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Peer to Peer U – A New Model of Learning

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Knowledge used to be the sole domain of the individual, highly educated expert. A professor with a PH.D. or a carefully researched and written book were the best sources to find out about something. This is a model of learning that has held sway since the earliest human societies formed and people with particular fields of expertise taught other members of their groups. The Internet and social media have dramatically changed what it means to know something, and initiatives like Wikipedia are reshaping where we turn for "expert" information. Social collaboration and meaning making are allowing for knowledge to be the domain of a collective group rather than any individual. A recent study even revealed that Wikipedia is now as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britanica.

Peer to Peer U (P2PU) employs a model of free online learning that relies on this community-based knowledge creation approach to make learning accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Even more interesting, P2PU allows those who have successfully completed at least one course (they call them challenges) to build and offer their own to other members of the community. While some have raised concerns about the efficacy and accuracy of this model, it provides an interesting snapshot of the intersection of education and crowdsourced content that offers some clues about what the future of education may look like. How does P2PU work, and is it indicative of the future of e-learning?

The P2PU Model
P2PU works on the premise that everyone has something to offer, the idea that passion for a subjects can substitute for expertise, and that social interaction is the key to motivation and learning. The motto of the institution is, "learning for everyone, by everyone, about almost anything." While this crowd-based model of expertise cannot substitute for the highly educated scholar’s years of research and careful consideration of a single topic, it does provide a potentially good source of entry-level knowledge to many subjects.

Currently the site is a YouTube-like collection of loosely associated learning modules in categories such as "Social Innovations," "Mathematical Future," "Webcraft," and "Education." Within these categories are a range of user-generated courses on specific topics. The School of Webcraft is the most well-developed of the P2PU areas and features 22 "Challenges" on topics such as Python, Javascript, Twitter programming, Django, HTML5, and several others.

Each challenge follows a fairly standard online learning format with mini lessons, tasks to complete and associated discussions where users support each other in the completion of the assigned tasks. In addition to these, there are prominently located buttons associated with each challenge that allow you to request a mentor or to become one yourself. This socially supportive atmosphere is what sets P2PU apart from many other MOOCs.

The Power of Social Learning
In two very significant ways P2PU reflects the emerging value system of the digital age. First, it is a community-based effort which relies on volunteers to contribute, maintain, and police the activities on the site. It works like other open source initiatives such as the Linux community which has proven very successful at building a safe, secure, and effective user experience. The power of this model is in the trust that it relies on to function. In a world that is so often pessimistic, it is refreshing to see community run services that really work and are maintained by a group of individuals who are doing something for no individual gain, but rather to make the entire society better for everyone.

The second significant way that P2PU demonstrates the effectiveness of new models of teaching and learning is in the community-generated nature of its content. The idea that everyone has something to contribute to the collective knowledge pool is a revolutionary, democratizing ideal that could be expanded immeasurably. An initiative like P2PU, if expanded in a way similar to the YouTube model, could potentially provide an opportunity for learning about any topic on the planet. For example, it could be possible to learn about other cultures from members of those cultures or to learn about global environmental issues from those experiencing the effects. While, currently limited to four categories, there is a great potential for programs like this to expand the knowledge base infinitely, allow for multiple perspectives, and transform the ways we think about what it means to be an expert.

Obstacles to be Overcome
in 1984, George Orwell presented a clear thesis that those who control the government, the media, and education define reality.  An equally powerful, but contradictory idea also exists, that the view of a majority of the population creates the reality that we live in. With no government sponsorship, academic accreditation, or major university partners, and only 33,000 registered users, P2PU fulfills none of the criteria for redefining what the reality of education is or will be.

There is, however, some hope that P2PU or other similar concepts can become important parts of the American higher education system. Digital badges, Mentormob, and the University of Wisconsin’s competency-based degree programs all provide support for initiatives like P2PU in one way or another.

Similarly, Mozilla, The MacArthur Foundation, and HASTAC’s digital badges competition represents a major effort to gain recognition for independent and informal learning. If this effort continues to grow, it could represent one way in which the content of P2PU could gain more mainstream acceptance.

The Crowdsourced learning site MentorMob employs a social model for learning content creation that is similar to P2PU, and is gaining some recognition for its innovation and collaborative nature. As more sites crop up that employ models for new kinds of social construction of content, the idea will become more acceptable. Not very long ago no one would accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information. Now it is very widely used and accepted.

Finally, Wisconsin’s recently announced flexible degree program, is one effort that could make a difference in helping those who engage in informal learning to gain actual credit towards formal degrees. While the model is limited right now, the potential exists to use it as a way of validating the content generated from any source, including the peer-to-peer content from P2PU.

Overall P2PU is an innovative concept that fits precisely with the way the world is starting to function in the information age. Unfortunately, like all virtual communities, it takes the sustained effort of many, many people to make it work, keep it going, and get the word out. Only by getting people involved can it survive. So if you are interested in learning or have something that you feel you would like to teach, visit P2PU and sign up. You never know. You might be helping to change the future of education.

Discuss the future of education on Google+ or follow on Twitter @drjwmarquis.