The term open educational resources (OER) was coined in 2002 during a forum held by the UNESCO as the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes. Leveraging information technologies (ICT) to equalize access to education has ever since been a core motivation for the OER movement. What are effective techniques and promising approaches to open learning? In a new series of interviews on OER AACE Review will portray communities, developers, learners, teachers, librarians and others involved in the open movement.
Today’s learners ride the open frontier between formal and informal learning. As educational content is increasingly available for free over the Internet, making effective use of informal and incidental online learning opportunities has become a challenge for students, teachers, researchers and self-organized learners.
Whereas traditional textbooks and classroom structures perform the role of information gatekeeper, the Internet floods the learner with a veritable cornucopia of educational resources. From this seemingly limitless amount of material, the learner must unearth personally and contextually relevant information and assess the quality, timeliness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of the source. With growing repositories of online educational material and social software, learners may interact with different digital representations, and apply new forms of self-assessment.
The open learning platform P2PU (‘Peer-to-Peer-University’) is an example for a community-based approach to open online learning. The platform is interesting for at least two different reasons: (1) It is a peer-to-peer learning approach that emphasizes the role of experiencing community, being situated, and having shared experiences in any learning setting. (2) Since its founding in 2008 the community has undergone tremendous change, and taken a programmatically new direction.
The beginning of P2PU
The founding credo of the site read “everyone has something to contribute and everyone has something to learn”. Initially, users were able to both create their own courses or choose to subscribe to an existing course – either as active participant or as a follower. Courses ran for several weeks at a time and were open for enrollment during this period. Course organizers guided their group through a list of tasks, linked to online material or worked together through a book.
In 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Ledbetter, one of the power users of the platform. Here is how she describes the benefits of being a course organizer:
“I always learn by looking at others’ code. Also, sometimes it takes a long time and a lot of question answering to get someone to the point that he or she is able to commit code. It’s completely worth it when it happens because it’s one of the best feelings in the world. :)”
The shift to MOOC and Learning Circles
If you visit P2PU today, your experience of the platform will be very different from these initial users. Instead of ‘home-grown’ courses, offered by volunteers, P2PU features a list of MOOCs. The unique twist that the platform adds are ‘learning circles’, local groups that meet in person and work through an online course together. Learning circles are offline study groups for people who want to take massive open online courses together. As a P2PU member, you can either choose to start your own learning circle or join an existing one. P2PU produces pedagogical materials to assist learning circle facilitators, and to provide technological and logistical support to these circles.
For AACE Review, I am talking to the team behind P2PU.
How long have you been working for P2PU, and what is your role?
Nico Koenig (NK): I started working with P2PU over a year ago. I’m the Community Lead which means much of my time is directed towards supporting our community of educators, librarians and learning circle facilitators. We’re a small team so we share a lot of responsibilities including program management, partnerships, communications and organizational development. I live in Ottawa, Canada.
Dirk Uys (DU): I started working for P2PU in 2012. My primary role is to ensure that we are building or using the right software tools to help our community. Most of my time is spent on building or maintaining these tools, but as a small team we each have a role to play in the governance of the organization. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.
Grif Peterson (GPthis context in 2014 that ): I joined P2PU in early 2015 to help start the learning circle program. From there, my role has grown with learning circles – I do a lot of the learning design for the program, help build new relationships, and do some of the business development work necessary to keep our ship sailing. I live in Boston, USA.
Are you currently a learner member or facilitator of a learning circle?
NK: Neither! We see our organizational role as different than that of learning circle facilitators or learners. We see ourselves as helping new facilitators get started and supporting them to share feedback to everyone else.
We are, in some way, facilitators of a larger learning circle. A learning circle that supports our community members (about 150+ active facilitators and organizers) to create effective learning experiences in their organizations and communities. This involves a lot of the same skills a facilitator would use in a smaller group setting: listening, supporting, goal-setting, encouraging action, and making sure every voice is heard and every member is able to contribute.
How many learning circles are there?
GP: The first 20 or so learning circles happened in 2015 and early 2016 with the Chicago Public Library. At that time, learning circles were just an idea — we didn’t have a handbook or community or practice or any web tools. It was just us and the teams at the Harold Washington and Edgewater branches trying to develop this program together. We released our v1 of the learning circle toolkit in early 2016 which, among other things, allowed us to see who was using the model in their own communities. Since then, there have been 394 learning circles created on our site, involving approximately 4,000 learners, who met in-person weekly, generally for 6-8 weeks. We know of a number of other organizations who have taken our handbook and philosophy and applied it to their own practice. We are proud anytime somebody comes across our organization and is then inspired to remove hierarchy in their own learning spaces, whether or not that ends up looking like a learning circle, per se.
