Collaborative Learning in Saudi Arabia


Collaborative learning is a general term used among education stakeholders. It describes the process of learners and their teachers joining hands in looking for solutions or making efforts to understand concepts and create new ideas. Learners may work in small groups constituting classes, faculties, interfaculty and even inter-schools. The model is a paradigm shift from the conventional setups where the teacher acts as the source of all knowledge, and the learner only functions as a recipient.

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This new module creates a platform for learners to explore and investigate information learnt from different sources and, probably, try to analyse and understand its applicability. The method does not necessarily take away the teacher’s function but aims at incorporating the input of the learner into the learning process. The students take notes and also listen to the tutor following given instructions. Still, the room is created for discussions and interaction among the learners involving them actively rather than passively in the course work. According to the saying, ‘brain is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited’.

This model places the teacher in the position of a coach, and the student is meant to become a player (Barbara & Jean, 1992). Saudi Arabia and many other countries have adopted this system into their education sector following successes associated with the model. However, there are challenges facing the model, especially in implementation. This paper will analyse collaborative learning in Saudi Arabia, the history of learning, its status and impact as a part of teaching and learning developments adopted by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Literature Review

Types of Learning in General

Learning is defined as the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, or the modification of existing behaviours and values. Learning occurs through education and training. This process has become central in human life as the demand for new skills to solve emerging challenges continues rising. Governments are investing large portions of their budgets into the education sector to ensure citizens to have all the skills required to drive dynamic economies.

Over the years, education has been undergoing major transformations all over the world as new models are created to match with emerging issues. Today, the general types of learning in use include informal learning which is acquired through the daily experiences such as playing and interacting with family members, friends or colleagues at the place of work (Kanevsky, 2011). Another commonly used mode of learning is the non-formal model.

It is carried out in a setting that is not formal but not informally done. It is manifested in situations such as workshops, seminars and associations where people meet and exchange useful ideas. In most instances, the participants acquire knowledge from these platforms relevant in their day to day lives (Tomlinson, Kaplan, Renzulli, Purcell, Leppien, & Burns, 2001).

Formal school systems are also incorporating non-formal methods into the curriculum to break classwork monotony. The formal learning model is the most common worldwide and entails a tutor delivering knowledge to a learner in an organised setting such as school. Other less important learning methods, but in the common application in day to day life, include tangential learning which involves learning by people in an informal setting and enjoyable way.

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For instance, an educative video clip is more attractive to many people and may influence their behaviours more readily than listening to the same information from another source such as a radio (Mercer, Wegerif & Dawes, 1999).

Habituation is also classified as a type of learning by following a repetitive stimulus. It is a common learning skill in young children. Through continued repetition in behaviour, children learn and adopt behaviours as they are taught by their parents and other elder members of society. This may be compared to associative learning. However, associative learning is attached to reward associated with a deed. For instance, a young child when punished for a certain act is more likely to avoid repeating it, and similarly, if rewarded or encouraged for a good deed, he/she will learn to appreciate such acts. Observational learning also termed as emulation is a very common learning technique which is used in many daily activities. It is easy to learn as the learner can associate the goals, action and the resulting outcome (Kagan, 2001).

Rote learning involves cramming or memorising without necessarily bothering to know the underlying complexities or explanations. The learner gains knowledge through repetition and recalls the information at the appropriate time. This method is applied in formal settings, too, in subjects such as arithmetic and religion. This method has always faced criticism from psychology experts. Enculturation involves learning from the surrounding environment.

This type of learning is acquired through personal orientation by observing what people around are doing. It entails learning languages, values, and other cultural norms in the society where the students live. E-learning is a modern learning platform based on the internet. Through this, one can acquire information from different parts of the world and communicate with them. In the current century, this learning mode has acquired precedence due to changing lifestyles and advancement in technology.

Through this model, learners acquire knowledge that would not have been possible to access in their locality. Multimedia learning is also a common learning module. By combining visual and auditory elements, information is passed from one part to another. The use of teleconferencing facilities is gaining popularity as a new way of teaching (Davydov, 1999).

