Peer-driven learning: We ain’t cracked that nut.

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I tend to wait until things are near perfect or needed urgently before I get motivated and brave enough to share them with others i.e. serious procrastination. So the thoughts I want to share here have been steeping and growing for some time. Luckily the University Project‘s Universities: Past and Present event is happening this weekend in London which is motivation enough.

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I’ve been trying to put some  distance between me and the work I did with School of Webcraft as I attempt to identify what I will commit to next. I’m still waiting for clarity around the more existentialist questions of “Who Am I?” and “How Can I Meaningfully Earn My Keep?”, but my thoughts keep returning to P2PU and peer-driven learning in general – or more specifically “I Don’t Think We’ve Quite Cracked That Nut Yet”.

DSC01930 - Macadamia nuts

Peer learning: amazing once you achieve it, but hard to crack.

My responsibilities over the last year were restricted to School of Webcraft and the learning of web development rather than the theory and process behind the learning.  Time and time again I found myself focussing on peer-learning and not enough on the geekery side of things. I wasn’t convinced that we (educators, learners and the P2PU community) knew enough about what good peer-driven learning was or could be and how we could best encourage it online. Quite simply, despite my professional background in technology it became apparent that what I’m interested is not in how technology is made, but how people can best use it / overcome it to connect with each other.

And within P2PU and School of Webcraft we were asking people to connect with each other over technology in a very specific way.
Want to learn something? Create a course and learn with other people!
Let’s dive down into this a little bit more – we ask people who want to learn something to do a whole lot of work by creating a 6-week course before they actually got to learn with other people. Nevermind that creating a good course is something that experienced educators struggle with and never seem to get paid well enough for – we’ll expect that novices will be able to do it.

Problem One: We ask a small number of people to do a lot of work before anything else can happen with a larger group of people.

An interesting thing happens when someone creates a course – they actually learn a tremendous amount about the topic they wanted to learn. Then, once they start “learning” the course with their peers (however much they would like to participate and encourage egalitarian peer-learning) they are now seen as relative experts and in control of what other people are learning. Additionally many learners enter the space at the public beginning of the course expecting a traditional teacher delivered experience.

Problem Two: Designing a course in advance makes the organiser a relative expert compared to their peers and teacher / student dichotomies begin to form.

Did I mention that we’re trying to do this all online? After starting a course or study group, organisers are not only trying to lead a course and work out the kinks in their course design they are also trying to be online facilitators. Either they are attempt to maintain a new wave of asynchronous emails and forum messages from participants or they have to struggle with synchronous facilitation of learners across multiple time zones and using radically different skills and technology.

Problem Three: Managing synchronous and asynchronous communication of online groups requires time and energy, specific tools and could benefit from some recommended approaches. NB: I think that peer-based face to face facilitation and organising also come with their own set of problems.

And that’s just the first week of getting things organised and everything and everyone introduced. Now everyone is meant to stay focussed and get some work done over the next couple of weeks. Now the real world is still going on – people may get ill, a work project runs late, a meeting time is not communicated well, life gets in the way and an email may not receive a timely response. Participants may miss a meeting or not respond to emails promptly, but what happens when the rest of life gets in the way of an organiser’s commitments to a class? In an organiser-led model the loss of the organiser’s energy and presence means that everything falls apart.

Problems Four: Sustaining interest and motivation in a an online course is difficult. When learners drop out this is dispiriting, but when an organiser loses interest the death knell sounds for a group.

Problem Five: Organiser driven learning (regardless of the organiser’s expertise) is essentially hierarchical and not at all peer 2 peer.

Essentially the nut that I would like to crack about peer-driven learning is: can we create a process and context that supports a number of people coming together around a shared topic and more equally and effectively organising and learning about it together? Effectively, can we make it as peer-2-peer as possible, so it is more resilient, quicker to respond and far less hierarchical?

I believe that some of the biggest and most interesting challenges for spaces like P2PU lie in developing recommended social processes that groups of learners can collectively follow to develop, define and complete a course of study together. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I think that many of the spaces we can look to for this are approaches such as Open Space and Unconferences.

