Although new technologies have the potential to change the ways in which students interact with their tutors and each other, the adoption of new technologies in higher education has been limited. For some academics transferring their teaching materials to digital format, such as documents and slide shows, and presenting them on a virtual learning environment (VLE) is a big step towards embracing the new technologies. Rapid progress in information and communication technologies (ICT) and in the development of tools to enable online communication, can change the ways in which students learn, including online learning, both as individuals and through collaboration with other learners. In this paper we review two cases of online peer evaluation of web sites and multimedia presentations, as examples of collaborative activities, which have contributed to our understanding of online learning activities, and led to the development of a dedicated online portal for carrying out collaborative activities.
Collaborative learning has been widely researched and is now part of the 21st century educational lexicon (Alavi & Leidner, 2001). Collaborative and cooperative learning approaches are examples of social learning where learners communicate with the tutor and other learners as they undertake tasks or projects in which learning and cognition can be situated. Situations can be seen as co-producing knowledge through activity (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), and where (as is usually the case) group activity occurs, dialogue and communication are important activities in this co-production. Vygotsky, a Russian educational psychologist who worked in the early 20th century, recognised the social nature of learning. Vygotsky identified the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where students can complete tasks, with the help of a teacher or more experienced peers that they would be unable to complete alone (Vygotsky, 1978). Group diversity in terms of knowledge and experience contributes positively to the learning process. The peer support system makes it possible for the learner to internalise both external knowledge and critical thinking skills and to convert them into tools for intellectual functioning (Gokhale, 1995).
Distinctions can be drawn between collaborative and cooperative learning approaches. Whilst both approaches involve learners working together to achieve an outcome, collaborative learning is a more student-centred approach where learners share in the creation of a joint solution, whereas cooperative learning involves processes whereby the task is divided into sub-tasks done by different learners(Curtis & Lawson, 2001; Panitz, 1996). True collaborative learning requires significant interdependence between learners (Hung & Chen, 2001) and relies on dialogue and other interactions between learners. Thus we can see that the degree of collaboration relies on the jointness and shared ownership of the outcome and the quality of interaction during the process.
Collaborative learning can take place through computer-mediated communication (CMC), offering a new context and increased opportunities (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). Numerous studies show that computer-enabled collaborative activities can take place across all subject areas, offering a range of possibilities for improving students' academic performance (Kaye, 1992), foreign/ second language confidence (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003),development of critical skills, reflection and the ability to explain and negotiate (Cogburn, 2003). Peer review and peer evaluation, as a form of collaboration, is recognised as a very important professional duty of future specialists and aimed at "...accepting and providing objective, critical, documented review of the work of others" (Alexander, 2000). Pedagogic benefits of this form of collaboration include increased student interaction with each other and with the learning materials, but evaluators and those whose work is evaluated might have different expectations of what benefit they can gain from engaging in the activity (de Abreu Moreira & da Silva, 2003). …