Through continued transformations in the education sector, it has become evident that the use of formal learning techniques where the teacher avails all necessary information to the learner is redundant and kills creativity. This has seen the encouragement and initiation of a new model described as active learning. In this setup, the learner is placed at the centre of the learning process and allowed to be in full control of the learning process. The learner is offered to express his/her opinions in the learning process and propose the best possible methods of gaining knowledge. The method also encourages the learner to understand and comprehend concepts from their own perspectives. Psychology experts claim that the method makes learning more creative, real and result oriented (Wolff-Michael, 2004).

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is a conglomeration of approaches which are aimed at ensuring that a learner participates fully in the learning process. The easiest description of this mode of learning is group work. This kind of work is interspersed with teacher-student classwork and lecturing and note-taking. The time allocated for classwork and out of class work is well designed and balanced to ensure that the learner has adequate time to go through what he/she has learnt in class in group work with others. This allows them to digest the information, interpret and make inferences on whatever data they learnt. The targets of collaborative learning may differ from one setting to another.

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The study group may be formed to achieve a specific short term goal as it happens in universities or may come together to tackle and address a complex issue as directed by the tutors. The students may also initiate the collaborative learning approach among themselves to address their own interests and tackle questions. The agenda of collaborative learning may be focused on producing results or simply taking part in a process or engaging in improving one another’s academic progress (Barbara & Jean, 1992).

Difference between collaborative and cooperative learning

Collaborative learning is often confused with a cooperative one; however, there exists a marked difference between the two notions. Collaborative learning entails combined efforts among learners or between learners and their teachers in education. In this model, groups assume almost all the responsibility in running the group’s affairs; for instance, the group takes the initiative to seek sources of materials to gain information.

In such a case, a teacher only comes in to assess the progress of the group and offer the appropriate advice. This is aimed at ensuring a more comprehensive understanding and elaborate solving of arising problems. The learners may interact face-to-face or through computer-based models. The combined effort may be a joint project or specified delegation of duties and roles (Dillenbourg, 1999).

On the other hand, cooperative learning is a teaching strategy which brings together learners with different abilities and incorporates several learning and teaching activities to ensure that learners better understand their school work. The teacher, therefore, still has the full control of the class and only designates the roles to particular groups to achieve various targets of the coursework. The teacher may even help the learners to acquire sources of information and also facilitate their presentation of concepts and search of information to the whole class.

The groups are created in such a way that responsibility is equally distributed among the group members so that each member of the group learns to understand the process and at the same time ensures that all others are aware of it too to create a sense of togetherness and achievement. The group is so closely knit that any allocated homework is done thoroughly to ensure that each member of the group clearly understands it. In other words, a mutual benefit for all is the core value of the group because through recognising that the group members are bound together by one fate, they see that any success or failure will affect all of them (Rupert, Karen, Lyn, Neil & Denise, 2004).

This learning model is commonly used in schoolwork to improve a learner’s self-esteem and ability to relate with one another. Cooperative learning also facilitates the achievement of more academic success by the learners and enhanced satisfaction as they go through their learning process. The learners are also able to learn and improve their communication and social skills. Cooperative learning is only beneficial to the learners if used in certain cases. It is more successful if applied in building self-interdependence. This ensures that each group member contributes to the group’s goals in a unique way.

Through cooperative learning, learners gain skills such as leadership and conflict resolution abilities, team building and independent decision making. The face-to-face platform provided by cooperative learning helps learners to discuss concepts freely and, therefore, perfect their oral skills, and connect well with their peers. The model improves individual and group accountability. This is easy to achieve by forming small groups where each individual plays an active role in teamwork, and it is possible to give an individual test to each learner. Group processing is also encouraged since members can discuss ways of achieving their goals as well as setting targets and find workable solutions to the problems facing the group as a unit (Kanevsky, 2011).

According to Spencer Kagan, cooperative learning can be effectively applied in classwork through different models. She classifies them like a jigsaw, in which each group member is assigned a particular area to learn and then teach other group members on the same.

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The learners are then tested on whether they grasped concepts. The second model termed ‘numbered heads together’ is meant that different numbers are assigned to members from each group so that each group has a number one, a number two and so on. Once the teacher asks a question pointing to a particular number, a member of a group with a particular number is supposed to answer. The answers are then compared, and this gives each member an opportunity to have a chance to answer the questions verbally and individually (Kagan, 2001).


