Web-based collaborative learning:
a perspective on the future

Karen E. Goeller

Learning Support Internet Solutions, Bellcore

Web technologies may radically alter the way in which we learn and the business model of corporate and professional training.

Human performance improvement; HPI; Internet-based learning; Web-based training; WBT

1. Introduction

Carefully structuring learning interventions can unlock the potential of effectively delivering learning through the Web. This paper examines issues relating to designing and delivering online learning.

2. How do we learn?

The matrix in Fig. 1 is becoming a popular way of categorizing today's learning interventions.

Fig. 1. Categorization of learning interventions.

Four-cell matrix showing categorization of learning interventionsSee Description

"Below the line" — offline learning

The lower half of the matrix represents "offline" learning. Students' access to knowledge is not mediated through any type of computer network, and is therefore, limited by what is physically accessible, and what the "author" chose to include.

"Above the line" — networked learning

The upper half of the matrix represents "networked" learning. The learning experience includes components connected through a computer network, enabling students to access information beyond what the author chose and collaborate effectively in building a knowledge base.

3. Implications of the changing mix

By the year 2000, the overall learning industry will increase in size, because:

As a result, it will be increasingly important to use the right mix of learning interventions, as shown in Fig. 1, to address these audiences' needs.

3.1. Below the line

Even in standalone, self-instructional and group-paced situations, two emerging capabilities make the Web browser a critical tool in providing integrated, cross-task, cross-system learning interventions:

  1. The ability to use the browser as an intelligent "front-end" for other systems, including so-called legacy applications.
  2. The emergence of the NetHelp and WebHelp standards.

The browser's flexibility (i.e., its ability to function without a full-fledged HTTP server) enables it to reach both the desktop and classroom. Even when using the traditional classroom setting, these technologies enhance learning and support future job performance (presuming that the employee maintains access to these tools while on the work site).

3.2. Above the line

The browser's power, coupled with network access, expands the possibilities to include:

The traditional learning situation's goal is to bring students up to a pre-determined, acceptable level of understanding/performance. The goal in the collaboratory setting is for students to continually redefine that acceptable performance level, and continuously build a knowledge base. As team members participate and share their knowledge, the knowledge base increases and members continue to benefit, even though they are already high-performing experts in their field.

3.3. Implications of collaborative learning

The biggest issue challenging collaborative learning — and especially networked collaborative learning — is that Western business, social, and academic culture is ruggedly individualistic. Education's focus is on individual performance while employment performance assessment is based almost exclusively on individual performance.

Furthermore, the move to a knowledge-based economy is increasing incentive for people to hoard knowledge — just as a materials-based economy rewards for people for hoarding material goods.

These issues must be resolved to breach the barrier to collaboration. Recognition measures must focus more on collaboration, such as including teams in the reward process, while recognizing that on a highly-functional team, the most critical roles are not always the most visible.

Also, the academic community must explicity teach and model teamwork throughout the educational process. While individual competence is critical, it must increasingly be measured in a group-based context. In other words, technically competent students are actually deficient if they cannot apply that competence in a team setting.

4. Summary

Radical shifts are occurring in how learning and information is delivered. Networked delivery is becoming increasingly critical to strategies targeting individual needs and preferences in information format and content. As tools such as Web-based collaboratories mature, they provide a means to deliver information and enable robust interaction between individuals and groups. This, in turn, will impact how people learn and work.

However, as we move toward this more robust learning/working model, we also need to change how business and academia measure success. Without these underlying cultural changes, people will continue to be rewarded for non-collaborative behaviors, rather than being encouraged to collaborate in building knowledge bases.