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Unified in learning –

separated by space
Case study of a global learning

Martin Rehm

Abstract: The growth of available online learning programmes has

created a wide range of new ways for global organizations to train
their staff effectively. Previously, global training entailed substantial
costs for organizations – costs that had to be endured if the
knowledge and skills of the workforce were to be updated. In this
context, virtual ‘communities of learning’, defined as groups of people
engaging in the collaborative learning and reflective practice involved in
transformative learning, are of increasing interest for global
organizations because of their potential usefulness in workplace
practice and training. This article examines how a community of
learning has been developed and implemented for 174 staff from 81
offices worldwide of a large international organization by facilitating the
collaborative exchange of knowledge and experience. Based on the
participants’ perceptions, several key insights are provided that should
be taken into account when engaging in community of learning

Keywords: communities of learning; global organizations; workforce

training; online learning; collaborative learning

Martin Rehm is with the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, University of

Maastricht, Kapoenstraat 2, 6211 KW Maastricht, The Netherlands. E-mail:

New possibilities for global organizations costs for the organization. Moreover, with people
having to travel physically to training venues for short
As the availability of new online learning programmes periods, there was limited scope to benefit from a truly
and tools is constantly increasing, global organizations international exchange of experience and insights. Now,
can choose from a wide range of new ways to train their organizations can readily create virtual communities of
workforce effectively. In the past, global learning practice (CoPs) (Wenger, 1998) to teach and train their
programmes were often associated with substantial costs staff. In essence, CoPs constitute ‘groups of people who
which had to be endured if the knowledge and skills of share a concern, set of problems or passion about a topic
the workforce were to be updated. Employees had to and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this
leave their work stations, creating direct and indirect area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger et al,

INDUSTRY & HIGHER EDUCATION Vol 23, No 4, August 2009, pp 331–341

Unified in learning – separated by space

2002, p 4). Given the availability and flexibility of such From communities of practice to
communities, there has been a notable increase in the communities of learning
occurrence of workplace practice and training (Schlager
et al, 2002), partly fuelled by the growing need in Virtual CoPs belong to the most important and popular
organizations to provide new skills and knowledge for e-learning methodologies that have been developed in
employees in order to retain their competitive edge the field of professional training in recent years (Allan
(Bassi et al, 1998). International organizations therefore and Lewis, 2006; Constant et al, 1996). Numerous
seem increasingly interested in setting up learning organizations have implemented such communities, as
initiatives related to their existing communities of conceptualized by Lave and Wenger (1991), to enhance
practice (Brown et al, 1989). It is widely acknowledged the capacity of their staff (Amin and Roberts, 2006;
that the creation of such initiatives can be greatly Cousin and Deepwell, 2005; Fox, 2000; Gannon-Leary
supported by developing and implementing ‘situated and Fontainha, 2007; Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001; Kelly
learning’ (Amin and Roberts, 2006; Bernard et al, 2007; Moule, 2006; Schlager et al, 2002; Schwen
et al, 2000; Billet, 1996; Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, and Hara, 2003; Stacey et al, 2004; Wenger, 1998;
2007; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Savery and Duffy, 1995; Wenger et al, 2002). Among the noteworthy attributes
Woods and Ebersole, 2003). In this context, ‘situated of such communities are: they naturally evolve in the
learning’ describes a situation in which people workplace, they do not exhibit clearly defined
collaboratively engage with real-life problems and cases boundaries and they provide participants with a high
that are placed in their everyday working environment. degree of participatory freedom. As appealing as it
Examples of such learning situations include face-to- might be, however, scholars have argued that the
face workshops and apprenticeship-style job training. concept is not really applicable to formal learning
Given the increased importance of and demand for programmes (Fowler and Mayes, 1999). Unlike CoPs,
CoPs, much work has already been done on identifying learning programmes are designed for a specific
success factors (see, for example: Amin and Roberts, purpose, are limited to a certain timeframe and are
2006; Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007; Huang, accessible only to an exclusive group of participants
2002; Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001; Smith, 2001; (Nachmias et al, 2000).
Wenger, 1998; Woods and Ebersole, 2003). However, Following this train of thought, scholars promoted
there has been concern that CoPs may not be suited to a shift towards ‘managed communities of practice’
formal learning programmes (Fowler and Mayes, 1999). (see, for example, Allan and Lewis, 2006; Lewis and
Furthermore, recent research on CoPs has been based on Allan, 2004; Swan et al, 2002). One specific
experimental groups from the educational sector or derivative of this movement is the notion of the
communities with very similar background ‘community of learning’ (CoL) (Stacey et al, 2004).
characteristics (Chalmers and Keown, 2006; Hara et al, A CoL is defined as a group of people ‘engaging in
2000). Moreover, only limited research has been collaborative learning and reflective practice involved
conducted on formal global learning programmes. in transformative learning’ (Paloff and Pratt, 2003,
Consequently, this article will introduce an p 17). The main additions and adjustments of this
adjusted methodological framework which takes into approach can be expressed as three broad factors.
account the specific requirements of formal learning First, it acknowledges that organizational learning
programmes. It will then examine how this requires a certain amount of structure if it is to work
framework has been implemented in a global learning effectively and yield the envisaged results. With no
programme for a large international organization (IO) clearly defined boundaries and time limits,
involving participants with diverse educational and participants may well lack the necessary drive to
professional backgrounds. Finally, a range of participate actively, share their knowledge and expand
descriptive statistics is provided on the frequency their expertise. Second, CoLs incorporate into the
with which educational tools such as asynchronous methodology the facilitation of participants by support
discussion forums were used on the course and on staff: this adds another dimension of structure and
how it was perceived by the participants, both before support that are of vital importance for organizational
and after completion. This examination provides training initiatives. Finally, given the official nature of
possible answers to the underlying research question: such training programmes, any kind of contribution
how can global organizations effectively design and within the community will automatically be checked
implement communities of learning for their and validated, and this eventually legitimizes all
international staff? These answers in turn help to newly gained knowledge and expertise. Thus different
identify key aspects that should be taken into account considerations need to be taken into account when
when engaging in such learning initiatives. developing and implementing such a community.