The primary challenge is defining a useful (and almost foolproof) process or series of “recipes” and facilitation tools that groups can work with. The second and maybe more challenging (in my eyes) aspect of this is communicating this approach to learners in a way that is simple to engage with but offering deeper reflection and opportunities to develop a more refined peer-learning practice that supports individuals and groups.

I’m sharing a sample process in a separate post – in no way is it complete or properly implemented by me or others to really understand how it would work in a larger context. But it is something to invite response around – so please take a look and let me know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Peer-driven learning: We ain’t cracked that nut.

  1. “Peer-driven learning”, the label is new to me; but isn’t that what some peer-support mailing lists or newsgroups are doing? I’ll take as example the Vim users’ group (Google Group vim_users): install the editor, go through the tutor, you have first-class online help installed as part of the software, and if you still have problems, come to the group and ask your peers.

    • Hey Tony,

      I think that mailing lists and newsgroups are definitely sites for peer-learning.

      One thing that your comment prompted me to reflect on is that what I’m thinking about is _peer-driven education_ as opposed to the spontaneous peer-learning that happens on a forum.

      When I use “education” in this context it’s a way of discussing planned learning with a particular set of intentions and goals behind it, as opposed to a formal educational system where knowledge is funnelled in. This quote from infed.org is really useful when thinking about the differences between just learning and educating:

      “Education involves consciously setting out to learn. It also involves certain values and commitments.”
      infed.org: “Being an Informal Educator”

      So while mailing lists and newsgroups are great sites for peer-learning, they may not be the easiest space for peer-driven education to take place – something which needs values and commitments built in to the process.

      Thanks again! It helped clarify a lot…

      Pippa

  2. So the thing which springs to mind reading this is a reading group. I’ve had good experiences with them at work. You get so much more than reading on your own, and with something to coalesce around, it’s easy to share around the leading… and with the right group, you can opt in to exercises and the like.

    Of course it requires some up-front resources (a book or similar), but I’ll be surprised if completely p2p without some prep is possible.

    • Book groups and reading groups definitely are the basis for how this might work.

      I don’t think that this is a “no prep” answer, but what I’d like to see emerge is more of a potential shared prep situation where participants share in development of activities that go beyond just reading.

      P*

  3. Seb

    Great Post !!

    I guess the challenge with P2PU is that there’s no process for Peer 2 Peer learning as we are still used to the hierarchical model. As pointed out in the comments, there are groups and email list but that’s a poor implementation of P2P learning. What you are doing is very innovative !! I do not think it’s a bad thing to think about the learning process rather than the tool as p2p learning methodologies are not defined clearly yet. And this is needed prior to create any tool.

    Thanks a lot for the great work at P2PU !!!

  4. Thanks Seb! This was really heartening to read. So often tools end up presupposing or defining a methodology in the end – it’s good to receive encouragement to further explore the process and methodology of this type of educational approach.

  5. sometwothings

    What is the reason you prefer some peer based model to a rather traditional teacher/mentor – student one? Is there a mutual exclusion, anyway? P2PU could give room for both. And maybe both approaches could even harmonize together as a new model:

    Think of a peer based learning group where everyone prepares a specific topic (as part of the greater topic they all came together to learn in the first place) and then presents/teaches it to the other members. He could even prepare execises. and afterwards, another member takes the role of the teacher/mentor to show something new to the others. This way, you get the resilience (vs loss of members) of a p2p group, with the advantages of teacher based learning: someone can show you the way, point on pitfalls, etc etc.

    It also leads to a situation where everybody has to bear some of the responsibility for the course. Noone is only “consumer”.

    Such an approach would of course require to have a topic that can be separated into smaller chunks in a senseful way. Unseparable bigger chunks could maybe be prepared by groups of two or more people, distributing the task. Or maybe even every topic should be prepared by two members, so noone is left alone when facing troubles and the absence of one mentor doesn’t stop the “lesson” from happening.

    I believe the building of funtioning social processes (casted into the technical media of p2pu.org) is the main challenge for P2P University. So thanks for your great work! Keep it going!

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