Understanding Challenges

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Lately I’ve been following along with P2PU by the mailing list as I haven’t been able to commit to Thursday’s  calls.  This has allowed for some deeper reflection slightly external to the core community.

I’ve been chewing over the idea of the P2PU Challenge model for the past weeks, trying to work out how it fits in amongst people, online facilitation and social peer-education.  Challenges was once just a School of Webcraft experiment, but gradually they are expanding in popularity as an approach to be used more broadly across P2PU.

Chloe‘s going to be constructing another great post about challenges, but I wanted to write about my understanding of P2Pu Challenges from a community member’s perspective.

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The way I see Challenges is that they provide a focus for what is being learnt, i.e. the instructional materials / course design side of a P2PU learning experience, and bring content creation to the fore. You come to P2PU to learn by completing a challenge in the company of others (in a course or more openly and casually). You might also come to create Challenges or support other people’s learning by facilitating Challenges (your own or others’).

The Challenge acts as the focus or framing of a learning experience in which the objectives, activities and output / assessment components are included.   Challenges go beyond defining goals, objectives and milestones and consider learning design in a specific P2PU context:

  • they highlight the need for online peer-interaction
  • reinforce formative, peer-supported assessment
  • recognise that Challenges can make use of existing learning materials whether they be YouTube tutorials or complete OER courses.
Orange Hopscotch - (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved by mkw87

Orange Hopscotch by mkw87 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Challenges also make the act of designing a P2PU learning experience more public and open, and a specific activity that can then be expanded upon socially and with focus within the context of a course.  Until now the course design process has never been a particularly collaborative or public activity, but has been obscured behind the “Start Your Own” course button.  The site interface and Course Designers’ Handbook have previously tried to encourage course creators to include and consider these design principles, but not so prominently.

Challenges share many similar elements with instructional and learning design, but the Challenge “model” is a much more consumable and far less boring entry point for people who wouldn’t otherwise consider the ADDIE model or similar when designing a course.

In fact, Challenges act as a very specific entry point and invitation into the P2PU learning space and community. By making the creation of a high-quality Challenge a goal in itself, it is easier to engage people in discussing and working towards developing high quality online peer-learning materials.

By clarifying that Challenges are about learning materials (specific to  peer learning online) I’ve been able to move past a stumbling block, a hesitation that I’ve felt about Challenges and where they fit in with P2PU.  That has to do with the act of content creation and the previous reluctance of P2Pu to identify itself as a site for the production of educational resources.

Previously, I don’t feel that the idea of useful and quality content was seen as a distinct priority or outcome of involvement in P2PU. Sure, P2PU’s user content was placed under a default CC-BY-SA license, but content that arose as a by-product of peer-learning, eg. comments from course participants or slightly remixed OER materials.

Challenges mean that P2PU is now encouraging educational content creation as a specific goal and activity for users. It’s important that this is seen and publicly identified as a new, distinct and potentially valuable process within P2Pu – open collaborative learning material development (making context specific OER, not just “learning with others”).

In general, after some initial scepticism, I’m finding this very exciting. Of course it raises some further questions:

  • If some challenges end up being very good, how might they be used outside of P2PU?
  • How could materials be exported (Worksheets, Course activity books)?
  • Is this an opportunity for income generation – receive printed versions of “authenticated” challenges (Kickstarter?)??
  • Could individual Challenge creators use P2PU as a marketplace for their content?
  • Will the existing license be appropriate for Challenges as they evolve?
  • Challenges highlight that learning design for collaborative online learning is a specific context – What is the process for upgrading and remixing existing, formal OER from a traditional delivery to a P2PU style?
  • How could a collaborative Challenge design process be facilitated?
  • If Challenges make  content for peer-learning online, is there a similar process or thing which helps build a good, cohesive cohort of learners?  What would that look like?

I’d love to hear about your understanding of Challenges and ideas of where they might be headed. Please leave a comment.

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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.

Exploring the Social: Challenges of Peer Learning

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I wanted to respond to Philipp’s post about the use of challenges within School of Webcraft and to gather thoughts that have been developing over the last month or so. One of the changes that happened within the School of Webcraft at the same time as my transition out of a formal role  with the project was the change from a focus on peer-led courses to the development of challenges that peers can attempt together.

Generally I think that exploring challenges is a good move for much of the learning that should be happening within Webcraft. It’s a learning space which makes defining “learning challenges” simple, attractive and easy to tie to tangible recognition models such as Badges.  Jessy Kate’s written a really great response about the tension between recognition and heterogeneous learning, which has also kindled my response.   What type of peer-learning do challenges support, do they let people learn “anything” and how are they scalable?

The curated, employment focussed nature of Webcraft makes it easy to say “Want to be a web developer? Show us that you’ve completed these specific activities. We recommend that you do them in this order. Here are some useful resources to help.”  Online peer-learning with challenges support this approach very well, but I don’t think that they are an approach which will work across all disciplines and topics in a space such as P2pU.