Unified in learning – separated by space

Summarizing these efforts, and acknowledging the comparable to sharing ‘autobiographies’ and engaging
wide range of similarities with CoPs, Amin and Roberts in ‘online socialization’ (Smith, 2001) which generally
(2006) have developed a comprehensive overview of takes the form of introducing oneself to the community
five issues that need to be addressed. First, CoLs should and sharing personal information. This process can
allow for an open dialogue that is not necessarily contribute substantially to the success of a CoL as it
constrained by the borders of the organization. In other creates a sense of belonging and trust (Gannon-Leary
words, they should specifically introduce the and Fontainha, 2007) and encourages participants to feel
opportunity to engage in discussion with ‘outsiders’, comfortable about contributing actively to the CoL.
who will confront participants with an alternative point Similar to expectations for the previous issue, the
of view and challenge them to rethink, or rephrase their importance of including informal discussion spaces
current views. As the IO’s staff must collaborate on a should be supported by a high level of activity within
daily basis with external partners who often have a the chosen collaborative learning tool. Finally,
different vocabulary and a different approach to participants should be challenged by real-life and
problems and situations, this is also of great importance. current problems. It is the task of the designers to
If participants are exposed to the differing views of combine familiar aspects of daily routines with the
colleagues and academic staff, and at the same time are challenges of new concepts, theories and mechanisms.
taught the underlying principles, this can make a This issue relates to the notion of situated learning
valuable contribution to the overall learning outcomes. (Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001; Lave and Wenger, 1991).
If this aspect were properly incorporated into a CoL, Moreover, Huang (2002) suggests that this approach is
one would expect to see a high intensity of usage of the especially important for adult learners who want to
chosen collaborative learning tool. Second, participants apply the new knowledge in their working environment
will differ in their level of participation and this while at the same time linking it to their practical
participation will change over the course of the experience. If the course design is effective in this
programme. This is an inherent characteristic of respect, one would expect to find a high level of
professional participants, as they will remain a vibrant appreciation for this type of assignment among
part of their working environment during the participants, as it will assist them in contextualizing
programme. Consequently, it is crucial to design a their newly gained knowledge and skills.
structure that allows for periods of absence which have In addition, and to some extent following on from the
consequences neither for the overall group nor for the above, it has proven beneficial to incorporate insights
performance of the individual. One solution is to and findings from the ‘online remedial teaching model’
incorporate collaborative learning tools, such as developed by Rienties et al (2006) (see also Brants and
asynchronous discussion forums, to cater for this need. Struyven, 2009). This model suggests four aspects that
In this context, one would expect to see fluctuating should be taken into account in setting up any type of
levels of activity in the discussion forums rather than a online, collaborative learning programme. First,
constant level of input. Third, any CoL should provide participants should be able to access information and
both public and private community spaces. The actively participate in the programme at any time. This
inclusion of public spaces will facilitate the overall is of great importance, as it allows participants to access
exchange of knowledge and the creation of a shared the learning programme irrespective of time and place.
repertoire of common resources and tools. The private Secondly, virtual learning environments (VLEs) should
spaces allow for a more social type of communication allow for an individualized learning path to cater for
between participants, and also between educators and possible differences in participants’ prior knowledge
participants. This creates a degree of ‘commonality’ levels, learning styles and preferences. Third, and in line
(Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001) which can help with concepts such as ‘social constructivism’
participants to identify the purpose of the collaboration (Vygotsky, 1978) and ‘situated cognition’ (Brown, et al,
(Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007) and to establish 1989; Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001), online learning
and strengthen personal ties and relations. In either case, courses should stimulate interaction between
if well received by participants, one would expect that participants via the intensive use of communication
both types of forums would be actively used, again tools, such as discussion forums, to bridge the
reflected in a high intensity of usage of the chosen geographical distance between them. Again, this will
collaborative learning tool. Fourth, and very closely not only aid the dialogue between the participants
linked to the last issue, Amin and Roberts (2006) point themselves, but it will also enhance communication
to the importance of including spaces for informal with the academic staff. Finally, students should always
discussions, where participants can create an ‘electronic receive rapid feedback. As identified by Vrasidas and
personality’ (Woods and Ebersole, 2003). This is Zembylas (2003), this will both enhance the interaction


Unified in learning – separated by space

Table 1. Average number of contributions per type of discussion forum and content.

Public space 12.43 10.43 4.29 4.36 1.86 0.50 0.43 21.86 10.43 11.43
Private space 10.80 47.20 25.33 35.93 46.73 42.33 19.60 217.13 47.20 169.93

Notes: LC=learning community; N=number of participants; CF=informal discussion forum; CDF=content-driven forum. The average
values for ‘Public spaces’ have been calculated so as to correct for the larger number of ‘Private spaces’. The average values for
‘Private spaces’ have been calculated on the basis of fourteen separate ‘learning communities’.

