Small Groups Learning Synchronously Online at the Workplace:
The Interaction of Factors Determining Outcome and Acceptance
(Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany
(Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Publication and Information Systems,
Abstract: E-learning at the workplace might be accomplished by
synchronous cooperative learning sessions of small groups using net-based
communication. This form of learning is suitable both for course-based
e-learning as well as for knowledge transfer within the company. The small
groups learn self-regulated, i.e. without the guidance of an instructor.
However, the learning tasks are pre-defined and a specific learning process
is precisely described. In the present study, the goal of the cooperative
learning sessions is to deepen pre-existing declarative knowledge. During
cooperative learning, group members are required to actively use, acquire,
enrich and exchange their knowledge. In a field study carried out in a
large software company, a software tool was used which supported the specific
process by phase-specific delivering of instructions and learning materials
as well as by means of process control (including turn-taking, role assignment,
and coordination of task flow). The results of the empirical evaluation
demonstrate a high amount of topic-oriented contributions and the realization
of the expected learning activities. However, feedback data indicated a
low acceptance of the software tool because of its restrictive process
control. It is discussed that there might have been a non-optimal interaction
between the factors technology and target group in the study.
Keywords: Professional Training, Workplace Learning, Computer-Supported
Cooperative Learning, Quality Assurance, Empirical Study
Categories: J.4, H.1.2, H.5.1, H.5.2, H.5.3
1.1 Learning at the Workplace
Professional training might well be enhanced by computer-supported cooperative
learning (CSCL) using the communication and information technologies that
are already present at the workplace. The same is true for the knowledge
transfer within the company. For instance, e-conferencing tools might be
used for (a) highly interactive virtual classroom training of small groups
with an instructor (as part of an e-learning course), (b) highly interactive
e-meetings of small groups with a content expert of the company (knowledge
transfer), (c) live streams of online talks and presentations which are
sent to a large number of employees (knowledge transfer), or (d) recordings
that are made by content experts of the company and that are hosted in
an e-learning library in which the recorded units can be found company-wide
However, the highly interactive forms of cooperative learning remain
cost-intensive and slow since only a small number of participants can be
trained by one instructor at a time.
In the present study, an attempt was made to introduce cooperative synchronous
online-learning in small groups at the real workplace. The learning was
self-regulated in the sense that there was no instructor or content expert
present in the online sessions. However, there was a well-defined learning
process specifically supported by a software tool, and there were tasks
for the groups developed by an e-learning author. The process support and
the tasks served the purpose of achieving predictable learning processes
of the groups.
At a first glance, those task / process restrictions stand in contrast
to the principle of "self-regulation". However, we think that
for many learning situations in professional training it is desirable to
have some control (i.e. predictability) over learning processes and the
to-be-expected learning outcomes. This is particularly true if the to-be-acquired
knowledge is well defined, which is quite likely in professional training.
Without a precise description of an online learning process for a group
in professional training, processes tend to be unpredictable and sub-optimal
([Linder, 03], [Münzer, 03]).
Furthermore, an online instructor fulfills two roles, the role of a teacher
and the role of a moderator who coordinates the learning process, controls
the turn-taking, provides the learning materials, etc. While process support
of a software tool might help with respect to the coordination of the process,
the members of a small group are quite free regarding their response to
the instructions (i.e. the execution of the intended learning activities
like asking and explaining, the fulfillment of roles assigned to them,
etc.). Finally, the matter of self-regulation also concerns cooperative
behavior among the members of a group based on attitudes and experiences
(e.g. the attitude to help another employee rather than to feel wasting
time). Thus, even if predictability of the process is intended, there is
much beyond coordination support that relies on the responsiblity of the
Predictable learning processes include predictable learning activities
of the individual group members. Furthermore, predictability should secure
that the learning tasks provided are actually processed. The method described
in the present paper is best suited for situations in which the to-be-learned
knowledge already exists in a well-defined form (e.g. learning how a new
software works, learning about new features of a company´s product,
achieving a deeper understanding of a new workflow), in contrast to situations
in which a group generates new knowledge (like in a problem solving process)
or transform knowledge (like the transformation of procedural into declarative
knowledge for purposes of documentation). Participants are asked to clarify
questions and to elaborate on the knowledge depending on their prior knowledge
and the practical problems they have to solve at their workplaces. Thereby
they learn actively, help each other, and apply the knowledge. Thus, in
the present context learning in small groups has the goal to enrich and
to support individual learning rather than to achieve shared knowledge
among group members.
