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


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.

Blogging and Writing For The Web: Meeting Notes (May 13th)


I just helped facilitate the first synchronous meeting for the Blogging and Writing For The Web (B&W4TW) study group, and I think it went really well, great in fact.  I previously organised a basic web development course at P2PU, but until recently had no opportunity to organise a non-Webcraft project. This is a great opportunity to learn something new, improve my existing skills and to put some ideas about collaborative online learning into practice.

Blogging and Writing for the Web Study Group activity wall showing comments from group members

Study Group Activity Wall

I started the group at P2PU following a twitter conversation with Laura and Alina.  I wanted to improve my blogging in general and also want to feel more confident about my professional online writing skills within the School of Webcraft project.

Are we forming a study group or a support group?

One of the interesting things that came out of the meeting today was the feeling that B&W4TW acts not only as a study group where we improve our skills, but it also acts as a support group for people who, as Lynn described it, are “sole practitioners“.

We identified that we wanted to create an ongoing group that will continue to give value to participants even if the founding members feel confident enough to “graduate” and leave the group. Blackstar mentioned that as blogging is an online process where you can always improve, it’s difficult to identify what the conditions of study group completion would be.

Hacking Open Space Techniques and Bringing Them to the “Web”

This meeting allowed me to run an online hack of a facilitation technique that I’ve experienced in several open-space style events and which Etherpad seemed suited for.

Participants are invited to brainstorm the topics they wish to talk about (within the framing of the meeting), write it on post-it notes (1 idea per post-it!) and then their notes are shared on a large wall. The second stage of the process invites participants to sort through the ideas, find common themes and create category titles for the groupings, thereby identifying common interests across the group.

Is there a name for this technique? Leave a comment and any relevant links please!

This blogging study group meeting seemed the perfect place to test these ideas out. We met using the live chat tool Voxli and kept notes in Etherpad. We could identify common goals and issues we wanted to work through with the group and then use these shared issues as a way of identifying tasks that we can respond to within the P2PU Study Group. We spent about 5 minutes identifying our personal goals, another 5 minutes sorting them out and then spent 10 minutes or so working on tasks for the major categories we identified.

I made a screencast of the process in Etherpad – please excuse the demo watermark!

5 people participated in this process and it worked quite well. Working with a larger group would be difficult and one way I’d consider hacking the process would be to invite only 2 or 3 people to sort the ideas into groups. In a physical space it’s possible to talk with each other in the sorting process and to collaborate on group names – this is much harder to do online.

In general though, I think that this is a very valuable exercise for P2PU learning groups to work through at the beginning of their life-cycle. It identifies shared learning goals and gives everyone a part to play in the development of the group.

What we ended up with

We’re planning to meet again next Friday at the same time and next week someone else will take the role of primary facilitator.  We also recognised that the meeting time was difficult for those outside of Europe and East-Coast USA and encouraged members out of these time-zones to setup their own meetings if possible. We identified a list of key areas to work on in the group and have started creating tasks based on work we did in the meeting.

If you’re interested in participating in the Blogging and Writing For The Web study group, we’d love to have you join in! It’s easy, just create a P2PU account and sign-up to the group!