between staff and students in general and increase the way it created a ‘level playing field’ for the second
students’ overall performance. However, the initial phase, in which the participants faced real challenges
set-up of this model was based on the characteristics of in putting all the aspects into perspective and
regular students in higher education. implementing them in real-life scenarios. The
The remainder of this article focuses on how these introductory stage of the e-learning phase enabled
methodological considerations have been put into participants to become accustomed to the structure and
practice in a global community of learning for a large content, as well as the virtual learning environment
international organization. Moreover, by providing (VLE) which hosted all the required activities of the
empirical results on the intensity of usage of phase. Familiarity with the virtual environment has been
collaborative learning tools, such as asynchronous deemed important by researchers such as Kelly et al
discussion forums (Table 1), as well as on participants’ (2007), who identified a lack of experience in using ICT
perceptions of the quality of the CoL (Table 2), key among adult learners. Additionally, Gannon-Leary and
elements can be identified for global organizations to Fontainha (2007) stipulate that many professionals are
design and implement CoLs effectively for their ‘strategic users’ of IT: that is, they are very capable of
international staff. using standard text-processing and data-processing
packages, but encounter difficulties when working with
more advanced online tools.
Method Given the above considerations, the e-learning
Setting phase required a VLE that was able not only to host
The learning programme under examination was all the required ‘static’ content materials and
provided for a large international organization and was supporting documents, but also to provide an
implemented from June to December 2007. Its ultimate opportunity for participants to engage in active
objective was to secure the effectiveness of the IO in its discussions, sharing ideas and experiences. As a
daily practice by enhancing the capacity and skills of its result, a Blackboard© powered VLE was chosen,
staff. In addition, as the world is continuously changing which encompassed a wide range of characteristics
and new analyses and solutions are constantly needed, that would help to foster the crucial elements of an
the IO wanted to train their middle and senior managers effectively working community of learning. More
so that they could operate in this environment. In terms specifically, it allowed participants to complete online
of content, the learning programme focused on updating quizzes, providing automatic feedback on the results
participants’ understanding of new assessments of (Rienties et al, 2006). Furthermore, Blackboard
familiar problems and on introducing vocabulary and incorporates interactive communication tools, such as
theories currently used in problem analysis. The asynchronous discussion forums that can contribute
programme adopted a blended learning approach and substantially to open dialogue and collaborative work
was divided into two main phases – e-learning and on real-life cases and tasks irrespective of time and
face-to-face. This article ignores the face-to-face part place. This also allowed for more personal and
of the programme and concentrates on the e-learning informal exchanges between participants (Amin and
phase. Roberts, 2006). The overall workload for participants
was estimated at five hours per week. In general, the
Purpose and structure of the e-learning phase content was oriented towards the five focal areas of
The duration of the e-learning phase was fourteen the entire programme. Each area constituted a content
weeks. Given the interdisciplinary background of the module that comprised lecture(s), readings, quizzes
