students to get used to working together and develop optimum working relationships.
- Working groups are small to guarantee active participation from members.
- Instructors are readily available to answer questions and orient the students.
- Instructors provide specific and not too general information, which is relevant to carry out the collaborative project.
(Point 2) Most suitable technologies should meet specific standards, and some examples are given [4, 5]:
- The collaborative work should be enjoyable, and therefore multimedia information (videos, blogs, images, quizzes) could improve collaboration.
- ProofHub: allows for group chat, and sharing files and information.
- MindMeister: allows planning, brainstorming on a mind map, live chat, synchronous and asynchronous tools.
- Google Docs can be used for creating a document together, where changes are automatically saved, and which allows seeing who made changes.
- BigMarker: web conferencing service using webinars which can be both synchronous or asynchronous.
- SlideRocket: tool to create collaborative presentations.
- Skype: provides voice, video, screen sharing, instant messaging, and direct file transfers.
- Google hangouts: video and chat facility.
- LinkedIn: when some team members need help for a task, instead of sending an e-mail to a single colleague, they have an established LinkedIn network and they ask for help there.
- Blogging is a type of virtual grouping. It is a site for discussion and information sharing about a particular topic. In blogs, individuals discuss a specific topic and others can leave comments, ask questions and start a discussion. Although blogs are not actually virtual teams, teams often explore blogs to seek out information related to their work groups.
Our ONL class provides a good example of how a great number of the above mentioned approaches have been put in practice. Regarding the course organization (Point 1), I think that one of the keys to the success of the ONL course is the splitting of the class in small learning groups (“PBL groups”), which allowed for increased feedback and interaction among group members. The instructor and facilitator were very much available to improve collaboration and provided frequent feedback. Two points for improvement could be: first, allowing more flexible due dates for assignments, especially for the first few projects, as this would allow participants to get more used to the online tools and the PBL group dynamics. Second, somewhat filtering the amount of information given to the participants. Regarding this last point, perhaps this is just a general feature of online learning, which participants need to get used to and learn to handle complexity and quantity of information, and focus more on the connection among pieces of information and interacting with other course participants.
Regarding online tools (Point 2) used, the ONL course organizers have encouraged trying as many tools as possible, including Tricider, SlideShare, Google hangouts, Prenzi, presentation of projects in the form of videos, LinkedIn and blogs, to name just a few. I have personally learned a lot regarding the use of online tools. As online learning and collaborating is still a relatively immature field, some of these software tools present with some challenges and usability issues, which we experienced for example when tools including Google+ go through updates. As the collaborative software is rapidly expanding, time will allow for the selection of the most efficient tools that facilitate efficient and effortless learning: this is at least the hope and promise of future online collaboration.
 Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).
 Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice(pp. 179-198). Springer London.
 Capdeferro, N., & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?. The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.
 Wheelan, S. A. (2016). “Creating effective teams”. Chapter 11: “Virtual teams”. SAGE Publications, Inc., 5th edition.
 “6 online collaboration tools and strategies for boosting learning”, http://elearningindustry.com/6-online-collaboration-tools-and-strategies-boosting-learning