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P2PU Lernen 2011

How to scale peer learning online
Helping people learn with each other is the most important thing for P2PU to get right. In a few weeks we will be launching “Webmaking 101″ to try new ways of helping (many) more people learn together. It’s a pilot project for the Mozilla School of Webcraft at P2PU that is based around the concept of “learning challenges” and it has potential for other communities within P2PU. Learning challenges mix great content with social support and mentorship to create a P2P learning model that can scale in ways that traditional courses can’t.

This is a long post, because I felt it was important to talk a bit about our experience so far, and how the idea of “challenges” is a direct response to some of the things we have learned. I hope the post provides a good starting point for a conversation, so that as a community we can explore how P2PU can best support peer learning in the future – through courses, challenges, and other models that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Why this is important
We know that peer learning works offline. At Harvard University (of all places) the ability to get help from other students through informal study circles is the most important predictor of academic success among undergraduates. We learn more when we share our questions with others, and try to explain things that we just learned to them. In this way it is not just content we learn, but we get better at the process of learning itself.

The Internet supercharges the potential of peer learning. It gives us access to a huge (and growing) amount of high quality educational content that can be downloaded, translated, remixed, adapted and shared. And it puts us in touch with millions of other people to learn with. It is this combination of peer learning, the social web, and educational content that creates an unprecedented opportunity to make education more accessible, more engaging, more fun, and less expensive.

This is why figuring out how to support peer learning online is important – and why it has shaped everything we have done at P2PU, and how we have gone about it.

Peer learning online is hard
When P2PU was just a bunch of idealists and a hosted wiki, we were overwhelmed by the positive response to our simple idea – let anyone create and run a course online. People were excited by the opportunity to share their knowledge, and many joined our community and created great courses. But as we grew we started noticing a few challenges that seemed related to structuring learning as courses:

Not all courses promoted peer-learning > Some of our courses turned out like more traditional instruction, with experts leading the discussion, answering most of the questions, and pointing out the right from the wrong. That’s great for some learners and topics, and we are not abandoning it, but it doesn’t scale like peer learning and it doesn’t encourage learners to take active ownership of their learning.
Drop-out rates were high -> In retrospect this should not have been surprising, because drop-out rates are high in all online learning (even in courses where students pay and are working towards a formal degree) but it’s frustrating for volunteer facilitators to see participants leave, and it’s discouraging for learners to loose their peers.
Courses didn’t run consistently -> We have had many great courses run once, or twice, but rarely more than that. And yet there was a seemingly infinite demand for some topics (I’m exaggerating, but it did make our server crash a few times) and there is nothing worse than not being able to meet that demand.
We realized that our model of courses placed a huge burden on the role of the facilitator, and that it is hard to facilitate peer learning online. It is even harder in an environment like P2PU where many of the usual incentives like fees and degrees don’t exist.

Great facilitators are hard to scale. One reason is the high level of commitment that is required. Many people are willing to help others learn, but fewer have the spare hours to create and offer an entire course. And offering the same course again, or offering a course that someone else designed, is less interesting than creating a new one.

And finally we realized that great content that is designed to support peer learning is scarce. When we started out we thought the content problem was solved. The reality is that there is a lot of content, but a lot of it isn’t engaging for self-learners, or easily suitable to support informal peer learning communities.

From courses to challenges
The realization that there may be a problem with the existing content led us to think about what we could add to the wealth of materials that exist already. Let me be clear, there is no shortage of open educational content, and much of it is very good. And we have no intention to produce more of what is already out there. However there are ways to make what’s out there more useful to peer learners, by turning content into learning challenges and:

Choosing the best, most relevant and interesting open resources
Framing them with the interesting questions that spark curiosity
Setting tasks that emphasize peer-learning and project-based-learning
Defining clear goals that signal achievement, with enough flexibility to take different paths to reach them
And ultimately involving the community into the development of more and better challenges add
Providing mechanisms for assessments and badges, and signal achievement
Weaving social learning features into and around the content
There is an important content foundation to the “challenge” model (also see this post by Chloe on what makes a great challenge), but the most exciting thing is not the content itself, but the social learning that it enables.
Philipp Schmidt, Peer learning that scales

Having great challenges makes great facilitation easier. It allows self-learners to get started on their own or in informal cohorts. It let’s us lower the bar for more people to get involved to answer questions, or act as mentors, which is much easier and takes less time than signing-up as a course facilitator. Learning cohorts can be organized around specific challenges, nudging everyone currently working on a particular challenge to support each other. And it’s straight-foward to attach badges to challenges, which act both as motivators to work harder, and map out a path along which to progress.

As a result many more people can get involved in helping others learn. And many more people can learn.

This does not mean that we have plans to abandon the course model. Quite the contrary, we will continue to get better at supporting it – by providing better resources to new facilitators, rolling out improvements to our site, and thinking about ways to motivate facilitators to run their courses more than once. But it’s time for something a little more radical.

Taking it to the users
In true P2PU style we decided that the best way to find out how challenges would work was to go ahead and try it. John, Jamie, Erin, Chloe, Zuzel Jessica (and many others) have done a really awesome job building out the first set of challenges for Webmaking 101, which will launch in a few weeks. We asked the Webcraft community for feedback on earlier drafts, and they have had lots of useful input which helped us make the challenges better.

But we want to broaden the conversation beyond Webcraft. I am excited about the challenge model because I think it offers an opportunity for P2PU to scale great peer learning to many more people than we can reach with courses. But I also have many unanswered questions about challenges. Here are three for starters:

How can we preserve the strong sense of cohort that traditional courses have?
Will challenges only work for technical areas, or can they be applied to other fields as well?
We created the first set of challenges for Webmaking 101. How can more people get involved in creating more challenges?
Lots of hard questions. Let’s experiment, find answers and keep getting better at helping everyone learn with everyone else.