participants, its purpose was to impart or refresh basic and task, which were collaboratively solved in online
knowledge of the programme’s central topics. In this discussion groups.


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Table 2. Participants’ end evaluation of the e-learning phase.

Domain Question M SD
AS The pre-assessment was a good test to show me what I did and did not know. 5.5 1.69
AS The online assessments during the e-learning phase gave me a good picture of what I still had to study. 5.64 1.33
CD The content of the e-learning phase was inspiring. 5.49 1.62
CD The structure of the e-learning phase was good. 5.44 1.37
CD The content of the e-learning phase was appropriate. 5.31 1.38
CD The e-learning phase was well-organized. 5.18 1.54
CD The time allocated was sufficient to study the subject matter. 3.58 1.88
CD Please provide an overall grade for the quality of the e-learning phase (scale 1–10). 7.07 1.58
CM The quality of the e-learning materials was good. 5.36 1.48
CM The e-learning materials motivated me to keep up with the subject matter. 5.53 1.55
CM The basic reading list helped me to study the content of the e-learning phase. 5.95 1.28
CM The applied reading list helped me to study the content of the e-learning phase. 5.93 1.11
CM The level of the applied reading list was appropriate. 5.55 1.19
CM The applied reading list was too difficult. 4.07 1.69
CM The amount of required reading was too much. 4.61 1.88
CoL I have been encouraged to cooperate more effectively with my colleagues worldwide. 4.86 1.39
CoL It was a nice possibility to meet colleagues from other offices online. 5.02 1.39
CoL I have adjusted my skills to play a more active role within the organization. 5.27 1.55
CoL I am more able to cooperate with other organizations. 5.11 1.57
CoL I am more able to participate in the translation of the organization’s global commitments into effective 5.32 1.60
policies for our clients.
CoL I will get better results in my career. 5.30 1.39
GC The group in which I participated functioned well. 4.59 1.78
GC I think I have learned more during the e-learning phase through collaboration with others than I would 4.66 1.92
have learned, if I had to work alone.
GC I participated actively in the online discussions (within the learning community). 5.16 1.51
GC I think I contributed to the discussions with valuable comments and suggestions for others. 5.09 1.43
GT The goals of the e-learning phase were clear to me. 5.67 0.90
GT It was clear to me what was expected of me during the e-learning phase. 5.36 1.23
GT The assignments/tasks stimulated me to collaborate with the other group members (in the learning 4.67 1.55
GT The assignments/tasks stimulated me to study. 5.76 1.26
IN The academic facilitators were enthusiastic in coaching our learning community. 4.95 1.93
IN I expected the academic facilitators to take a more active role in the learning process. 4.59 2.22
IN The academic facilitators encouraged the participation of all group members in the online group 5.07 1.85
discussions (learning community).
IN The lectures were of good quality. 5.57 1.59
IN The lectures helped me to study the materials. 5.52 1.27
IN Please provide an overall grade for the functioning of the academic e-learning team (scale 1–10). 7.11 1.97
LS The e-learning phase of this learning programme was a valuable learning experience. 6.16 1.36
LS It was fun that I could attend the e-learning phase via the Internet. 4.91 1.69
LS I am satisfied with what I learned in terms of knowledge. 5.60 1.30
LS I am satisfied with what I learned in terms of insights. 5.42 1.51
LS I have improved my evidence-based analysis skills. 5.34 1.16
LS I have learned how to use an evidence-based approach. 4.89 1.65
– On average, how many hours per week did you work on the e-learning phase of this learning 8.20 6.69