With challenges learners are invited to interact with each other as peers, but the interaction that is invited seems closer to pre-designed peer-instruction  than learning driven by the peers themselves. Chloe’s put out a great document about how to create a challenge , which is targeted at content experts writing challenges for learners. No teacher or facilitator may be present, but the creation of good challenges means that someone besides the learner is required to take the role of instructional “challenge” designer.

This isn’t to say that a challenge based model or peer-instruction is in any way bad, but they both rely on someone else besides the learners to fill the roles of facilitators and designers.  Learners aren’t always going to learn things that have easy to find, pre-defined content, and experts aren’t always going to be present and able to voluntarily create the relevant challenges in time for learners to interact with them.

Learner access to pre-defined challenges such as Webcraft 101 is scalable, but peer-learning anything in this manner is not scalable. Learners wishing to explore other topics still need ways to create their own learning experiences, whether they are self-defining a learning pathway or co-creating a course of study with other people.

In many ways challenges are just pre-prepared online learning content with cues to write and comment via blogs. By itself, challenge content doesn’t solve the primary problem which makes “teacherless” peer-learning online (and offline) so difficult: the social.

Connecting and sharing a message with others is easy online, but effectively maintaining and developing a group of people in a shared journey together to a defined endpoint (end of course) is much more challenging.  In order for challenges and learner driven peer-education to work out we still need to find ways of better learning with each other.

1) Collect Users! 3) Output Coders!

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[This post is part of a response to Mark Surman’s “Mozilla as Teacher“. In the first part I suggest that “Mozilla as educator” may be a better framing, in this I discuss just what Mozilla can help people learn.]

Often when Mozilla discusses teaching and education the emphasis is on helping people learn how to code. Restricting the goal to code and helping people make the  leap from “user” to “maker” is perhaps a little too wide, there are other aspects of teaching people about the web that Mozilla should explore.

In response to Mark’s post, both David and Laura pointed out the very important role that Mozilla can and should play in educating people about how the internet and the web work. By doing this Mozilla would help people become better “participants” on the web, through which they “take control of their online lives“.

Step 2) Transform Users into Participants

During my time working on School of Webcraft I sometimes wished that the charter we’d written had included “using the web” more, rather than restricting the scope to web development only. Laura and I have discussed how a Web Citizenry project could sit alongside the goals of Webcraft and I think it could have a significant impact.  Not everyone wants to be a developer, but whether it’s for work, leisure, study or changing the world, most people want to make better use of the web.

The initial challenge as I see it is not in teaching people how to code, but helping them know enough about the web itself.  In doing so we (Mozilla) can help people make critical decisions about how they interact and participate with the services and sites they use all the time.

Step 3) Transform Participants into Coders and Makers

People who learn how to make things on the web already know that the web is not magic. Just as a kid knows they can learn to pull a rabbit out of a hat, engaged participants of the web have an inkling of what happens behind the browser. By knowing the web is not magic but made up of coded instructions, they understand their potential as makers. They want the power to make magic on the web too.

By adding a focus in which Mozilla helps people move away from being passive users of the web and towards more engaged participation, we’re one step closer to helping people change from “user” to “maker”.

Being Educators: Mozilla and Me

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There’s ongoing discussion about Mozilla’s role as a ‘teacher’ and how it fits alongside that of “inventor”. In a recent blog post, Mark Surman wanted to find out whether “Mozilla as teacher” resonates and what other terms might be appropriate.

Having spent the past year with Mozilla helping people learn, I wanted to respond, both with how Mozilla could position themselves and, in a secondary post, on what Mozilla should teach.

Mozilla as ‘teacher’?

“What’s a less top-down word than ‘teacher?'”
@openmatt

When identifying Mozilla’s teacherly role it’s useful to look for a friendly term that implies trust and doesn’t intimidate potential participants. It should encourage collaborative participation and new ways of learning together and on the web. Mozilla should, with this word, be represented as teacher, mentor, innovator, expert, facilitator, guide, communicator and technician.

So, they’re not just a teacher then…

If not a teacher, then what am I?

It’s a tough ask and it struck a nerve. Over the last years of fine-tuning Twitter profiles, blog “About” pages and public speaking bios I looked for a similarly encompassing term to convey my old role within School of Webcraft and beyond.

I wanted to be a “learning [r]evolutionary”. It implies change whether it happens slowly or fast. But it takes some explaining, a commitment to questionable square brackets and is problematic when used on passports and visas.

I am here for the learning revolution

CC-BY-SA - Bill Moseley

For a long time I primarily identified myself as “learning activist“, but I was stuck with a term that intimidated some people and confused everyone else. When an activist isn’t agitating for change, what do they actually do?  Well, sometimes I teach, I facilitate, I develop educational tools, I research and learn, and most importantly I believe that we can continually identify better ways for people to learn. How to convey that complexity?

In the end I’ve reclaimed “educator” as the umbrella term with which I can start [and end] discussions about what it is I actually do. It’s understandable, can be taken seriously, but most importantly it communicates that my primary goal is to help people learn. Sure, “educator” is a little unsexy and at times can be formal, but in the end, it unpacks to include roles such as teacher, mentor, edupunk and activist.