If small groups learn self-regulated and cooperatively in a predictable
way, then both e-learning and knowledge transfer in a company can be rapid,
reliable and cost-effective. The method is specifically suitable if a large
number of participants have to be trained in a short period of time, since
those groups can learn in parallel once an author or content expert has
provided learning materials or documents.
However, it has to be shown that (1) the intended process in combination
with the tool support actually allows effective learning at the real workplace
and (2) is accepted by the participants in professional training. In the
present paper, the following factors, and their interactions, are described
based on an evaluation of the learning processes and on the feedback data
collected from the participants:
- Learning Context
- Instructional Design
- Target Group
We will focus on the specific learning method that is, from our point
of view, appropriate for the cooperative deepening of declarative, pre-defined
knowledge. In the present paper, we describe both the instructional design
and the software tool as well as experiences made during a field study
in a large software company in which employees learned cooperatively at
1.2 Cooperative Learning
There are a number of methods for self-regulated cooperative learning
that address the goal of understanding, rehearsing, and deepening of knowledge.
For instance, the term "peer teaching" refers to methods in which
participants take over the roles of teacher and learner and perform learning
activities such as asking certain types of questions and delivering explanations
(e.g. [King, 97]). The term "cooperation script"
also describes a well-defined chain of learning activities in which, for
instance, student dyads summarize, rehearse and elaborate on contents read
from text (e.g. [O´Donnell, 92]). Explaining
to others is a central learning activity that improves the understanding
particularly of the explainer ([Spurlin, 84]).
Recently, such methods are introduced into the field of online-learning.
The methods are specifically supported by software tools using text-based
communication or video-conferencing (e.g., [Hron, 97],
[Pfister, 02], [Pfister, 03]).
For instance, a "learning protocol" as executed by a specific
software ([Pfister, 03]) enforced participants to
relate a message to a former message, to select a pre-defined message type,
to follow a fixed order of turn-taking, and to act according to a role
description that is automatically assigned to a participant. However, these
studies were carried out in the laboratory, not in the real learning context
of professional training.
Virtual classroom / e-meeting tools are currently the standard for highly
interactive, synchronous cooperative distance learning. They are designed
both for e-conferencing and for classroom distance learning, i.e. for a
kind of learning in which an instructor teaches a group of students. Such
tools comprise of an auditory communication channel, functionality to control
the turn-taking, and a whiteboard with referencing functionality. However,
those tools are instructor / moderator-centered. Since many functionalities
are controlled solely by the instructor, including the learning materials
on the whiteboard, the administration of a learning session, and the floor
control, virtual classroom tools might not be appropriate for self-regulated,
cooperative learning of small groups. Furthermore, those tools do not support
the coordination of specific learning processes.
Synchronous text communication might be an alternative to e-conferencing.
Text-based communication (e.g. instant messaging, chat) is already widely
used on a self-regulated basis and becomes recently recognized as a valuable
workplace communication medium ([Herbsleb, 02],
[Muller, 03], [O´Neill, 03],
[Gergle, 04]). The proposal that chat is not a "rich"
medium ([Daft, 86]) might not be a problem for cooperative
learning or for workplace communication. However, some of the media characteristics
([Dennis, 99]) of conventional chat tools, particularly
the parallelism, speak against it as the communication medium for focussed
and topic-oriented communication as it is required in cooperative learning.
For instance, chat conversations often tend to be confusing. This is mainly
caused by non-observable and parallel message preparation. Studies exploring
cooperative learning in professional training using standard chat tools
demonstrated sub-optimal learning processes which were hard to predict
([Linder, 03], [Münzer, 03]).
