Sunday, June 24, 2012

P2P > In This Online University, Students Do the Teaching as Well as the Learning

Katherine Mangan / June 18, 2012

Two of the founders of Peer 2 Peer U., Jan Philipp Schmidt and Delia Browne. "The expertise lies in the group," he says. "Everyone brings something to the conversation."

A poet with a hankering to learn code recently teamed up with a Web developer who was curious about poetry as part of a new kind of teaching experience.

The lessons took place at Peer 2 Peer University, a three-year-old online institution where students learn together, at no charge, using materials found on the Web. The poet, Vanessa Gennarelli, and the programmer, John Britton, taught each other online, discovering unexpected bridges between their disciplines.

At a time when free online courses are enticing students with the opportunity to learn from star professors at prestigious colleges, P2PU, as it's known, is questioning whether instructors are needed at all.

The unusual institution, where anyone with a passion for a topic can set up a course, is experimenting with ways that students can navigate together through open courseware that's free on the Web.

In the process, the project is stimulating discussion in open-education circles about the evolving roles of peers and professors in the growing number of free online courses.

"The people who come to P2PU are attracted by the opportunity to take learning into their own hands and to create their own university," says Jan Philipp Schmidt, executive director and a founder of the nonprofit university, which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, as well as individual donations.


P2PU, which began offering courses in 2009, has about 33,000 registered users, with about 1,700 new users joining each month, Mr. Schmidt says. [snip]

Students can earn badges—informal alternatives to diplomas that some online programs offer—to show what they've learned, although P2PU has no accreditation.

Courses and workshops are offered by facilitators, only some of whom have teaching experience. Some are students who enjoyed their experiences in a course and decided to lead their own. But in all of the courses, the lines between teacher and student are blurred. "The expertise lies in the group," says Mr. Schmidt. "Everyone brings something to the conversation."


Hacking a Poem

The partnership between Mr. Britton and Ms. Gennarelli is an example. Last fall he signed up for a workshop that she moderated on P2PU called "Hack this Poem," in which participants took poems apart and pieced them back together to see what made them work. After stumbling across the poem "This Is Just to Say," by William Carlos Williams, on a game developer's Web site, Mr. Britton recast it as a "rage comic," which he described as "a sort of Internet meme often used to express frustration."


The product they're tweaking, unlike what's offered by MOOC's, comes with no name-brand university affiliation and no professors.

So why would students sign up for P2PU?

"We have a very different model of what we think online education should look like," says Mr. Schmidt, who has also led open-education activities at University of the Western Cape, in South Africa.

P2PU's learning style reflects an approach that many classroom instructors have been taking for years as they've stepped away from the lectern to guide students working in small groups. And it's something that MOOC's, populous as they are, struggle to put into effect.

"People have been talking about the 'guide on the side' versus the 'sage on the stage' for some time," Mr. Schmidt says.

Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director at MIT OpenCourseWare, the free online publication of the university's lectures and other course materials, says peer learning is a natural extension of the first wave of open-course initiatives, which have focused on getting content out to large audiences at little or no cost.


Such student-to-student learning happens in less structured ways in many large online classes, where students might break off into informal study groups using Google or Yahoo e-mail lists, or meet up on social news Web sites like Some MIT classes provide links to a site called OpenStudy.

Kevin Carey, an education-policy analyst at the New America Foundation, says online learning is becoming increasingly social.


'Threatening to Beginners'

To help put people at ease, P2PU's new mentor program lets students who have completed a "challenge" click on a link and agree to help students who are floundering.

"The strongest and most effective way to build the knowledge of everyone in the group is for them to teach each other, so the student who doesn't understand as well can ask questions that the more-advanced students can answer," says Catherine M. Casserly, chief executive officer of Creative Commons, a nonprofit group working to expand free course materials and other online content.

The P2PU structure promotes such active learning and engagement, she says. "As peers become more engaged with each other, the facilitator can fade into the background but should always be there eavesdropping and bringing the topic back if it spins in a different direction."


Wary of slipping into the talking-head role, she says, she considered the opposite extreme—the barely-there facilitator who basically says, "Here are the resources. Everybody go to town, and we'll just sit back and watch."

That didn't go over well. "A lot of people didn't really understand what peer learning was, and when I stepped back from the expert role, they'd say, 'We came here because we wanted you to teach us.'"


Some academics, however, remain skeptical about P2PU's approach. Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, is one of them.


Mr. Rees, a leader in the Colorado chapter of the American Association of University Professors, expanded on that thought in an e-mail interview with The Chronicle. "I think the Ph.D. means something," he wrote. "It says you know your field at least well enough to determine what needs to be covered in the course." Peer learning, he says, is better suited for a book club than for college.


Mr. Schmidt isn't surprised by the criticism.

"People feel threatened because it feels like they're being replaced," he says. "But I think they should be thrilled by this. For me, the role of the professor isn't to be the guy who stands in front and talks for an hour, but the person who asks interesting questions and helps me discover my interests and passions."


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