Note: n=89 (51.5%). AS=‘Assessment’; CD=‘Course design’; CM=‘Course material’; CoL=‘Community of learning’; GC=‘Group
collaboration’; GT=‘Goals and tasks’; IN=‘Instruction’; LS=‘Learning satisfaction’.

Online discussion groups. Online discussion groups (2006). The public, programme-wide space facilitated a
were the backbone of the entire e-learning phase and general exchange of knowledge for all participants, and
were divided into a general public space and many involvement in it was voluntary. The private spaces
private spaces, as recommended by Amin and Roberts were made up of fourteen separate ‘learning


Unified in learning – separated by space

Figure 1. Example of an asynchronous discussion forum within a learning community.

communities’, each consisting of about twelve were created, with more senior staff sharing their
randomly-assigned participants. Both spaces contained knowledge with junior colleagues and the junior
asynchronous discussion forums, in which participants colleagues introducing new thoughts and ideas to the
could openly discuss the content of the modules (see organization. To facilitate the discussions, a team of
Figure 1). academic staff was assigned to each learning
In addition, two different types of forums were community, monitoring discussions and answering
available. One specifically focused on group-building content-related questions. They also acted as ‘sparring
processes and was entitled ‘Café Talk – Personal partners’, challenging participants to rethink their
Information’. Here, people could introduce themselves, current practices and implement the newly-gained
post pictures and indulge in informal chit-chat (Figure knowledge in their working environment (Amin and
2). This forum helped to foster the creation of trust and Roberts, 2006). Involvement in the content-driven
a ‘common identity’ (Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001; forums was obligatory. The contributions were graded
Woods and Ebersole, 2003). The other was content- by the academic staff and accounted for 50% of the final
driven: each focal area was assigned an individual grade for the e-learning phase. Finally, to accommodate
discussion forum, which was based on a practical, the busy schedules of the participants and to ensure that
real-life task, taken from the actual working everyone had an opportunity to participate actively in all
environment of the participants. The challenge for discussions, all the forums remained accessible
participants was to apply the newly-gained knowledge throughout the entire e-learning phase.
to the supposedly familiar surroundings. This
constituted a type of ‘neo-apprenticeship style learning’ Participants
(Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007), and stimulated Two hundred and ten participants from 81 offices
interaction between colleagues from different worldwide started the e-learning phase. Unfortunately,
backgrounds. Figure 3 provides an overview of what due to unforeseen circumstances and heavy work
such discussions looked like and how they evolved. In schedules, 22 participants (10.48%) had to drop out,
this framework, experts were not necessarily defined on leaving a total of 174 participants who completed the
the basis of explicit knowledge but more along the lines e-learning phase. The gender distribution of the
of tenure and tacit knowledge. By providing these remaining group was slightly in favour of females
forums, ‘spillover-effects’ (Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001) (52.9%) and the average age was 44.4 years. With


Unified in learning – separated by space

Figure 2. Example of a ‘Café Talk – Personal Info’ discussion forum within a learning community.
Note: Names have been removed to ensure anonymity.

