Toward Peeragogy

Editor’s Note: This evening Howard will deliver the 2011 Regents’ Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. His topic: the transformative power of social media and peer learning. Here, in a continuing series, Howard reflects on his ongoing experiment in high-end, peer-to-peer, global learning via the internet and social networks.

The more I give my teacher-power to students and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning, the more they show me how to redesign my ways of teaching.

At the end of the first course I taught solo, I asked students for their frank opinions of what was working and what could work better. I didn’t want to wait for anonymous evaluations, which don’t afford dialogue or collaboration. The first pushback was a strong request for more project-based collaboration, shared earlier in the semester. From the beginning, I had asked students to use the tools we were studying and using — social bookmarking, forum discussions, blog posts and comment threads, collaboratively edited wiki documents — to organize team projects of four to six students. The first year I tried this, we discovered that four students work better than six for a semester-long project — division of labor, intra-group communication, assessment, and the nature of the final presentation rapidly grow more complex with more than four collaborators. When teams presented their projects at the end of the term, we were all so astounded that one student astutely asked (to general acclamation): “Why can’t we show each other this kind of collaboration earlier than the last class meeting?” We had learned that learning to collaborate ought to be collaborative — the teams should interact with the other students in the class as co-responsible learners during the collaboration process, not just as an audience for the final product.

The next year, I asked several students to take responsibility each week for conveying the main points of the texts and helping me to engage others in classroom discussions about the readings. The experiment was well received, but we all agreed by the end of the semester that student presentations sometimes devolved into book reports with a few questions tacked on, lacking sufficient interconnection between that week’s different presentations. So the year after that, I started asking students to form “co-teaching” teams who would work with me to focus on key points from the readings and to organize activities that would engage students in directing their own inquiry into our topic of virtual community and social media. When co-teaching teams started using PowerPoint to present their key points, one student asked: “If we are going to study social media, don’t presentation media qualify?” That question led me to develop a list of more than one hundred not-PowerPoint presentation media for project presentations.

Community of Committed Co-learners

Between the co-teaching teams, the collaborative projects, and our inquiries into the nature of community — online and face-to-face — the powerful idea of making our class into a community of co-learners who cooperated to help each other learn began to take over. The goal of using our physical class time and online interactions to grow into a learning community is now baked into the syllabus — I ask prospective students to read and commit to fulfilling their role in the community’s co-learning before they are admitted to the class.

I confronted the laptop-in-classroom issue by initiating “attention probes” such as showing the class a video of themselves or asking them to close the lids of their laptops when they weren’t actively using them. Now (again at students’ suggestion) I open a forum discussion thread at the beginning of the term, soliciting the students’ suggestions about potential attention probes to try in class. I am no longer surprised when student variations on my bright ideas turn out better than my original version. I know now that the syllabus and lesson plans will always change from year to year — as long as I pay attention to my co-learners.

“Co-learners” came into my vocabulary and practice when I started experimenting with my own purely online courses. I had grown accustomed to addressing my weekly emails to “esteemed students” in my university teaching. The first time I started composing a message to my online class, I called them “co-learners” instead of “students,” and the simple change in nomenclature — together with my by-now ingrained habit of co-designing my teaching with my students — led to immediate and remarkable enthusiasm. The difference might just be semantic, but it proved to be a surprisingly powerful demonstration of word magic. In my next university class, I plan to start using the term with my university students. We won’t be able to eliminate the institutional fact of life that my grading matters more to their careers than their evaluations matter to mine. But I know they will perceive my sincerity when I tell them I’m attuned to learning from them while they are learning from me. I have not abdicated my role as “expert learner,” but opening up to co-learning has produced nothing but positive results so far.