We propose that the decisive factor for successful learning is an appropriate
process support that is implemented in a communication tool for cooperative
learning. Currently, neither e-conference tools nor text-based communication
tools support learning processes for self-regulated learning of small groups.
In contrast, the tool developed in the context of the present study has
specific process control capabilities (see below).
1.3 Learning Context, Culture and Target Group
The present study was conducted in the German software company SAP AG
(Walldorf, Germany) which operates internationally and disposes of more
than 30.000 employees. About 80 % of the employees at SAP hold an academic
degree. Employees are quite free regarding the organization of their work.
They use computer-mediated communication regularly. The training and transfer
unit SAP University organizes the formal training in the qualification
program for the employees, as well as the internal knowledge management
and the customer training. Partly, the company-specific knowledge management
is realized by the employees themselves, i.e. employees produce e-learning
units for their colleagues. The e-learning library mirrors the rapid knowledge
change in the company, and the e-learning units are widely used by the
employees on a self-regulated basis. Besides this, there exist other forms
of e-learning for fast knowledge transfer, for instance video-conferencing
with an expert for groups of about 10 to 30 employees.
Thus, there is a highly developed culture for self-regulated working
and learning in the company. Employees are used to learning at their workplaces,
searching for information and acquiring knowledge when needed. However,
self-regulated cooperative learning of small groups has rarely been realized
1.4 Instructional Design for Cooperative E-Learning
In a situation in which neither teacher nor moderator is present, the
moderator role for the organization of the learning process and the teacher
/ learner roles have to be taken over by the members of a small group themselves.
Whereas the coordination of a learning process can be supported by software
(and partly be automated, see below), the participants are required to
act according to their roles, to exchange their knowledge, to help each
This means that participants have higher responsibility for the learning
outcome than it is the case in traditional, instructor-centered teaching.
However, a well-defined instructional design (precisely describing who
should do what and when and with which materials) should help the participants
to interact successfully. The instructional design should address both
the activities of the participants as well as the coordination of the process.
The instructional design of the cooperative learning episode to be reported
here aimed at a clear and fine-grained description of the process. The
instructional design comprises, at some higher level of description, the
central learning activities that should be executed by the participants,
the different roles for participants which allow them to interact during
learning, and the phases that are characterized by intermediate goals during
the learning process. At some lower level of description, detailed problems
of coordination are solved (e.g. delivering the materials and instructions,
assignment of roles, task-flow, etc.). The lower level of description is
of particular importance if learning takes place in an online communication
The goal of the cooperative learning sessions was to deepen the conceptual
and verbalizable procedural (how-to-do) knowledge about a software program.
In general, participants learned by explaining to each other how the software
works, and what can be done to solve little problems they were presented
with. Participants explained, asked each other and elaborated mainly in
relation to screenshots of the to-be-learned software which were provided
in the learning materials or which could be made and uploaded during the
sessions by the participants themselves. Cooperative distance learning
was used to accomplish an introductory web-based software training (for
a description of the procedure, see below). The cooperative learning session
consisted of a number of well-defined tasks that were related to the contents
of the web-based course. The instructional design describes a series of
learning activities that apply for every task. Firstly, one of the participants
was assigned the role of an "explainer". The "explainer"
told the other group members about concepts and features of the software
following a role-specific instruction. He/she related his/her explanations
to the learning materials designed for this task or publish his/her own
learning materials. Secondly, there was a "commenting" phase.
When the "explainer" had finished his/her contributions, then
all group members could comment on the given explanation, they could ask
questions to the other group members, they could elaborate on the knowledge
in question, and they could publish additional learning materials. A second
instruction prompted those activities.
1.5 Support for Cooperative Learning by a Software Tool
The cooperative learning processes were realized using the software
tool Bubble-chat which was specifically developed for the present study.
A screenshot of the tool is depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The Bubble-chat tool as used in the study. (1) Status area
displaying process information (e.g. task number, active participant, role
of the participant), (2) instruction area, (3) learning materials area
(displaying a screenshot of the to-be-learned software), (4) active bubble,
(5) inactive bubble, (6) referencing feature.
