What is the difference between Cooperation and Collaboration?

So this week we were introduced to the conceptual differences between Cooperation and Collaboration.  Personally,  I’ve never really stopped to think about the differences. It didn’t seem like a very hard question to answer.

So I stopped and asked myself the questions “What is the difference between cooperation and collaboration? Are they different? How?” I really couldn’t  articulate a rational answer.  So I figured why not turn my Google search into a blog post for the week.

Collaborate according to the Meridian-Webster dictionary:  to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something (Merriam-Webster, 2014).

Cooperate according to the Meridian-Webster dictionary: to work with another person or group to do something  (Merriam-Webster, 2014).

So by their definitions you can see that both terms are extremely similar. One might not hesitate to even say they were synonymous.

Perhaps the question is lacking context.  Let’s explore the terms in an educational setting. According to Rockwood (Rockwood, 1995a, 1995b) 

Collaborative Learning:   In collaborative learning environments the instructor relinquishes direction and control over the learning process and empowers small groups who are often given more open-ended, complex tasks. 

Cooperative Learning:  In cooperative learning the instructor is the center of authority in the class, with group tasks usually more closed-ended and often having specific answers.

So the key difference using these two definitions and using Rockwood’s line of thinking would be that collaborative learning is a more user centered approach to teaching which empowers the learners to take control over the way they learn while still employing social elements such as cooperation.   Although cooperative learning still allows students to work together and assist one another it is more structured with the instructor controlling the direction and methods being applied.

An interesting comparison between the two terms used music as a contextual setting.  A collaborative learning environment is like a symphony.  In a symphony all of the instruments are working together to achieve a common goal. Harmonious sound.  Although there is a conductor (an instructor) his job is to guide the direction of the music not to instruct the musicians on HOW to play. In a similar context, cooperative learning might be a music lesson with a more experienced musician (a teacher) assisting a group of  less experienced musicians with the specific goal of improving their musical talents. The music teacher’s role is to provide a structured lesson plan and to control the direction of the lesson.

So it would seem that the recurring theme among these two lines of thinking is that although both take place in a group setting collaborative learning empowers the students by giving them more creative control on how they achieve the tasks they are assigned while cooperative learning is more structured with the instructor, not the student, controlling the direction / method of the learning.




Rockwood, H. S. III (1995a). “Cooperative and collaborative learning” The national teaching & learning forum, 4 (6), 8-9.

Rockwood, H. S. III (1995b). “Cooperative and collaborative learning” The national teaching & learning forum, 5 (1), 8-10.

Cooperate. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cooperate

Collaborate. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/collaborate