The use of collaborative learning is applied today in many areas. In most professional education approaches, the discussion is strongly used as a tool to deliver knowledge. The use of simulations and guided cases gives learners the platform to indulge in complex analysis of emerging problems. The learner is, therefore, able to acquire the ability to solve problems and also to make decisions. Another application of collaborative learning can be seen in writing groups.

This approach also referred to as class criticism or peer writing, is commonly applied in colleges. The learners work in groups in which they generate ideas, describe situations and carry tests on hypotheses that they develop before using them in research. This aspect of learners sharing their ideas helps them to develop skills in communication and solve complex problems individuals would not have solved (Daniels & Walker, 2001).

Peer teaching is also another form of collaborative learning. It involves learners teaching one another through different approaches such as supplemental teaching in which bright students offer tutorial services to their fellow peers in areas they are facing difficulties. In a bottom-up approach, students undergo some form of training and are then deployed to assist those in lower classes. It is referred to as the use of writing fellows. These students may assist the other less successful class learners in writing coursework papers instead of depending on tutors (Ichl & Tsang, 2010).

The establishment of learning communities in institutions of higher learning is one of the approaches in the collaborative learning model being adopted to facilitate easier understanding of subjects by students. It employs the use of curriculum-linked courses to help students interrelate among themselves as well as with the faculty. The result is increased social and intellectual interaction which helps in tackling academic challenges from numerous perspectives (Wall, 2008).

Despite the benefits described above on collaborative learning, the model is difficult to implement. The use of learners groups in the traditional education system requires an elaborate restructuring of the curriculum both in the course content and resource allocation. In most cases, the time allocated for classwork, where the teacher is giving notes and assignments is hardly enough. It is more complicated to allocate adequate time for learners to discuss and undertake group work projects. It isn’t easy to have learners mastering concepts and skills and at the same time covering syllabus content in the designated timeframe.

To adapt to this type of model might be confusing and complicated at first as it seeks to decentralise monopoly of knowledge from teachers to students and place them in almost the same level of addressing challenges and interpreting complexities as partners (Wall & Higgins, 2004).

Due to the changes in the course content and teaching program, the students face challenges on their level of competence. The structuring of groups places the student in a position where he/she is required to contribute immensely to the learning process making the learning process continuous and at times tiring. This makes collaborative learning complicated and rewarding. Most schools are reluctant to adopt this model and stick to the teacher-centred structure. The rewarding system instils in the teacher a desire to input more to achieve greater success (Emma & Ulfët, 2003).

History of Learning in Saudi Arabia

Education in Saudi Arabia was entirely traditional until the late 19th century. Religious studies such as recitation of the Holy Quran were taught from primary school level to institutions of higher learning. This was emphasised by the Wahhabi movement as a way of spreading Islam and helping believers understand the laws of Allah and live according to them. For the lower classes, the Quran rules were taught in Kuttab, a class designated only for religious studies. The tutors taught from the mosques and in other areas as well as home tutorials were carried out by professionals. The advent of secular and modern studies such as arithmetic began around the 1920s and was majorly offered by private schools (Sedgwick, 2001).

Under the Ottoman rule, foreign languages alongside the Quran recitations were emphasised. This began in the Al Ahsa and Hijaz provinces and gradually spread to other regions in the peninsula. An informal schooling structure called Halaqat existed for those who wished to continue beyond the elementary level. The Halaqat focused on teaching the Arabic language, history, basic arithmetic, literature and Qurancommentaries.

The government entered into mainstream modern education in the early 1930s. This progressed at a slow pace until a ministry of education was established in 1954. This gave the education sector the necessary impetus, and within three years of its creation, the first public university offering non-religious studies was established. Following increased awareness on human rights which for centuries had sidelined women; they were allowed to partake in formal education in 1964. This, however, still faced strong opposition from conservatives (Al-Rasheed, 2002).