I’ve written here about my Rheingold U classes. I’ve run four cohorts of the “Introduction to Mind Amplifiers” course and one cohort of “Toward a Literacy of Cooperation.” I limit each cohort to thirty. Each time, a few co-learners told me they were overwhelmed — “informational waterboarding” and “hot-dog eating contest” were two particularly pungent evaluations. Not every co-learner felt that way, however — each time a cohort completed a five-week course, a few of them had digested all the info we threw at each other and were hungry for more. When I become a better teacher, I’ll find better solutions for those who are overwhelmed. My immediate instinct has been to respond to those who asked for more. At the request of these co-learners, I created an online forum where alumni could convene. Each time a course finishes, two or three hungry self-learners join the alumni community.

A couple dozen alumni now organize their own live sessions with guest lecturers. One co-learner showed us what he learned to do with Yahoo Pipes after my course introduced him to the tool. Another gave a presentation about her use of graphic facilitation techniques to provide the visual notes she had shared with us during the course. Guest authors were invited. I realized that some co-learners become adept quickly at self-organized learning — and will continue to learn cooperatively whether or not I continue to facilitate them.

R.I.P., Lecture-Discussion-Test

In retrospect, I can see the coevolution of my learning journey: my first step was to shift from conventional lecture-discussion-test classroom techniques to lessons that incorporated social media, my second step gave students co-teaching power and responsibility, my third step was to elevate students to the status of co-learner. It began to dawn on me that the next step was to explore ways of instigating completely self-organized, peer-to-peer online learning.

The ultimate test of peer learning is to organize a course without the direction of an instructor. Although subject-matter experts and skilled learning facilitators are always a bonus, it is becoming clear that with today’s tools and some understanding of how to go about it, groups of self-directed learners can organize their own courses online. P2PU and other examples are harbingers. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich predicted in 1971 that learners of the future would find each other and use information technologies to form “learning webs” and “networks” — prescient terms, considering that the ARPAnet was only two years old at the time. It didn’t take long for my initial explorations to uncover dozens of nascent p2p learning platforms, new learning forms such as Massive Online Open Classes (MOOCs), and emerging theories of “paragogy.”

Peer-to-Peer Learning Explosion

It didn’t take long to discover the rich and growing proliferation — a Cambrian explosion of p2p learning platforms seems to be in progress. I collect links to p2p learning platforms. P2PU, which has been blogged here at dmlcentral, is one of the leaders. I’m particularly interested in Anya Kamenetz’s P2PU course on “Getting Started With Self-Learning.” There are, I found, many others: Stack Exchange (“a network of question and answer sites on diverse topics”), Open Study (“make the world your study group”), Quora (“a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it”), BetterAt (“learning from other people and teaching others is the best way to learn”), World University (“which anyone can add to or edit”), Skillshare (“classes to learn anything from anyone”), School of Everything (“Nobody likes to be told what to do. School of Everything is here to organize your education however you please”) — the list grows every day.

I also discovered, through a co-learner in a Rheingold U class, about “Paragogy” — the nascent theory of peer to peer pedagogy. The co-learner, Charles Danoff, wrote a paper about it with Joseph Corneli: Paragogy: Synthesizing Individual and Organizational Learning. Searching on the word “paragogy” reveals more resources — but not so many that they can’t be surveyed quickly. The field is just beginning to grow.

I’ve been invited to deliver the 2011 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I intend to expand the paragogy universe by instigating a peer-created guide to pure peer-to-peer learning. I’m calling it “peeragogy.” While “paragogy” is more etymologically correct, “peeragogy” is self-explanatory. In my lecture, I’ll explain the evolution of my own pedagogy and reveal some of what I’ve discovered in the world of online self-organized learning. Then I will invite volunteers to join me in a two week hybrid of face-to-face seminars and online discussion. Can we self-organize our research, discover, summarize, and prioritize what is known through theory and practice, then propose, argue, and share a tentative resource guide for peeragogical groups? In theory, those who use our guide to pursue their own explorations can edit the guide to reflect new learning.

It’s not exactly a matter of making my own role of teacher obsolete. If we do this right, I’ll learn more about facilitating others to self-organize learning.

This is the last in a very popular series. The previous three posts are: D.I.Y.U.: An Experiment, Pop Up U, and Learning Reimagined: Participatory, Peer, Global, Online.

Banner image credit: jisc_infonet