If you do the math, this amounts to roughly 14,000 instances that a person has made the effort to commute to the library and spend an hour or two learning with their neighbors. Given that learning circles aren’t accredited, and attendance is always voluntary, we believe that this is a strong indication that people a lot of value beyond what they would get taking the online course by themselves.
NK: It’s also worth mentioning the breadth of learning circles. After our initial pilot with Chicago Public Library, a number of other libraries and community-based organizations jumped on board to run learning circles in their own community. Learning circles have now been run in over 100 cities and towns, mostly across the United States, but also internationally in Canada, Kenya, Uganda, France and Germany. One of the most active members is the Kenya National Library Service, whose librarians have facilitated 89 learning circles in the past year and a half, reaching 900 youth and adults.
What is the open source learning circle toolkit?
DU: At the heart of learning circles is the community of facilitators that run learning circles. It is for this community that we’ve build a set of resources to help them run effective learning circles. The open source learning circle toolkit consists of several openly-licensed resources that can be accessed through our facilitator page and our Github page. These resources comprise software tools, facilitation guides, weekly activity cards, a list of facilitator courses, and promotional templates.
GP: Our tools are designed to help people grow sustainable learning communities. We aren’t trying to bring everybody under a single monolithic P2PU tent, and we aren’t trying to centralize everything. What we are trying to do, however, is develop feedback loops and prompts for discussion, so that every learning circle that meets is improving the ecosystem a little bit for everybody else. For instance, we have a webpage that features about 250 online courses that facilitators have used to run learning circles. Our goal for this isn’t to create a database of every online course that ever was; we want to highlight what is working and make sure that newcomers can find topics that interest them. We recently released a new course feedback mechanism, by which courses will be ranked according to how successful they have been in the past, and we’ll gather extra resources and tips from past learning circles to share with new groups. As Dirk mentions, our other tools are designed to help promote learning circles (online and offline), support peer learning, and document experiences for the library community and P2PU ecosystem. We are in the midst of overhauling https://www.p2pu.org/en/facilitate/ By September or so, this will feature dozens of videos, activities, and reflections from facilitators around the world that are designed to help people run their best possible learning circles.
Mid-May was the first gathering of P2PU learning circle facilitators in Kansas City. What were your impressions and take-aways?
NK: What an event it was! We brought together 45 learning circle practitioners from across North America for the first-time ever! Our aim was, not surprisingly, to build in-person connections for our community that at that point had only been in contact online. We also wanted to dig deep into understanding the learning circle model itself, what was working, our collective impact, and how should we move forward.
The biggest take-away for me was that P2PU is now truly connected to awesome , inspiring and active community of educators and librarians who are determined to make education more accessible, equitable, open and peer-based for their patrons and local neighborhoods.
Throughout the meeting, here was a clear sense that learning circles, with the aim to support learners and library patrons to reach their learning goals, were also providing outcomes that facilitators did not expect at first. For example, learners were gaining significant digital literacy skills through a learning circle and also by having to navigate an online course itself. Librarians, with encouragement to document local community learning needs before beginning a learning circle, were developing new relationships with local partners and community groups. A big take-away was simply the real-life connections that were being built. Outside of library-specific conferences, many librarians do not get a chance to work others in the field of open education, adult education or community development.
There were also challenges that many facilitators faced. The quality and range of free and non-academic online courses is limited and librarians increasingly rely (and expect) to pay private companies to access e-learning content. Librarians, although ideal for the role of community educator, do not always see themselves in this role. In this view, librarians have found it difficult to motivate their colleagues to try facilitating a learning circle, as many of them are more comfortable to the role of teacher.
Can you explain the decision to collaborate with course providers and instead of having original P2PU content? When did this shift happen, and why?
GP: In 2008-2012, there were not many organizations out there trying to create non-formal learning experiences on the web. You had tons of distance education programs that were by and large tied to degree programs, and then lots of incredible resources from Youtube to Wikipedia to Github that people were using to learn every day. But there wasn’t a huge industry of organizations trying to create scaffolded learning outside of traditional educational institutions. But that’s exactly what P2PU was founded to do, and for a few years, the value that we added was helping people to document things they cared about in a way that other people could learn from.