The situation was so imbalanced that the ratio of boys to girls in formal education was 20:1. By 1981, the girl child percentage enrolment had risen to about forty-three, and by 1989, the number of boys and girls in school was almost at par. The general education consists of kindergarten, primary schooling for a span of six years and three years in high school. The boys and girls education falls under different authorities. The education ministry is in charge of the boys’ education while the Directorate General of Girls Education deals with the girls’ education. The ministry of higher education formed in 1975 is in charge of the universities and colleges.

The ministry has over the years developed policies and curriculum developments to meet emerging challenges. The policies have also attempted to address the inequalities in gender access to education culminating in the number of girls in public universities, colleges and elementary schools surpassing that of boys. Despite the establishment and expansion of more universities and colleges, the number of students accessing education is still inhibited to some extent (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2007).

In the face of these challenges, the government developed policies christened the Fourth and Fifth Development Plans that aimed to address emerging modifications in particular higher education opportunities for women. Another area to be addressed by the Development Plans was technological advancement to catch up with global trends as well as develop social and economic studies to help locals gain skills to run the economy which for years had been dominated by foreign workers.

This plan, however, faced many challenges, the most outstanding being the number of school dropouts, especially by the boys. This necessitated a curriculum review to make education more appealing. In 1985, a program dubbed ‘developed secondary education’ incorporated more practical work in interest areas of students, a paradigm shift from the conventional theory-based studies. The structure allowed students to concentrate in any area of interest from among Islamic studies, natural sciences and administrative sciences after successfully completing the general program which included mathematics, religion, English, science, computer studies and social sciences (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2007).

The Saudi government commitment to transform the education sector was not declined. Higher education, for instance, receives substantial funding from the government to help develop a knowledge-based society as envisioned by the king. The government has diversified the number of courses on offer in these institutions and even established campuses in the diaspora. Among the courses, the campuses offer to study agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, arts, education studies, medical and engineering sciences and public administration. The strict Islamic laws, however, deny women to pursue any engineering related studies.

The government has embraced technology in its learning programs. More collaboration now exists between Saudi universities and external universities. By expanding the curriculum baseline, the number of students seeking to study outside the country has sharply dropped (Al-Rasheed, 2002).

The use of the E-learning platform has revolutionised learning in Saudi Arabia. Through its collaborative learning model, it has been easy to implement benefit to thousands of learners in the country. The E-learning portal has encouraged effective networking between students and faculty as well as among students. These collaborative efforts have helped students solve complex problems affecting society. Different universities also collaborate in research within and without Saudi Arabia. Policymakers noting the influence of collaborative learning that it has on the education sector adopted it as part of teaching and learning development in the country (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2007).

Collaborative learning in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government attaches strong importance to education and has been in the process of adopting the collaborative learning model into its education system as part of the teaching & learning development agenda which was initiated in the last decade. From 2001 to 2003, reforms implemented in the education sector were aimed at enhancing a more comprehensive learning environment. The government’s interest in e-learning has created the portal to facilitate collaborative learning.

Millions of dollars of the US funding have been injected into e-learning programs to make education in the country easy to access and enhance more collaboration among learners. Collaborative learning environment creates convenience and flexibility since learners can allocate duties among themselves and solve them together in group work settings (Cordesman, 2003).

The use of collaborative learning strategies has helped students to save precious time as they tackle complex projects together instead of individually. Through the groups, more learners open up socially and acquire communication skills. The group accountability makes individuals more responsible and fearless in confronting even the most complex challenges. Through collaborative learning, the ministry of education has promoted the gifted and talented children in schools by establishing a new department to focus on their projects. The department under the patron ship of King Abdulaziz is called the Foundation for Gifted and Talented, which aims to build special schools. These schools serve as incubation hubs where the learners generate ideas and actualise these concepts, some even to commercial levels, through the guidance from experts (Cordesman, 2003).

As a generally Arabic speaking country, the citizenry is opened up to the world. This has been enhanced by the government’s plan to allow the use of the almost universal English language. Many of the public and private schools are, therefore, teaching English as a second language (ESL). Since there are no defined ways to gauge a learner’s ability in comprehending the English language, the collaborative learning approach has been found the most effective model.