The software tool provides support for cooperative learning on several
1.5.1 Providing Text-Based Communication With Observable Writing
The software tool is called Bubble-chat because of its characteristic
realization of text-based communication. Every participant owns his/her
own bubble, which is located at a fixed position in the graphical user
interface of Bubble-chat (see Fig. 1). When a participant
prepares a message, his/her typing appears (in a letter-by-letter fashion)
in his/her bubble at the graphical user interface at every participant.
Therefore, the writing activity of a participant is observed real-time
by all other participants. Bubble-chat is different from conventional chat
tools since messages are not edited before sending, and there is no message
list. However, participants can switch back and forth the former messages
of the other participants.
1.5.2 Providing Instructions and Learning Materials
There are separate areas in the graphical user interface that show instructions
and learning materials (see Fig. 1). Participants may
add own learning materials by using the snap-shot feature. The snap-shot
feature enables participants to make a screenshot from a region of their
individual desktop (the Bubble-chat tool window is taken away from the
desktop when the function is activated) and publish it in the learning
materials window. Participants may switch back and forth the materials
while the instruction is preserved.
1.5.3 Providing the Relation Between Materials and Communication Messages
The referencing feature (see Fig. 1) allows for
pointing at specific areas on the learning material, thereby establishing
the relation between the contribution and the materials. The references
are preserved and appear again when a session is re-played in the Bubble-chat
player tool or when participants switch back to a former message or to
another learning material.
1.5.4 Providing Process Control
The tool provides support both for the flow of tasks and for the flow
of the learning phases within tasks according to the instructional design
described above. More specifically, there is process control on three levels.
Firstly, on the lowest level, turn-taking is controlled. Only one participant
may be "active" at a time and therefore able to write. Secondly,
on an intermediate level, there is a phase control within a task (explanation
phase vs. clarification / elaboration phase). In the first phase of each
task, the tool selects a participant for the "explainer" role
automatically. This participant then is "active" and therefore
able to write. Thirdly, on the highest level, the tool coordinates the
flow of the tasks. Participants may suggest going to the next task by clicking
a button in the second phase. The other participants are then automatically
asked for agreement. If all agree, then the tool switches to the next task.
In combination with the task flow coordination, instructions and learning
materials are presented task-wise.
1.5.5 Providing Awareness
Awareness of the learning process is provided in an extra area in the
graphical user interface showing the task number, the phase number, and
the name of the participant who currently holds the explainer role. In
addition, awareness about the floor control is provided by the coloring
of the frame and the text field of the bubbles, indicating the active participant
(see Fig. 1).
The process support and process control capabilities of the software
tool Bubble-chat are intended to make the learning process clear and predictable,
to reduce coordinative efforts, and to avoid confusion during text-based
communication. For instance, the observability of writing provided by the
bubble view and the floor control mechanism both guarantee that the focus
of attention is always on the participant who contributes a message. The
referencing functionality avoids ambiguities and complicated reference
descriptions. The automated role assignment and the automated coordination
of task-flow both reduce coordination efforts.
2 Empirical Study
We will briefly describe the method and the evaluation results of an
empirical field study carried out at SAP. For the purpose of the present
paper, we will focus on the feedback data collected from the participants
and the implications for the quality of cooperative online learning at
2.2 Participants, Materials, and Procedure
The web-based software training was open for registered users at SAP
during a limited time of about four weeks. Six groups of two or three members
each completed the cooperative learning session 1 using Bubble-chat in
addition to the web-based training. Another three groups also began with
the learning session 1, but stopped learning before reaching the end of
the session, or used other communication channels in addition (i.e. telephone
The web-based training offered an introduction into the web design software
"Dreamweaver MX" (by Macromedia). The introductory web-based
training was developed in a department of the software company itself (SAP
Corporate Research) and it was delivered to the participants via the e-learning
platform SAP Learning Solution. The cooperative learning episodes were
realized separately using the DyCE (Dynamic Collaboration Environment;
[Tietze, 01]) groupware platform provided by the
software company go4teams GmbH (Darmstadt, Germany). The Bubble-chat tool
was developed by Fraunhofer IPSI. The web-based training consisted of two
modules with about 1 hour training time each. There were two corresponding
cooperative episodes. The cooperative learning session 2 focused on the
application of procedural knowledge and therefore followed a slightly different
instructional design. The present paper reports results obtained from the
cooperative learning session 1.