Fast forward to 2013, and all the sudden there are large, well-funded organizations popping up doing something similar and saying that learning was going to be democratized and the age of the university was over. From there, I think that a lot of people got disenchanted with online learning, and, frankly that includes organizations who funded our work. The good thing that came out of the MOOC hype was that online learning was normalized for a lot of people who might not have considered it an option beforehand, and there were many new online spaces to learn and create knowledge. It was in this context in 2014 that we took stock of the space we were operating in and asked ourselves what the role of a 4-5 person non-profit was going forward.
We determined that, amidst the influx of new online learning resources and experiences, there was still a gap making sure that those opportunities reached beyond the digital-savvy mostly college-educated people that were the low-hanging fruit for MOOC providers. We agreed that our role in this new environment could be to help frame and articulate online learning in ways that expanded the reach, rather than focus just on creating courses. And from this came a partnership with Chicago Public Library and the beginning of learning circles.
To add one more thing here, I think it’s worth noting that the pedagogy of learning circles is the same as the original P2PU online courses. We’ve always felt that curriculum, content, whatever you want to call it — the learning resources always must work in service of the people, and never the other way around. Both the original P2PU courses and the current learning circle program emphasize bringing a group of people around a common set of interests to co-create a learning experience. That won’t change.
Let’s talk about community stewardship: How do you change course in an open environment without losing your key players and most dedicated users?
GP: The reality is that our audience has changed a lot between 2018-2013 and post-2014, so to some extent we went into the change accepting that we would lose a number of people who had been very active in the past. In terms of stewardship, we needed to be very clear about why we were changing paths, and make sure we were there to support legacy projects that were still being run. We still support a group of Australian lawyers who love using our original course site, for instance. Even though P2PU changed our approach and tactics, our values have remained consistent. I’m really grateful to our Board and some core community members who have stuck around. They’ve been able to see the continuity across P2PU’s work and offer a really unique perspective on where we are going from here.
What happened to existing P2PU courses that were developed by users? Were they able to export and save their work?
GP: Yes. All courses are still available at either archive.p2pu.org or courses.p2pu.org. We still support the course in a box project, and are actually still somewhat active in helping groups put courses together. Just last year we worked with The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Open University to create open, online courses, and it’s a service we offer.
What does the future hold for P2PU? Are there things you are excited about, and developments your users can look forward to?
NK: There’s so much happening every day with learning circles. One direction were actively working towards in featuring this activity to our community and to the public in better ways, like creating learning circle FAQ videos made by learning circle facilitators themselves and making connections between facilitators and learners on an ongoing basis. For example, we have a new letter-writing activity where learners can write a few words of encouragement (say, at the end of their learning circle in Detroit), and that same message is received by learning circle meeting for the first time in Nairobi. The idea is to make people aware that a learning circle is not just a one-off class, but that they are are part of a global network of learning communities.
In terms of expansion, we’ve created a model that aims to be scalable. The toolkit and community of support provide value and are flexible enough for in variety of learning spaces, and we’re seeing increased interest in using learning circles in language learning centers, literacy centers and GED accreditation centers. In addition, we’ll be welcoming additional libraries in the coming six months who will be piloting learning circles for the first time, including libraries in Denmark, Uganda, Zambia, and British Columbia.
The last point I’ll mention is our relationship with open education and online courses. In 2012 and “the year of the MOOC”, there seemed to be a trend that Universities would continue to create free online courses that others could use indefinitely for their own purposes. In 2018, we’re seeing that many online courses are increasingly hidden behind paywalls (or the online provider wants you to believe there is a paywall even though it might not exist!), and we’re seeing online courses continue to gear themselves towards academic or highly skilled professions. There is also a continued emphasise that the online learner is a passive recipient of knowledge, instead, as P2PU believe, the learner as co-creator, teacher or someone with existing expertise. We have some big ideas for ways to tackle these challenges moving forward, and we encourage anybody who reads this to reach out if they’d like to work on this together.
Panke, S. (2008). Open Learning at P2PU: An Interview With Jessica Ledbetter. https://etcjournal.com/2011/08/11/open-learning-at-p2pu-an-interview-with-jessica-ledbetter/
Damasceno, C. (2017). Massive Courses Meet Local Communities: An Ethnography of Open Education Learning Circles. https://repository.lib.ncsu.edu/bitstream/handle/1840.20/33714/etd.pdf?sequence=1
Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU): www.p2pu.org