English as a universal language is a means of communicating, and therefore, it is only in group work that this can be perfected. An individualistic approach would not benefit any student since he/she does not have an opportunity to identify mistakes on their own. From earlier studies by linguists, learning a second language is more effective if and when more interaction is encouraged. The use of this model in Saudi Arabia has seen more learners perfect their communication skills and can now effectively participate in the international arena, for example, in inter-university-exchange programs (Sedgwick, 2001).

The method has its own challenges as well. The restructuring of the teaching methodology requires gradual and properly done research of all the benefits and negative effects. It entails changing a student’s mentality about school work. The recently created university of science and technology which aims to be a pedestal of research in the Middle East will definitely require such a model to ensure students collaborate effectively if their projects are to be quickly converted into economically via endeavours. The weakness of this method is lack of self-motivation of the majority of the students.

This has rendered the groups ineffective, and most students are opting for the traditional model. The government must, therefore, ensure that the model is implemented successfully in all public learning institutions. The rapidly expanding higher education in Saudi Arabia is faced with challenges of qualified faculty who may not be trained on how to implement the collaborative teaching-learning model effectively. In this era of technology, the government needs to embrace the use of communication technology (ICT) for successful collaboration to take place. The challenge to this is the widespread lack of expertise in this area. Instructional designers, as well as most universities, lack educational technology directorates. This, among many other factors, has made collaborative learning elusive to most learners in Saudi Arabia (Cordesman, 2003).

Theories of collaborative learning

Scholars have developed different theories to explain how collaborative learning can be of benefit towards the improvement of the educational and psychological wellbeing of learners. The theories are classified as cognitive, motivational and social constructivism. According to cognitive theory, the learner can only acquire, retain and comprehend knowledge if it is presented in a conceptual framework. Thus, by placing the learner in a group, he/she will have an opportunity better to understand concepts in collaboration with other group members and also learn new conceptual constructs (Vivacqua, Gutwin & Borges, 2011).

The motivational theory argues that collaborative learning creates a motivating environment for learners. This is cultivated by the inherent structuring of the group, which counts on the whole group’s success as opposed to individual performance. This, therefore, motivates group members not only to learn but also help other group members to learn to ensure they all achieve success. The desire to achieve success as a group acts as the driving force behind the motivation (Dillenbourg, 1999).

Another theory of the influence of collaborative learning on a learner is the social constructivism theory. This is based on the concept that a social platform must be created first before knowledge can be internalised or constructive framework established among the students. The theory states that only through continued and sustained social interactions, a framework can be established to relate to a new environment and subsequently acquire the necessary knowledge (Cooper & Robinson, 1998).

Arguments still rage among different schools of thought on whether collaborative learning is superior to traditional learning models. Some argue that the theories proposed about collaborative learning may present wrong facts. Though there is evidence on some collaborative learning methods being superior in promotion of cooperation than in traditional settings, research has shown that this is more effective in lower elementary grades (Olson & Dobrin, S, 1994).

The collaborative learning model’s problems range from the promotion of an authoritarian levelling through peer pressure. This can be compared to social engineering practised under communist societies. The collaborative structures in use in the school setting are not in line with the real state of affairs outside the school environment. This means that to achieve the social element goals as set out in collaborative learning. There must be wide-ranging changes not only in the school system but also in the society outside. Moreover, even innovations in attitude adjustment and restructuring programs are not entirely enough to bring changes in education (Cooper &Robinson, 1998).

Collaborative learning poses a potential danger to learners’ advancement since it encourages conformity, levelling down quality and elements of intimidation. This is because the system demands that the groups must agree on whatever project they are undertaking to present a common round or arrive at an answer based on consensus as opposed to intellectual independence. This challenge can be overcome through the creation of a demanding academic environment where the learners are given some independence to express their ideas and challenge what the group may be advocating for (Olson & Dobrin, 1994).


Numerous researches have shown that collaborative learning has a positive impact on the performance of learners as it allows them to develop skills in communication and cognitive components. Learners have shown improved attitude towards classwork, and the ability to involve in constructive discussions and to analyse situations critically. The adoption of the model in Saudi Arabia is set to revolutionise education in the country. However, whether collaborative learning is the most appropriate technique in learning requires more evidence before arbitrary adoption.


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