Moving from individual contribution to group learning: The early years of the Apache Web server

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Information Science and Technology


Kevin Crowston


Individual contribution, Group learning, Apache, Web server, Open source

Subject Categories

Library and Information Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Open Source Software (OSS) groups, by their very nature (distributed, often voluntary, and having a potentially large number of submitted bug reports and fixes from outside of the core-development team) experience many benefits and challenges with respect to the core group's effectiveness. In order to capitalize on the benefits and minimize the challenges, OSS groups must learn not only on the individual level, but also on the group level. OSS groups learn by integrating individual contributions into the group's product and processes. This study addressed a gap in the literature by providing an interdisciplinary theoretical framework to explain the process through which distributed groups such as OSS groups learn. The framework used an input-process output-structure that integrated four research areas: organizational learning, shared mental models, group research, and asynchronous learning networks. Input variables included group design (compositions, tasks and formal structure), rules and procedures, and shared mental models. Processes included group maintenance and task management activities through individual contributions. Output variables included: changes in rules and shared mental models, and individual satisfaction and perceived learning.

This study utilized an embedded single case study design that observed and analyzed group learning processes from mailing lists in the Apache Web server OSS project. The study used learning opportunity episodes as the embedded unit of analysis and developed and utilized three content analytic schemes to describe the characteristics of the learning process and the factors affecting this process.

This study had both theoretical and pragmatic implications. The theoretical implications of this research raised new insights into the study of learning in distributed work groups, and addressed several issues concerning the definition, content, outcome and process of learning in these groups. This research presented various practical implications for OSS groups, other software-development groups, and distributed groups in general, in both educational and work settings.


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