P2P U., an Experiment in Free Online Education, Opens for Business

A group of professors and graduate students from around the world has started a new university of their own online, with an unusual model that is more like a book group than a traditional course.

The new institution, called Peer2Peer University (for peer to peer), was announced last year and was originally slated to start offering courses in January. But logistical issues forced the fledgling project to delay its official opening until last week.

The courses do not have a traditional professor at the front of the virtual classroom. Instead, a facilitator (who volunteers his or her time) manages online discussions, but students are expected to essentially teach one another (and themselves). Sessions last only six weeks, to help nontraditional students fit the courses into their schedules. No credit will be granted by P2P University.

The fall semester features six courses: “Behavioral Economics and Decision Making,” “Copyright for Educators,” “Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature,” “Land Restoration and Afforestation,” “Neuroethics and International Biolaw,” “Open Creative Nonfiction Writing,” and “Poker and Strategic Thinking.”

Courses are free, but prospective students do have to fill out a brief application and be accepted to participate, and courses will be capped at about a dozen per course section. “We are not applying the typical selection criteria of course, but are just interested to see that people give good reasons why they want to join a course,” said Jan Philipp Schmidt, free-courseware project manager at the University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, and a leader of P2P University. “We want to make sure that participants are truly committed and won’t drop out after they realize that it actually takes a few hours of work every week.”

Organizers plan to see how things go this semester and will probably revamp the model for its next term, said Joel Thierstein, one of the leaders of the effort, who is also executive director of Rice University’s Connexions project, a free online collection of scholarly materials. “We’re trying to keep our minds open,” he said. “Success will probably come in a form that we’re surprised by.”

The project is supported by a $70,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Registration for the new university’s courses closes August 26.


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