Participants were provided with technical and organizational support
concerning the installation and functioning of the Bubble-chat software
and the meeting dates. Participants attended the virtual sessions after
individual learning with th e web-based training. Before the cooperative
learning session 1 started, the groups completed a cooperative training
session in which the learning process was explained and in which they learned
to use the software tool Bubble-chat. This training session consisted of
three tasks in the Bubble-chat tool and lasted about 15 min. After completion
of the learning session 1, an online feedback questionnaire opened in the
participants´ browsers that had to be answered individually. All
participants learned at their normal work places during their work time.
2.3 Evaluation of the Cooperative Learning Process
2.3.1 Content Analysis
In order to evaluate the quality of the learning process, a content
analysis of the chat contributions of the six groups was performed. The
categories for the coding of the chat messages were derived from the instructional
design, i.e. from the intended learning activities that were prompted by
The most important coding categories therefore were explanations,
clarifications (questions, answers), and elaborations (relating
new information to prior knowledge, discussing aspects beyond the given
instruction). Contributions falling in those categories represented the
expected learning activities. Meta-comments concerning the view of a problem
(e.g. agreement to a problem description, indicating understanding and
a shared view) were counted as grounding messages. Besides this,
there were messages for the purpose of coordinating the learning process
of the group (coordinative messages). In addition, there was a category
for comments concerning the functioning of the Bubble-chat tool
or the learning situation in general. Finally, social messages (jokes,
etc.) were sorted into an own category.
The results of the content analysis of the contributions in the cooperative
learning session 1 can be summarized as follows.
- The group discourses were highly topic-oriented. On the average, 77
% of the messages in a group were topic-oriented.
- The learning activities explanations and clarifications
dominated the learning discourses. On the average, 37 % of all messages
were explanations, and 19 % of the messages were clarifications.
Contrary to the expectations, only 5 % of the messages were elaborations.
Group members expressed their shared views on a problem quite frequently
(16 % grounding messages on the average).
- On the average, only 8 % of the messages were written for the purpose
of coordinating the learning process of the group.
- Both the number of comments as well as the number of social
messages were in the range of the number of coordinative messages.
2.3.2 Task Completion
In each of the tasks, there was an instruction for the explanation phase
and a general instruction for the second commenting phase. Furthermore,
in 7 out of 8 tasks there was another hint given for further elaboration.
Thus, in the 8 different tasks, there was a total of 23 different instructional
elements given to the participants. Two raters evaluated the quality of
task completion according to the instructional elements. On the average,
18 out of 23 sub-tasks (78 %) were actually processed, and, on the average,
5 out of the 23 sub-tasks were not completely performed while only 3 out
of the 23 tasks were deepenly worked through (i.e. there was elaboration,
including discussing about aspects not covered by the instruction).
2.3.3 Participants' Feedback
The feedback data obtained from the online questionnaires show a mixed
evaluation of the Bubble-chat tool as well as of the learning process from
the participants' point of view. Only a minority of the participants agreed
with the statement that the software tool had been easy to use. Participants
commented additionally that the behavior of the tool had been somehow slow
and complicated, and that the turn-taking mechanism had been too restrictive.
Several participants recommended using the auditory modality as the main
communication channel. Most participants evaluated some of the tasks as
appropriate, but some others as not appropriate. Similarly, the learning
processes of their respective groups were evaluated as only partly successful
by most of the participants.
Only half of the participants got the impression of successful learning,
but the others expressed some doubt about their personal learning success.