Figure 3. Example of a content-driven discussion forum within a learning community.

Note: Names have been removed to ensure anonymity.


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regard to educational background, the majority of the valuable information to help us determine whether and
participants held a Master’s degree (68.2%), 17.3% had to what extent the selected methodological framework
a PhD, 9.2% had a Bachelor’s degree and 5.3% had had been effective. There were 42 questions, subdivided
other degrees. Their degree subjects included, among into six categories, and the questionnaire was
others, Engineering, Health Sciences, Sociology, administered with a seven-point Likert scale in which 1
International Law and Geography. denoted ‘strongly disagree’ and 7 denoted ‘strongly
agree’. The six categories were: ‘Assessment’ (two
Instruments questions), ‘Course design’ (six questions), ‘Course
Expectations and goals before the start of the e-learning material’ (seven questions), ‘Community of learning’
phase. Before the start of the e-learning phase, (six questions), ‘Group collaboration’ (four questions),
participants were asked about their expectations and ‘Goals and tasks’ (four questions), ‘Instruction’ (six
goals via an online questionnaire. This instrument was questions) and ‘Learning satisfaction’ (six questions). In
based on a previous version developed at Maastricht addition, participants were asked to indicate the average
University (Giesbers et al, 2009; Rienties et al, 2006) number of hours they had spent per week on the
and included some adjustments to fit the context of e-learning phase and there was also an open question for
working professionals. It comprised 24 questions, comments. With the exception of ‘Community of
subdivided into four categories, and was administered learning’, which was introduced specifically to
with a seven-point Likert scale in which 1 denoted ‘not investigate the fit of the methodological framework,
true for me at all’ to 7 denoted ‘completely true for me’. these categories were again identical to those of Rienties
The four categories were identical to those developed et al (2006). The response rate was 51% – this low rate
by Rienties et al (2006): ‘Reasons to join the course’ is likely to have been caused by the short time between
(six questions), ‘Course design’ (four questions), the end of the e-learning phase and the subsequent
‘Expectations and goals’ (ten questions) and ‘Group residential workshop.
collaboration’ (four questions). The response rate was
94%. The purpose of this questionnaire was to establish
an overview of the ex-ante situation before the Results
participants were exposed to the content and structure of
Prior evaluation
the e-learning phase, including their attitude towards the
scheduled collaborative activities. Briefly summarizing the main results of the prior
evaluation, it can be stated that the staff of the
Intensity of use of discussion forums. Given the central international organization participated mainly to fill
role of the online discussion groups and their structural gaps in their knowledge and skills. Moreover,
importance within the methodological framework, participation also seemed to be related to a desire to
specific attention was paid to the intensity with which improve career prospects. The participants’ attitudes
they were used. In the current study, this was measured towards group collaboration were generally positive, as
by counting the number of contributions to the public they believed they would achieve better results by
and private discussions forums. The purpose here was working collaboratively than by individual effort. With
to estimate the extent to which participants openly regard to the course design, there was a considerable
discussed content-related topics. Moreover, to appreciation that the e-learning phase could be followed
investigate the importance of providing spaces for online irrespective of time and place. Overall, then,
informal discussion, the distribution between the these results provide some preliminary evidence that the
informal and the content-driven forums was chosen structure and methodological framework
determined. constituted a fair representation of what the adult
learners expected and wanted from a virtual community
Satisfaction after the e-learning phase. At the end of
of learning.
the e-learning phase, participants’ satisfaction was
estimated via another online questionnaire. Like the
pre-course evaluation, this was an adapted version of a Intensity of use
questionnaire specifically developed to evaluate similar Table 1 shows the intensity of use of the different types
learning initiatives at Maastricht University (Giesbers of discussion forum available to participants. As
et al, 2009; Rienties et al, 2006). The underlying indicated in the theoretical section of this article, a high
motivation was to estimate how aspects such as the level of activity in these forums would provide evidence
quality of the real-life tasks, the facilitation of the for the importance of incorporating public and private
discussion forums and the overall structure of the phase spaces, as well as spaces for informal discussion. On
were perceived by the participants. This provided average, 21.86 messages were contributed to the public


