In This Online University, Students Do the Teaching as Well as the Learning


Two of the founders of Peer 2 Peer U., Jan Philipp Schmidt and Delia Browne. "The expertise lies in the group," he says. "Everyone brings something to the conversation."
June 18, 2012

A poet with a hankering to learn code recently teamed up with a Web developer who was curious about poetry as part of a new kind of teaching experience.

The lessons took place at Peer 2 Peer University, a three-year-old online institution where students learn together, at no charge, using materials found on the Web. The poet, Vanessa Gennarelli, and the programmer, John Britton, taught each other online, discovering unexpected bridges between their disciplines.

At a time when free online courses are enticing students with the opportunity to learn from star professors at prestigious colleges, P2PU, as it's known, is questioning whether instructors are needed at all.

The unusual institution, where anyone with a passion for a topic can set up a course, is experimenting with ways that students can navigate together through open courseware that's free on the Web.

In the process, the project is stimulating discussion in open-education circles about the evolving roles of peers and professors in the growing number of free online courses.

"The people who come to P2PU are attracted by the opportunity to take learning into their own hands and to create their own university," says Jan Philipp Schmidt, executive director and a founder of the nonprofit university, which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, as well as individual donations.

Much of P2PU's traffic comes from word of mouth; the providers attracting most of the attention in the open-course world are the big-name universities offering massive open online courses, or MOOC's.

There's Udacity, which grew out of a course by two Stanford professors that attracted 160,000 registered users by the time the lessons began, and Coursera, another Stanford start-up, whose courses are taught by professors from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton and Stanford Universities. MIT, a pioneer in the movement, recently joined with Harvard in a new venture, edX.

P2PU, which began offering courses in 2009, has about 33,000 registered users, with about 1,700 new users joining each month, Mr. Schmidt says. The courses, which are offered in five languages and typically last six weeks, are offered through "schools" dedicated to education, Web design, mathematics, and social innovation.

Students can earn badges—informal alternatives to diplomas that some online programs offer—to show what they've learned, although P2PU has no accreditation.

Courses and workshops are offered by facilitators, only some of whom have teaching experience. Some are students who enjoyed their experiences in a course and decided to lead their own. But in all of the courses, the lines between teacher and student are blurred. "The expertise lies in the group," says Mr. Schmidt. "Everyone brings something to the conversation."

When plans for P2PU were announced, in 2008, the idea was to have well-known professors moderating the discussions, with graduate students serving as tutors and grading papers.

But finding volunteers to keep the courses going has been a challenge, the organizers admit, and the push recently has been toward transforming courses into "challenges" that require little or no mediation by outside experts.

In one recent challenge, called Writing for the Web, about 200 participants worked at their own pace through a series of tasks, which included creating a blog about something they cared passionately about or wanted to delve into more deeply. They read about what makes effective online writing and fleshed out their blogs, which their classmates critiqued, on topics such as cross-stitching and cyberpunks.

One student interested in circuitry and robot design described on a P2PU discussion board how his perfectionist tendencies had stymied his earlier blogging attempts and how he learned that blogging "isn't necessarily about publishing essays polished with multiple drafts and long periods of reflection."

The idea of self-paced challenges raised its own difficulties, though. Because students could drop in at any point and set their own pace, "the challenges didn't have a rhythm, and a lot of people really missed that," Mr. Schmidt says. "They said, 'I kind of need that drum major to beat the drum a little so I know when I'm expected to do something.'"

In response, P2PU is offering a mentorship program for students, more training for course facilitators, and a planned system in which students enter in cohorts.

Hacking a Poem

New providers of online courses may well find insights in P2PU's experiments with peer learning.

Learning takes place both within P2PU's courses and in the informal relationships that students strike up.

The partnership between Mr. Britton and Ms. Gennarelli is an example. Last fall he signed up for a workshop that she moderated on P2PU called "Hack this Poem," in which participants took poems apart and pieced them back together to see what made them work. After stumbling across the poem "This Is Just to Say," by William Carlos Williams, on a game developer's Web site, Mr. Britton recast it as a "rage comic," which he described as "a sort of Internet meme often used to express frustration."

The following month, Ms. Gennarelli, whose day job was editing open-source textbooks, asked if he'd be her mentor as she struggled to learn more about computer code and create an interactive online historical atlas.

She could have honed her skills by tuning in to video lectures from a tech guru from MIT or Stanford. Instead she turned to Mr. Britton, who describes himself on his P2PU profile page as a "hacker-at-large, college escapee, and world-traveling vagabond." Working outside the normal course structure, the two built a relationship in which he divided her project into manageable chunks, and she e-mailed him every other week with questions and updates.

He showed her how to plot historical markers on her atlas using Google Maps API, or standards that let people customize the company's mapping service. He also introduced her to other Web tools. "It was massively useful to come back to someone who could answer questions, connect the bits and pieces together, and move the goal post to the next activity," she wrote on her blog.