A basic “how to make” a School of Webcraft Challenge (poster included)
Last week I wrote a post about what makes a good challenge in School of Webcraft. This week I tried to break down the process of building such a challenge for content experts who wish to create a “challenge blueprint” of their own. The “challenge” model is a new approach for P2PU courses and we are trying it out for the release of Webmaking 101 in School of Webcraft along with the implementation of the Open Badge Infrastructure (check this post by Phillip to learn more about the challenge model in P2PU and this post by Erin to learn more about the Open Badge Infrastructure ). The steps below are based on the approach we have taken so far to create the challenges in Webmaking 101 and are open for you to mix and match according to your needs. (If you are the visual type like myself scroll down at the end of this post for an info-graphic poster that outlines the steps below)

Set a learning goal: Start by defining what is the big idea you want to teach in this challenge. What will learners understand (knowledge) upon completion of the challenge? what will they be able to do (skills)? Remember that a learning goal is not always tied to a specific piece of content, for example understanding the fundamentals of HTML. A learning goal can be connected to multiple skills like “working in a team”, “problem solving”, “creative thinking” etc.
Define a motivating “need to know”: think of a motivating situation that creates a need for learners to acquire the knowledge and skills you want to teach them. This is what we call a “need to know” and it can be connected to a narrative or to a real world context. Ask yourself why are the learners taking on the challenge? Are they casting spells against HTML zombies? are they activists trying to put together a website for a better cause? are they putting together a professional portfolio site?

Explain “what is the benefit?”: Think of how the materials will clearly convey their benefit to the learner. Each overview section might have explicit “after this challenge” language (aka “The Payoff” or “Victory”) that describes skill and knowledge gain in non-technical terms. For example you can say something like “you will be able to …” “build simple web pages”, “integrate video into a page’ , “learn how to work with others”, “become a mentor.”
Create clear objectives and expectations: Before you start breaking your challenge down to smaller tasks and milestones, think backwards: what will the final objective be? Make sure to create concrete expectations for the outcomes of the challenge, such as building a website that includes specific features. The objectives should be simple to understand yet challenging to accomplish, in order for the learners to be motivated enough to go through it.
Break it down to milestones: Create a trajectory of smaller milestones that a learner needs to reach in order to achieve the challenge objectives. You can imagine this like a map; what “places”do you want your learners to go first, second and so on in order to reach their final destination? For example in “Your Webspace” challenge there are three milestones; finding a hosting service, setting it up and creating a step by step tutorial of how you did it.
Look around you for inspiration and guidance: the point here is that you do not have to reinvent the wheel; research other courses, websites, games or activities that support similar learning goals. Don’t be literal in your research, sometimes things that are not obvious precedents can be very inspiring. For example, you could get inspired by Ze Frank’s sandwich project to scout a piece of HTML code like
around your neighborhood like we did to create the “HTML is all around you” challenge.

Embed Assessments and Badges: Be clear on how the challenge will determine whether or not one has met a learning goal. Try to integrate the assessment as part of the challenge, rather than after the fact. One way to do that is to have the learners create and share artifacts such as a video, a blog post, a game, a tutorial or a song. Artifacts can then be associated with different badges; for example in the “HTML is all around you” challenge learners have to understand what HTML tags mean. To do so they have to create a photo collage of HTML tags as seen in the real world. During that process they have to share their work with their peers and assess each other on wether they understand how to use the HTML tags. Moreover, the artifacts and the process they took to make those are tied to badges. Those vary from skill based such as the HTML basic that recognizes the ability to make basic use of HTML tags, to peer related ones such as the Super Blogger that is awarded to peers who consistently write informative and engaging blog posts. (This is one of the hardest parts about making a challenge so expect a longer post on the topic)
Think of Learners as Peers: Create opportunities for the learners to interact with each other as part of the challenge and to develop peer assessment habits throughout, such as giving feedback on each others work. Encourage participants to teach each other, hang out online and offline and hack and improve the challenge ideas and wording. Consider how learners can take the challenge, remix it and make it their own.
Keep it short and simple: when compiling your challenge avoid lengthy explanations and write tasks that are short and easy to understand. You can also consider Including interactive links, such as a video. Make sure that the size of the challenges is consistent in length and style.

Test and Iterate: once you have created your challenge you can think of it as a growing organism constantly evolving based on testing and iteration. You can test your challenge in three phases; first go through it yourself, then have other experienced users play through and then have new users test it out. Be clear on what you are looking for when you are testing your challenge; how long did it take for someone to complete it, where did they get stuck, was it too easy or too challenging and so on. Learn from this process and find ways to incorporate the feedback through various iterations even after you have gone through the initial testing. The School of Webcraft mailing list is a good point to start to ask for feedback.
It is our intention at P2PU and School of Webcraft to look at our work as ever-evolving. We view this “how to” as only one out of a series of tools that embrace different leaning styles and approaches to open education and we will be adding more resources like this one as we go.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the release of our Webmaking 101 and if you got inspired and wish to start your own p2pu study group you can do so here.

Special thanks to Allen Gunn, Pippa Buchanan and Jamie Curle for their help editing this post.

Info-graphic below can be downloaded in full poster size here


PippaBuchanan.com / Learning Learning
Where I share my work and experiences as an educator in alternative and collaborative learning

Exploring the Social: Challenges of Peer Learning
October 13, 2011 //

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.


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