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forums, compared to 217.13 messages in the private e-learning phase to be appropriate and this translated
learning communities. This finding is roughly into respectable scores for both its structure and content.
comparable to the outcomes noted by Rienties et al The only noticeable drawback was the amount of time
(in press), who conducted a similar study on an online required to prepare for the programme. In contrast to the
course in economics for incoming Bachelor’s students envisaged five hours per week, participants spent on
at Maastricht University. The finding also provides a average eight hours per week on the e-learning phase.
first indication of the perceived values of the different Participants were generally satisfied with the ‘Course
types of forum. Although both types were well-received materials’ (CM), but the results for the ‘Community of
by the participants and contributed to an open dialogue, learning’ category were more ambiguous. Although the
informal communication was more pronounced in the participants felt that the course would lead to better
public spaces. The private learning communities, on career achievements, which was in line with their
the other hand, were used mainly to engage in content- expectations prior to the programme, they were only
driven discussions. Interestingly, there were also partially convinced that they would be more able
substantial differences in the number of contributions to cooperate effectively with other organizations. And
the various content-driven forums, with the forums in although the initial evidence is promising, there is still
focal area three experiencing the highest degree of room for improvement if the CoL is genuinely to
participation – this is noteworthy, as these discussions stimulate collaboration among participants from
were mainly active around the middle of the e-learning different offices and regions.
phase. Thus it seems that the participatory levels of As has been stated, a major objective of the course
individual participants will vary over the course of the was to stimulate active discussion among participants,
e-learning phase. Similarly, it is interesting to compare leading to a degree of ‘neo-apprenticeship style
participants’ engagement in the informal discussion learning’ (Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007).
forums, which were designed to stimulate a feeling of However, judging from the results for the ‘Goals and
‘commonality’ (Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001), with their tasks’ (GT) category, participants felt only mildly
engagement in the content-driven forums, which were stimulated to collaborate with their peers in order to
for the discussion of newly-gained knowledge and complete the tasks. This finding is supported by
aimed to foster a ‘neo-apprenticeship style learning’ responses to the questions in the ‘Group collaboration’
(Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007). With the (GC) category. Although participants had indicated in
exception of the public space, where the distribution of their pre-course responses that they expected to learn
messages was roughly equal between the two types collaboratively rather than individually, they were not
of forum, the content-driven forums were the centre of convinced that the e-learning phase had fully capitalized
attention in the learning communities. This finding on this aspect and had stimulated them to engage fully
can be compared with that in a study by Schellens in discussions with their peers. With regard to
and Valcke (2005), who conducted a more thorough ‘Instruction’ (IN), the participants were generally
content analysis of asynchronous discussion groups satisfied with the performance of the online facilitators
among students of a freshman course in ‘Instructional and appreciated their enthusiasm in supporting them
Science’. They found a higher proportion of throughout the discussions. However, they indicated
content-related communication than of informal that the facilitators should have taken a more active role
discussions. in the guiding discussions.

End evaluation
Table 2 presents the results of the end evaluation. Summary and discussion
Overall, on a scale from 1 (‘very bad’) to ‘10’ (very In this study, the notion of the ‘community of learning’
good), the e-learning phase was positively evaluated, in was used to assess the perceived effectiveness of a
terms of both quality (M=7.07, SD=1.58) and global learning programme. It has been argued, from the
supporting staff (M=7.11, SD=1.97). More specifically, theoretical perspective, that the incorporation of the idea
the results of the category ‘Learning satisfaction’ (LS) of communities of learning into an online course will
clearly indicate that the participants had a positive increase its success. Starting from this perspective and
attitude towards the outcomes, indicating that the building on an ‘Online Remedial Teaching Model’, five
e-learning phase had been valuable and had provided key factors were taken into account in organizing the
them with a better understanding of new concepts and e-learning phase that were considered important in
methods which they could apply in their work. This stimulating an effective and successful CoL. First, an
finding is strengthened by the fact that the participants open dialogue should be encouraged between all
generally perceived the ‘Course design’ (CD) of the participating parties. Second, adult learners are likely to