Many participants were of the opinion that the learning process as such
had been too restrictive. Some participants wrote additionally that the
prior knowledge differed between group members. Some participants had missed
a tutor or an expert for clarifying open questions during the learning
sessions. For the organization of their learning times, participants found
the virtual learning sessions helpful, forcing them to actually learn within
the given time of about four weeks. Some participants evaluated features
and usability of the Bubble-chat tool from a software developer's perspective
in their comments.
3.1 Factors Determining the Quality of Cooperative Learning and Their
In the present study, synchronous cooperative learning episodes at the
workplace were realized in the work context of a large software company.
Small groups of two or three participants each deepened their knowledge
about how to use a specific software in virtual cooperative learning sessions.
The factors influencing the quality of learning which are considered most
important here are (1) the context, (2) the instructional design, (3) the
technology, (4) the tasks and (5) the target group. These factors, and
some of their interactions, will now be discussed (see Fig.
3.1.1 Learning Context
The necessary prerequisites of e-learning were present in the learning
context of the software company. Employees dispose of the net-based communication
means, they are able to organize their work and their learning by themselves,
and there is a widely accepted e-learning culture which serves partly as
the knowledge management of the company. However, at the time of the study,
synchronous cooperative distance learning was not widely realized.
3.1.2 Instructional Design
The instructional design aimed at predictable learning processes of
the small groups. The intended learning activities, i.e. explanation,
clarification, and elaboration, were explicitly prompted
in a structured way. In general, results show that the learning discourses
of the groups were highly predictable and topic-oriented. The instructional
design as realized in the present study was particularly successful in
eliciting explanations as well as clarifications, but it was less successful
in eliciting elaborations.
The instructional design was implemented in a software tool which controlled
the process on several levels, thereby maximizing the predictability of
the learning process and reducing the coordinative effort of the group
- General effect of process control for coordination. Since the
content analysis demonstrated a very small number of coordinative messages,
it is concluded that the process control implemented in the tool worked
successfully, at least for the purpose of reducing coordinative efforts.
During the learning process, there seemed to be little need for coordination
or moderation when communicating with Bubble-chat.
- Task selection and shared focus. Since the process control comprises
a task flow, tasks are successively selected and presented by the software
as they are prepared by the author of the cooperative learning session.
Coordination for a task shift is automated. There is no freedom to select
tasks and leave tasks out. This might guarantee some engagement and work
on all of the tasks. Furthermore, an automated task flow with instructions
and materials that cannot be selected by participants individually guarantees
a shared focus among the group members. A shared focus is reflected in
the results of the content analysis both by the amount of clarifications
as well as by a considerable amount of grounding messages. Finally, agreement
of all participants was required for moving on to the next task. There
was no possibility for a single participant to direct the attention of
the group, or to dominate the process. This had the effect that coordinative
messages contained polite questions for agreement, in accordance with the
- Roles and phases. Another factor that might have contributed
to predictable learning activities is the process control for the instructional
design within a task, which was realized mainly by an automated role assignment
for the "explainer" and the subdivision of a task into two separate
phases ("explaining" and "commenting" phase). It might
be assumed that automated role assignment reduced coordinative efforts
(i.e. coordinating who will begin with an explanation). However, it is
not clear as yet whether the implemented process control on this level
actually contributed to the predictability of learning since controlling
roles and phases interacts both with the actual tasks (instructing what
has to be explained and clarified) and the target group (being experienced
with self-regulation). For instance, the finding that explanations and
clarifications, but not elaborations were successfully elicited presumably
results from an interaction of task and instructional design. The feedback
of the participants that the process control was too restrictive presumably
results from an interaction between target group and implemented process
- Turn-taking. The implemented control on turn-taking generally
received low acceptance by the participants.
As the results demonstrate, some of the tasks were not completely performed,
and the number of deepenly performed tasks was rather small (corresponding
to the small number of elaboration messages found in the content analysis).
This finding may relate to the feedback given by the participants that
not all of the tasks seemed to be appropriate. However, it is difficult
to draw conclusions about the quality of the tasks, since different groups
preferred different tasks.
Depending on prior knowledge, as well as on individual experiences with
the to-be-learned software, the groups might have decided which tasks were
easy, which were difficult, and which were worth the investment of deep
and complete work. However, there was no conscious and explicit decision
process concerning the selection of important tasks in the groups.