Both Ms. Gennarelli and Mr. Britton plan to build on that experience in the paid jobs they have taken at P2PU since they started learning together. She's the "learning lead," helping fine-tune the learning-and-assessment process, and he's the product manager.

The product they're tweaking, unlike what's offered by MOOC's, comes with no name-brand university affiliation and no professors.

So why would students sign up for P2PU?

"We have a very different model of what we think online education should look like," says Mr. Schmidt, who has also led open-education activities at University of the Western Cape, in South Africa.

P2PU's learning style reflects an approach that many classroom instructors have been taking for years as they've stepped away from the lectern to guide students working in small groups. And it's something that MOOC's, populous as they are, struggle to put into effect.

"People have been talking about the 'guide on the side' versus the 'sage on the stage' for some time," Mr. Schmidt says.

Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director at MIT OpenCourseWare, the free online publication of the university's lectures and other course materials, says peer learning is a natural extension of the first wave of open-course initiatives, which have focused on getting content out to large audiences at little or no cost.

"Everyone recognizes that education is about more than just content, and that it includes interactions with other learners and educators," says Mr. Carson, who serves on P2PU's advisory board.

"Peer 2 Peer University has played an important role in trying to sort out how this kind of peer learning takes place."

Such student-to-student learning happens in less structured ways in many large online classes, where students might break off into informal study groups using Google or Yahoo e-mail lists, or meet up on social news Web sites like Some MIT classes provide links to a site called OpenStudy.

Kevin Carey, an education-policy analyst at the New America Foundation, says online learning is becoming increasingly social.

"People who are learning the same things are finding ways to come together," says Mr. Carey, who is a Chronicle blogger. "It's intriguing and consistent with the ongoing evolution of how these things we call courses are taking new shapes and forms on the Internet."

'Threatening to Beginners'

But discussion forums have drawbacks as well. A common complaint, especially in technology courses, is that often they are taken over by people with credentials and years of experience.

"It's totally threatening to beginners or people who aren't doing super well," says P2PU's Mr. Schmidt. "They don't want to ask questions, because they don't want to look stupid."

To help put people at ease, P2PU's new mentor program lets students who have completed a "challenge" click on a link and agree to help students who are floundering.

"The strongest and most effective way to build the knowledge of everyone in the group is for them to teach each other, so the student who doesn't understand as well can ask questions that the more-advanced students can answer," says Catherine M. Casserly, chief executive officer of Creative Commons, a nonprofit group working to expand free course materials and other online content.

The P2PU structure promotes such active learning and engagement, she says. "As peers become more engaged with each other, the facilitator can fade into the background but should always be there eavesdropping and bringing the topic back if it spins in a different direction."

Karen Fasimpaur, a former schoolteacher who runs a small education-technology start-up, struggled to find the right balance when offering her first course, in entrepreneurial marketing, for P2PU.

Wary of slipping into the talking-head role, she says, she considered the opposite extreme—the barely-there facilitator who basically says, "Here are the resources. Everybody go to town, and we'll just sit back and watch."

That didn't go over well. "A lot of people didn't really understand what peer learning was, and when I stepped back from the expert role, they'd say, 'We came here because we wanted you to teach us.'"

Now she plays a more active role in the courses she helps organize in P2PU's School of Education, which offers free professional development for K-12 teachers.

Ms. Fasimpaur started the school over the summer because she felt that the peer-learning approach would be a refreshing change for teachers who are expected to merely sit through lectures on how to encourage collaborative learning.

Some academics, however, remain skeptical about P2PU's approach. Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, is one of them.

"We professors tend to get all misty-eyed when students can help explain difficult concepts to other students, but what happens if we collectively decide that it's acceptable for computers to do all the grading and for explanations from peers to be the only explanations students ever get?" he wrote on his blog recently. "I'll tell you what happens, professors lose their jobs."

Mr. Rees, a leader in the Colorado chapter of the American Association of University Professors, expanded on that thought in an e-mail interview with The Chronicle. "I think the Ph.D. means something," he wrote. "It says you know your field at least well enough to determine what needs to be covered in the course." Peer learning, he says, is better suited for a book club than for college.

Bill Maurer, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, says faculty members who are trained to mediate touchy topics are better able to draw out students who might clam up in an open classroom. He also wonders whether peers can "help you think of the questions you aren't thinking and not just help you complete a task."

Mr. Schmidt isn't surprised by the criticism.

"People feel threatened because it feels like they're being replaced," he says. "But I think they should be thrilled by this. For me, the role of the professor isn't to be the guy who stands in front and talks for an hour, but the person who asks interesting questions and helps me discover my interests and passions."

Ms. Gennarelli, the poet, hopes that by drawing out students who were new to poetry, she played that role in the workshop she moderated with John Britton's input. "When John took apart the character of the prose and recast it from his experience, it made the class that much richer."