The Peer 2 Peer University

Article from Chris Watkins:

The Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses. Think of it as online book clubs for open educational resources. P2PU acts as a guide to open education materials that are already available and connects small groups of motivated learners. Rather than “offering” courses in the traditional sense, it supports the design and facilitation of courses. Students and tutors get recognition for their work.

Stian Håklev is a Toronto-based activist for open access to research and open education, and one of the founders of P2PU.

The following interview was conducted by email:

What inspired you to start this project? What’s unique about your project?

There is a huge amount of Open Educational Resources “out there”, with MIT OCW and the other OCWs, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, Open University UK, WikiEducator, Wikiversity, Connexions etc. However, it is very difficult for a self-learner to just sit down and learn from these resources in a sustained fashion.

When I met Philipp and Neeru at iCommons ’07 we discussed what the “value added” from a university was, and we came up with things like a learning trajectory, deadlines, a peer group, feedback/evaluation, perhaps accreditation at the end (important for some, not for others). That fall, I also participated in David Wiley’s online course Intro to Open Education), which turned out embody many of the ideas we had discussed, and was a very powerful learning experience for me.

The concept was very simple – a wiki where people sign up, no pre-requisites, but you have to work hard. 150 pages of (open access) readings a week, and a few reflection questions. The first week, we read a bunch of long UN reports, and the question was “Should universal education be a universal human right? And if so, is it enough that it is a right, or should it be an obligation as well?”. We then all blogged about this (and you can still read my contribution at OpenEd Week 1), read each others blogs, commented, etc. A very simple format, but because I was highly motivated to see it through (I often spent an entire Sunday on this course, even though I was very busy with courses in my last year of undergrad, and didn’t get any formal credit for it), I learnt a lot.

After the course was over, a few others picked up on the idea (I’ve posted on them at Is Your Course Schedule Full Yet?), building on the model and adding some minor variations to improve it. Finally, Leigh Blackall came up with the term “Wiley wikis” to describe this kind of courses.

I personally had an interest in doing more research on this form of courses to see how they could be further improved, what were the factors in their success or failure, how good were individual learning outcomes, and what factors influenced this, etc. In addition, we wanted to provide a platform where many more such courses could be launched (and about other topics – incidentally, almost all the early courses seemed to be about education and technology itself). So far, the courses had been launched by a few individuals who were all tech-savvy and very hooked in to the open education movement, and perhaps even had more leeway within their institutes because of they were studying open education, etc. We wanted to “mainstream” the model, so that many more professors (and others) could step up and teach courses, and to have a platform where we could experiment with forms of peer-learning, and eventually perhaps ways of obtaining accreditation, etc.

Who else is working in the same space? Is it a different approach to the same challenge/opportunity, and/or a complementary approach? What are you learning from them?

There are a lot of projects in the open education space. Traditionally, most of them have been about providing content – which is a crucial component for us – in a way, we function as a structure “above” the open content, and absolutely support the work of OCW Consortium, Wikiversity, Connexions, and the many others. There are some platforms that are fairly open-ended, such as Wikiversity and Wikieducator, which seem to still be debating internally whether they are primarily for content production, or to function as platforms for “conducting” classes. There is lots of great experimentation happening, for example on Wikiversity, with creating reading groups, and using your homepage as your “personal learning environment“, and we are definitively learning a lot from what everyone else are doing.

There are also a number of peer-based language teaching platforms, such as LiveMocha, but these are usually commercial ventures.

Although we believe that there are many valid models for how to “do” online learning and teaching, we have a fairly good idea of one way of doing it, that we would like to test out. I think one of our strengths is that we are a fairly small group of people, with a more or less clear vision. If a professor or student approaches us they “know what they get”, whereas with Wikiversity it might seem quite confusing. I personally also don’t believe that pure (non-semantic/structured) wiki software is ideal for everything, and we have many ideas that we would like to experiment with, like having your own “portfolio page” highlighting your best work, perhaps having user ratings, peer-based assessment etc.

Another difference with other projects (that I know of), is that we are trying to limit the enrollment in “courses”. We are still thinking about how to do this practically, but the idea is to create small groups of people that are very committed to the six-week courses, and will make substantial contributions to the group – because the learning outcomes of the entire group depends on the contributions of all its members… To create enough “commitment”, we are thinking about things like having to apply to join a group, maybe even having a small sign-up fee (which would be waived for people who could genuinely not pay, and would at the end of the course go to a charity, or perhaps to the cost of formal accreditation). Important to remember is that all the content on the site would be absolutely open to all, all we are limiting is the “privilege” of being part of a small committed group of learners moving forwards through a course together. At first, we are rather going for quality than quantity (let’s get as many page-views as possible). That’s also why we have limited the initial course offering to 10 (but expect to expand rapidly).

Are you accredited? What concrete benefit will someone get from participating in your project?

Currently we are not accredited, and certainly we would assume that the main benefit to all participants would be the learning experience (and the joy of teaching and sharing knowledge). However, we are also interested in experimenting with ways in which “open learning” can lead to informal and formal accreditation. So the first thing would be to provide different kinds of feedback to the learner, so the learner knows how well she is doing, and perhaps a diploma of completion at the end, which to some can be quite valuable. However, there are different models of accreditation that we can try, and Philipp Schmidt and Christine Geith have presented on this at several conferences (not sure if there’s a paper online), for example by challenge exams – you pay something like $50 to a university for the right to take an exam, and if you pass, you get the credit. In Wiley’s class, there were also students who did it as an independent reading class at their home institutions, and received credit for it. The Western Governor’s University is based on the competency model, where they assess how far you are from reaching a degree goal, and you obtain those qualifications at another institution. The P2PU could be used to gain those skills. Finally, as mentioned above, we are interested in researching other kinds of accreditation, perhaps based on open source software development models.

How inclusive is your project, in terms of cost, technical barriers, and freedom to reuse the content?

The biggest barrier, of course, is regular and affordable access to the internet. We are completely cognizant of the fact that this is not available to many, yet that is no reason for us to not do this project, rather we hope that more and more people will get access, and of course the production of OERs (Open Educational Resources) also means that there is more material that could potentially be printed and distributed, burnt on CD/DVD, etc. Another limitation is that currently, our project is only in English. We will decide later whether we will expand to other languages, but of course we would happily support anyone who tried to start a similar project in another language. I personally am a very big proponent of linguistic diversity and equity, and would think that was great. But one has to start from somewhere.

We will release all that we produce under a CC-BY or even a CC-Zero, and we anticipate that our system will be based on an open source self-hosted server, and in that case we will release all modifications (a bit different if we end up on a hosted system). We are considering a minimal sign-up fee for courses, but this has not been decided, it would be waived if people could not afford it, and anyway all our material would always be completely free to the world.

I think that is it for now. Note that these are my views, and it might not accurately reflect the views of the other members of the P2PU, although I think most of it does.”

In conclusion:

Stian mentions the issue of access to the internet by the majority, and this is a challenge we also face at Appropedia”. However, it’s not one that worries us greatly – as Curt Beckmann recently blogged, “I’ll bet a nickel that within five years most villages will have a resident with good access (by smart-phone or otherwise) to the internet.”

P2PU plans to have its first courses running in early 2009.

2 Comments The Peer 2 Peer University

  1. Pingback: Random Stuff that Matters » Blog Archive » Interview about Peer2Peer University at P2P Foundation

  2. Pingback: The Peer 2 Peer University | Appropedia Blog

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