3.1.5 Target Group
The employees of the software company dispose of highly developed self-regulatory
abilities. This is also reflected by the work conditions provided in the
context (see above). The topic-orientation that was observed in this study
may rely mainly on attributes of the target group, too. The detailed comments
concerning features of the Bubble-chat tool given by the participants may
reflect their expertise as employees of a software company.
3.1.6 Interaction of Instructional Design and Technology
The instructional design is quite specifically reflected in the process
control capabilities of the Bubble-chat tool. Results indicate that such
a fine-grained and specific fit between instructional design and technology
lead to predictable cooperative learning processes. The tool successfully
controlled the process, coordinative effort was reduced, and most of the
intended learning activities were found in the content analysis.
3.1.7 Interaction of Instructional Design / Technology and Target Group
Participants' feedback indicates that the process control was too restrictive
for them. Thus, there might be some non-optimal interaction between instructional
design / technology on the one hand and the target group on the other hand.
The self-regulated working at the software company seems not to be reflected
in the instructional design and the process for group learning. However,
to work successfully on a self-regulated basis does not necessarily mean
to learn successfully in a self-regulated small group. The conclusion of
a prior study on cooperative distance learning conducted in the same context
([Münzer, 03]) was that there was an explicit
process missing, resulting in unpredictable outcomes. Therefore, a way
has to be found to reach some predictability of group learning and especially
to support coordination but not to make participants feel uncomfortable
because of a too restrictive control of the process. In particular, the
process control functions that provide a coordinated task flow and a shared
focus (highest level) should be preserved while there should be no control
over the flow of communication (turn-taking, lowest level). For the specific
target group addressed here, the process control over role assignment and
learning phases (intermediate level) might not be necessary. Nevertheless,
for participants who are less experienced in self-regulated working and
learning this level of process control might be helpful.
3.1.8 Tasks and Target Group
There was an interaction between the tasks and some preferences for
the selection of tasks by groups or individual participants. Tasks were
treated differently by different groups, and prior knowledge was not the
same for all participants. This was surprising since the web-based training
was announced for beginners. The tasks were thought to be most effective
for participants with homogeneous prior knowledge.
Figure 2: Factors determining the quality of the cooperative
learning process and their interactions as found in the study. Dotted lines
indicate non-optimal interactions.
3.2 Recommendations for Redesign
Some recommendations for the redesign of the learning process as well
as of the software tool can be given on the basis of the present evaluation.
- A list of the tasks (with brief descriptions) could be provided. Before
a group starts working on the first task, the participants may inspect
the list and judge the relevance and the level of difficulty of the tasks.
Then the group members decide on the priority of the tasks. Different views
on tasks and problems (and thereby different prior knowledge among group
members) would be detected during this explicit selection process. Furthermore,
participants may add own questions to the list. However, these suggestions
may mean that some tasks will be left out because participants might just
have the illusion of already knowing. As a consequence, possible questions
would remain undetected.
- There might be some changes in tool features to decrease the control
over the process. For instance, instead of a fixed turn-taking procedure,
a "hand-raise"-feature might be more appropriate for solving
the turn-taking problem. Another possibility is to open all the bubbles
for parallel writing. Independent of sorting the task list according to
the participants´ priorities, as recommended above, the tool should
coordinate the task flow.
- Solutions to all tasks might be provided after the learning session,
and content experts might be asked for answers to all the questions that
could not be clarified by the participants themselves. Those questions
could be collected in a separate list during the session, and that list
could automatically be sent to an expert after the session via e-mail.
Additionally, tutors may inspect the group learning off-line for evaluation
and feedback purposes. Another possibility is that a tutor or content expert,
who is virtually available on the internet, may visit a group who asks
for help. However, it is not necessary to have a tutor in the actual session
who manages the learning process and instructs the participants for specific
- Although many participants recommended the auditory modality as the
main communication channel, it is recommended to use text-based communication
because it can easily be stored, inspected and evaluated, and feedback
can be given off-line.
