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Teaching and Learning Through Online Collaboration

Since 1998, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has integrated collaboration software based on Documentum’s eRoom into the school’s learning environment. Faculty members in all 11 Wharton academic departments utilized Wharton’s collaborative courseware environment in over 400 courses each year, teaching more than 6,900 students across all of the school’s curricula.

Keeping Focused
A major revamp of Wharton’s MBA curriculum emphasized collaboration and teamwork as a key component of the learning process. Wharton’s IT staff selected its course support software strategy to reinforce that aim. With tools to do project work asynchronously—from anywhere at any time—each group’s face time could focus on brainstorming and other interpersonal learning activities.

The Wharton School built a custom learning environment based on eRoom. It offered easy adoption by faculty, strong collaboration tools, and the ability to integrate with the school’s existing authentication system—so students could use the usernames and passwords they use for other online services at the school. Having observed students commandeering tables in the school’s cafés and lounges for group meetings, Wharton chose the name webCafé as the internal “brand name” for this Web-based collaborative environment.

An instructor can get started quickly by uploading syllabi or readings prepared as PDF or Word documents. As the semester proceeds, lecture slides and supplemental files added by the instructor are automatically indexed for searching and are summarized in a nightly e-mail and sent to the members of that class. Discussions, used heavily in courses with problem sets, allow questions from individual students to be answered for the whole class.

Wharton’s webCafé support team established a practice of creating “electronic rooms” (eRooms for courses) based on a common template with designated areas for discussions, links to other sites, and folders for individual or group projects. Within the project folders, students post and review drafts of papers or presentations, make comments on works-in-process, and use eRoom’s native versioning and progress tracking capabilities. Students can use the access-control feature to make project folders private; an additional private folder, visible only to the teaching team, provides a staging area for new content.

Supporting Learning Needs

Other key features emerged through subsequent development efforts. eRoom’s API (application program interface) allows the team to develop custom capabilities through Windows Scripting, Active Server Pages, and Component Object Model-based applications. The team’s first API project automatically synchronized course eRoom membership with class enrollment. The custom enrollment program also allowed instructors who teach the same class several times a day (in related sections in different departments or programs) to use a single shared room—a feature lacking in many course management software applications.

Wharton soon began using the API not just for administrative tools but also to add new features for learning support. A Team Signup tool helps students quickly assemble into teams and gain access to automatically created private team folders. A custom-developed Grade Book tool allows faculty to use eRoom’s Database feature (for displaying information in rows and columns) to enter grades for students securely within a private folder. A student-accessible My Grades link allows each student to see only his or her grades. Additional teaching tools, such as quizzes and evaluation forms, have been added to the environment by using eRoom’s API to integrate third-party tools such as Cogix ViewsFlash survey software.

Driving Success
A key to the success of Wharton’s webCafé platform has been the willingness of faculty to incorporate collaboration-based learning tools into their courses. Through a related initiative called the Alfred P. West, Jr. Learning Lab, Wharton developers work with faculty to create experiential-based collaborative learning exercises that incorporate real-world scenarios. At Wharton, the faculty, students, and IT staff are prepared to meet the collision course of collaboration and learning head-on.

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