Background Collaborative learning is a group learning approach in which positive social interdependence within a group is key to better learning performance and future attitudes toward team practice. Recent attempts to replace a face-to-face environment with an online one have been developed using information communication technology. However, this raises the concern that online collaborative learning (OCL) may reduce positive social interdependence. Therefore, this study aimed to compare the degree of social interdependence in OCL with face-to-face environments and clarify aspects that affect social interdependence in OCL. Methods We conducted a crossover study comparing online and face-to-face collaborative learning environments in a clinical reasoning class using team-based learning for medical students (n = 124) in 2021. The participants were randomly assigned to two cohorts: Cohort A began in an online environment, while Cohort B began in a face-to-face environment. At the study's midpoint, the two cohorts exchanged the environments as a washout. The participants completed surveys using the social interdependence in collaborative learning scale (SOCS) to measure their perceived positive social interdependence before and after the class. Changes in the mean SOCS scores were compared using paired t-tests. Qualitative data related to the characteristics of the online environment were obtained from the focus groups and coded using thematic analysis. Results The matched-pair tests of SOCS showed significant progression between pre- and post-program scores in the online and face-to-face groups. There were no significant differences in overall SOCS scores between the two groups. Sub-analysis by subcategory showed significant improvement in boundary (discontinuities among individuals) and means interdependence (resources, roles, and tasks) in both groups, but outcome interdependence (goals and rewards) improved significantly only in the online group. Qualitative analysis revealed four major themes affecting social interdependence in OCL: communication, task-sharing process, perception of other groups, and working facilities. Conclusions There is a difference in the communication styles of students in face-to-face and online environments, and these various influences equalize the social interdependence in a face-to-face and online environment.
- Collaborative learning
- Mixed methods research
- Online learning
- Problem-based learning
- Social interdependence theory