In addition to improvements regarding the learning process and the tool,
the target group might learn (or might be trained) about group learning
processes. A process control which is realized by software might be understood
as support, not as restrictive control, if the instructional design for
group learning is clearly stated and accepted by the participants. Another
problem concerns different prior knowledge in a group. In the present case,
homogenous groups seem desirable. Alternatively, participants who have
prior knowledge in a group might help their colleagues, taking the role
of an expert or teacher with the motivation of transferring knowledge within
the company (instead of feeling wasting time).
In professional training, often the explicit acquisition of knowledge
and skill is the goal of learning. This is true both for course-based e-learning
as well as for the knowledge transfer within the company. The present study
demonstrated that this kind of explicit learning might well be enhanced
by synchronous CSCL using communication technologies. Cooperative learning
might especially help to transfer the knowledge which had been acquired
individually in a web-based training to the specific needs of the company,
i.e. to the specific work flows and communication processes, and to the
specific roles of the employees. For instance, company-specific work processes
using a new software might be trained in virtual learning sessions as described
in the present study, while a standard web-based training can be used for
the acquisition of basic knowledge. Similarly, cooperative learning can
help to achieve a deeper understanding when transferring knowledge in the
company, for instance, when members of the sales department discuss features
of a new product and apply the sales strategy to their individual situations
and customers. In addition, cooperative learning at the workplace may have
a number of positive side effects. Colleagues learn from each other and
exchange opinions, they do not feel alone while learning, they build up
formal and informal contacts, and they synchronize their learning times.
Those side effects are most likely to occur when cooperative learning is
synchronous and when the groups are small.
Using synchronous CSCL with a clearly stated learning process which
is controlled by a specific software tool makes the learning processes
of groups predictable and decreases the coordinative efforts during the
session. Although participants asked for an expert to clarify some questions
during the learning session, the tool successfully managed the learning
process. Thus, a tutor as a "learning process manager", or "instructor",
is not needed in such a learning session. This might reduce costs for cooperative
learning dramatically. Content questions might be additionally answered
off-line by an expert, and questions and answers can be published in a
We see a wide range of applications for the learning process support
as provided by the Bubble-chat tool. The process presupposes that the learning
goal is to deepen some pre-defined, conceptual, declarative knowledge,
as it is often the case in professional training. In the context of knowledge
management, Bubble-chat might also be used informally by groups of employees
who feel the need for clarifying open questions, e.g. about a new product.
However, the tool might be less useful for generating ideas, for the development
of new knowledge, for information exchange or for decision-making, or for
The present study shows a complex interaction of factors determining
the quality of cooperative online learning at the workplace. Both effect
(a predictable learning outcome) and acceptance have to be taken into account.
In particular, some attributes of the target group (e.g. self-regulatory
abilities, prior knowledge, preparation for and attitudes towards group
learning) might conflict with the control over the process that is executed
by the software tool.
Further studies are needed to find out more about an optimal fit between
instructional design, task, technology, context, and target group. These
studies should be carried out as field studies, as the present study.
We thank Jürgen Ruff and Thomas Jenewein at SAP University and
Jochen Feyock at SAP CEC Corporate Research for making the study real at
SAP. The authors thank all participants at SAP for their investment in
time and effort and especially for their valuable feedback. Bo Xiao developed
the Bubble-chat tool versions and the Bubble-chat player based on concepts
for chat CSCL software developed by Martin Mühlpfordt. We thank go4teams
GmbH, Darmstadt, Germany, for the permission to use the DyCE groupware
framework in this research. The tasks that were used in the cooperative
learning sessions were designed by Katharina Geißler. Katharina Geißler
also supported participants during the time of the study at SAP. The authors
thank Axel Guicking and Badie Garzaldeen at Fraunhofer IPSI for their help
with the installation of the software and for the collection of the feedback
data. We thank Friederike Jödick at Fraunhofer IPSI for help with
the GUI design of the Bubble-chat tool. The research described in this
paper was supported by research grant 08NM117A by the German Ministry of
Education and Research.
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