Use Collaborative Learning to Educate & Engage

By Jacob Marquez

Take a four hour bus ride from Guatemala City, the most populous city in Central America, and you will find yourself in a hidden small town paradise with a population of 13,000 people named San Pedro La Laguna. Located on the southwestern shore of Lago de Atitlan, another possible route of arriving to this beautiful countryside involves crossing the lake by a 45 minute boat ride from Panachel. If you’re the adventurous type, I suggest the latter path.

Descendants of the Tz’utujil Maya tribe remain a huge part of the ecosystem in San Pedro. They are known for their adherence to traditional cultural values, including farming of coffee and corn. Many of these traditions were passed along through active observation and engagement with community activities. Most of this occurred in a collaborative environment where children and adults were equals. Each took turns being the observer and the teacher, learning and building upon each other’s ideas in a shared endeavors approach. This social learning technique continues within their community today.

What is Collaborative Learning?

The scientific term for this is “Collaborative Learning”. It is defined as “a relationship among learners that requires positive interdependence, individual accountability, interpersonal skills, social interactions, and processing”. It is rooted in Vygotsky’s views of the process of learning being an innately social one – a belief that also contributed to his Zone of Proximal Development model.

Collaborative learning is proven to be highly effective and results in a number of social, psychological, and educational benefits. These include more exposure to diverse ideas and improved engagement and retention. Through active group conversations, participants are able to learn from other’s experiences and incorporate those into their own understanding of a particular topic.

Collaborative Learning in Health

The concept of collaborative learning can be applied to the realm of health and help improve education and patient engagement. Through conversations with care providers and group discussions with similar others, patients will be able to attain more knowledge around their particular health state or disease. These activities can happen either in person or online. Here are several examples of collaborative learning that are taking place currently.

Social Media

Social media has become a place where people can have discussions and get quick answers to their questions on any topic. In the realm of healthcare, it can be used as a mode of educating and engaging patients. In fact, recent PWC survey found that 1 in 3 people use social media for health discussions.

Health organizations can use social media to monitor and participate in these discussions, providing professional advice to and engaging with current, or future, patients. The social media and content team at Cleveland Clinic does an amazing job of this, receiving national recognition for their ability to create content that is both valuable and engaging. Furthermore, it can be used as a method for improving health literacy, so patients can obtain a better understanding of relevant health information and services.

Online Patient Communities

1 in 4 people living with a chronic disease have gone online in search of people with similar health conditions. Coined Peer-to-Peer Healthcare, the internet and other technologies give patients another medium for information, as well as a way to find and help each other. This is especially important for connecting individuals with a rare disease or who live in locations where a support group may not otherwise exist.

Online patient communities, such as PatientsLikeMe and COPD360social, provide a forum for patients to make more informed decisions about their health through having discussions with and learning from the experiences of similar others.

There has been controversy around selling health data obtained from online patient communities to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. However, this data is helpful in steering health research towards providing personalized medications and other interventions to individuals with a rare disease or sub-populations of a major chronic disease.


The internet has also transformed the patient-provider relationship in a way that makes it an open dialogue. Specifically, blogs allow providers to have an ongoing conversation with their patients, rather than episodic interactions based on scheduled appointments.

Similar to online patient communities and social media networks, providers can share their expertise on a particular subject and patients are able to engage back via comments and social sharing. 33charts, a health and technology blog by Bryan Vartabedian – pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital, is a great example of how a blog can be used as an open dialogue to discuss health and healthcare-related issues.


Similar to the collaborative learning environment of the Tzu’utujil Maya, social media networks, online patient communities, and blogs each allow a medium for patients to be active contributors to discussions and their own health. This leads to a better understanding of their health or chronic condition through engaging with similar others and their care community.

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