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

There definitely is some reclaiming that needs to happen for “educator”: to extricate the identity from degrading formal educational systems, to divorce the term from its relationship to “instruction” and “knowledge transfer” and to site it as a role which covers the many ways in which people consciously help others learn.

By reclaiming “educator” can we also make it useful for Mozilla?

“Mozilla as educator”

I have a feeling that Mozilla as “Educator” has resonance and a better scope to describe the range of projects that support people learning to use and make on the web:

In just the same way that “Mozilla as inventor” can unpack to allow discussions of Mozilla as hacker, innovator and creator I think it’s important to easily convey that Mozilla can be teacher, mentor and facilitator, and generally an educator.

Herding Passionate Cats: The Role of Facilitator in a Peer Learning Process

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Over at Mozzadrella, Vanessa, a fellow P2PU community member has been writing about the challenges of supporting learner responsibility and trying to be a facilitator, but not a teacher. I started to write a comment, but it emerged into a rare, spontaneous blogpost.

Expecting learners to take responsibility for their own learning is a built-in value for P2PU–the courses are free, so our participants don’t “have” to do anything… Balancing the need for some structure with this kind of freedom is a task I’ve found particularly difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, especially how to balance independent learning with the collective study group / course participants’ learning.
i.e. How can you herd cats while still recognising that each cat is a VERY special snowflake ?

Additionally, most people initiate a course out of their own interest and are learners with needs of their own to be met, not just a herder of cats!

Freestyle Learning Organisation Notes

There’s a new type of facilitation and participation model which we (peer and non-formal / informal learners) need to surface and define more tightly both for online and real world groups. Many facilitators and participants within P2PU and similar learning communities have instincts and innate knowledge that they apply to these situations, but we still haven’t worked out how to identify, clarify or share this practice well yet.  In particular we need to develop models that support the needs of learners working through existing course structures (eg. MIT Open Courseware – Physics 1) or groups who are working through an emerging problem space without clear learning guidelines in place (eg. What Philosophers Can Do for Artists)

That said, working towards a facilitation model like this would not produce something that is fixed and compulsory to use within a community like P2PU. I think that maybe it would be more like the many versions of World Cafe, Open Space, Unconference facilitation that exist and which emerge into new forms such as the Book Sprint methodology. A hackable model that is useful for its core approach and recommendations, but that can be reinterpreted and modified for the facilitator and specific learning context.

I’ve written a little about how to use open space idea gathering methodologies at a task development stage before. In addition I believe that there’s a lot to be learnt about the “cat herding” skills that facilitators use and that online learning facilitators can build on too.

Having just led some live facilitation in an open space manner last weekend I’m reflecting on how facilitators need to use an iron fist within a velvet glove as they keep participants on track and in line with the process’s social contract. Sure, in an “open” format like this discussion is emergent and driven by participants needs, but a break out session is still time defined and with clear report backs! In some contexts participants turning up late to a session are threatened with public singing as a punishment. What can we learn from methodologies such as this to support a peer learning group?

Maybe its best for organisers to be a little bit tighter with when new learners can join a group, or to work with participants to define mutually agreed due dates for collectively identified tasks? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that in order to support effective “free and open participation” within groups we (facilitators) might find ourselves turning more to self-imposed structures that benefit both us and our peer learners.

Handing on the reins of School of Webcraft: do you want to work on the project?

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After a year of working on the School of Webcraft project, it’s time to announce that at the end of August I’ll leave SoW as a formal organiser and make the transition to being a volunteer community member of both P2PU and Mozilla. That’s one of the things I love about open and free culture: you can leave a job and still remain a valued part of a community with a role in influencing and helping build the future of a project.

One of the challenges of moving away from a paid position in an open project is identifying how to define (and restrict) your involvement as a volunteer community member. One of my personal goals as I transition out of School of Webcraft is to play on my strengths and continue working with people. As a volunteer and newly arrived resident of Austria, I’m going to explore how P2PU members can use meetups as a way to connect with existing learners in their local contexts and introduce new people to the project. Of course, working on local meetups for P2PU has a secondary goal, which is for me to meet new people in my town and practise my German.

It’s going to be exciting becoming a community member and watching how the future of School of Webcraft works out. Over the past year, along with great colleagues at both Mozilla Foundation and P2PU I’ve helped build a community of passionate people who are excited about helping each other learn web development. During the next months, this community will continue to grow, but with new people helping organise it and working to make it easier to learn web development, by improving the tools and resources the School of Webcraft is built on.

Looking forward, the immediate goals of the Webcraft project will be to develop a core set of learning challenges that link up with the Badges project and provide learners with a defined pathway to building their first web portfolio. P2PU will also be working with the project to improve the core user experience of the website, making it easier for learners and experts to participate in the project and help each other learn how to make the web.

If you’re interested in being one of the new people helping to grow and improve the School of Webcraft (and greater P2PU) community you can of course join our discussion list and share your ideas. But I’d also like to invite anyone interested to apply for two of the paid positions P2PU is hiring for, a UX Designer and a Web Challenge Designer. You can read more about the positions here .