Unified in learning – separated by space

exhibit fluctuating levels of participation, due to their Limitations and future research
busy work schedules, and an effective CoL should cater
for this. Third, participants should have access to both This study has three main shortcomings that should be
public and private spaces. This will facilitate the taken into account when interpreting the data and
creation of a shared repertoire of resources and tools drawing conclusions for the validity of the theoretical
and will allow participants to develop a degree of framework of communities of learning. First, the
‘commonality’ (Hung and Der-Thanq, 2001). Fourth, analysis is descriptive and is based largely on the
participants need spaces for informal discussion to subjective perceptions of participants about content,
create a sense of belonging and trust, which is necessary structure and outcomes. Although this certainly provides
if they are to share information and contribute to the a valuable first impression, it captures only part of the
CoL. Finally, and reflecting the concept of ‘situated picture. Moreover, the completion rate of the end-of-
learning’, adult learners will benefit greatly from course questionnaire was rather low, and this makes it
working on real-life and current problems to which more difficult to generalize the findings over the entire
they can relate. experimental population. Similarly, the majority of
Overall, the study confirms the importance of those the evaluation scores show considerable standard
five factors. Moreover, judging from the evaluation deviations, which again pose difficulties in interpreting
scores and intensity of use statistics discussed above, the results. However, based on confirmatory Cronbach
their implementation was successfully accomplished in alphas, the conclusions drawn from the data can
this case. The participants clearly indicated that they nevertheless be considered as representative.
had found the programme a valuable learning Second, this study focuses on the e-learning phase
experience and that they belived it would assist them in and does not consider any data from the face-to-face
their future careers. The predominant role of online workshop or the overall results of the global learning
discussions and the collaborative work on real-life tasks programme. Thus the picture is not a complete one and
were also highly appreciated – providing more evidence certain aspects may be neglected that would have
that CoLs provide an effective means for international become apparent only at a later stage. In addition, the
organizations to engage their staff in training initiatives learning programme was also provided in 2006 and
and capacity building activities. again in 2009. It would be interesting to compare the
On the other hand, two findings indicate the need for three cohorts and their respective evaluations and thus
some critical adjustments. First, the actual workload and to ascertain whether there any significant differences
the time required to complete all the activities were between them.
underestimated. This created difficulties for participants Third, in trying to assess the empirical relevance
in preparing for activities and finding the time to of ‘open dialogue’, ‘public and private spaces’ and
contribute actively to the discussions. One possible ‘informal discussions’, once again only descriptive
solution is to inform the participants’ supervisors more data were used. Thus, while establishing a first
fully about the dimensions of the learning programme, understanding of the general validity of the concepts,
so that participants are better able to combine their a more thorough investigation is needed. Future
studies with their regular work obligations. research should employ a more detailed multi-method
Alternatively, the content of the course could be approach to analyse the structure and dynamics of
reviewed to reduce its coverage – but this would the private learning communities and how these
probably have a negative impact on its quality, which might have an impact on the learning outcomes.
would not be in anyone’s interest. More specifically, by employing both Social Network
The second area for improvement relates to the Analysis (see, for example, De Laat et al, 2007) and
facilitation of the discussion forums. Although online Cognitive Presence studies (Garrison et al, 1999;
facilitators received positive scores, participants Schellens and Valcke, 2005), valuable insights could
indicated that they should have taken a more active be gathered on how organizational structures affect
role in the learning process. There is also room for the group dynamics and outcomes of professional
improvement in stimulating participants to collaborate communities of learning. In relation to ‘neo-
fully with their colleagues in the forums. On one hand, apprenticeship style learning’, this would not only
this could be achieved by adjusting the real-life tasks provide opportunities for organizations to capitalize
such that collaboration was more necessary. At the same more fully on their internal stock of practical experience
time, online facilitators could be instructed to become and tacit knowledge, but would also help towards a
more proactive, effectively stimulating discussions and better understanding of how to compose learning
encouraging participants to exchange their views and communities that will achieve the highest possible
ideas on various topics. learning outcomes.


Unified in learning – separated by space

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